A Detailed & Scientific Guide to Psychopaths

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    what a psychopath is, what it's not, and how to design one


    -- I. Overview

    -- II. Traits

    -- III. Portrayals

    -- IV. Tips for Designing Your Psychopath

    -- V. Resources

    -- VI. Frequently Asked Questions


    We have likely all seen our fair share of "psychos" on FF. The word tends to be broadly used across all forms of media, and is typically applied to anyone who seems crazy or insane. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, a psychopath is actually a very specific diagnosis. This guide will be an explanation of what a psychopath really is, and a resource for those who would like to know how to accurately portray one. (Note that this is an extended version of an older guide I made on psychopaths).

    What is a psychopath, exactly? What sets a psychopath apart from a sociopath, and so on?

    Psychopathy is typically considered to part of the Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) spectrum, though some psychologists sort it as a Dissocial Personality Disorder. It is a mental disorder, with theories suggesting that it can develop from both nature and nurture. Most professionals would argue that genetics plays the dominate role in the making of a psychopath, if only because the traits of one can appear in very young children.

    The terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" have often been used interchangeably, and some professionals would argue that they are the same, but most draw a clear distinction between the two. (In fact, there are some theories claiming that psychopaths are a result of nature while sociopaths are a product of nuture.) They are both within the APD spectrum, and thereby have some overlapping traits, but here's a general summary of their differences:

    Psychopaths, in general, have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others. Instead, they form artificial, shallow relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits the psychopath. People are seen as pawns to be used to forward the psychopath’s goals. Psychopaths rarely feel guilt regarding any of their behaviors, no matter how much they hurt others.

    But psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, holding steady, normal jobs. Some even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner. While they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own.

    Sociopaths, in general, tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While also having difficulties in forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may be able to form an attachment to a like-minded group or person. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths don’t hold down long-term jobs or present much of a normal family life to the outside world.


    The most widely accepted form of psychopathic diagnosis is the Hare Psychopath Checklist-Revised (Hare PCL-R). Typically, a professional should be the one reviewing the checklist, but for the purposes of roleplaying a psychopathic character this list is an amazing resource for proper characterization.

    Diagnosis is simple: There are twenty traits of psychopathy, and 40 possible points. A person will be rated either a 0, 1, or 2* for each trait. The total amount of points they have at the end of the list is used to determine whether or not they are a psychopath. In the United States, one must score a 30 out of 40 to be on the psychopathic spectrum; in the United Kingdom, that number is 25.

    * Ranking system:

    0 - It doesn't apply to the patient at all.

    1 - It applies somewhat, meaning the trait is there, but it is not highly dominant in the person.

    2 - It fits the person perfectly, it defines dominant traits in character or behavior.

    The checklist is as follows:
    1. Glib and Superficial Charm

    2. Grandiose (Exaggerated) Sense of Self-Worth

    3. Need for Stimulation / Prone to Boredom

    4. Pathological Lying

    5. Cunning and Manipulativeness

    6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt

    7. Shallow Effect (Superficial Emotional Responses)

    8. Callousness / Lack of Empathy

    9. Parasitic Lifestyle

    10. Poor Behavior Controls

    11. Sexual Promiscuity

    12. Early Behavior Problems

    13. Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals

    14. Impulsivity

    15. Irresponsibility

    16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions

    17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships

    18. Juvenile Delinquency

    19. Revocation of Conditional Release

    20. Criminal Versatility

    To get slightly more detailed and complicated, the list has been broken up into different "factors" before. Some professions label them in five different factors. Other simply label #1-9 as Factor 1 and #10-20 as Factor 2, with the following distinction:

    Psychopathic Writings wrote:

    Factor 1. Traits

    Factor 1 traits are sometimes called 'Classic Psychopathy Characteristics', or 'True Psychopathy Characteristics'. These are the traits that describe the Psychological, Mental or Emotional Characteristics. They pertain to how the person feels, his emotional make-up, his thought process and the general mindset resulting of these.

    Factor 2. Traits
    Factor 2 traits are sometimes referred to as 'False Psychopathy Characteristics'. These are the traits that describe an individual's Conduct, his Activities and Demeanor. They pertain to Antisocial Traits, Criminal and Aggressive Deviant Features in the Individual Lifestyle, Actions and Behavior.

