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Psychopaths Can Seem Like “Pillars Of Their Community" — How Can You Spot One?
Some of the most notorious killers have been called psychopaths — but others may be hiding in plain sight.
This article has been updated to reflect the new season of "An Unexpected Killer" airing in September 2022.
The term "psychopath" usually conjures up images of some of the nation’s most depraved killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer (although none of them were ever given that official diagnosis).
But not all psychopaths cement their place in the public’s imagination with acts of horrific violence. Some psychopaths are hiding in plain sight and may be difficult to detect, just like the murderers featured in Season 3 of Oxygen's series "An Unexpected Killer," which premieres Friday, September 16 at 8/7c on Oxygen.
“It’s very hard to spot psychopaths because they are very good at blending in,” Bryanna Fox, an associate professor at the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, told Oxygen.com. “We imagine them as being these snarly, evil, nasty people that like, kick puppies and are just like nasty and mean all the time, and frankly, it’s usually the opposite. They get by on their charm and their glibness and that smarminess, where they can manipulate others.”
In fact, psychopaths can find themselves in top leadership positions in corporate America or politics, and may have families of their own or become respected members of their communities.
“The tendencies of a psychopath and the characteristics of a psychopath make them very effective predators, but that doesn’t mean that they are all necessarily violent,” criminologist and author Scott Bonn told Oxygen.com.
But even with their superficial charm, psychopaths can have damaging effects on those around them, whether it's physical violence or emotional abuse.
“Psychopaths are driven for their own stimulation, their own satisfaction, their own wants and desires at the expense of anyone else,” said Bonn, author of the book “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of The World’s Most Savage Murderers.” “They don’t mind stepping on people, they don’t mind hurting people, they don’t mind hurting their feelings, and therefore, people are expendable.”
While it's not advisable for the average person to clinically diagnose a psychopath on their own, there are red flags and warning signs that may suggest a person has a high level of psychopathy and might be a person to avoid.
What Is A Psychopath?
According to Fox, it's estimated that about 1 percent of the population meet the criteria for psychopathy.
“Psychopathy is a constellation of personality and behavioral characteristics that basically exhibit a pervasive anti-social [tendency] and a lack of emotional and social interactive capabilities that put that person at a higher risk for behavior that is either illegal or harmful to others,” she said. “They oftentimes just lack the ability to conform their behavior to the rules, feel any consequences for their actions, or empathy and emotion for others around them.”
New York City-based family therapist Kathryn Smerling defined a psychopath as someone with “little or no conscience” and who has a lack of empathetic concern for others. People with high levels of psychopathy often also make it nearly impossible “to get along with someone without descending into some kind of chaos,” she told Oxygen.com.
Diagnosing A Psychopath
Psychopaths aren’t easy to identify because many often wear a mask presenting themselves to the outside world as charming and personable.
“They can be completely sane. They can have jobs and spouses and run their finances and they blend in with society and yet it’s like this swirl of disaster around them,” Fox said. “They make terrible decisions and hurt people around them.”
To make matters more complex, psychopathy is now viewed as more of a continuum — with some individuals rating higher on the psychopathy scale than others.
To truly diagnose someone as a psychopath, experts say it takes trained professionals who often rely on established tools like The Hare Psychopathy Checklist to measure a variety of traits often associated with psychopathy. In America, to be considered a psychopath, one must earn a score of 30 or higher on the checklist which evaluates categories related to affect, anti-social behavior tendencies, lifestyle, and behavior.
The average American scores closer to a 5 on the checklist.
But Fox cautioned that even with a rating system, it's difficult to fully assess the damage someone can do or the impact it would have on their own life based on their individual score.
“The harm by psychopaths is dimensional,” she said. “You can have somebody who scores a 10, which is twice the average American, and you know, they could have twice the amount of collateral damage in their lives versus somebody who scores a 30. Obviously, it’s a lot higher, but when you just use it like, 'psychopath or not,' it makes it sound like, ‘Oh, living with this person is peaches and living with this person is a nightmare,’ and that’s not what it’s like. It’s totally on a continuum.”
Formally diagnosing someone as a psychopath should be left to the professionals, but experts recommend watching for potential red flags and warning signs.
Red Flags To Look For
While most adults operate from an exterior set of metrics established by agreed-upon laws, morals, and values in society, Smerling — who also serves as a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai — said psychopaths often operate from their own interior metrics that allow them to view the world however they chose or alter reality in their favor.
