How To Tear Off That High-Functioning Psychopath’s Mask

— by Dr. Sandip Roy.

  • Psychopathy is a personality disorder marked by behaviors that go against social, moral, or legal norms of society, and can lead to criminal acts.
  • As of 2021, psychopathy is present in around 1.2% of adult men and 0.3% to 0.7% of adult women in the United States (source).
  • The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is the “gold standard” for evaluating and defining psychopathy.

High-functioning psychopaths are unique. They can seamlessly blend into various social roles — a colleague, potential date, banker, colleague, car mechanic, house painter, or a long-time friend.

Their psychopathic traits are hard to notice. The world sees them as nice and smart people who rarely get offensive or violent.

However, they are very much capable of seriously harming you when triggered.

Your Office Boss Can Be A High Functioning Psychopath
Read this summary to decode the psychopaths better. (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels)

Potential Perils of A High-Functioning Psychopath

Psychopaths are defined by a lack of emotion and an outward appearance of normality.

On the emotional front, they cannot fully understand fear, joy, love, or sadness. And can remain completely indifferent to the suffering of others, even those close to them.

They are a potential threat to society because they:

  • Do not feel empathy, sympathy, fear, shame, or guilt.
  • Cannot react appropriately to other people’s emotions, often giving flat reactions.
  • Classically lack self-control and can do reckless things, disregarding others’ or their own safety.
  • Their charming manners and good intelligence fool others into seeing them as likable personas.

For that last reason, some of them manage to blend in with the general population. These are the “high-functioning” psychopaths.

N.B.: The term “functioning” refers to how well someone with abnormal personality traits can adapt and thrive in society while managing their innate tendencies.

High-Functioning vs. Low-Functioning Psychopath

The high-functioning psychopath:

  • Does not possess violent tendencies
  • Are successful, contributing members of society
  • Appear to be charming, caring, witty, and likable people
  • Easily engage in dishonest behaviors, especially when no one is watching.
  • Their higher likelihood of success in life is due to their low level of conscientiousness.

Despite coming across as “virtually anyone else,” their instincts keep them volatile and unpredictable. They are sometimes called high-functioning sociopaths, but wrongly.

The low-functioning psychopath:

  • Struggles to function successfully within society
  • Has violent tendencies and is likely to get embroiled in legal problems
  • Has strained relationships due to an inability to curb their destructive bent of mind
  • Has poor impulse control, lacks planning skills, and cannot handle complex social situations

They often stand out like a sore thumb in society, and people around them can see their true nature. They struggle to hold jobs, maintain relationships, and raise happy families.

About 15% to 25% of prison inmates show psychopathic characteristics (Burton & Saleh, 2020). We believe that these are the low-functioning ones who could not curb their violent urges.

Here’s a comparison chart of high-functioning vs. low-functioning psychopaths:

CharacteristicsHigh-Functioning PsychopathsLow-Functioning Psychopaths
Success in societyOften successfulStruggles to function
OrganizationConscientious and organizedPoor impulse control
Social SkillsCharismaticDifficulty in social situations
Planning AbilitiesSkilled in schemingLacks planning skills
Engagement in DishonestyReadily engages in dishonest behaviorsDoes not engage in dishonest acts when under watch
Table: High-Functioning vs. Low-Functioning Psychopaths

Diagnosing A High-Functioning Psychopath

While psychopathy is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the condition is closely related to Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Conduct Disorder with CU traits.

The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is the “gold standard” diagnostic tool to measure a lifetime pattern of psychopathic behavior (Hare & Neumann, 2008).

The PCL-R has 20 items, which are scored based on interviews, case histories, and specific sources of information.

1Glibness/Superficial Charm
2Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth
3Need for Stimulation/Proneness to Boredom
4Pathological Lying
6Lack of Remorse or Guilt
7Shallow Affect
8Callous/Lack of Empathy
9Parasitic Lifestyle
10Poor Behavioral Controls
11Promiscuous Sexual Behavior
12Early Behavioral Problems
13Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals
16Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions
17Many Short-Term Marital Relationships
18Juvenile Delinquency
19Revocation of Conditional Release
20Criminal Versatility
Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R, 2008)

N.B.: The PCL-R should only be administered and interpreted by qualified and trained professionals in the field of psychology/psychiatry.

