The Question That Reveals If Someone Is A Psychopath

People’s answer to this moral question can reveal if they are a psychopath.

People’s answer to this moral question can reveal if they are a psychopath.

A moral dilemma often used by psychologists may help to distinguish psychopaths, research finds.

Here is the dilemma:

“A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people, and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people.

Would you push the man?”

Now take a moment to consider your answer, and bear in mind there is no ‘right’ one.

In one scenario, you let five people die while you stand by and do nothing.

In the other scenario, you push an innocent man who has no say in the matter to his death.

It’s a tough choice.

However, it turns out that psychopaths are more likely to say they would push the large person onto the tracks.

Now, here’s a problem.

There are certain moral philosophies, particularly utilitarianism, that say the psychopath’s choice is correct.

Sacrificing one person to save five is OK, because it is the result that matters (or this is what a utilitarian would say).

So, does that mean that utilitarians are psychopaths?

Or, perhaps it suggests a flaw in the test, argues Professor Daniel Bartels, the study’s first author:

“Although the study does not resolve the ethical debate, it points to a flaw in the widely-adopted use of sacrificial dilemmas to identify optimal moral judgment.

These methods fail to distinguish between people who endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (like those captured by our measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse them out of genuine concern for the welfare of others.”

So, even if you chose to push the large man, you might just be a utilitarian, and not a psychopath after all.

The study was published in the journal Cognition (Bartels & Pizarro, 2011).

Psychopath Presidents Include JFK, Clinton & Reagan

Theodore Roosevelt and JFK top the list of US presidents with the highest ‘positive’ psychopathic tendencies.

Theodore Roosevelt and JFK top the list of US presidents with the highest ‘positive’ psychopathic tendencies.

Two Roosevelts, JFK and Reagan top the list of most psychopathic presidents, research finds.

Of the 42 presidents up to and including George W. Bush, here are the top 10 according to a study by Lilienfeld et al. (2012):

  1. Theodore Roosevelt (1.462)
  2. John F. Kennedy (1.408)
  3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1.079)
  4. Ronald Reagan (.912)
  5. Rutherford B. Hayes (.824)
  6. Zachary Taylor (.671)
  7. Bill Clinton (.569)
  8. Martin Van Buren (.554)
  9. Andrew Jackson (.516)
  10. George W. Bush (.391)

The higher the scores in brackets, the higher their psychopathic tendencies.

And there you have it: Roosevelt by a short head over JFK.

Fearless dominance

Actually, I have cheated slightly.

These ratings are for one aspect of psychopathy called ‘fearless dominance’.

This is the ‘useful part’ of being a bit of a psychopath (or sociopath — the terms mean the same thing to psychologists).

This is the part related to having no fear, to being charming, bold and taking charge.

The other aspect of psychopathy, sometimes called ‘self-centred impulsivity’—an aspect generally considered maladaptive—showed no relationship with presidential performance.

Psychopathic presidential performance

What the authors were really interested in, though, was whether this aspect of psychopathy called ‘fearless dominance’ was associated with better presidential performance.

To find out, the authors looked at common measures of presidential greatness, like how long they were president, their intellectual greatness and their war heroism before becoming president.

Then they looked to see if the ‘greatest’ presidents—as measured by averaging out 12 different surveys on the question—had higher levels of fearless dominance.

Indeed they did.

As Lilienfeld et al. (2012) conclude:

“…our results raise the intriguing but unresearched possibility that the boldness often associated with psychopathy may confer advantages across a host of occupations, vocations, and social roles, such as positions of power and prestige in politics, business, law enforcement, athletics, and the military.”

Least psychopathic presidents

For comparison, here is the bottom of the rankings for fearless dominance starting with the lowest scorer, William H. Taft, in other words he was the most fearful and least dominant US president:

  1. William H. Taft
  2. John Q. Adams
  3. Calvin Coolidge
  4. William McKinley
  5. James Buchanan
  6. John Adams
  7. Herbert Hoover
  8. Andrew Johnson
  9. Harry S. Truman
  10. James Garfield


Psychopath vs Sociopath: Here’s The Difference

Psychopaths and sociopaths display both fearless dominance and self-centred impulsivity.

Psychopaths and sociopaths display both fearless dominance and self-centred impulsivity.

From a clinical perspective there is no difference between a psychopath and a sociopath — the words can be used interchangeably.

For many psychologists the word sociopath and the word psychopath mean the same: that someone has an antisocial personality disorder.

