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Psychology of Psychopaths

Psychology of Psychopaths

Sample Answer 

Psychology of Psychopaths

The psychology of psychopaths is a field of study that is constantly evolving as new research is conducted and psychopaths’ brains are meticulously examined. “Psychopathy is a personality trait that includes a constellation of other traits such as affective features, interpersonal concerns, and impulsive and antisocial behaviors” (Langdal, 2017). Furthermore, as more research is conducted, psychologists and society alike will have a better understanding of how psychopaths differ from non-psychopaths and what motivates them in everyday life. Although no two psychopaths are alike, many key characteristics distinguish those who have been identified. Continuing, there are several significant differences that distinguish psychopaths from the general public and aid in identifying a psychopath. Psychopaths’ behaviors are frequently distinguishable, and their interactions in the real world can both conceal and reveal their psychopathy. Furthermore, despite the fact that psychopaths and sociopaths are commonly grouped together, and the terms are used interchangeably, they are two distinct groups with many differences that separate them as well as similarities that bring them together. Evaluating those with high psychopathy personality traits and the various characteristics that set them apart will lead to a clearer analysis and understanding of how their brains operate in a unique way and how their daily lives differ.

What Characteristics Characterize a Psychopath?

Important Features

There are a number of distinguishing characteristics of psychopaths that have been quantified through research. These characteristics are concerned with psychopaths’ morals and values, differences in emotions, and their assessment of right and wrong. While healthy people have an intuitive conscience that guides their morals and allows them to tell the difference between right and wrong, psychopaths frequently lack this ability and “display a diminished capacity to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions” (Cima et al., 2010 P. 2). The inability of a psychopath to distinguish between right and wrong frequently leads to rash decisions, a lack of judgment, and, in extreme cases, violence. Furthermore, not only do psychopaths lack judgment skills, but their personalities frequently exhibit triggers, some of which are subtle while others are obvious. Most psychopaths, for example, have a superficial sense of charm that makes them likable and leads to favorable first impressions. While psychopaths may appear attractive at first glance, they usually have a hidden agenda and exhibit prominent traits of manipulation, lying, and selfishness.

Furthermore, psychopaths differ from others in that they operate behind a mask and “are motivated by what they perceive to be their victim’s vulnerabilities” (Babiak & O’Toole, 2012, P. 1) in order to feel powerful and in control. The presence of the aforementioned characteristics is one of the key characteristics of psychopaths; however, another important aspect is the absence of emotions such as remorse, empathy, and guilt. Psychopaths may appear to have these emotions at first, but it is more likely that they have simply learned to mimic the qualities of those around them while lacking them themselves. Furthermore, psychopaths have a manipulative mindset but can often thrive in social and corporate settings, most likely because they have learned how to perform as “ideal individuals” over time. “Psychopathic manipulation typically begins with the creation of a mask in the minds of those targeted, known as a psychopathic fiction.” Belief in the realism of this personality can lead to an intellectual, emotional, and physical psychopathic bond with the perpetrator” (Babiak & O’Toole, 2012, P. 2). Furthermore, psychopaths frequently compartmentalize their behavior (Babiak & O’Toole, 2012), allowing them to advance both their success and their public façade. While psychopaths can function in society, they are unable to maintain genuine relationships. Psychopaths have and exhibit a number of key characteristics.

Neurological Proof

While it is obvious that psychopaths differ in terms of traits and emotions that they both possess and lack, psychopaths also differ genetically. When compared to someone who does not have psychopathic traits, the brain of a psychopath will look different. However, while physical differences in the brains of psychopaths have been demonstrated, this is a relatively new field of study, with research only being conducted in the last decade. “Violent male offenders who met the diagnosis of psychopathy displayed significantly reduced gray matter volumes in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles,” according to a 2012 study conducted by King’s College (Haridy, 2017, Para. 11). This is significant because this is the part of the brain associated with feelings of guilt. Researchers were able to identify neurological differences between violent offenders and true psychopaths through this study (Haridy, 2017). However, because not all people who identify with psychopathy are violent, additional studies, including one in 2016, were conducted. According to the findings of this study, psychopaths have weak connections between the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which means they are unable to accurately assess the consequences of their actions. Continuing, high connectivity was assessed between the ventral striatum and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that manages cognitive control of behavior, impulse control, and self-inhibition (Haridy, 2017). According to the studies and results, it is possible to conclude that psychopaths have physical differences in their brains that correlate with emotional and moral differences.

