What are the characteristics of a psychopath?

In this brief guide we are going to answer the question ‘’What are the characteristics of a psychopath?’’ We will discover what psychopathy is, the main causes, the treatment and how to identify a psychopath.

What are the characteristics of a psychopath?

The characteristics of a psychopath are:

  • Egocentrism
  • Lack of empathy
  • Need for personal satisfaction
  • Need for control

Psychopathy or psychopathic personality is an antisocial personality disorder. It is characterized by character or social behavior alteration and does not involve any intellectual abnormality. People suffering from psychopathy (psychopaths) are people who can commit very serious criminal acts without showing any sense of guilt.

It affects men more than women. Psychopaths usually lead an apparently normal life, although sometimes they go beyond this normality to commit criminal acts that can reach the level of aggression and even murder.

What’s psychopathy?

This clinical-forensic construct can be broadly characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy, remorse and selfish traits.

Now, it is not a discrete category, but a continuous dimension, so it must be taken into account that not all people who present it are the same and that, according to the above, there is also subclinical or non-criminal psychopathy (integrated psychopaths) according to Cleckley (1976).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, DSM-V, frames psychopathy and sociopathy within personality disorders as a subtype of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), described from the merely behavioral.

With this, it is also necessary to consider conduct disorders, with limited prosocial emotions, defiant negativism, kleptomania and pyromania.

Characteristics of a psychopath

Television and movies have shown us the bloodiest face of a mental pathology that is less frequent than one might think. ‘Dexter’, ‘Hannibal’ or ‘True Detective’ are series that have shown us how psychopaths behave, something we have also been able to see in films, such as Lars von Trier’s latest, ‘The House of Jack’. However, fiction can confuse us, showing a profile that is not always true to reality.

Psychopathy transcends reality and marks a very characteristic profile in all those who suffer from this disease:


The psychopath cannot see from the other person’s point of view. This also leads to narcissism and the feeling that they are superior to the rest.

Lack of empathy

Empathy is the ability to perceive what the other person feels, from the positive aspects, such as joy, to the negative ones, such as sadness. In the absence of empathy, there would be no compassion and the feelings of others would go unnoticed.

However, a less popular aspect of empathy, the ability to be able to understand what the other is thinking, is active in psychopathy. That is, they do not generate emotional empathy but cognitive empathy.

Need for personal satisfaction

A brain anomaly studied by Vanderbilt University suggests that they have an impaired reward system. The consequence is that the psychopath gives excessive importance to what he wants, regardless of what others need, feel or think, which leads to dangerous behaviors.

Superficial charm

Psychopaths appear open and confident to others. They do not seem to count on fear or shyness and use these abilities in a premeditated way to adapt and achieve their ends.

Need for control

They have an obsessive tendency to want to dominate every person and every situation. This causes them to manipulate, abuse and lie about others.

The causes that lead to psychopathy are not clear but, as with other personality disorders, they are linked to genetic factors and the environment in which the person develops. That is, some people are born with a genetic predisposition to suffer from some type of personality disorder and, depending on the environment in which they grow up, the tendency increases or decreases.

Brain and cognitive characteristics

Low arousal

Arousal is a general physiological and psychological activation of the organism, which varies on a continuum from deep sleep to intense arousal. This means that every individual needs to experience certain levels of stress in order for his or her body to perform functions properly. A low level of cortical arousal leads to less responsiveness to environmental stimuli. 

Low cortical activity

Leads to a need for stimulation seeking, strong attraction to risk and exciting or challenging situations.

Partial learning difficulty

Especially of aversive stimuli. Poor autonomic arousal in the presence of punitive stimuli has been reported along with a deficit of emotional reactivity. Therefore, impairment in limbic and frontal structures would also affect the social decision-making system, which could lead to some of these behaviors.

Low anxiety

Anxiety is an extreme interest or fear about what will happen in the future. The type of stimulation and social situations that can generate anxiety will be different. This does not mean that they cannot experience it, but rather that they tend to interpret the context as a challenge rather than a threat, for example.

Genetics and family history

Many people who present this picture have suffered from childhood deprivation in the environment, abuse, cruelty, aggression or rejection. On the other hand, we must not forget that studies already propose that psychopathy could have an organic basis.

What does Robert Hare tell us about psychopathy?

Dr Hare is one of the renowned figures in the world of criminal psychology. In fact, he developed one of the most important scales for the diagnosis of psychopathy, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R).

For this author, for example, antisocial and criminal behavior is a necessary diagnostic criterion for psychopathy. However, subsequent studies have determined that criminal/delinquent behavior is not a central component of psychopathy (white-collar criminals would, in any case, be the most characterized by psychopathic traits, for example).

Psychopathy and the brain: Something clear?

The neurophysiological correlates of the traits that characterize psychopathy are still unknown. However, attempts have been made to study some of them associated with certain characteristics.

Although there are multiple models, we will briefly explain the well-known triarchic model of psychopathy.

It evaluates three distinct phenotypic components of psychopathy associated with two etiological pathways: Audacity, meanness and disinhibition.

The first pathway is related to an impairment of the brain’s primary motivational mechanisms (defensive system), which include the amygdalae (along with a reduction of gray matter volume in the lateral prefrontal region, medial and temporal poles), insula and affiliated structures.

As for the second, there is weak inhibitory control as a result of altered activity in forebrain structures, including the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.

Treatment and medication of psychopathy

The treatment of this disease is very complex and difficult and seeks the patient’s reintegration. It is necessary to submit them to preparation sessions to try to make them know the affective field and to learn to put themselves in the place of other people. The patient must be trained to develop his emotional virtues and to have social relationships.

It is very difficult to get a psychopath to stop violating social and legal norms. During treatment, the psychopath does not usually get involved in the search for a cure. Science has tried to achieve a pharmacological solution, but at this time it has not yet been achieved.

Prevention of psychopathy: Acting during childhood

Given the difficulty of curing this disease, the best way to try to prevent it is to intervene during childhood because this is the time when the personality is being created. Certain guidelines can be followed:

  • Children should be observed and cases of cheating on other children should be unmasked. When the child boasts of having deceived a friend, it is necessary to make him/her see how negative his/her actions have been.
  • We must be very rigorous and always show respectful behavior and not break the rules. Children learn by watching their parents and should always have a correct attitude.
  • Teach children not to be vindictive.
  • When the child hurts someone, he must be made to see that he has done wrong and that he must apologize.
  • If these patterns are repeated, it is necessary to seek medical attention to try to address a problem that can be serious


A person with psychopathy is neither born nor made, rather, it involves several factors. Psychopathy is multifaceted, determined by the interaction of genetics, environment, learning and experiences of the person.

On the other hand, it is necessary to deal with the stereotypical stereotyping of the psychopathic figure that has been reflected over time in the sensationalist media and in the film business.

The popular imagery has attributed a kind of pathological delinquency to this concept which, on most occasions, is far from reality.

If you have any questions or comments let us know!


Chabrol H.; Van Leeuwen N.; Rodgers R.; Sejourne N. (2009). Contributions of psychopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, and sadistic personality traits to juvenile delinquency. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(7): pp. 734 – 739.

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), pp. 242 – 252.

Paiva, T. O., Almeida, P. R., Coelho, R. C., Pasion, R., Barbosa, F., Ferreira‐Santos, F., Bastos‐Leite, A. J. y Marques‐Teixeira, J. (2020). The neurophysiological correlates of the triarchic model of psychopathy: An approach to the basic mechanisms of threat conditioning and inhibitory control. Psychophysiology, 57(8). https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13567