13 Signs You’re Dealing with a Psychopath

Updated: Feb. 01, 2021

The word psychopath might evoke the image of a serial killer or fictionalized villain, but knowing these psychopathic signs can help you notice if you’re dealing with one on a daily basis.

two men in shirts and ties arguing

 What is a psychopath, exactly?

While it’s easy to label an unpleasant coworker or an adulterous ex a psychopath, how can you tell the difference between someone truly psychopathic and someone who’s just a jerk? A proper diagnosis can only be given by a medical professional. “Anything else is speculation,” warns Robert Schug, PhD, an associate professor of criminology, criminal justice, and forensic psychology at California State University, Long Beach. Here’s what to do if your boss is a psychopath.

Man in front of computer, looking bored

Psychopaths get bored easily

A psychopath is not just under-stimulated because of an uneventful day at work or a weekend night stuck at home. They face chronic boredom across all facets of their lives. One common hypothesis is that psychopaths are more likely to be under-aroused compared to other people. “A psychopath’s nervous system is wired so they need to keep doing exciting things to feel normal and reach normal levels of arousal,” says Schug. According to Randall Salekin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama, this means that they’re also the ones in a group most likely to initiate fun-oriented activities, such as suggest post-work drinks.

Men talking in front of laughing group

Psychopaths are VERY charming

Perhaps one of the most disarming aspects of interacting with psychopaths is their ability to conceal their true selves in order to appear as likable as possible. Salekin says that they use their storytelling abilities to draw others to them, whether that’s at work or in jail. “They’re able to gather a crowd around them at the water cooler,” he says. However, while a psychopath’s stories might be interesting, that doesn’t mean they’re true. If it’s real you want, then you’ll enjoy these true stories that will tug on your heartstrings.

Two fingers crossed behind the back

Psychopaths lie a lot

Unlike pathological liars, who lie without motivation and sometimes without need, a psychopath’s lies are more goal-directed. They typically use conning and manipulation for their own gain; here’s the truth about why psychopaths are so good at lying. “It’s more about getting something from somebody else,” says Schug. He explains that they do this by tricking others or making people think there’s an emotional connection. This could be used to get a promotion at work, build a relationship, or control a romantic partner. 

Hands in handcuffs behind the back of orange prison jumpsuit

Psychopaths lack realistic, long-term goals

While psychopaths are goal-driven, many take a carpe diem approach to long-term planning. They believe they need to live in the moment instead of planning for the future, although what goals they do have often are disconnected from any probably future. They have an inability to ground their understanding of their lives in reality. “If you speak with them in jail, they might say they want to be an astronaut, a ninja, or an FBI agent,” says Schug. “Their goals are totally out of line with the situation.”

Woman talking to a man across from office desk

Psychopaths think they’re superior

Psychopaths consider themselves better than the people around them. This may help account for why they aren’t concerned by the negative impacts of their actions. In the workplace, this can manifest as someone who is “not concerned about the team and is reluctant to take advice from others until it immediately helps him or her,” says Dr. Salekin. This could look like overly confident, dominant behavior, or it could be masked around those the psychopath believes are beneficial to his or her success, such as someone capable of offering advice. If you’re curious about your own career, take these signs your workplace is toxic into consideration.

Man with hand on back of upset woman

Psychopaths can switch their empathy on and off

A psychopath is typically not concerned with his or her impact on others, whether that be financial, social, or personal. That’s mainly because a psychopath has blunted emotions, for themselves and others. In fact, the inability to show much emotion is part of the American Psychological Association’s definition of a psychopath. The group notes that these people are “characteristically superficially charming but lack empathy, anxiety, or any sense of blame or guilt.” Interestingly, while psychopaths normally do lack empathy, they can voluntarily turn it on in order to seduce, charm, and manipulate someone else.

Man driving car yelling and gesturing out of the window

Psychopaths have a bad temper

A real psychopath is someone who displays excessive anger no matter who they’re with or what they’re doing. “In terms of domestic violence, you’ll see physical or verbal aggression over and over again,” says Schug. “Outside of a relationship, they might have road rage or be constantly getting into arguments.” Noticing this sign might be harder than it sounds: a psychopath’s charm usually covers his or her anger tendencies. “They can turn mean, but only if challenged or someone gets in the way of their goal,” says Salekin. “Otherwise, it’s all charm.” Interestingly, there are 9 types of anger;  see which type is yours.

Woman smiling at man, sitting at a table

Psychopaths are sexually promiscuous

With their ability to charm unsuspecting victims, psychopaths can lure unsuspecting people into bed but aren’t interested in commitment, or anything beyond the immediate thrill. Sex for the psychopath is not about the other person, but more about the power play or stroking his or her own ego. Check out these 31 seemingly harmless habits that are actually dangerous to your relationship.

Police officer escorting person to his cruiser
iStock/Susan Chiang

Psychopaths are impulsive or irresponsible

This impulsivity or irresponsibility, whether it’s risking a relationship by cheating, being reckless with their finances, or even breaking the law. “Psychopaths are more likely to get DUIs or not pay child support,” says Schug.

Angry child holding fork and knife in front of dinner plate

Psychopaths were problematic as children

Turn to a person’s childhood to get a better understanding of their personality. “These are the kids that really stand out in terms of getting kicked out of school or coming into contact with law enforcement,” says Schug of psychopaths. If you’re not able to find out about a person’s childhood, it might be easier to learn the state in America where you’ll find the most psychopaths!

Man putting money into his inside suit pocket

Psychopaths engage in criminal behavior

Watching movies like American Psycho or reading about the likes of John Wayne Gacy might suggest that all psychopaths have a few literal skeletons in their closet. However, some might partake in white-collar crime as opposed to more violent acts. This means you’re more likely to be swindled by them than physically hurt. Many criminals commit crime because of a drug addiction or as a result of a violent childhood. However, for psychopaths, the impulse largely stems from a societal disconnection.

Woman at table speaking to three people

Psychopaths are unpredictable

“They like a lot of change in their atmosphere, which might include changing team members and jobs,” says Salekin. Beware also of people who are flighty in their relationships and opinions, as a psychopath can seem to change their entire personality depending on the situation. A psychopath can alter who they seemingly are and what they seemingly want given on how well they believe that specific mask will benefit them at the time.

woman with changing faces of sadness and anger

Psychopath behavior is a pattern

At one point or another, everyone has engaged in road rage or fantasized about becoming a famous actor. What differentiates most of us from being psychopaths is that these only occur once in a while. With a psychopath, Schug explains that “these are things happening over and over again.” He adds, “It’s a personality disorder. The personality manifests at work, at school, with family, with friends, when they’re young, when they’re a teenager, when they’re an adult.”