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Psychopathy: Definition, Symptoms, Signs and Causes

The definition of psychopathy can be complex with many psychopathy signs and symptoms. Get the true definition plus causes of psychopathy.

The definition of a psychopath and causes of psychopathy are sometimes argued about in scientific circles, but understanding the symptoms and signs of a psychopath is possible. Psychopathy causes may include genetics and early life factors and the signs and symptoms of a psychopath are typically noticeable before a psychopath's 16th birthday as these symptoms are thought to be fairly stable across the lifetime. Learn more about psychopathy below.

Definition of Psychopathy

The definition of psychopathy can be challenging as depending on the researcher, psychopathy is defined slightly differently and often many psychopathic traits are taken into account. That said, a simple definition of psychopathy is provided by the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. Psychopathy is:

"A constellation of traits that comprises affective features, interpersonal features, as well as impulsive and antisocial behaviors. The affective features include lack of guilt, empathy, and deep emotional attachments to others; the interpersonal features include narcissism and superficial charm; and the impulsive and antisocial behaviors include dishonesty, manipulativeness, and reckless risk-taking. Although psychopathy is a risk factor for physical aggression, it is by no means synonymous with it. In contrast to individuals with psychotic disorders, most psychopaths are in touch with reality and seemingly rational. Psychopathic individuals are found at elevated rates in prisons and jails, but can be found in community settings as well."

Causes of Psychopathy

No one knows exactly what causes psychopathy but it is likely a combination of genetics, environmental and interpersonal factors. For example, children of psychopaths are more likely to be psychopaths themselves, suggesting genetic influence.

Additionally, some early life experiences have been shown to increase the risks of becoming a psychopath. Poor parenting, parenting that focuses on punishment (rather than rewards) and inconsistent parenting appear to help cause psychopathy. Additional risk factors for psychopathy include:

  • Substance abuse by the parents
  • Separation from a parent or lack of parental involvement
  • Child physical abuse or neglect

Signs and Symptoms of Psychopathy

The signs and symptoms of psychopathy are identified most commonly in scientific studies by Hare's 20-item Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. This checklist identifies the following as the symptoms and signs of psychopathy:

  1. Superficial charm and glibness
  2. Inflated sense of self-worth
  3. Constant need for stimulation
  4. Lying pathologically
  5. Conning others; being manipulative
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt
  7. Shallow emotions
  8. Callousness; lack of empathy
  9. Using others (a parasitic lifestyle)
  10. Poor control over behavior
  11. Promiscuous sexual behavior
  12. Behavioral problems early in life
  13. Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  14. Being impulsive
  15. Being irresponsible
  16. Blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility
  17. Having several marital relationships
  18. Delinquency when young
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal acts in several realms (criminal versatility)

Is Psychopathy a Mental Illness?

Psychopathy is also sometimes known as psychopathic personality disorder and is considered a mental illness. As with mental illness in general, there is no known cure for psychopathy and treatment of adult psychopaths has been shown ineffective. However, treatment of children with psychopathic traits has shown some promise.


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next: Psychopath vs. Sociopath: What's the Difference?
~ all articles on Personality Disorders
~ all Psychopath Articles

Last Updated: 21 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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