    On a side note, there is also a more recent personality test is known as the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (it has since been revised, and can be labeled as the PPI-R). There are 154 items on the PPI-R, all of which have been condensed into eight traits (and three "factor" subgroups). Note that the PCL-R is the one more wildly recognized and cited by professionals. Diagnosis on this one isn't quite as straight-forward, but here's an explanation of the list's function:

    PsychForum wrote:

    A person may score at different levels on the different factors, but the total score indicates the overall extent of psychopathic personality. Higher scores on factor I are associated with emotional stability and social efficacy, as well as reduced empathy. Higher scores on factor II are associated with maladaptive tendencies, including aggressiveness, substance use problems, negative feelings and suicidal ideation. Scores on the two major factors tend to be only moderately correlated.

    The checklist itself is as follows:

    FACTOR 1 (PPI I):
    • Social Influence
    • Fearlessness
    • Stress Immunity
    FACTOR 2 (PPI II):
    • Machiavellian Egocentricity
    • Rebellious Nonconformity
    • Blame Externalization
    • Carefree nonplanfulness
    • Coldheartedness


    Most of the famous portrayals of psychopaths in the media are scientifically flawed, so I've chosen to avoid those (though, for an interesting read on Sherlock Holmes' infamous "high-functioning sociopath" line and some deeper analysis of the psychopath-sociopath divide, check here). Instead I've sampled a few descriptions of real-life psychopaths from Robert Hare's book, Without Conscious.

    CHAPTER 6 wrote:

    At age thirty-five, a diagnoses psychopath with a lengthy record of criminal behavior and violence decided to turn her life around. She took a great many courses in prison and, following her release at age forty-two, obtained a university degree in counseling psychology. She began working with street kids and has not been charged with any offense during the past five years. Some people in the community consider her a success story. However, she has been dismissed from several jobs over the misuse of funds and making threats against her coworkers and supervisors. ... Some of those who know her think she is an interesting woman whose criminal past was the result of unfavorable social conditions and bad luck; others think she is much the same person she always was - callous, arrogant, manipulative, egocentric - with the only discernible difference being that she now manages to remain out of contact with the law.

    CHAPTER 6 wrote:

    An ex-con, previously diagnosed by a prison psychiatrist as a psychopath, calmly told the police that he had stabbed another man in the bar because the man refused his request to vacate a table. His explanation: He was cultivating a don't-mess-with-me image at the time and the victim had defied him in front of the other bar patrons.

    CHAPTER 7 wrote:

    Dave's coworkers were consistent in their descriptions - they found him rude, selfish, immature, self-centered, unreliable, and irresponsible. Virtually all reported that they initially liked him but over time grew to distrust him, and they said that they knew the stories he used to gain their cooperation were lies. ...

    During his meeting with Babiak, Dave described himself as a hard worker, a strong leader, a "team builder", honest, intelligent, the guy responsible for really "making" the department. In fact, he suggested that his boss leave the company and he take over. ...

    While those closest to him were convinced of Dave's manipulations, irresponsibility, and lack of integrity, those higher up in the organization had been convinced - by Dave - of his management talent and potential. Despite clear evidence of his dishonesty, they were still "charmed" by him.


    Psychopaths can have some considerable range. Keep in mind that there are various scores that still qualify as psychopathic, and that any of the traits on the Hare PCL-R can contribute to that score. One psychopath might score particularly high in criminal versatility but low in promiscuous sexual behavior -- another might score in the directly opposite fashion. By assigning different levels and scores to the traits on the list, you can start to experiment a bit with variations for your own psychopath. In general, however, here are some thoughts from a character development perspective:

    • Being a psychopath is very defining, but it doesn't have to be shoved down your readers' throats. Quite commonly I see people including the fact that their character is a psychopath in every other sentence, or even having their character call themselves one. While that's fine (you do you), remember that actions speak louder than words: simply exemplifying the traits of a psychopath in your posts will eventually give people the impression that there's something not quite right about your character.