People with an antisocial personality disorder typically have no regard for other people’s feelings or judgments.

They likely have a history of crime or impulsive and borderline illegal behaviour.

They see themselves as free of society’s rules and standards.

Sociopath vs psychopath

In the popular imagination, though, the word sociopath does have a different meaning from a psychopath.

People in general tend to view sociopaths as, essentially, not as bad as psychopaths.

In other words, sociopaths share many of the same traits as psychopaths, but not to the same extent.

For example, the pure psychopath is generally seen as having little empathy.

In contrast, the sociopath is thought to have some small amount of empathy and feelings of remorse.

Similarly, sociopaths are thought in the popular imagination not to be violent in comparison to psychopaths, who people imagine to be violent.

Technically, there is no truth to this.

For psychologists and clinicians these distinctions are not recognised — they would tend to talk mainly about psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder.

How to spot a sociopath vs psychopath

Most people find psychopaths or sociopaths 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, or sociopathy, 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 or sociopath.

Having fearless dominance means that psychopaths or sociopaths don’t experience anxiety and are not afraid of anyone or anything.

Far from seeming weird, psychopaths or sociopaths 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 sociopath or 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 or sociopaths continually take risks, with no regard to the consequences.

Psychopaths or sociopaths 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 or sociopathy, though, brings with it greater risk of depression and suicide.

Personality traits of psychopaths or sociopaths

Two personality traits that are strongly linked to being a psychopath or sociopath are being disagreeable and low in conscientiousness  (Decuyper et al., 2009).

People who are not conscientious are disorganised, careless, irresponsible and do not follow through on their obligations.

People like this also find it hard to resist temptation.

Disagreeable people tend to be unfriendly, cold and not tactful — rarely taking into account other people’s feelings.

Psychopaths or sociopaths are particularly low on three critical aspects of agreeableness:

  • They are not straightforward: psychopaths or sociopaths are deceitful and manipulative.
  • They are not compliant: psychopaths or sociopaths have strong heads, are aggressive, antagonistic and quarrelsome.
  • They are not modest: psychopaths or sociopaths are arrogant, conceited, proud and vain.

Another personality trait psychopaths tend to have is high neuroticism.

They tend to be:

  • Angry and hostile: psychopaths get upset very easily.
  • Impulsive: psychopaths cannot resist temptations and may overeat or indulge themselves in other ways.

Psychopaths or sociopaths also show one aspect of high extraversion, which is that they seek out excitement.

However, unlike many extraverts they are not warm — instead they are interpersonally cold and emotionless.

Spot a psychopath or sociopath

Psychopathy or sociopathy 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 and other personality traits—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.

Treating psychopaths or sociopaths

Historically, personality disorders were considered difficult to treat.

More recently, though, psychologists have found that personality disorders can get better.

Time can slowly remedy personality disorders, even without treatment, research shows.

Talking therapies can help to change depressive personality traits.

That could be individual therapy, group therapy, self-help and/or medication.

Personality disorders, like other aspects of personality are amenable to change.

Personality may determine who we are now, but not necessarily who we can become.


Are Psychopaths Smart? The Surprising Truth About Their IQ

Psychopaths are not that smart — perhaps even less intelligent than average.

Psychopaths are not that smart — perhaps even less intelligent than average.

Psychopaths are less intelligent than average, research finds.

Contrary to the common view of the psychopath as a criminal mastermind, they score below par on intelligence tests.

In general, far from being smart, psychopaths tend to do rather poorly in school — they are more interested in sensation-seeking, such as taking drugs.

Perhaps one of the reasons psychopaths appear smart is their confidence in social situations.

Psychopaths can quickly take charge and they also have a superficial charm.

Both factors can lead us into thinking they are also highly intelligent — but not so, it is probably all bluster.

Not so smart psychopaths

The research pulled together the results of 187 different studies including over 9,000 people whose intelligence and psychopathic tendencies were measured.

The study’s authors explain the results:

“The results of the current meta-analysis produced a small, but significant effect size suggesting that individuals who score higher on measures of psychopathic traits tend to score lower on measures of IQ.”

It included potentially smarter psychopaths with successful careers as well as those in prison.

Psychopaths are more likely to be criminals, but many are not.

Psychopaths are generally dishonest, manipulative and lacking in empathy — and also not that smart.

