Psychopathy: How Psychopaths Think and Act

Psychopathy is a psychological disorder where the person is unable to experience emotions. Learn how psychopaths think and act.
Psychopathy: How Psychopaths Think and Act
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 22 March, 2023

There’s a lot of talk about psychopathy, whether on television, in movies, or in literature. And above all, from criminal and forensic psychology. But do we really know how psychopaths think and act?

In this article, we’ll take a brief journey through the history of psychopathy, from its first definitions to the diagnostic criteria of the disorder established by the American doctor Cleckley.

Finally, we’ll talk about the great contribution that Canadian psychologist Hare made with his instrument to evaluate psychopathy: The PCL-R (Revised Psychopathy Checklist).

Psychopathy: How psychopaths think and act (first definitions)

A professor teaching a college course.
Many academics have dedicated their careers to the study of this condition.

Over the years, there have been many authors who have been weaving different conceptions of psychopathy. The main term constructions can be grouped into two large blocks of schools: American and European schools. What differentiates each of them?

European schools

Pinel was the first author to speak of psychopathy, and it was in 1801. He was the one who made the first diagnostic classification of this psychological disorder, using the term “manie sans delire”. Later, in 1835, Pritchard of England used the term “moral insanity.” He was the forerunner of the environmental school.

Interest in psychopathy spread all the way to Germany, where Koch (1891) introduced the concept of “inferior psychopathy”. Five years later, the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin introduced the term “psychopathic personality “.

In Switzerland, Meyer (1908) separated psychopathic cases from psychoneurotic cases, calling them “constitutionally lower psychopathic types.” This is how the psychogenetic origin of psychopathy arises.

For his part, Schneider (1923), in Germany, established his own classification of psychopathic personalities, with an organic and environmental basis.

American schools

Among the most relevant figures who contributed knowledge to the field of psychopathy, belonging to the American school, we find Rush (1812), who spoke of the moral insensitivity of psychopaths as a congenital defect.

Later, Cleckley (1941) outlines his profile of psychopathy in “The Mask of Sanity.” In 1994 the psychopathic deviation scale (Pd) of the MMPI was constructed, and in 1948, Gough presented his first sociological theory on psychopathy.

Cleckley’s contributions: What’s a psychopath like?

Hervery Cleckley was a renowned American physician and, thanks to his contributions, a very relevant figure in the field of psychopathy. He was born in 1903 and passed away in 1984.

He was the pioneer in research on this personality type and established a series of diagnostic criteria for psychopathy. These criteria were described in his work, already mentioned, “The Mask of Sanity” (1941).

How do psychopaths think and act? The Cleckley criteria for psychopathy (Luengo and Carrillo de la Peña, 1995) allow us to know (although it’s important to know that, to date, some of these criteria have changed slightly):

Outward charm and remarkable intelligence

They are people who, from the outside, are very charming. That’s why they can go somewhat “unnoticed”, in the sense that few can believe that they’re psychopaths. They’re also characterized by having great intelligence.

Absence of hallucinations or other signs of irrational thinking

Contrary to what may be believed, psychopaths don’t have any mental disorder such as schizophrenia or any other psychotic disorder. That’s why they don’t have hallucinations or show other signs of irrational thinking (that is, their contact with reality is intact).

Absence of nervousness or psychoneurotic manifestations

According to Cleckley, they don’t easily become anxious either. In this regard, they have great emotional control.

“The absence of empathy suffered by the psychopath prevents them from feeling pleasure by observing happiness in others. The pleasure of others only causes them envy and greed.”

-Vicente Garrido Genovés-

Instability, little formality

On an emotional level, they can be quite unstable.

Falsehood and insincerity

They’re people who lie very easily. Also, they do it without any remorse or guilt.

Lack of feelings of remorse or shame

In line with what we stated in the previous point, they’re people without the capacity to feel remorse, guilt, or shame. Therefore, although they can simulate those emotions, they’re unable to experience them.

Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior

Antisocial behavior refers to all those behaviors that have the objective of disturbing social order or violating social norms. They’re people who act antisocially, that is, violating the rights of others.

Insufficient reasoning and lack of ability to learn from experience

They’re unable to learn from experiences and mistakes.

Pathological self-centeredness and inability to love

They’re very self-centered people who only look for their own benefit. For them, others are people from whom they obtain some kind of benefit.

At the same time, having no feelings and being unable to experience emotions, they’re unable to love. They can simulate this emotion, or reproduce the behaviors that people they love display (that is, simulate displays of love and affection), but they can’t feel that emotion.

General poverty in the main emotional relationships

Their emotional relationships are poor in the affective sense, and this is due to their inability to give themselves in a real way to others.

Specific loss of intuition

We could define intuition as an ability to understand or perceive something clearly and immediately, without reason intervening in this process. Psychopaths, being so cold and calculating, have difficulty being intuitive.