    • Remember that psychopaths are often times very charming and manipulative - many of them can even hide the fact that they're a psychopath. Just because your character is one, doesn't mean everyone will be aware of it (ICly). You can have fun having a secret psychopath who fools others into trusting them, or you can have a very transparent psychopath who is openly diabolical.

    • Inspiration is great, but make sure the inspiration you're using is reliable! Not every media character who is described as a "psychopath" actually is! Double check the list yourself when fleshing out your character.


    I have participated in quite a bit of research regarding psychopaths, and take a lot of my information represented here from a couple of books I've read. These include Robert Hare's Without Conscious: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, and Kevin Dutton's The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Also some information from Wrightman's Psychology and the Legal System.

    Otherwise, here are some of the quick resources I looked at while writing this guide (where most of the quotes come from) for those of you who'd like to read more on psychopathy:

    1. Differences Between a Psychopath vs Sociopath (PsychCentral)

    2. How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath (PsychologyToday)

    3. PCL-R Self Test (PsychForums).


    I'll add to this section regularly (hopefully) and include questions people might ask on this thread with answers. For now I've included a few I've encountered in my readings.

    1. Can psychopaths change?

    According to Robert Hare (and many psychologists), no. Psychopathy is usually a problem with the brain, and can include the influence of upbringing. These are very hard forces to fight against, and as a general rule psychopaths do not change or "get better". There's no cure for such an illness. A psychopath may try to manipulate others into thinking they have changed or are trying to be a better person, but this is never true. Even if a psychopath is trying to change (though most don't truly care enough), chances are they will not be able to. If you want your character to go through a redemption arch, consider giving them a lower than diagnosis Hare PCL-R score or just a few psychopathic traits that they can develop out of. They don't have to be a real psychopath to act like one!


    The post was edited 4 times, last by MADI HATTER. ().

  • THIS IS AMAZING, thank you very much for posting this! Very informative, and yes I do think it's important that people realize "psychopaths" portrayed in media are mostly romanticized or at least very different from a true psychopath. I honestly... I'm not sure if there's ever really been an accurate portrayal of someone with this diagnosis in fiction. So, thank you!

  • Thank you so much for posting this!

    Stay alive. Fight the urge to bottle things up before they become to much for you, if you need help, reach out. No matter what people say to you, keep being you. You are never alone in your problems, no matter how much you believe you are. Find friendship in people, and express yourself. You should not be forced to deal with what you feel alone. Even as you're reading this, you've done it. You're still here. We did it, friends, and we're going to keep going.
  • Let's get this peer reviewed and put it up in the Library!

    Someone should come along and poke holes in the guide above. How is it/could it be inaccurate? Then that someone would work with MADI to improve the guide as much as possible.

  • this guide is excellent in my opinion, but i think it's really important to note that there is an even bigger difference between sociopaths and psychopaths than what is stated here. it's been a while, but i read a book called confessions of a sociopath. it's a great collection of memoirs and opinions about sociopaths and psychopaths, and the author clearly defines the differences that they themselves have noticed throughout their life and in interactions with normal people and other people on the apd spectrum. the author, in fact, is a sociopath, which makes her arguments more credible in my opinion. i won't get into the details, but it should be noted that both sociopaths and psychopaths are highly impulsive and erratic in their behavior no matter what they might be. also, the hare psychopath checklist is occasionally incorrect and many people on the apd spectrum would not define themselves as sociopaths/psychopaths.

  • If you have a Quora account, there's a small community of sociopaths and psychopaths that frequently answer questions to clear up what ASPD really is. Here's what I've gathered if you want to add any of it:

    - You have to be at least 25 to be diagnosed as a sociopath or psychopath as that is when the brain stops developing. Many children and even teens may express multiple ASPD traits, only to grow out of them.

    - Sociopathy is a result of childhood trauma, although there is speculation that there has to be a genetic disposition to it as well. Psychopathy, however, is completely genetic.

    - Here is a link to a psychopath explaining which emotions they experience and which they do not: Athena Walker's post

    - The difference between high-functioning and low-functioning paths is their impulse control.

    - Psychopaths don't regret being ASPD. They can't feel stress, anxiety, nor depression.

    I will be inactive for the following week, starting 7/15/18. I will try to post once a day, but don't expect much. Thanks for understanding <3