In some cases, especially in young individuals, psychologists use the DSM-V diagnosis of Conduct Disorder with Callous-Unemotional (CU), which involves:

  • Lack of guilt and remorse
  • Callous lack of empathy
  • Lack of concern about performance in important activities
  • General lack of emotional expression

New findings show that not only that people with psychopathy have varying degrees and types of this condition, but that the condition and its precursors can be treated.

Differences from Sociopath

Psychopaths and sociopaths have several differences. While both exhibit Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) traits, there are differences:

OriginBorn with a predisposition for psychopathyDevelop in response to environmental factors
BehaviorHighly manipulative, charming, and adaptableBlatant disregard for social norms and rules
Goal-oriented, predatory, and calculatedImpulsive, angry, and erratic
Personality DisorderExhibit Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) traits
ManipulationMore manipulative and deceptiveLess manipulative, more impulsive
Emotional AttachmentLack of emotional attachment or empathyCapable of some emotional attachment
Criminal BehaviorMore likely to commit premeditated crimesMore likely to commit crimes of passion
RemorseLack remorse or guiltMay experience some remorse or guilt
Table: Psychopaths vs. Sociopaths

Key Features of A High-Functioning Psychopath

Ability to Adapt

A high-functioning psychopath can be remarkably adaptable.

  • Their ability to adapt can make them highly successful in their chosen fields.
  • They can fit into various roles across socioeconomic statuses, races, genders, and cultures.
  • They may have had difficult early life circumstances, like abusive childhoods, to which they adapted.

Manipulation and Charm

  • They often exude high charm and charisma, which makes them likable and allows them to warm up to their potential victims.
  • They are skilled at reading people, and can quickly identify their vulnerabilities and desires, and later use this knowledge to benefit themselves.
  • They can go out of their way to make people trust them, especially in the initial stages of a relationship, intelligently hiding their true intentions.

Callousness and Narcissism

  • A defining trait of psychopaths is their callousness and lack of empathy. They typically demonstrate a deep disregard for the feelings, needs, and concerns of others.
  • This can manifest as cold-heartedness, indifference to suffering, and a pervasive sense of entitlement.
  • Psychopaths can be narcissistic, often exhibiting an inflated sense of self-worth and overconfidence in their abilities.

Intelligence and Social Skills

  • Many high-functioning psychopaths exhibit above-average intelligence and strong social skills. Their intellectual prowess often enables them to succeed in complex, fast-paced environments.
  • Also, their high social intelligence allows them to tackle relationships and excel in social settings adeptly.

Aggression and Violence

  • High-functioning psychopaths do not engage in violent behavior, though there is a statistical link between psychopathy scores and aggression.
  • They may display aggression in various forms, such as physical or emotional violence. However, the manifestation of such behaviors can depend on a psychopath’s individual traits.

Lies and Deceits

  • Lying is common among high-functioning psychopaths, who can deceive anyone for personal gain or amusement.
  • Their deceit can be subtle or blatant, sudden or slow-burn, depending on the situation, victim, and their goals. In a way, they can lay elaborate “rabbit-specific” traps.
  • They generally lack a sense of responsibility and often tend to shift blame and shirk obligations.

Emotional Damage

  • Though not necessarily violent, they can emotionally damage the other person in a relationship due to their lack of empathy, unspoken anger, and manipulative nature.
  • When a psychopath falls in love, their partner may feel intense confusion trying to adjust to their choices, especially if the psychopath is highly impulsive.
  • Their inappropriate and unsatisfactory emotional reactions can cause distress and toxicity in the relationship.

Danger to Society

High-functioning psychopaths pose a latent (“yet-untriggered”) threat to society.

  • Their abilities to blend in and contribute to various social settings can mask their true nature, making it difficult to be wary of their potentially harmful behavior.
  • Some psychopaths found in positions of power, such as executives and government officials, can make decisions that may harm the general public.

Genetic and Environmental Factors

Role of Genetics

Genetics may play a role in making a psychopath.