More on psychopaths

Find out more about psychopaths:

The study was published in the journal bioRxiv (de Ribera et al., 2018).

High Functioning Psychopaths And Sociopaths Hide Their True Personality

How so many high functioning psychopaths and sociopaths slip into positions of power without being detected.

How so many high functioning psychopaths and sociopaths slip into positions of power without being detected.

High functioning psychopaths and sociopaths, those who also have high IQs, can hide their true personalities, research finds.

It helps explains how people who are dangerous risk-takers are able to fake their way into powerful management positions.

High functioning psychopaths and sociopaths still have the major attributes: they have little regard for other’s emotions and easily lie, cheat and manipulate.

However, high functioning psychopaths and sociopaths are able to mask these negative aspects of their personalities in order to get what they want.

Due to high levels of education and interpersonal skills they can attain exalted levels in society.

Incidentally, from a clinical perspective there is no difference between a psychopath and a sociopath — the words can be used interchangeably (see: Psychopath vs Sociopath: Here’s The Difference).

The research

The conclusions come from a study published in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, which was inspired by the unusually high levels of psychopaths and sociopaths among business managers (Bate et al., 2014).

Research has found that while around 1 percent of the general population are psychopaths, the level rises to 3 percent among business managers.

Ms Carolyn Bate, the study’s first author, said:

“I thought that intelligence could be an explanation for this, and it could be a problem if there are increased numbers of psychopaths at a high level in business.

The figure could be more than three per cent, because if people are aware they are psychopathic they can also lie – they are quite manipulative and lack empathy.”

The charming psychopath or sociopath

The psychopaths in business are quite different from the lurid picture painted by the media, Ms Bate explained:

“The ones who are at the top of businesses are often charming and intelligent, but with emotional deficits, as opposed to psychopaths who are quite erratic and tend to commit gruesome crimes and are often caught and imprisoned.”

To test these ideas the researchers gave a group of people a standard test of psychopathy.

They were also shown a series of pictures which tested their levels of empathy and, at the same time, their galvanic skin response was measured to assess their emotional reaction to the pictures.

Psychopaths and sociopaths with average or high intelligence were able to regulate their galvanic skin response so that their tests appeared normal.

Those psychopaths with low intelligence in the study, though, showed abnormal responses typical of psychopaths.

Perhaps with this, and other techniques, high functioning psychopaths with high intelligence are able to blend in with other people by pretending to have the same responses as them.

Symptoms of high functioning psychopaths and sociopaths

Along with high IQ, other signs and symptoms of high functioning psychopaths include:

  • Charm: high functioning psychopaths often have very good social skills.
  • Addictive behaviours: those with high-functioning personalities are sometimes prone to addictive behaviours.
  • Sensitivity: these types of people may be quick to anger.
  • Lack of empathy: like other psychopaths, the high functioning often have a lack of empathy and little interest in how their actions affect others.
  • Secretive: they like to keep things private unless they want to manipulate someone.
  • Calculation: they work out how to get what they want and then stick to the plan whatever the cost to others.


The 2 Key Personality Traits Of A Psychopath

The two strongest signals that someone is a psychopath.

The two strongest signals that someone is a psychopath.

Two key personality traits of a psychopath are being callous and unemotional, research finds.

Being callous means having a cruel disregard for others.

Callous people lack compassion, are cold-blooded and heartless.

On top of this, psychopaths typically have difficulty responding to the emotions of others in a normal way — they also appear unemotional themselves.

For example, psychopaths tend to show no feeling when they see others in pain.

However, some psychopaths use an unemotional exterior to hide inner turmoil.

Professor Tim Stickle, who led the study, explained that a sub-group of psychopaths do experience strong emotions:

“They appear callous and unemotional to others but their own emotional experience is that they’re very distressed, have high levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression, higher levels of emotion.

We think of these harmful, antisocial, aggressive kids as being immune to fear, immune to negative feelings, but in fact we’re showing a whole group of them are not only not immune, but are very susceptible.”

The conclusions come from a study of 150 adolescents held in juvenile detention centres.

All were classified as callous and unemotional and most conformed to this stereotype — but not all.

A small group fell into a category the researchers label “low psychopathy delinquents”.

Other studies have also shown that among adults there is a group who look like psychopaths, but actually experience strong emotions.

Professor Stickle said:

“It’s not just one characteristic that allows clear identification of who falls in which group; it takes a wide range of traits.

These traits are particularly prevalent in adolescent females in the juvenile justice system.