Symptoms of a Psychopath

Psychopaths in Real Life

Psychopaths clearly function differently than those who are deemed mentally stable; however, they continue to function in the real world, both successfully and unsuccessfully. Many people associate psychopaths with those who have been or are currently incarcerated for violent or vulgar crimes; however, there are many people who have been diagnosed with psychopathy and successfully function in society. Psychopaths frequently make excellent leaders due to their unique, innate personality traits and their ability to manipulate and discredit those around them in order to rise to the top or achieve their goals guilt-free (Gao et al.2010). Furthermore, Hervey Milton Cleckley was one of the first psychiatrists in America to propose that psychopaths “are not limited to forensic and psychiatric contexts,” citing a large number of case studies on “successful” psychopaths who exhibit psychopathic personality traits in working environments and everyday life but do not exhibit increasing manipulative or antisocial behaviors or deviant lifestyles (Gao et al., 2010). Continuing, in 1978 and 1985, psychiatrist Cathy Widom conducted studies that revealed, for the first time, that psychopaths were living successful lives within America’s communities, and that of the sample sizes, 21% received inpatient treatment, and 46% received outpatient treatment (Gao et al.,2010). The research that resulted from these studies was and continues to be profound because, despite the fact that psychopathy is a developing and intriguing topic, little research on non-incarcerated psychopaths has been conducted. It is also important to understand that psychopaths can live successful and, in some ways, normal lives, as research on incarcerated psychopaths may not be generalizable to those who have successfully managed their psychopathy. Although psychopathy and criminality are frequently linked, this is often a stereotype that ignores the distinction that exists in the real world between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths.

Gender Distinctions

There are differences between male and female psychopaths, just as there are between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths. Because psychopathic personality traits coexist with preexisting and stereotypical gender personality traits, gender differences among psychopaths are unavoidable. Men score higher on psychopathic personality trait continuums than women in general, and most studies on psychopaths have primarily focused on men. However, it is widely assumed that the findings of studies, as well as the core characteristics and behaviors of male psychopaths, are simply transferable to women (Wynn et al., 2012). While psychopathic men and women share the same traits, their behaviors differ. Men and women psychopaths are both manipulative, but women often express it through flirtatious behavior, whereas men are more likely to engage in fraud or scams (Wynn et al., 2012). Furthermore, both men and women commit crimes, but men are more likely to be violent than women because women are more likely to engage in verbal aggression. “It has been suggested that the disorder progresses differently in men and women in terms of both onset and expression” (Wynn et al., 2012, Para. 17). This is frequently due to the fact that men and women develop and progress at different rates, and antisocial behavior manifests differently in growing men than in growing women. Young psychopathic men, for example, are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, violence, and rule violations, whereas young women are more likely to exhibit verbal aggression, jealousy, and self-harm.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath


The terms psychopath and sociopath are frequently used interchangeably; however, the two terms have many similarities and differences. While there are many differences, there are many similarities between psychopathic and sociopathic personality traits. Psychopaths and sociopaths share traits such as a lack of empathy, remorse, guilt, violent tendencies, and a disregard for social expectations and behaviors (Langdal, 2017). Furthermore, sociopaths and psychopaths are frequently linked because the characteristics they share are important distinguishers for each group. Both psychopaths and sociopaths clearly lack feelings of remorse or empathy, resulting in a disconnect in personal relationships and damaged relational systems. Another effect is emotional detachment, as it is difficult to engage in genuine relationships because they necessitate the emotions of guilt and remorse. “The adult psychopath and sociopath are the world’s most consistent nonconformists, and their recurring cycles of emotional turmoil and pent-up tension lead to demoralizing behavior” (Banay, 1963, P. 16). Continuing, neither group respects the law or social norms. This is frequently because they have a different moral understanding than the rest of society and fail to distinguish between right and wrong in the same way that others do. Both psychopaths and sociopaths appear to be selfish, and while they understand appropriate social behaviors, feelings of remorse, appropriate responses, and so on, they fail to put these understandings into action.


