How great would it be if there were some way of screening out those who are no good for us, before we get entangled in the games that entrap us through manipulation and control?
A big, fat, flashing neon sign above the head pointing downwards stating “WARNING, WARNING, psychopath* below” perhaps? Undeniably, this would be helpful.
Unfortunately, the opposite usually plays out with their charm telling a very different and seductive story…“I am definitely alluring don’t you agree”? Sadly, our response before we know any better is often: “Yes, yes, I very much agree”!!!
Despite this uncomfortable reality, I haven’t given up on wanting to find a way to detect what they are before having first-hand experience of their psychopathic traits, which of course necessitates experiencing the damage.
I thought the key would be to pinpoint something just beyond the control of the psychopath to manipulate. Something separate to that phantasmagorical and entrancing façade they create. Something real, and a tell for all of us poker players who are not wanting to irresponsibly gamble everything away once more. Something that tells us to STAY THE HELL AWAY!
The happy news is…this isn’t all ‘pigs might fly’ thinking.
There are of course many distinctions between empaths and psychopaths. The ones mentioned, that we can’t identify until it’s too late and the damage is done. Some physiological ones which are beyond our reach to detect without access to all kinds of medical equipment and the willingness of our subjects. And then there are, the goodies…the ones that are on visual display, unable to be controlled by the psychopath and ripe for the picking by the diligent observer.
The imitation game
Mimicry is essential to the psychopath’s ability to get about in everyday life. Why? This ‘talent’ is a critical tool for:
- tailoring charm and manipulation strategies for securing prey; and
- avoiding detection by assimilating and reflecting ‘appropriate’ responses to situations.
It is about emulating genuine emotion to reel targets in for exploitation, all the while retaining that veneer that protects them from exposure. You know what I’m talking about: ‘Joe Blogs? No way, he’s such a great guy, you must have him confused with someone else!’ Familiar, huh?
Psychopaths have shallow emotional range and depth, and are devoid or significantly lacking, in emotions such as fear, remorse and empathy. This places the psychopath in quite the pickle when seeking to camouflage their true nature in social situations, knowing that failing to demonstrate expected affective reactions makes them, well, stick out. Thing is though, some things just can’t be kept hidden.
Fake it ‘til you make it, just isn’t going to cut it
Sign 1: a tad slow
Mimicry requires deep study and assessment of behaviours and reactions of others, and of any given situation, to classify the event and find the ‘correct’ response. For psychopaths, this is an intellectual process rather than a reactive emotive based one which for us is innate and immediate.
This difference means in complex situations, a detectable delay will occur prior to responding while the psychopath computes and evaluates information. The psychopath is busy trying to figure out what a ‘normal’ person would do or say – this after all, just isn’t quick work.
Sign 2: emotion collage
Because the psychopath has a limited pool of emotional experience to pull from, it is not possible for them to act or pretend to be feeling many of the emotions felt by others. When facing imitating an emotion that is foreign to them they are purely copying what others look like when they are experiencing that unknown emotion.
This leads to a lack of authenticity and congruence in the overall picture. The attempt to collage together the right combo gives you that gut feeling that something is not quite right – you know, like when you know the facial muscles are telling you the look is supposed to be of concern, but the eyes are twinkling a little bit too much with joy?
Sign 3: mix n’ match fail
Mimicry hinges on choosing the correct emotion for a given situation, and without that direct experience, it’s all a bit of a mix n’ match game…sometimes the wrong option is picked. This might look like a gleeful expression upon hearing of the death of a loved one or a terrible tragedy. You can’t really miss discordant reactions. And you won’t. I bet right now you are recalling times when you thought….hmmm ‘that was really odd’?
Sign 4: fearless eyelids
Empaths naturally display the physical depiction of what is being felt, and experience corresponding physiological responses to emotions. The psychopath, whilst a gifted mimic, cannot fake physiological responses.
Startle and fear responses in the average person, cause several physiological responses including increased heart rate, cortisol levels, and blink rate. When we think of startle or fear responses, we consider things like jumping out of a plane, or someone leaping out from behind a bush at us. But, these responses also activate when we are nervous or anxious, which unless you are completely Zen, occur quite regularly (think traffic, important meetings, dating etc.).
Of course, we can’t see our cortisol levels or heart rate, but we can see blink rates and how these increase with fear inducing situations. The psychopath however doesn’t do fear and consequently, overall, the psychopath blinks less than you or I do.
Sign 5: laser beam eyes
When you combine positive emotions not quite meeting the eyes (ok, what I really mean is that cold, dead eye thing); the concentrated assessment of others required to identify and duplicate appropriate emotions; and reduced blink rate, you get a pretty intense stare.
This is commonly referred to as the ‘predatory stare’. This is not an unfair characterization in light of the fact that overlaying these factors, the psychopath is also continuously evaluating your use to them and capacity to be taken advantage of.
Sign 6: immunity to contagious yawning
‘Contagious yawning’ is said to be linked to empathy, and particularly hard to suppress when someone we are bonded with breaks out in a yawn. Psychopaths however are deficient in the empathy stakes and ability to truly bond with others, so how do these guys (by this I mean both genders) react?
A recent study looked at student responses to viewing yawning footage following completion of a psychopathic personality inventory. Those who scored lower on empathy and higher on psychopathic traits did in fact yawn less frequently in response to viewing the footage, than those who were found to possess average to higher levels of empathy, and scored at the lower end of the spectrum of the psychopathic personality inventory. The psychopath is far less susceptible to the contagion of yawns.
Save your bacon
So there we have it. The psychopath is indeed truly gifted in being able to duplicate and convincingly fake a great deal. There are though some things which are beyond their capacity to control (I know, I know, they’ll hate that!). Whilst beyond theirs, it is not within ours. We can control what we do with the information they give us that betrays their truth. When you detect any of these signs, save yourself and your freedom. Look after yourself and stay away!
*Note – The label psychopath is largely used interchangeably in the literature with sociopathy, and malignant narcissism. Traits include: lack of fear and empathy; shallow emotional range and depth; manipulative, grandiose, charming, callousness, lack of responsibility, exploitative and impulsive.
None of these labels are within the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-V), although the two groupings of ‘Cluster B’ personality disorders which refer to these traits (and historically some of the specific labels) Anti-Social Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder are contained within.
The overlap of traits across these disorders contributing to lack of clarity needed for separate diagnoses is undoubtedly why they are no longer included in the Manual, rather than there being any question as to whether there are people who exhibit a pattern of characteristics that align with any of these labels.
All of this aside, what matters on Narc Wise, is surviving and thriving post abuse. Call it psychopathic, sociopathic, or narcissistic – all are relevant given they share traits. For the purpose of this article I have used the label ‘psychopath’ to respect the research conducted that established each of the findings. I would suggest however, that it is highly likely to apply to any/all of the labels given their similarities. So feel free to swap out with sociopath or abusive narc as you see fit!
Book, A., Methot, T., Gauthier, N., Hosker-Field, A., Forth, A., Quinsey, V., & Molnar, D. (2015). The mask of sanity revisited: Psychopathic traits and affective mimicry. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1, 91-102.
Flaskerud, J.H. (2016). Yawning, Why and When? Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 37(7), 526-9.
Gillespie. D. (2017). Taming toxic people: The science of identifying & dealing with psychopaths at work & at home. Sydney, Australia: Pan MacMillan Australia.
van Gooze, S.H., Heddeke, S., Matthys, W., van Rossum, I., & van Engeland, H. (2004). Evidence of fearlessness in behaviourally disordered children: A study on startle reflex modulation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(4), 884-892.