Master Manipulators. Serial Killers. Psychopaths.

What makes someone go off the deep end? What is going on in the mind of a serial killer? Are master manipulators crazy?

In this post I want to answer all of these questions and more. We are going to dig into the psychology of psychopaths.

Before we get too far into the science, the term ‘psychopath’ should not be used lightly.

What is a Psychopath?

According to researchers, psychopaths make up about 1% of the general population and as much as 25% of male offenders in federal correctional settings.

The Mayo Clinic describes psychopathy as a personality disorder where the person “typically has no regard for right and wrong. They may often violate the law and the rights of others.” Often, psychopaths have little empathy, have antisocial behavior, and lack inhibitions.

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The Scientific Personality Traits of Psychopaths

A new study conducted by Austrian researchers Sagioglou and Greitemeyer found certain personality traits linked to liking bitter tasting food and drinks.

500 participants were shown a list of foods from all across the taste spectrum––salty, sour, bitter, sweet–and were instructed to rate how much they liked the foods. Once submitted, the men and women each took a personality test measuring:

The results of the study revealed that having a preference for bitter tastes is linked to having a “dark personality” or associated with psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism. People who dislike bitter tastes, however, were found to be more agreeable, sympathetic, and cooperative.

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Dark Personalities

The researchers theorized that the reason why people with dark personalities have a predilection for bitter tastes was because they enjoy sensation-seeking and super-tasting.

Sensation-seeking: a personality trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings that are “varied, novel, complex, and intense,” and by the readiness to “take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”

People with darker personalities have a preference for the ups and downs of these intense experiences. Those who enjoy caffeine and spicy foods have already been positively correlated with sensation-seeking. A mild, “normal person,” sensation-seeking experience would be something such as riding a rollercoaster, for example.

Super-tasting: having a high sensitivity to bitter compounds.

Super-tasting has previously been linked to increased emotionality in humans, another characteristic typical of psychopaths. They prefer to eat foods that are bitter. We can speculate that psychopaths would enjoy bitter foods because, in the wild, bitter foods are a warning sign of being poisonous, so they might get a thrill from eating them (again, sensation-seeking behavior).

Normal-behaving people, or “non-tasters,” would find bitter foods unappealing. Those people are also reported to be more relaxed and calm.

With all this in mind, the researchers’ results indicated that people who prefer bitter taste experiences were linked to having more hostile thoughts and behaviors. These are people who checked “yes” next to “given enough provocation, I may hit someone,” and “I enjoy tormenting people.”

In other words, keep a lookout for people who order black coffee at your local coffee shop, or enjoy gin and tonics at the bar–it may give you a key insight into their true personality.

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Psychopathic Tendencies

This is very disturbing footage of a psychopathic child from the 1990 documentary Child of Rage:

Beth shows what are called “psychopathic tendencies,” which psychologists believe is due to the mistreatment she received at the hands of her parents. Beth is NOT a psychopath; after therapy and strong, loving relationships, Beth is now a fully functioning adult. Luckily, her psychopathic tendencies never grew into true psychopathy.

Psychopathy researchers found that psychopaths often have these common traits:

  • lack of empathy, guilt, conscience, or remorse
  • shallow experiences of feelings or emotions
  • impulsivity, and a weak ability to defer gratification and control behavior
  • superficial charm and glibness
  • irresponsibility, and a failure to accept responsibility for their actions
  • a grandiose sense of their own worth

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The Warning Signs of Psychopathy

Psychopaths are typically highly impulsive and highly emotional. They are at high risk of substance abuse and incarceration. According to Joseph Newman at the University of Wisconsin, “Criminal psychopaths are about three times more likely to commit violence than other offenders, and about two-and-a-half times more likely to commit other antisocial acts, such as lying and sexual exploitation.” They are very difficult to have relationships with because they lack social kindness and empathy. Researchers believe that psychopathy has roots in early childhood. Children who show an early lack of fear, indifference towards peers, and who appear callous in the face of emotion are at the greatest risk.

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The Brain of a Psychopath 

Researchers believe that psychopaths have different brain activity patterns than nonpsychopaths. Specifically, fewer exhibit less activity in the amygdala where fear is processed, and in the orbital frontal cortex or regions where decision-making happens. One study found that people with antisocial personality disorder (often linked with psychopathic behavior) have an average of 18% less volume in the brain’s frontal gyrus.