Insensitivity in general interpersonal relationships

Due to the lack of emotions and feelings, we can say that psychopaths are insensitive people because they don’t feel everything that people without psychopathy feel.

“A psychopath never has friends, they have subjects, acquaintances, or slaves.”

-Vicente Garrido Genovés-

Fantastic and uninviting behavior (with or without drinking)

Following Cleckley’s criteria for psychopathy, he spoke of fantastic behavior, as if removed from reality. According to him, such behavior always occurs (with or without alcohol consumption).

Suicide threats are rarely carried out

According to Cleckley, these suicide threats appear that are never carried out. Perhaps the motivation behind them is to attract attention or to mobilize the environment.

Impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated sex life

Their emotional difficulties are transferred to the sexual realm, causing them to have impersonal and trivial sexual relations. They’re unable to integrate this experience as part of their life.

Failure to follow a life plan

Cleckley also speaks of the great difficulty that psychopaths have when it comes to following a “normative” life plan, although over the years, experts have seen that this can be achieved.

How do psychopaths think and behave according to Hare? The PCL-R

Hare is another pioneer in the field of psychopathy, a Canadian psychologist born in 1934, Doctor of Psychology, and well-known researcher in the field of criminal psychology.

In 1990, Hare developed one of the most widely used instruments for psychopathy assessment and research. He named his instrument the “Revised Psychopathy Checklist” (PCL-R). Through this instrument, we can also know what the fundamental characteristics of a person with psychopathy are.

The PCL-R is made up of 20 items that can be grouped into two factors: 1) Interpersonal or affective components of the disorder (which he baptized as emotional detachment) and 2) social deviation (which refers to an unstable and antisocial lifestyle).

Emotional detachment

A psychopath.

Within this factor, we find a series of items (some similar to the criteria defined by Cleckley), which allow us to know a little more about how psychopaths think and act:

  • Talkative/superficial charm
  • A great sense of self-worth
  • Deception and pathological lies
  • Conning/manipulative
  • Absence of remorse and guilt
  • Little depth in their emotions
  • Insensitivity/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for their actions

Unstable and antisocial lifestyle

In turn, within the second factor that refers to the person’s lifestyle, we find the following items:

  • A need for stimulation
  • A parasitic lifestyle
  • Few behavioral controls
  • Early behavior problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsibility
  • Juvenile delinquency (but not all psychopaths are criminals!)
  • Revocation of conditional release

Hare’s model: Similar to CIE and Cleckley

It’s important to know that the ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases) criteria for psychopathy are similar to the items of the PCL-R proposed by Hare. Furthermore, as we’ve seen, they’re also similar to Cleckley’s original conception of psychopathy.

The causes of psychopathy

We’ve seen how psychopaths think and act, but do we know why someone becomes a psychopath? Is a psychopath born or made? Multiple models have been raised to explain why a person is a psychopath.

Multiple causes are involved

These models refer to both a neurophysiological and a biochemical or psychosocial vision. To date, the most relevant causal models of psychopathy are those that suggest:

  • Frontal lobe dysfunction: Manifested by a failure to suppress, modify, and eliminate responses that are no longer adaptive.
  • Cortical immaturity: In psychopathy, unusual use of language is observed, which supposes a reduced role in the mediation and regulation of behavior.
  • Decreased serotonergic activity: It has been related to the impulsive behaviors of the psychopath, their inability to respond to punishment, and emotional disturbance.
  • Low cortical activation and need for stimulation: This could facilitate the acquisition of criminal behavior patterns.
  • Behavioral avoidance learning deficit: There’s a deficit in the anticipation and conditioning of fear responses.
  • A deficit in behavioral inhibition mechanisms: According to Gray (1983), psychopathy is the result of a strong behavioral activation system and a weak behavioral inhibition system.
A psychotic break compromises quality of life.

Socialization, environment, and family

Regarding socialization and practices related to the family environment and education, we find:

  • The influence of socialization practices: According to Gough (1948), a deficit in the assumption of roles and an inability to position oneself from the point of view of others develops from the family environment.
  • The influence of the family environment: McCord (1983) suggests that parental rejection and inconsistency in punishment could be at the base of psychopathy.

A very complex disorder

As we’ve seen, psychopathy is a complex disorder that’s currently linked to antisocial personality disorder. Factors of all kinds are involved in its etiology, and there’s still much to be investigated in this field.

At the same time, it’s important to begin to demolish myths and stereotypes associated with psychopathy, because not all psychopaths are criminals and not all criminals are psychopaths (far from it!).

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  • Cooke, D. J., Hart, S. D., Logan, C., & Michie, C. (2012). Explicating the Construct of Psychopathy: Development and Validation of a Conceptual Model, the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP). International Journal of Forensic Mental Health, 11(4): 242 – 252.
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