Identifying a Psychopath: 20 Subtle and Hidden Signs
Invisibility is the most disturbing thing about psychopathy.
Psychopaths must keep their true nature hidden, and they know how to do so. They’re skilled and successful actors and mimics. After all, they can only dupe us if they can first make us believe they’re honest, genuine, and trustworthy. To do that, they have to come across as “normal.” When they slip up, they’re good at explaining it away, distracting us, or shifting the blame.
I’ve written many things on this site about how to identify a psychopath, and I’m adding more to that with this article. But caution is advised. Psychopaths may not give us the clues we expect, or we may miss those clues because they’re so good at concealing them. While our experience and knowledge are sure to protect us to some extent, over-confidence is never a good idea. Even Dr. Robert Hare, psychopathy expert, admits that with all his experience he could still be fooled by a predatory psychopath. “In short interactions,” he says, “anyone can be duped.”
Some of the subtle signs on this list are backed by research, while others are based on common personal observations of people who have been involved with psychopaths.
20 21 Subtle and Hidden Signs
1. They have a “black-leather toughness combined with boyish innocence,” according to psychologist Kevin Dutton and my own experience. This doesn’t mean the psychopath will literally dress in black leather. It’s more of a feeling that he or she is street-smart or has been around the block more than a few times, while at the same time you sense a girlish or boyish innocence and goodness.
2. Psychopaths embody incongruity. This is an important one. The example given in #1 is one possible manifestation of an overall pattern of incongruity, or contradiction, the psychopath displays. He or she may contradict themselves from one sentence to the next, or it may take a few weeks or months for a completely different point of view to emerge. On one day he may express deep sympathy for the plight of the homeless, and then on another, contemptuously question how anyone could become so “worthless.” Incongruity also manifests as the hot-cold-hot-cold ‘feelings’ they have for us, going from warm and interested to cold and insensitive. This pattern of incongruity is embodied in their demeanor and runs throughout all aspects of their behavior. Watch for incongruity, and run far and fast if you see it.
3. They exude a subtle but definite air of confidence and superiority. Their body language occasionally reads as ‘haughty.’ You will see flashes of it now and then and feel it’s out of character (another example of incongruity). Their physical posture gives off vibes of “superiority, hidden powers and amused indifference,” says author Sam Vaknin, who claims to be a psychopath.
4. They tell you stories of shady, unsavory, or criminal things they did in the past. Psychopaths love to tell the tales of their business and sexual exploits, while at the same time you feel convinced they’re not that way any longer.
5. Psychopaths need little sleep. They’re always on the go in their quest for stimulation. They may sleep just four or five hours per night.
6. They sometimes exhibit unconvincing emotional responses. Most of the time they can come across as genuine, but at other times you will get the feeling that they’re a bit “off” or even engaging in poor play-acting. This can pertain to facial expressions, body language or tone of voice.
7. They can go from rage to complete calm in a minute. Emotions are shallow and short-lived for a psychopath. One of the only emotions they can truly feel is rage, but even it is short-lived.
8. They drop hints of their true nature, but in a veiled manner. These hints are called “tells.” For example, if a psychopath is taking advantage of your trusting nature, he or she may say “You would be so easy for a con artist to dupe because you’re way too trusting.” Or “Do you think there are aliens inhabiting human bodies among us? I feel like one.” Or “You need to be careful, because the devil can present himself as your best friend.”
Why do they do this? When psychopaths puts one over on you they experience duping delight, which is pleasure at manipulating you and having you within their control. It adds a little more excitement to their game because it increases the odds that they could get caught. When they do this, it may mean they’re getting bored and will soon be ready to move on.
9. Flashes of contempt. When interacting with a psychopath, you may notice quick flashes of contempt on his face that are unrelated to the conversation or anything else at hand. Contempt is defined as the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless or deserving of scorn. Psychopaths are contemptuous by nature. Micro expressions — facial expressions that happen so fast they’re easy to miss — can leak out and reveal their real feelings. Dr. Paul Eckman, leading micro expression researcher, says “Contempt is a feeling of being better than another person, of being superior, usually morally superior but it can also be felt toward some who is weaker in intelligence, strength, and so forth. Basically, contempt is devaluing another person and overvaluing yourself.”
“Between flattery and admiration there often flows a river of contempt.”
~ Minna Thomas Antrim
10. They have deviant sexual desires and they will want you to fulfill them, whether you want to or not. Plenty of normal people have deviant desires, too, but a psychopath will be more aggressive in trying to fulfill them. “Individuals with deviant sexual preferences and normal levels of empathy, kindness, and self-control have many strategies for satisfying their needs, including negotiation, compromise, and restraint; however, individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits might turn to sexually aggressive strategies to attain gratification.” (Visser, B. A., DeBow, V., Pozzebon, J. A., Bogaert, A. F. and Book, A. (2014), Psychopathic Sexuality: The Thin Line Between Fantasy and Reality. Journal of Personality. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12110 )
11. They have a poor sense of smell. “Individuals who scored highly on psychopathic traits were more likely to struggle to both identify smells and tell the difference between smells, even though they knew they were smelling something,” according to findings by researchers Mehmet Mahmut and Richard Stevenson, from Macquarie University in Australia.