Untreated callous unemotional traits put these youth at risk for becoming lifelong criminals.”

The researchers hope that identifying and treating this sub-group can help save them from a lifetime of antisocial behaviour — and society from its consequences.

The study was published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology (Gill & Stickle, 2015).

Liking These Foods And Drinks Reveals Psychopathic Tendencies

People in the study rated how much they liked various foods and beverages and took a personality test.

People in the study rated how much they liked various foods and beverages and took a personality test.

Having a preference for bitter tastes is linked to psychopathy, narcissism and everyday sadism, a study finds.

A predilection for tonic water or coffee, therefore, could indicated some psychopathic tendencies in a person’s personality.

In contrast, people who dislike bitter tastes tend to be more agreeable, the researchers discovered.

For the study 500 men and women were shown a list of foods, some of which were salty, sour, bitter and sweet.

Some common bitter foods and drinks included were radishes, unsweetened cocoa and vinegar.

People rated how much they liked each food or beverage and took a personality test which measured:

  • aggression,
  • selfishness,
  • psychopathy,
  • and narcissism.

Seeking sensation

Bitter tastes may be particularly attractive to those with darker personalities because they enjoy sensation-seeking.

Darker personality types have a greater preference for the ups and downs of life.

They may even have a greater sensitivity to bitter foods, as the authors write:

“Supertasting, that is, having a high sensitivity to bitter compounds, has been consistently linked to increased emotionality in humans.

Nontasters, in contrast, report being more relaxed and placid than tasters.”

Caffeine and spicy foods have already been linked to sensation-seeking:

“…people high in sensation seeking tend to have an increased preference for spicy food.

Caffeine consumption is positively correlated with other facets of sensation seeking behavior, such as experience seeking and disinhibition.”

The authors describe their results:

“…bitter taste experiences are causally linked to hostile thoughts and behavior…

Particularly robust associations were found for everyday sadism, which was significantly predicted by general bitter taste preferences…”

The study was published in the journal Appetite (Sagioglou & Greitemeyer, 2016).

Do Psychopaths Ever Change? Here’s What Those Closest To Them Say (M)

For the study, people who knew psychopaths and those with antisocial personality disorder (APD) were asked about their behaviour.

For the study, people who knew psychopaths and those with antisocial personality disorder (APD) were asked about their behaviour.

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Psychopaths Have One Brain Region That Is 10% Larger (M)

It could explain why psychopaths have an increased need for stimulation and are more likely to be impulsive.

It could explain why psychopaths have an increased need for stimulation and are more likely to be impulsive.

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Psychopaths: How To Tell Which Ones Are Criminals

Brain scans on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals reveals the criminal traits of their brain activity.

Brain scans on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals reveals the criminal traits of their brain activity.

A lack of self-control and a focus on rewards is strongly linked to criminal behaviour, research finds.

Brain scans have revealed this is the critical difference between an ordinary psychopath and a criminal psychopath.

Despite popular belief, being a psychopath does not automatically make someone a criminal — although it does help.

Many criminals have psychopathic traits, such as impulsive and antisocial behaviour.

However, many people with psychopathic traits never commit criminal offences.

The research used brain scans to investigate what turns an ordinary psychopath into a criminal psychopath.

Dirk Geurts, the study’s first author, explained the research:

“We carried out tests on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals, and 20 non-criminal individuals, half of whom had a high score on the psychopathy scale.

The participants performed tests while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner.

We saw that the reward centre in the brains of people with many psychopathic traits (both criminal and non-criminal) were more strongly activated than those in people without psychopathic traits.

It has already been proved that the brains of non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits are triggered by the expectation of reward.

This research shows that this is also the case for criminal individuals with psychopathic traits.”

Mr Geurts explained the results:

“There is a difference in the communication between the reward centre and an area in the middle of the forebrain.

Good communication between these areas would appear to be a condition for self-control.

Our results seem to indicate that the tendency to commit an offence arises from a combination of a strong focus on reward and a lack of self-control.

This is the first research project in which convicted criminals were actually examined.”

Both impulsivity and very antisocial, egocentric behaviour are key to criminal psychopathy, said Professor Robbert-Jan Verkes, who led the research:

“Especially [these] traits seem to be connected with an excessively sensitive reward centre.

The presence of these impulsive and antisocial traits predict criminal behaviour more accurately than a lack of empathy.”

The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Geurts et al., 2016).