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Key symptoms

Glib and superficial

Psychopaths are often witty and articulate. They can be amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a quick and clever comeback, and can tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light. They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming.

Typically, psychopaths attempt to appear experts in sociology, psychiatry, medicine, psychology, philosophy, poetry, literature, art or law. A signpost to this trait is often a smooth lack of concern at being found out that they are not.

Egocentric and grandiose

Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement. They see themselves as the center of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.

Psychopaths are seldom embarrassed about their legal, financial or personal problems. Rather, they see them as temporary setbacks, the results of bad luck, unfaithful friends or an unfair and incompetent system.

Psychopaths feel that their abilities will enable them to become anything they want to be. Given the right circumstances—opportunity, luck, willing victims—their grandiosity can pay off spectacularly. For example, the psychopathic entrepreneur “thinks big,” but it’s usually with someone else’s money.

Lack of remorse or guilt

Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the devastating effects their actions have on others. Often they are completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating that they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the pain and destruction they have caused, and that there is no reason for them to be concerned.

Psychopaths’ lack of remorse or guilt is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior and to shrug off personal responsibility for actions that cause shock and disappointment to family, friends, associates and others who have played by the rules. Usually they have handy excuses for their behavior, and in some cases they deny that it happened at all.

Lack of empathy

The feelings of other people are of no concern to psychopaths. Psychopaths view people as little more than objects to be used for their own gratification. The weak and the vulnerable—whom they mock, rather than pity—are favorite targets.

Psychopaths display a general lack of empathy. They are indifferent to the rights and suffering of family members and strangers alike. If they do maintain ties with their spouses or children it is only because they see their family members as possessions, much like their stereos or automobiles.

Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling. For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

However, except in movies and books, very few psychopaths commit crimes of this sort. Their callousness typically emerges in less dramatic, though still devastating, ways: parasitically bleeding other people of their possessions, savings and dignity; aggressively doing and taking what they want; shamefully neglecting the physical and emotional welfare of their families; engaging in an unending series of casual, impersonal and trivial sexual relationships; and so forth.

Deceitful and manipulative

Lying, deceiving and manipulation are natural talents for psychopaths. Given their glibness and the facility with which they lie, it is not surprising that psychopaths successfully cheat, bilk, defraud, con and manipulate people and have not the slightest compunction about doing so. They are often forthright in describing themselves as con men, hustlers or fraud artists. Their statements often reveal their belief that the world is made up of “givers and takers,” predators and prey, and that it would be very foolish not to exploit the weaknesses of others.

Some of their operations are elaborate and well thought out, whereas others are quite simple: stringing along several women at the same time, or convincing family members and friends that money is needed “to bail me out of a jam.” Whatever the scheme, it is carried off in a cool, self-assured, brazen manner.

Shallow emotions

Psychopaths seem to suffer a kind of emotional poverty that limits the range and depth of their feelings. While at times they appear cold and unemotional, they are prone to dramatic, shallow and short-lived displays of feeling. Careful observers are left with the impression that they are play-acting and that little is going on below the surface.

Laboratory experiments using biomedical recorders have shown that psychopaths lack the physiological responses normally associated with fear. The significance of this finding is that, for most people, the fear produced by threats of pain or punishment is an unpleasant emotion and a powerful motivator of behavior. Not so with psychopaths; they merrily plunge on, perhaps knowing what might happen but not really caring.

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