In another study from the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers compared 27 psychopaths to 32 nonpsychopaths and found that the psychopaths had less volume in their amygdala–where empathy, fear processing, and emotional regulation happens. This study also found that psychopaths have less activity in the area of the brain that processes empathy. 

This suggests that there is a relationship between how the brain functions and the behavior of a psychopath.

Were Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein Psychopaths?

The CIA has released all kinds of interesting personality reports of historical figures. Read some of the findings below. See any similarities?

Adolf Hitler:

Henry A. Murray was tasked with putting together a personality evaluation of Adolf Hitler in 1943. The report concludes that Hitler was a masochist and a suicidal, neurotic narcissist.

Fidel Castro:

In 1961, the CIA’s psychiatric staff put together a report stating Fidel Castro was “so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure. The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses.”

Saddam Hussein:

Jerrold Post, the founder of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, found that Saddam’s pursuit of power is tied with messianic dreams and “there is no evidence he is constrained by conscience; his only loyalty is to Saddam Hussein. In pursuing his goals, Saddam uses aggression instrumentally. He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction…While Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation.”

We can’t say conclusively if Hitler, Castro, or Hussein were “psychopaths,” but we can spot some of their tendencies.

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Can Psychopaths be Cured?

There is no cure for psychopaths, but the sooner psychopathic tendencies are spotted, the more help can be given. It is incredibly difficult to teach empathy, but loving relationships and therapy can help re-engage healthy social behaviors. The discussion on treating psychopaths is not that different from the conversation about lowering recidivism and helping criminal rehabilitation.

Since researchers estimate that 25% of criminals in state facilities show psychopathic tendencies, we know that the treatment could be one and the same. One model that has had some success is called the Decompression Model. This was developed by staff at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC), and is based on the fact that psychopaths don’t think about or respond to punishment the same way as nonpsychopaths (due to brain differences). In this way, punishment doesn’t discourage bad behavior–in fact, criminal psychopaths are six times more likely than other criminals to commit new crimes following release from prison. 

The Decompression Model is all about positive reinforcement. Whenever good behavior is spotted, staff members at the MJTC immediately offer some kind of reward. This is because even though psychopathic brains don’t respond to punishment, they do respond to rewards. This increases and reinforces learning a new behavior.

Results: Over 300 subjects who were treated at MJTC were matched with similar subjects not treated at MJTC, and followed over a five-year period. Ninety-eight percent of the non-MJTC youth were arrested again within four years, compared to only 64% of MJTC youth. This is a 34% reduction in recidivism!

MJTC youth were 50% less likely to commit a violent crime, and while non-MJTC youth killed 16 people after their release, MJTC youth didn’t commit a single homicide! Furthermore, detailed economic analysis revealed that “for every $10,000 spent at MJTC, the state of Wisconsin saved $70,000 by reducing the future costs of incarceration.”

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The BIG Take-Away

Maybe there is someone in your life who you are thinking shows psychopathic tendencies. If so, this last study with MJTC criminal youth is crucial for you.

When dealing with psychopaths, punishments do not work.

Trying to give consequences, punish, or shame for behavior will only make them worse–remember, their brain doesn’t respond to punishment and fear in the same way as ours. Positive reinforcement is the kindest and most effective thing you can do. Most importantly, this is a better way to interact in general. Always look for good behavior to reward instead of looking for bad behavior to punish.

Always reward the good, and you will see more of it.

Ready to keep learning? Read on…

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

35 replies on “Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Psychopaths”

  1. Anon

    Hello T, Be careful in self-diagnosing, you may have tendencies versus APD (inclusive of psychopathy and sociopathy). Your desire to protect your children is commendable and also indicates a degree of empathy that a psychopath would not possess. Both NPD and APD have a complete lack of emotional empathy. Depending upon the degree of cognitive function, cognitive empathy can be developed to a degree. Psychopaths have a higher cognitive function than sociopaths, and it is the greater body of sociopaths that occupy prisons. There are many psychopaths that function effectively within society. Cognitive function being the key determining factor. As to how psychopathy manifests in children, there must be a genetic predisposition coupled with some form of child neglect or abuse (emotional, psychological, physical). Both are required. There is no cure for psychopathy at present. All children need the presence of emotional empathy to thrive. If your spouse has emotional empathy, or any other person that has significant interaction with them can make the difference, but it is not a guarantee.