The similarities between psychopaths and sociopaths appear to combine the two groups in a variety of ways, but there are several differences that separate the two groups. Based on a superficial charm and learned mirrored traits, psychopaths can easily blend in with society and appear likable. Sociopaths, on the other hand, frequently struggle to fit into society at all because they find it difficult to understand societal norms (Langdal, 2017). Furthermore, psychopaths are born because their personality traits are hereditary, and they have genetic predispositions to psychopathic traits, whereas sociopaths are formed as a result of trauma, injury, or other influence. The neurology underlying psychopathy and sociopathy differs in that the former is a born behavior, and the latter is a resulting behavior (Pemment, 2013). Psychopaths are also extremely manipulative and have the patience to wait for their victims’ motives to reveal themselves. Sociopaths, on the other hand, lack patience and frequently act on impulse. Because of the differences in these behaviors, psychopathy and sociopathy have their own terms.


Overall, the study of psychopaths is a field of study that is constantly evolving as new studies and research are discovered. As psychopathy is a collection of personality traits, there are some key characteristics that psychopaths exhibit. These characteristics influence psychopaths’ morals and behavior, as well as distinguish them from the rest of society. According to recent research, neurological differences in psychopaths’ brains can be observed and evaluated, allowing for a better understanding of their personalities and motivations. Psychopaths can function successfully and unsuccessfully in the real world, and contrary to popular belief, a large proportion of psychopaths are not incarcerated or have no criminal history. It is critical that psychologists continue their studies and assessments of psychopaths so that proper analysis can be made and existing assessments can be expanded.


Babiak, P. & O’Toole, M. E. (2012). The corporate psychopath. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 81(11), 7-11.

Banay, R. S. (1963). Psychopath or sociopath. In A. Deutsch, H. Fishman, A. Deutsch, H. Fishman (Eds.), The encyclopedia of mental health, Vol V (pp. 1634-1653). New York, NY, US: Franklin Watts. doi:10.1037/11559-014

Cima, M., Tonnaer, F., & Hauser, M. D. (2010). Psychopaths know right from wrong but don’t care. Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 59-67. doi:10.1093/scan/nsp051

Gao, Y., Raine, A., & Phil, D. (2010). Successful and unsuccessful psychopaths: A neurobiological model. Behavioral Sciences & The Law, 28(2), 194-210.

Haridy, R. (2017, July 07). Inside the brains of psychopaths. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Langdal, J. (2017). Biological Approach- Research [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from operation=loggedIn&classId=c539426c-120b-42eb-91d9 16860d0ee51d#/learning platform/announcement/ operation=getClassAnnouncementDetail&announcementId=677d4df3-d78a-4750-9c35 1aa415bfeeb4&classId=c539426c-120b-42eb-91d9 16860d0ee51d&c=prepareClassAnnouncementDetailForm&t=messagesMenuOption&te mpDate=1512367917312

Pemment, J. (2013). Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 18(5), 458-461. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2013.07.001

Wynn, R., Høiseth, M. H., & Pettersen, G. (2012). Psychopathy in women: theoretical and clinical perspectives. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from


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Analyze the role of empathy and ethical behavior for someone diagnosed as a psychopath or sociopath. For this assignment:

Write one-  2 pages that connect the role of empathy with ethical behavior.

Detail how this relates to the ethical reasoning (or lack thereof) for psychopaths and sociopaths.

Psychology of Psychopaths

Psychology of Psychopaths

Select one famous example of a psychopath or sociopath (from real life or fiction) and discuss this person’s lack of ethical reasoning and the effect this person had on those around him or her.

Do you think that this person had high or low emotional intelligence? Use examples to support your answer.

This assignment should be in the current APA Style with both a title slide and a reference list that includes all of the sources used. At least one scholarly source must be included and cited correctly.

Here are a few examples you could use for this assignment. You do not have to select one from this list.

From real life:

  • Charles Manson
  • Ed Gein
  • Ted Bundy
  • Jeffrey Dahmer
  • The Zodiac Killer
  • Vlad the Impaler
  • Nannie Doss
  • Katherine Knight

From fiction:

  • Dexter Morgan: Dexter
  • Anton Chigurh: No Country for Old Men
  • George Harvey: The Lovely Bones
  • Gordon Gekko: Wall Street
  • Arthur Fleck: Joker
  • Amy Elliott Dunne: Gone Girl
  • Mrs. Mott/Peyton Flanders: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
  • Hedy: Single White Female





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