12. Their speech is filled with disfluencies. Psychopaths may use phrases like “uh” or “umm” a lot to break up their speech. The exact reason for this isn’t clear, but researchers speculate that they might be trying harder to make a positive impression, needing more time and mental effort to frame a story.
13. They can’t describe an emotion or their personal experience of one. You will have to probe them to get this information, as in the example given below. Psychopaths fail to understand the fundamental nature of emotions, such as fear or love. Psychopaths can mimic an emotion or tell you they’re experiencing it, but if you dig deeper and ask them to describe how they feel, they’ll become lost or even frustrated. It is similar to a blind person trying to understand what others mean when they talk about color. They may know the names of colors, but they have never experienced them.
Here is an example Dr. Robert Hare documented in his book, Without Conscience. He describes an interview with a psychopathic offender who can’t seem to understand the fundamental nature of fear:
“’When I rob a bank,” he said, “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue-tied. One barfed all over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t know why. If someone pointed a gun at me, I guess I’d be afraid but I wouldn’t throw up.” When asked to describe how he would feel in such a situation, his reply contained no references to body sensations. He said things such as, “I’d give you the money”; “I’d think of ways to get the drop on you”; “I’d try and get my ass out of there.” When asked again how he would feel, not what he would think or do, he seemed perplexed. Asked if he ever felt his heart pound or his stomach churn, he replied, “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight.’”
14. They have a reduced startle response. This is apparently related to decreased activity in the amygdala, a structure in the brain related to fear and other emotions. If you’re walking down the street with a beau and he or she doesn’t flinch when a car backfires, watch out.
15. They participate in dangerous or extreme sports and activities. Psychopaths may get their thrills from flying lessons, BASE jumping, brain surgery (hopefully only if they’re a qualified neurosurgeon), driving fast, juggling machetes, hitch hiking, having sex in public places, or carelessly cheating on their spouse. In order to feel excitement, psychopaths need high risk and intensity.
16. They invade your personal space. We all have a certain distance we keep between ourselves or others, which is usually culturally determined. But the psychopath may stand too close, within your personal space. Surprisingly, research results found that cold-heartedness was the a significant predictor of preferred distance, with higher scores associated with preference for shorter distances. The study’s authors said, “Consistent with our hypothesis, results showed that cold-heartedness scores (which index interpersonal callousness) significantly predicted preferred distance, with more callous participants showing a preference for shorter distances. We speculate that interpersonal distance preferences of highly callous individuals may mediate the relationship between callous traits and aggression, by producing behaviors that facilitate aggressive behavior.” (Don’t Stand So Close To Me: Psychopathy and The Regulation of Interpersonal Distance)
In other words, they want you within grabbing distance.
17. They have an eerily calm demeanor. Psychopaths rarely, if ever, feel stressed-out or nervous.
18. They have a saintly aura. Of course, it’s one they create for themselves. They may engage in phony altruism by donating to or volunteering for a cause, or hand out dollars to needy people on the street. If you weren’t there to witness it, they’ll be sure to tell you all about it later while smiling beatifically and waiting for your admiration. Psychopaths love to tell stories of wonderful things they’ve done for others, in order to create a positive impression and gain your trust.
19. Their speech is prolific. They can deliver running monologues that are frequently intriguing. They may deliver a soliloquy like an actor alone on a stage, ignoring your attempts to respond.
A soliloquy is defined as “a device often used in drama when a character speaks to himself or herself, relating thoughts and feelings, thereby also sharing them with the audience, giving off the illusion of being a series of unspoken reflections.” When someone makes you feel as if you’re watching a play, think “psychopath.”
20. They have little to no body odor. This is purely anecdotal. Many of them shower frequently and may even carry deodorant and an extra shirt. Some seem naturally fresh-smelling, even after running five miles or engaging in marathon sex.
21. They engage your curiosity. The psychopath will capture your attention, even though you may have had no interaction. You feel intrigued, and although you won’t be able to figure out exactly what it is that made you take notice, you will wonder about it. They seem to have caught your attention even while doing the most mundane thing, such as just standing on the other side of the room (and while not even seeming to notice you). You feel it must mean he or she is an intriguing person, one you should get to know better. What it really means is that subconsciously you detect they’re different in some way, and perhaps even a threat (but one that doesn’t register in your conscious mind). Instead of seeing it for the warning it is, your curiosity about them grows. But “wonder” and “curiosity” are two of the “harbingers of intuition,” according to Gavin de Becker, the author of the book The Gift of Fear. And as the old saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat.” Don’t let it kill you. If you feel curious about—and interested in—someone but you don’t know why, take notice. This is exactly the way it began for me, and for many others.
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