What Are The Signs Of A Psychopath?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The word psychopath is a cultural term assigned to the broader mental condition of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which encompasses both psychopathy and sociopathy. It is estimated that one-third of people with antisocial personality disorder exhibit traits of psychopathy. The term sociopath was introduced in the 1930s to highlight the effects that a psychopath's behavior can have on society and to differentiate between psychosis and psychopathy.

Some mental health disorders come with complex symptoms

Research has shown over the years that there are marked differences between a sociopathy and psychopathy. Many still use the term psychopath to refer to a dangerous person while opting for the term sociopath to describe people who are less dangerous but antisocial. Today, it is considered outdated and offensive to refer to someone as a psychopath or sociopath, regardless if they have a diagnosis of ASPD. To differentiate between the two, we will closely examine what psychopathy is and how it manifests.

What is psychopathy?

Genetics and environment tend to play a role in the development of psychopathic traits. For instance, if someone grows up in an abusive environment or has a genetic predisposition to psychopathology, they may have a higher likelihood of having psychopathic traits.

A psychopath differs from a sociopath in that a psychopath tends to remain calm while acting manipulative and calculating, and sociopaths are usually more likely to act rashly. With psychopath, a person tends to act in a calm, manipulative, or calculating way; contrarily, sociopathy shows up as more rash behavior. While sociopathy may permit someone to feel empathy, psychopathy does not.

Researchers have explored psychopathology and determined that it can be challenging to discern psychopathic tendencies. People with psychopathic ASPD often mimic socially acceptable behaviors so well that it may be difficult to determine when they are acting and when they are genuinely following societal expectations.

Treating adult psychopathy can be difficult, though researchers are optimistic about the future. There are programs in place to help young people in the hopes that disruptive personality traits can be corrected.

Symptoms of psychopathy

Professionals use a checklist called the Psychopathy Checklist-Revisited (PCL-R) to diagnose their patients. The PCL-R contains a set of criteria that can be followed to determine whether a person has antisocial personality disorder.

In 1996, an alternative to the PCL-R was developed called the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, or PPI. Psychologists and psychiatrists may also evaluate the characteristics of someone with psychopathy by referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, or DSM-5, which includes a section on antisocial personality disorder.

One of the psychopathy traits referred to in the PPI and the PCL is a lack of empathy.

Those diagnosed with psychopathic ASPD tend to lack concern for the feelings of others due to the weaker pathways in their brain that lead to emotional disconnect and an inability to experience deep emotions. They may be unable to detect fear in the faces of others, and they often have a high tolerance for things that may inspire fear, disgust or discomfort in other individuals.

A person with psychopathic tendencies may not react whatsoever when shown disturbing images or subjected to violent situations.

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Another possible indication of psychopathy is something called "blame externalization." This means that a person with psychopathic tendencies may blame others for their actions. When called out, they may admit to the behavior but feel no shame.

Another potential sign is the lack of a physical response to a stimulus that might otherwise be unsettling. For instance, if you know that you're about to get into a car accident, your heart will likely race, your breathing will quicken, and your sweat glands will activate. With psychopathy, the brain does not necessarily respond this way, so their palms may remain dry and they may have a regular heart rate and stable breathing.

Other potential characteristics of psychopathy include superficial charm, pathological lying, a grandiose feeling of self-worth (overconfidence), selfishness, an inability to make and follow long-term goals, and—in the more extreme cases—violent tendencies. A person with antisocial personality disorder may regularly engage in (or instigate) fights and assaults due to increased irritability and aggressiveness.

Psychopathy in children

Psychopathy in children has long been a source of fascination, as represented in films like Children of the Corn and The Omen. Children are considered, by their nature, to be vulnerable and innocent, and they may feel emotions more intensely than adults do. The idea of a child being manipulative and cold-hearted is disturbing to most people because it goes against the expectations of how children should think and behave.

However, children are impacted by genetics and their environments. Therefore, it is understandable that antisocial personality disorder can also be present in children. While it may be unsettling to try to detect signs of psychopathy in a child, getting a child help while they are still young may prevent the condition from worsening over time or progressing into additional disorders associated with more hazardous outcomes. 

Behaviors in children, such as torturing animals or bullying other children, can be warning signs. These factors need to be addressed before the situation escalates and the child grows up to potentially do something even worse, including criminal or violent behavior.

If a parent seeks help for a child with these symptoms, a doctor would likely observe them to see if their symptoms evolve into psychopathic traits. In addition to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Robert D. Hare created a two-factor model for evaluating psychopaths, which includes manipulation, superficial charm, and a lack of empathy as Factor 1; and impulsivity, criminality, and the inability to show remorse as Factor 2. This model can be applied to the evaluation of children and adults.

Children who present these characteristics before age three can develop significant behavioral problems. However, a child's personality differs from their behavior. Every child misbehaves at some point or another, so it may help to ask a series of questions to better determine if a child has traits of psychopathy: Does the child in question feel guilty after doing wrong? Do they modify their behavior after receiving a punishment? Are they open to sharing? Do they lie often? You can discuss concerns regarding these questions and related behaviors with a mental health professional.

Psychopathy tests for teenagers

Another test, the PCL:YV, is an alternate version of the PCL-R that was developed for evaluating teenagers aged 12 to 18. Another alternative to the PCL-R is the Antisocial Process Screening Device (APSD), which is geared toward children ages six to 13. Youths who receive high psychopathy scores on either of these tests may be more likely to engage in violence and criminality.

Juvenile psychopathy is typically associated more with negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression. Psychopathic traits in the young tend to fall into one of three categories: a callous or unemotional state of mind, narcissism, or a tendency to act impulsively and irresponsibly.

Recent studies have found, however, that such tests are less accurate than they were previously thought to be at predicting whether the youths being tested grow up to become adult offenders. Even with the models that have been developed and the abundance of research conducted since the early 1900s, there remains much to be learned about psychopathy.

Does someone in your life have psychopathic tendencies?

It can be challenging to maintain a healthy relationship with someone who behaves in psychopathic ways, whether with a parent, sibling, or significant other. It may help to speak with a licensed therapist to get the support you need to set and maintain boundaries, and explore any complicated feelings you might have. 

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Some mental health disorders come with complex symptoms

With online therapy at BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist and start therapy and communicate via audio or video chat. You can also reach out to your therapist via in-app messaging, and they will respond as soon as possible. 

Research shows that online therapy is effective for treating multiple conditions. One review showed that people participating in online therapy saw a 50% improvement in symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression and that online treatment significantly decreased the impacts of chronic fatigue and stress. 


Antisocial personality disorder can be challenging to treat. If you know someone with the traits of psychopathy, a therapist can help you work through your feelings and support you as you navigate the challenges of your relationship. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience supporting families with challenging conditions like psychopathy. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp.
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