  2. T

    After reading this and many other articles about psychopathic traits, it is starting to convince me I may have most of these traits. This article has opened my mind to the cues that I need to be aware of. As a father and husband I would not want to pass any of my traits across to them but how does one manage these traits and is there a path to suppress these traits and begin to develop empathic love for one another?

  3. Meeeeeee

    It’s interesting. I think our environment & life experiences have a huge impact on people. People need security, love, self-esteem, & stimulation. I think a psychopath deeply feels insecure & needy so they numb their emotions & focus on their goals to make themselves feel satisfied. In some environments that can help you survive but it is a problem when you become a monster from it. I believe that normal people can temporarily become psychopathic if they are in an environment where their needs aren’t met, and they feel like they must compete to survive. It’s a big spectrum. Everyone needs love.

  4. Karla

    This was so sad and difficult to watch. I do believe that children who don’t receive love at a young age have this detachment from others. They never knew what it felt to be loved and all they know is hurt. I feel so bad for these children and it is so important to give them positive encouragement and so much love.

  5. Elizabeth Lopez

    Would you say people who bully other people constantly and smile while seeing the pain they cause are psychopaths? There is one person I think of running for POTUS that seems to have many of the traits you mention and who wants ultimate power and admiration. That is a scary thought!

  6. Fascinating input and comments. I have an interest in this subject purely to try to understand how some people in society behave in certain adverse ways and where this behaviour stems from. Childhood dsyfunction is obviously a major cause and just the basic lack of love care and nuturing. Secondly it has been mentioned by many criminal psychologists speaking about the psychopaths that committ terrible acts that there could be a genetic link. I totally agree that a new way of treating a dealing with people with these tendencies is needed. Unfortunately I believe that as society has rapidly changed with technology and the diet and environment has detoriated these all play apart in the deteroration of the mental health of people. Especially people that are already damaged and compromised early on. Treating the whole person is in my opinion the best option, looking at metabolic type (important for the correct diet for the individual), stress reduction techniques, positive feedback and confidence building activities. It is a complex area and would need tailored treatment for the individual and ultimately the person would want to be involved and want to try to improve. And a belief in a high power unfortunately religon has such a bad reputation, real belief is Love nothing more, for your fellow man, animals and environment.

  7. Robb49

    The article is very interesting. I have had some interaction with people with psychopathic tendencies and I find that the personality dysfunctions do almost consistently start at a young age and adults who now exhibit antisocial behaviors have past histories with strong indicators of what was to come. The crimes, drug dependency and even the mental and physical well being of people with this problem could be much better addressed by the mental health system especially in the formative years. But, there are some major hurdles that have to be overcome.

    1.Getting the general public to recognize that mental health care is not a pseudo science. It can benefit everybody and make society a generally safer and happier place for everyone.

    2. That mental health treatment is worth the investment and needs a lot more resources than are currently available. Many at risk kids are identifiable in school. But, there just isn’t much being done for them because of a lack of money.

    3. Mental health care needs to be available to everyone, not just a few people fortunate enough to have the resources and access. The mental health care system in the United States is pretty pathetic and misapplied even in places like prisons. Prisons are ultimately where many people with mental illness end up. Recidivism would be greatly reduced if the incarcerated received the care they need. But, resources are limited.

    4. The mental health care industry as a whole needs far better oversight. There are so many substandard practitioners who aren’t effective, aren’t curing anybody and basically form their practices around a core of patients who are destined to forever return for their monthly visits and nobody, not even the insurance providers who often pay for the visits, are paying attention. It just goes on and on with patients in a kind of limbo where they are deliberately made dependent on their doctors who see them for five minutes a month and collect a payment. There are effective treatments for many mental health problems that patients never get because even their doctors aren’t making an effort. Until this stops, it’s going to be difficult to give mental health care validity in the public eye.

    There are a lot of people out there who live just on the edge where a little push can send them in the wrong direction. Religion used to play more of a role in providing these people a place to vent and some moral guidance. But, it’s lost a lot of ground as more and more people break away from actively worshiping a deity. Those who are suffering from mental issues need someone they can talk to in confidence and get reliable information and other support. That system only exist in a few places. We need better than this.

