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Key symptoms

Impulsive

Psychopaths are unlikely to spend much time weighing the pros and cons of a course of action or considering the possible consequences. “I did it because I felt like it,” is a common response.

More than displays of temper, impulsive acts often result from an aim that plays a central role in most of the psychopath’s behavior: to achieve immediate satisfaction, pleasure or relief. So, family members, employers and co-workers typically find themselves standing around asking themselves what happened—jobs are quit, relationships broken off, plans changed, houses ransacked, people hurt, often for what appears to be little more than a whim.

Psychopaths tend to live day-to-day and to change their plans frequently. They give little serious thought to the future and worry about it even less.

Poor behavior controls

In psychopaths, inhibitory controls are weak, and the slightest provocation is sufficient to overcome them. As a result, psychopaths are short-tempered or hot-headed and tend to respond to frustration, failure, discipline and criticism with sudden violence, threats and verbal abuse. They take offense easily and become angry and aggressive over trivialities, and often in a context that appears inappropriate to others. But their outbursts, extreme as they may be, are generally short-lived, and they quickly resume acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

Although psychopaths have a “hair trigger” and readily initiate aggressive displays, their ensuing behavior is not out of control. On the contrary, when psychopaths “blow their stack” it is as if they are having a temper tantrum; they know exactly what they are doing. Their aggressive displays are “cold;” they lack the intense emotional arousal experienced by others when they lose their temper.

It’s not unusual for psychopaths to inflict serious physical or emotional damage on others, sometimes routinely, and yet refuse to acknowledge that they have a problem controlling their tempers. In most cases, they see their aggressive displays as natural responses to provocation.

Need for excitement

Psychopaths have an ongoing and excessive need for excitement—they long to live in the fast lane or “on the edge,” where the action is. In many cases the action involves breaking the rules.

Some psychopaths use a wide variety of drugs as part of their general search for something new and exciting, and they often move from place to place and job to job searching for a fresh buzz. Many psychopaths describe “doing crime” for excitement or thrills.

The flip side of this yearning for excitement is an inability to tolerate routine or monotony. Psychopaths are easily bored. You are not likely to find them engaged in occupations or activities that are dull, repetitive or that require intense concentration over long periods.

Lack of responsibility

Obligations and commitments mean nothing to psychopaths. Their good intentions—”I’ll never cheat on you again”—are promises written on the wind.

Truly horrendous credit histories, for example, reveal the lightly taken debt, the shrugged-off loan, the empty pledge to contribute to a child’s support. The irresponsibility and unreliability of psychopaths extend to every part of their lives. Their performance on the job is erratic, with frequent absences, misuse of company resources, violations of company policy, and general untrustworthiness. They do not honor formal or implied commitments to people, organizations or principles.

Indifference to the welfare of children—their own as well as those of a man or woman they happen to be living with at the time—is a common theme among psychopaths. Psychopaths see children as an inconvenience. Typically, they leave children on their own for extended periods or in the care of unreliable sitters.

Psychopaths are frequently successful in talking their way out of trouble—”I’ve learned my lesson;” “You have my word that it won’t happen again;” “It was simply a big misunderstanding;” “Trust me.” They are almost as successful in convincing the criminal justice system of their good intentions and their trustworthiness. Although they frequently manage to obtain probation, a suspended sentence or early release from prison, they simply ignore the conditions imposed by the courts.

Early behavior problems

Most psychopaths begin to exhibit serious behavioral problems at an early age. These might include persistent lying, cheating, theft, fire setting, truancy, class disruption, substance abuse, vandalism, violence, bullying, running away and precocious sexuality. Because many children exhibit some of these behaviors at one time or another, especially children raised in violent neighborhoods or in disrupted or abusive families, it is important to emphasize that the psychopaths’s history of such behaviors is more extensive and serious than that of most others, even when compared with those of siblings and friends raised in similar settings.

Early cruelty to animals is usually a sign of serious emotional or behavioral problems. Cruelty to other children—including siblings—is often part of the young psychopaths’s inability to experience the sort of empathy that checks normal people’s impulses to inflict pain, even when enraged.

Adult antisocial behavior

Psychopaths consider the rules and expectations of society inconvenient and unreasonable, impediments to their inclinations and wishes. They make their own rules, both as children and as adults.

Many of the antisocial acts of psychopaths lead to criminal convictions. Even within prison populations psychopaths stand out, largely because their antisocial and illegal activities are more varied and frequent than are those of other criminals.

Not all psychopaths end up in jail. Many of the things they do escape detection or prosecution, or are on the “shady side of the law.” For them, antisocial behavior may consist of phony stock promotions, questionable business and professional practices, spouse or child abuse, and so forth. Many others do things that, although not illegal, are unethical, immoral or harmful to others: philandering, cheating on a spouse, financial or emotional neglect of family members, irresponsible use of company resources or funds, to name but a few. The problem with behaviors of this sort is that they are difficult to document and evaluate without the active cooperation of family, friends, acquaintances and business associates.

The complete picture

Psychopaths are not the only ones who lead socially deviant lifestyles. For example, many criminals have some of the characteristics described above, but because they are capable of feeling guilt, remorse, empathy and strong emotions, they are not considered psychopaths. A diagnosis of psychopathy is made only when there is solid evidence that the individual matches the complete profile—that is, has most of the above symptoms.

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