Most people find psychopaths (or sociopaths—it means the same) difficult to spot; even psychologists have long argued over what it means.
But some think it all boils down to two ingredients: one side of psychopathy is all about fearless dominance and the other is all about self-centred impulsivity (Skeem et al., 2011).
It’s only when a person’s personality is fused with these two that they can truly be called a psychopath.
1. Fearless dominance
Fearless dominance is (sort of) the more ‘useful’ half of being a psychopath.
Having fearless dominance means that psychopaths don’t experience anxiety and are not afraid of anyone or anything.
Far from seeming weird, psychopaths are charming and bold and don’t particularly care what other people think of them, unless they need to manipulate those perceptions in some way.
People high in fearless dominance are certainly not ‘mad’: they tend to be very outgoing people who are not at all neurotic.
There’s even a heroic element to fearless dominance. Some evidence suggests that those high in fearless dominance are more likely to help stranded motorists or break up fights in public.
Perhaps as a consequence, those high on fearless dominance may be more likely to end up doing well in traditional professions, or even becoming president (see: Which Professions Have The Most Psychopaths?).
2. Self-centred impulsivity
The darker side of being a psychopath is that they find it difficult to control their impulses.
If they want to do something, they just go ahead and do it; there’s no fear or anxiety to hold them back.
Psychopaths continually take risks, with no regard to the consequences. Psychopaths are also usually very manipulative and likely to engage in promiscuous sexual relationships and have the potential to commit crimes (although many do not).
Psychopaths are rebellious egoists and automatically blame others for their own mistakes, which means they rarely learn from those mistakes.
Research has shown that self-centred impulsivity peaks through adolescence (perhaps suggesting parallels between psychopathy and being an adolescent!) and then settles down with maturity.
This side of psychopathy, though, brings with it greater risk of depression and suicide.
Spot a psychopath
Psychopathy isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision, it exists on a sliding scale like other personality traits. But some combination of these elements—the fearless dominance and self-centred impulsivity—together are what make a psychopath.
It may be that their relative balance, one to the other, is what determines how successful they can be in everyday life. Their fearless dominance may help them succeed in some areas while their self-centred impulsivity brings them down.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: conorwithonen