A meta-analysis showed that around 49% of the variance in psychopathy is due to genetic factors, while the remaining 51% is attributed to non-shared environmental influences (Beaver & Rowland, 2011).

Among various genetic influences, certain structural and functional derangement in the brain have been found to contribute to psychopathy (Thompson & Ramos, 2014).

Some experts think that psychopaths may have different brains, especially in areas that control emotion, morality, and decision-making. Genetics might have caused these unique changes in their brain structures and functions, shaping their tendencies.

Environmental Influences

Environmental factors like problematic parenting, childhood trauma, and detrimental living conditions may contribute to psychopathy (Burton & Saleh, 2020)

Parenting Practices

  • Children who experience harsh, inconsistent discipline, or lack of parental warmth are at a higher risk of developing psychopathic traits.
  • Parenting that addresses these specific concerns may help prevent or mitigate the development of psychopathy in at-risk individuals.

Childhood Trauma

  • Exposure to traumatic events during childhood, such as abuse or neglect, can contribute to the onset of psychopathic behaviors.
  • Early interventions addressing trauma and creating supportive environments can help reduce the risk of developing psychopathy.

Living Conditions

  • Environmental variables like urban versus rural residency, peer influences, and parental monitoring play a critical role in shaping an individual’s susceptibility to psychopathy (Junewicz & Billick, 2021).
  • For example, individuals with genetic predispositions to conduct disorder might experience stronger effects when living in high-risk environments with unsupportive communities and deviant peers.

Other Related Conditions

High-functioning psychopaths may have co-occurring disorders like:

  • Bipolar Disorder: They may face mood swings and shifts in energy levels, characteristic of bipolar disorder.
  • Schizophrenia: While not as common, schizophrenia can co-occur with psychopathy, leading to disorganized thinking and delusions.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD): OCPD’s rigid thinking patterns and need for control may be present in high-functioning psychopaths.
  • Substance Use Disorders: National Institute on Drug Abuse mentions a high prevalence of substance use among people with personality disorders, which may also be seen in those with high-functioning psychopathy.

Treating Psychopaths

  • It is usually quite difficult to engage high-functioning psychopaths in therapy. One approachable solution is to treat their co-existing health issue.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and group therapy can help address the emotional and behavioral issues associated with high-functioning psychopathy.
  • Of course, the therapist must tailor the therapy to the particular person, focusing on building trust, boosting their motivation for change, and suggesting ways to help continue therapy.


No specific medication is designed to treat psychopathy itself. However, medications can help manage symptoms associated with comorbid disorders.

  • Mood stabilizers: For bipolar disorder, mood stabilizers can reduce mood swings.
  • Antipsychotics: These can help control hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking.
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): They can address symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder 9OCD).
  • Addiction Treatment: Substance use disorders may require a combination of medications and behavioral therapies.

Preventing Harm and Protecting Others

Recognizing Warning Signs

Knowing the warning signs of a high-functioning psychopath can help you protect yourself and others. Some of their common red flags are:

  • Egocentric identity
  • Callousness and detachment
  • Manipulative, charming behavior
  • Absence of pro-social standards
  • A lack of empathy and emotional connection

Being able to recognize these traits can help individuals detect potentially dangerous situations and safeguard against harm.

Strategies for Safety

Once the warning signs are recognized, some effective strategies can be employed to ensure personal safety and minimize threats:

  • Education and awareness: Learn about psychopathy, its symptoms, and how to recognize the warning signs.
  • Establish boundaries: Set clear limits with the suspected individual to avoid coercion and intimidation.
  • Develop self-defense skills: Acquire physical and psychological self-defense techniques to protect oneself in case of physical threats.
  • Strengthen support networks: Build strong relationships with friends, family, and professionals who can offer help and resources.
  • Report concerns: Share any suspicions or experiences with the appropriate authorities or support networks to enable intervention and prevent harm to others.

By implementing these strategies, individuals can take control of their safety and reduce the risk of falling victim to a high-functioning psychopath.

Final Words

To stay safe from high-functioning psychopaths, spot their callousness, manipulation, deception, and lack of empathy before they trap you in their charms.

√ Also Read: Can Psychopaths Feel Empathy? What Do The Experts Say?

√ Please spread the word if you found this helpful.

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