  8. Ishmael Abraham

    I am an orthodox Muslim, and we criticize Saddam for his cruel secular dictatorship, but the lie about WMDs by CIA here shows how science is used for political and cultural imperialism.

  9. Lauren Freeman

    Psychopaths and psychopathic tendencies are things that I sometimes forget exist! It’s so crazy to me that some people out there, albeit 1% is a very small number, really have no empathy. There was just nothing behind that little girl’s eyes – creepy

  10. Nikki Thornton

    This is one area that super interests me! As i am a psychology student, i delve quite often into the science behind psychopaths and it never ceases to amaze me!

  11. Liam Hayes

    Boy that video was TOUGH to watch. I’m happy that little girl didn’t develop as a psychopath as an adult.

  12. Bella Perennis

    I know a psychopath: he shows exactly the types of behavior listed above. He was also abused as a child and teen. It’s amazing how pinpointed your description of a psychopaths fits his behavior.

  13. Maureen M.

    How’s this….rather than “reward” him for bad behavior, I LEFT him! I don’t need that crap in my life since he felt nothing for me anyway! Let his ex reward him. She’s the one he repeatedly cheated with!

  14. Connor Metzger

    I found this a interesting, however it only explained the most extreme cases of psychopathy. Not all psychopaths are insane and murderers, for example Dr. James Fallon, a family man and a highly respected neuroscientist, has never committed a crime in his life. This is all great information for people just wanting to know the basic information about psychopaths. There was really only one thing I didn’t like though, this article highly generalized psychopaths and made it seem like all are horrible people who go on killing sprees. I would like to make it clear that I am not insulting anything in your article, I am just stating that the kind of psychopaths you are explaining are the most extreme kind. Psychopaths get bad rep in the same way CGI does, if it’s bad you notice it, and if it’s good you won’t even know it’s CGI and you can’t give it credit. CGI can only be known for what it does wrong. Psychopaths are very well integrated into the general populace, in fact 1% of the entire populace are psychopaths. In the United States alone there are roughly 3 million psychopaths. I just think that anyone reading your article will create a caricature in their heads that all psychopaths are not intellectual, horrible people. In fact I myself am a psychopath and have not killed anyone. Psychopathy comes in different degrees, the only psychopaths that have the conditions which you are explaining are primarily the ones who are unable to have empathy all together. Your information is very correct about these kind of psychopaths, however it would be best if you didn’t generalize all psychopaths into one category. I understand if you want to say I’m bias because I am one, fair enough. None the less, you should at least let whoever read this to know that this is not the only kind of psychopath and that there are psychopaths everywhere who function just the same in a normal society as anyone else. In fact most people has slight psychopathic tendencies. I’m not telling you how to write an article, and my apologies if it sounds so, you probably have more experience and collective knowledge than I have obtained, however I am just offering a different point of view, sorry for the crazy long paragraph, and I hope you understand what I’m trying to say here. Good article, thanks for reading

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi Connor, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. You are absolutely right that not all psychopaths are criminals– and I apologize that we gave that impression in the article. We did talk about the more extreme types in the article, but it’s so important to consider the spectrum and we appreciate your insight on this!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

    2. J Money

      How did you figure out you are a psychopath? Was it from a doctor or did you self identify with other sites? I’ve heard that there are functioning phychopaths, but I’ve always wondered how theyou know that information. I read on most sites that most psychopaths are too impulsive to take the time to look up things like this (but you kind of adressed this with your generalization rebuttal).

      1. Connor Metzger

        I’ll be honest with you, I was studying on psychology to better understand how the human brain can be used and manipulated when I came across a test called the PCL-R, which is the best online psychopath test. So out of curiosity I took the test and scored very high on it. I assumed that the algorithm for the test was too vague and didn’t work, but I still questioned it, so I went to a doctor and got evaluated. And that is how I found out for sure that I’m a psychopath. you do have a point about how impulsive psychopaths are, however I came across this cite when I was sharpening my wit and felt like commenting. I started writing and got a little caught in narcissism and just kept writing until I ended up with a paragraph. If you have any questions, shoot a reply. There’s no guarantee I’ll respond very quickly though, I’m a busy person.

  15. Robby Smith

    I use to work in a daycare center for several years and have come to realize that all kids long for positive reinforcement. Even when they do something wrong, they long for love and attention. So let us go out and help this next generation with love/affection/rewards.

