How to spot a psychopath

Updated June 20, 2018

The line between a dangerous psychopath and a “hero” is much finer than most people would imagine. The same functional differences which allow someone to rush into a burning building to save a complete stranger could equally be responsible for somebody’s capacity to commit a violent crime without remorse. Psychopaths make up around one percent of the population, but when psychologist Dr. Paul Babiak was hired to assess promising employees for their promotion potential, he found that one in 25 (4 percent) met the criteria for psychopathy. In short, a person doesn’t have to be a dangerous criminal to be a psychopath, but determining whether your friend, CEO or co-worker is a psychopath can be extremely challenging.

Reflect on your honest opinion of them. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, you will probably like a psychopath. As manipulators, they are particularly adept at managing others’ opinions of them, so unless you’ve crossed them you’ll usually be swept up by their charm and like them.

Examine their appearance from an objective standpoint. Psychopaths usually take a great deal of care in their physical appearance, presumably as a method of making themselves inherently likeable. Look for things like careful grooming, spotless clothes, carefully orchestrated attire and time-consuming hair styles. Patrick Bateman from the novel American Psycho is a perfect example of this, with his ritualised and meticulous morning skincare regime.

Talk to mutual acquaintances, observe directly and search your memory for a history of lying. Psychopaths tend to be compulsive liars, especially when they are looking to accomplish something or avoid blame for a particular incident. Talk to people you trust who also know the individual – people tend to remember if they’ve caught someone in a lie – and try to think back for times you’ve caught them out. Investigate any suspect claims the individual makes to you by asking questions, if you speak to them on a regular basis.

Determine whether the individual is manipulative. This can be difficult to determine because psychopaths are generally skilled liars, but it can be anything from a woman flirting outrageously with someone she isn’t interested in for personal benefit to a boss threatening to report an indiscretion in order to make an employee work overtime. Frame their behaviour in terms of their goals and see if their idiosyncrasies make more sense when viewed in this way.

Look for signs of genuine remorse if you witness the individual doing or being caught doing something morally wrong. If a psychopathic employee has lied, extorted and manipulated in order to remove a competitor for a position, for example, he won’t feel bad about his actions in any way. Don’t be fooled by verbal apologies – look for a change in behaviour. Actions don’t lie as often as words.

Listen to them recount a story. Psychopaths tend to rely on words and phrases which reflect cause and effect thinking, like “because” and “so that.” This is a mental mechanism which leads to them taking more extreme actions – it essentially removes their personal impact on the decisions they make. “I slashed his tyres because he called me fat,” as opposed to “I overreacted, I was angry that he’d called me fat and acted out.”

Watch for impulsive behaviours. Psychopaths tend to act before reflecting or properly planning their approach, so may act erratically, recklessly and even foolishly in response to a situation. They are usually unable to resist temptation, and their lack of planning often leaves their lives without a sense of focus.

Observe them eating or eat some food they’ve cooked. The physiological differences in the psychopaths’ brains means that they usually have a poor sense of taste, and will ordinarily make salty food or add a lot of salt to a meal which has been cooked for them. This isn’t always a sign of psychopathy, of course, since a smoker, for example, will have a poor sense of taste and smell.


Be wary of jumping to conclusions. Whilst a person’s behaviour may indicate that they have psychopathic tendencies, there is a reason psychology is a profession and not a casual hobby: diagnosing a psychological condition accurately isn’t easy. Trust your judgement more if you identify more symptoms or signs, but don’t assume that just because somebody is a compulsive liar they are a psychopath, for example. They might just be severely lacking in self-confidence or even have genuine problems remembering events accurately.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.