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When most people hear the word “psychopath,” they envision madmen and serial killers of both fact and fiction. Hannibal Lecter and Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” come to mind just as much as real life monsters such as Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes and the Zodiac killer. The idea that roughly one percent of the population is technically psychopathic chills people to the bone when they realize that means that there are over 3,250,000 psychopaths in the United States. That is an awful lot of people who are wandering round with little to no ability to feel empathy for other human beings and a distinct lack of a conscience. The good news is that not everyone who is technically a psychopath is a violent murderer. They are not people you want to be close friends with, but you will not necessarily wake up to find them standing over you with a knife. 

The word “psychopath” is technically an outdated term, but it is still the word that most people associate with the mental disorder that is officially called “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” The average person, however, is unfamiliar with the officially named APD but will know exactly what it means when someone is described as a psychopath. The word is so loaded with meaning that it is one of the few medical terms that has meandered into common vernacular. Ironically, the term has persisted so stubbornly that some researchers have returned to using it as an official diagnosis rather than APD.

Psychopathy is believed to have two main forms: one that is caused by genetics, termed “primary psychopathy,” and one that is caused by environmental factors, named “secondary psychopathy.” Regardless of the cause, psychopaths share similar traits that mark them as psychopathic. Psychopaths are uncaring and known for a distinct lack of empathy. This is why psychopaths often have flexible to no morals. They cannot picture themselves in the shoes of those they hurt or inconvenience. Psychopaths also suffer from weak connections between the components of the brain’s emotional systems leaving them unable to feel deep or strong emotions. They are irresponsible, blame others for their misfortune, struggle to plan for the future, are selfish, overconfident and consummate liars. Psychopaths are one of the only groups of people who do not have a physical response to a lie. As such, they can pass lie detector tests with flying colors even if they are claiming that the sky is green with orange stripes. Psychopaths also tend to have a violent streak. This may not manifest in forms as severe as murder, but a psychopath is far more likely to escalate a situation into violence than the average person. They are also likely to be the one to throw the first punch.

Psychopathy is an alarming condition. It flies in the face of what most people imagine makes a person human. It can be easily hidden because there are no visible signs and because psychopaths are usually excellent manipulators. To make matters worse, there is no cure and often manifests in early childhood. 

While true psychopathy is a dangerous mental disorder, the traits that come together to form a psychopath exist on a sliding scale. As such, there are a number of people wandering around who are technically psychopaths even though they are not violent people. They are unlikely to be good people to have as friends due to their low levels of empathy, but they are probably not going to try and kill you in your sleep. This is reassuring in many ways, but it does leave the question open: how can you tell if you are a psychopath? 

An actual diagnosis of psychopathy would need to be made by a psychologist, but it is possible to evaluate yourself to get a decent idea of where you stand on the psychopathic spectrum.

Consider your habits. Do you tell a lot of lies? When you are late to work, do you claim you had car trouble to avoid getting a scolding from your boss when you simply overslept? If you break something by accident at a friend’s house, do you claim you had nothing to do with it? When you lie, do you feel guilty? When things go wrong, do you take responsibility for it or is it always someone else’s fault?

Your interactions with others will also tell you a great deal about where you stand on the psychopathic spectrum. When you interact with others, do you have an easy time connecting with them emotionally or do you remain distant? Are you generous with people and expect nothing in return, or are your acts of charity calculated to make you look good or earn you favors down the road? Do you have hard moral lines, or are you more pragmatic and see things in shades of grey? When it comes to getting what you want, do you play by the rules or live by the motto “you’re only in trouble if you get caught?” How easily can you convince others to do things for you? Can you talk your way out of trouble? When talking your way out of trouble fails, do you get angry, aggressive or even violent?

Psychopathy is a chilling condition. The irony, however, is that those who are high on the psychopathy spectrum but are not true psychopaths are often looked up to as success stories. Their cunning and ruthlessness let them climb to the top, and their guile and charm let them get away with their underhanded tactics. A psychopath is still not someone you really want to meet, in broad daylight or a dark alleyway, but you can take comfort in the fact that not all of those 3,250,000 psychopaths are simply Hannibal Lecters who have yet to get caught.
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