  16. Nick

    Personality disorders are tricky, especially when it comes to certain disorders, where the person doesn’t realize that they are disordered such as individuals with Narcissism or psychopathy. I think individuals suffering from Borderline Personality disorder are much more likely to seek help, because they are often suicidal and more inclined to ask others for help, in contrast to the Narcissist or psychopath.

  17. Nonindigenous

    They usually aren’t happy people. If anything, they might experience a sense of euphoria by hurting others sometimes, or instilling fear in others… but that is not “happiness”. It’s all they’ve got though, and without it they’d be nothing. It is power for them. So you can’t be surprised then that they act that way. It’s what essentially makes them feel like they have a purpose/goal in life. It’s what makes them feel alive. Without it, they’d be effectively dead.

    Everything which people do due to which they experience emotion, be it eating, or interacting with other people, pursuit of success, or hurting other people, listening to music, or doing drugs, or various other behaviours… stimulates the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Some of these things stimulate these reactions more than others, although it depends. Today’s popular theory is that it depends 50/50 on genetic/environmental factors, just how susceptible a person is to developing certain personality traits and behaviours which reinforce the release of those certain chemicals (although I’m putting my own twist and interpretation on this here).

    Drugs are recognised to stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the human body to such an extreme degree, that some people develop a physical dependency on drugs. This also applies to caffeine, and sugar even. But to a certain extent, it applies to everything. Why wouldn’t it apply to hurting people? Why wouldn’t it apply to helping people?

    Give “psychopaths” a chance to be happy, especially at a younger age, and help them develop a physical dependence on it, instead of helping them developing such a physical dependence on being unhappy and hurting people instead. Give them a chance, a choice. People don’t get to choose their own genetic factors, and usually neither do they get to choose their environment at a young age. This is up to parents, schooling systems, etc. Give them a chance, and a choice. If they still choose wrong… then at least you won’t be to blame, as opposed to a parent who beats the shit out of their kid for every thing he/she does “wrong”.

    I hope that makes sense. I haven’t spent this long drafting an anonymous reply for a while. This was difficult to word properly.

    There’s another interpretation I have on the topic of “choice”. If you corner someone, and starve them off choice at a young age, belittle them and make them feel powerless… don’t be surprised if in some cases (that 1%), you end up raising a psychopath. For the rest of their life they’ll be striving to regain a sense of pride and power. The more choice someone has, the more power they have. Give them choice from a young age, and make them feel secure with themselves. Perhaps that could mean that they don’t go off the rails for the rest of their life, stepping on people and hurting people for the sake of regaining a sense of pride and power.

    This rationale of mine is an extension of the superiority/inferiority complex.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hey there! Thank you for your eloquent comment. I absolutely agree that psychopaths have a warped sense of “happiness”. They engage in activities that stimulate them, but it’s dangerous stimulation.

      Danielle | SOP Team

    2. Lee Rumph

      Thank you for the time it took you for this reply. As being one of those children without choices, love or belongingness, you are 100% correct. In everything. As I now have 3 children, 2 girls and one boy, I strive everyday to not be or be in the environment I was raised into . To show the future there is a better way. BUT.. .I have continuously failed on keeping them away from the anger and hate part of it. Genetically they are like me. One girl I didn’t raise and she turned out just like me. Attitude wise. Point is. You cannot change them until they themselves know by experiences that there are better ways. The ones I love the most have always talked to me like a person. Consideration to me has more of a lasting impression than anything else. Thank you again.

  18. Bill Cogswell

    These are the types of people I deal with daily, unfortunately by the time they get to me they have already committed horrendous crimes. “Lack of empathy, guilt, conscience or remorse”…precisely! Great article!

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi Bill, thank you for your comment! Are there certain ways you have found best for working with psychopaths?

      Danielle | SOP Team

  19. Danielle McRae

    Postive reinforcement is key here. I’m glad that programs like MJTC exist to help people with psychopathic tendencies. It’s easy to treat them like regular criminals, but these individuals have a serious mental illness that needs a different kind of treatment. Great article!

  20. Michiel Andreae

    Based on this article I think Frank Underwood from House of Cards would also be classed as a psychopath, although he is not an impulsive person. Thoughts?

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