Think fast: Who would you rather be locked in a room with? A psychopath or a serial killer?
If you answered psychopath, congratulations. You have better odds of walking out of that room alive. Despite the stereotype of the psychopathic serial killer, ala Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, one of the best psychological thriller films of all time, serials and psychopaths are not routinely one and the same.
The Psychological Profile of a Psychopath
Psychopaths are staples of the psychological thriller film and book genre – amoral, antisocial, unable to love or form meaningful relationships, and oh so dangerous. Psychopaths are notorious for their superficial charm, egocentricity, cold-heartedness, impulsivity and lack of remorse or empathy. They lie and manipulate. They make wonderful story antagonists. My award-winning thriller, Tell On You available through Micro Publishing Media, features a beautiful budding teenage psychopath, and was she ever fun to write!
But a psychopath in real life also challenges some of our common stereotypes. Psychopathy isn’t a black/white state, but probably exists on a spectrum, similar to autism. And psychopaths may suffer from a kind of learning disability or processing deficit that gives them tunnel vision in the face of instant reward, causing them to miss cues of danger, ignore others’ reactions and leap into the same pitfalls over and over again. Read on to discover ten surprising facts about the psychological profile of a psychopath.
- Not all psychopaths are serial killers
Despite their deranged murderer stereotype(ala Hannibal Lecter), most people high in psychopathy are not violent. While there have been psychopathic serial killers (Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, for example), psychopaths are more apt to use people than murder them.
- Psychopaths are attracted to specific occupations
Consider: Which jobs call for egocentricity, superficial charm, ruthlessness, persuasiveness, and risk-taking? That’s where the successful psychopaths are (the unsuccessful ones are in jail). The professions with the most psychopaths include CEO, Lawyer, Media Personality, Salesperson, Surgeon (but not Doctor), Journalist, Police Officer (there’s a chiller!), Clergy, Chef (welcome to Cut-throat Kitchen), and Civil Servant (so they do like to torture us with red tape). Where are you unlikely to find psychopaths? Nurses, Teachers, and Therapists are a few of those occupations, probably because these jobs demand empathy.
- People who enjoy gin and tonic are not necessarily psychopaths
A recent study by a university in Austria found bitter taste preferences associated with psychopathic traits. The report prompted a spate of popular articles and over 300,000 Facebook shares, claiming scientific proof that G&T drinkers are psychopaths. Well, not exactly. The study did show that people at the psychopathic end of the spectrum are more apt to express a preference for bitter foods and beverages in general. But there was no evidence that gin and tonic drinkers (or beer or coffee for that matter) are psychopaths. Since psychopaths enjoy risks and hate boredom, foods and beverages that taste toxic (but aren’t) may be a turn-on for them.
- The psychopath behavior in relationships is generally an unhappy one
They are notorious for using people and for flitting through promiscuous relationships. But do psychopaths enjoy it? A recent study suggests not. Associate Professor Mark Holder assessed the well-being and psychopathy levels of 450 undergrads and asked them to rate their romantic relationships. He found a correlation between psychopathy and depression and low scores on overall relationship quality, commitment, romance, satisfaction, and trust. To anyone who’s been exploited by a psychopath, this finding may sound like justice served.
- Many corporate psychopaths are successful in rising to the top of the corporate ladder
According to an Australian study, one in five CEOs are psychopaths, roughly the same rate as in prison populations. In the general population, psychopaths are one in a hundred. The cut-throat corporate milieu may appeal to the psychopath’s love of risk, reward, dominance, and gamesmanship. And business, in turn, may be enamored of psychopaths. Recently a broadcast and media agency advertised for a “psychopathic new business media sales executive.” They sought a candidate with “some of the positive qualities that psychopaths have,” someone “money-motivated,” with drive and ambition. Paging Gordon Gecko!
- Psychopaths and heroes may be “twigs from the same branch”
According to research by Smith and associates, the behavior of a psychopathic individual, at least a successful one, displays traits of fearless dominance and boldness associated with heroic actions. Bold, fearless individuals are more inclined to put themselves in danger. Sometimes this leads to altruism, other times to anti-social behavior. Both psychopaths and heroes tend to be reckless and impulsive. But unlike hardcore psychopaths, heroes are not as mean, callous, or cold. On the other hand, a recent review of theoretical and empirical data regarding fear and psychopathy suggests that psychopaths do experience fear, but have trouble detecting and responding to threats. If this is true, they may plunge into dangerous situations because they’re clueless, not fearless. Once they’re in the mix, their traits of recklessness and impulsivity may lead them to act in extreme, bold, or violent ways.
- Psychopaths don’t respond to yawns
Yawning is contagious among humans and other species. Even your dog will probably yawn when it sees you yawn. But yawning and psychopaths do not go hand in hand. Lacking empathy, they’re immune to contagious yawning. Researchers found that people ranked high in cold-hardheartedness, a psychopathic trait that was less likely to yawn when others did.
- Psychopaths don’t learn from their mistakes
A study conducted at the University of Minnesota provides intriguing evidence that people high on psychopathic personality traits have brains that malfunction in responding to mistakes. Jason Hall and his associates used an EEG to measure the brain activity of psychopaths during a difficult cognitive test. Those with the highest ratings for impulsivity and antisocial behavior had much lower electrical pulses associated with error monitoring and lower pulses after making mistakes, compared to subjects rated lowest on impulsivity and antisocial behavior. So, psychopathy means doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
- Psychopaths tend to make the most popular presidents
Compare these two sets of 20th-century presidents. Group One: Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and JFK. Group Two: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George HW Bush. The presidents in the first group were enormously popular, while those in the second couldn’t even get reelected. In a study by neuroscientist James Fallon, biographers of each president ranked their subject on a standardized psychopathy assessment scale and – guess what? The Group One presidents were ranked as psychopath presidents, and those in Group Two, among the least so. According to psychologist Kevin Dutton, so-called positive psychopathic personality traits such as persuasiveness, fearlessness, and egocentricity enable people to seek out and succeed in high political offices. Vote for the psychopath of your choice!
- Dating a psychopath is an emotional roller-coaster
Here are some tell-tale signs to watch for in your boyfriend (97% of psychopaths are men). Psychopathic relationships follow three stages: Idealize, Devalue and Discard. During the idealizing, or “love-bombing” stage, everything is – literally – too good to be true. He’ll have you spellbound by his superhuman charm, shower you with affection, through words, gestures,and great sex, share his innermost secrets (and learn yours). You feel like you’ve found your soulmate. In the devaluing stage, he’ll become bored (and blame you for it), and ultimately contemptuous of you. He runs hot-and-cold, gives you the silent treatment, or even disappears for days (to search for his next target). He’ll triangulate, bringing a third person into the relationship to make you jealous. His tactics keep you on the hook, like a slot machine you’re hoping will eventually payout. At the discarding stage, he drops you but makes periodic bids to reel you back in. Psychopaths enjoy having exes with benefits. A clean break is your only way of his roller coaster.
Check out Shrink Rapt, a medical and crime thriller book, and Tell on You, a domestic thriller – both psychological suspense novels that depict characters driven to the edge and then forced to let go.