What Is a Psychopath?

Updated on May 15, 2020
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently a first year student at university studying Psychology.

According to fictional tales about serial killers and cannibals, psychopaths are innately evil creatures who commit grotesque offences against the innocent public. However, this overly dramatised depiction is not necessarily true. In many instances, psychopathic traits can be extremely valuable tools for achieving individual or organisational goals.


Upon hearing the word 'psychopath' one often associates the term with individuals carved into the serial killer walk of fame, such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. According to Skeem et al (2011) psychopaths are largely condemned within society as either bloodthirsty killers or manipulative and corrupt corporate leaders yet despite this stigma, some traits such as fearlessness could be potentially beneficial.

Psychopathy could actually be a means for individuals or groups to achieve their own subjective goals but, as argued by Kevin Dutton and Andy McNab (2014), there are a large number of factors which can impact to what degree this is true.

Dutton in 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths' (2012) argues that one should not condemn a psychopath immediately, especially when a lack of empathy can be a useful skill for lawyers, surgeons and CEOs. However, many argue that psychopaths are to blame for the chaos within our society, with psychopathic crime being the most violent and damaging but perhaps a ruthless lack of remorse can be a powerful weapon for both destruction and heroism.

I've written multiple articles on the topic of psychopathy; this one focuses on the definition of psychopathy, psychopathic traits and the potential biological causes.

The Definition of Psychopathy

During the early 19th century, Pinel (as cited in Ronson 2011) first referred to psychopathy as "main sans delire" meaning a madness without delusions. This referred to a type of madness that lacked mania or depression (psychopaths very rarely suffer from delusions or commit suicide).

Since Pinel, research has adapted the definition; according to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (Colman 2015) psychopathy is “a mental disorder roughly equivalent to antisocial personality disorder but with emphasis on affective and interpersonal traits such as superficial charm, pathological lying, egocentricity, lack of remorse and callousness”.

Despite the psychological communities' awareness of such a personality disorder, the American diagnostic tool for mental illness, the DSM V, does not actually include psychopathy. Instead, 'Antisocial Personality Disorder' or APD acts as an umbrella term which encompasses both psychopathy and sociopathy.


Psychopathic Traits

Robert Hare created one if the most popular diagnostic tools for measuring levels of psychopathy within an individual called the PCL-R (Hare and Babiak 2007). The checklist consists of twenty traits (see figure 1) that are scored between 0 and 2. The threshold for diagnosis a total of 30 in America and 25 in the UK. According to Hare, the average person would score around 5.

  • Superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self worth
  • Need for stimulation/ proneness to boredom
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning and manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect
  • Lack of empathy
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioural controls
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Early behaviour problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsive
  • Irresponsibility
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility

Figure 1. Hare's Psychopathy checklist, PCL-R (as cited in Hare & Babiak, 2007).

The PCL-R has been a useful tool to develop our understanding of psychopathy and is widely accepted as an effective criteria for diagnosis. The PCL-R was later developed into the PCL:SV (see figure 2) based on case histories and interviews. This version seperates traits into four main factors:

  1. the interpersonal factor asses how an individual presents themselves to other people,
  2. the affective factor covers their emotions,
  3. the lifestyle factor looks at their lives within society, and
  4. the antisocial factor evaluates their antisocial tendencies.

Cook et al (1999) conclude that this adaptation is an "effective short form of the PCL-R" which allows screening to take pace in less time. Hart et al (1999) found that it can take up to 40% less time than the PCL-R.

Lacks remorse
Poor behavioural controls
Lacks empathy
Lacks goals
Adolescent antisocial behaviour
Doesn't accept responsibility
Adult antisocial behaviour
Figure 2. The PCL:SV ( as cited in Hare & Babiak 2007)

However, the PCL-R/ PCL:SV are yet to be perfected. One issue is that the PCL-R was developed mostly based on Hare's research with male offenders. Perhaps the checklist is simply a list of criminal traits and therefore neglects non-criminal psychopathic traits.


At first glance, many of these traits might not seem like a description of a functioning or decent member of society. However, it is important to remember that such characteristics come in varying degrees and a psychopath's upbringing, environment and other personality traits can have a significant impact on what kind of person they become.


  • Babiak, P. , Hare, R. (2007). Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work. Published New York, Regan Books.
  • Cooke, J., Michie, S., Hare, R. (1999) Evaluating the Screening Version of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist- Revised (PCL:SV): An item response theory analysis. Published online, available at http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1999-10259-001
  • Dutton, K.. (2012). The wisdom of psychopaths: lessons in life from Saints, spies and serial killers. Published London, William Heinemann.
  • Dutton, K. , McNab, A. (2014) The Good Psychopaths Guide to Success. Published online, available at https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The to_Success.html?id=FEmG AwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp read button&redir esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=f
  • Ronson, J. (2011) The psychopath test: A journey through the madness industry. Published London: Picador.
  • Skeem, J., Polaschek, D., Patrick, C. 1 Lilienfeld, P. (2011) Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy. Published online, available at https://iournals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1529100611426706?journalCode=psia&

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Angel Harper


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Your article lives up to its stated objectives. Thanks for the details on these people.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)