“It’s a general disregard for the essence and the morals of community and of sharing, of empathic concern, of reciprocity,” she said. “It’s the interior metric which is your compass.”
These individuals often have difficulty distinguishing between right and wrong and have little empathy or compassion for others.
“They never take responsibility either, that’s another thing. That’s another red flag,” Bonn said. “If you are with someone who just refuses to accept any sort of responsibility for their actions that’s a huge red flag as well.”
He pointed to notorious serial killer Dennis Rader — who went by the moniker “BTK” — as someone who still refuses to take responsibility for killing 10 innocent people and terrorizing the Wichita community for decades.
“He’s just incapable at looking at anything except his own selfish perspective and he even likens himself to a shark,” Bonn, who has corresponded with Rader while he's been behind bars, said. “He refuses to take culpability for his own actions because he says, ‘God made me this way, so why are you faulting me when I was simply born a natural-born predator?’”
A psychopath may also exhibit a grandiose sense of self and believe they are better than others around them. Those with high levels of psychopathy also typically display low levels of emotion or have inappropriate reactions to a given situation.
“One way that you can detect a psychopath is that they tend to have low affect, they just don’t react much emotionally and when they do, they seem to be very glib and superficial,” Bonn said.
Fox said those who do show emotion often exhibit anger or outbursts when they don’t get what they want.
“Everything seems to be directed towards them,” she said, adding they are “very narcissistic” in nature.
Another disturbing sign is that psychopaths often struggle with honesty and are known to be liars. Bonn said people should be concerned if they observe a pattern of chronic lying or untruthful behavior from someone in their life.
Individuals with high levels of psychopathy may also be drawn to positions of authority or positions of power.
Rader, for example, installed home alarm systems before becoming a code compliance officer in Park City. When he received his badge from the city, Bonn said one of the officers in charge of the BTK investigation offered to give him a tour of the war room.
“He said that was the greatest rush, ‘the greatest thrill of my life, because here I am receiving my badge to work through the city and they are taking me through the BTK war room and they have no idea,’” Bonn said. “It reinforced for him that he’s just the smartest guy in town.”
Fox said other traits often found in those with high levels of psychopathy include impulsivity, need for stimulation, adopting a “parasitic lifestyle” that allows them to live off others, juvenile delinquency, and other antisocial behavior.
Are Psychopaths Dangerous?
Psychopaths can inflict emotional distress and abuse on others around them — but they aren’t all killers.
“It’s very inaccurate to say that all psychopaths are violent and that all serial killers are psychopaths, but as with many things in life there is a correlation,” Bonn said.
Fox and her colleague Matt DeLisi took an in-depth look at the link between psychopathy and homicide in a meta-analysis of 22 different studies examining a total of 2,603 homicide offenders.
They discovered that homicide offenders had a mean score on the psychopathy checklist of 21.2, signaling “moderate psychopathy.”
“The higher the psychopathy score, the more likely they were to be a homicide offender versus a regular, typical offender or just a regular citizen,” she said, adding that those who scored a 30 or above on the test were “28 times more likely” to be a homicide offender than a non-offender.
The pair found a correlation value between homicide and psychopathy of .68, which translated to a “very high correlation” between the two.
That correlation grew stronger when Fox and DeLisi looked at certain types of homicide including sexual homicide, sadistic homicide, serial killings, and multi-offender homicides.
While the percentage of psychopaths in the general population is 1 percent, Fox said that number jumps significantly to 25 percent for the prison population.
But not all these people are killers. Fox said some of people she’s interviewed who’ve scored highest on the psychopathy checklist are white collar criminals who are behind bars for stealing someone’s life savings or fraud.
Bonn also explained that many of the “poster boy serial killers” including Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer, Rader, and Green River killer Gary Ridgway, meet the definition of a psychopath but others, like Sam Berkowitz, do not.
Those that are considered psychopaths are typically more organized killers who “go to great lengths to clean up after themselves and to hide the bodies” and may appear to be “pillars of their community,” he said.
Clearly, in those situations it's a massive surprise to the people around them to learn of their crimes.
To learn more about cases where the killer was a shock, watch Season 3 of "An Unexpected Killer," which premieres Friday, September 16 at 8/7c on Oxygen.