A Short List of Psychopathic/Sociopathic Traits
by Hervey Cleckley
Untruthfulness and Insincerity
The psychopath shows a remarkable disregard for truth and is to be trusted no more in his accounts of the past than in his promises for the future or his statement of present intentions. He gives the impression that he is incapable of ever attaining realistic comprehension of an attitude in other people which causes them to value truth and cherish truthfulness in themselves. Typically he is at ease and unpretentious in making a serious promise or in (falsely) exculpating himself from accusations, whether grave or trivial. His simplest statement in such matters carries special powers of conviction.
Overemphasis, obvious glibness, and other traditional signs of the clever liar do not usually show in his words or in his manner. Whether there is reasonable chance for him to get away with the fraud or whether certain and easily foreseen detection is at hand, he is apparently unperturbed and does the same impressive job. Candor and trustworthiness seem implicit in him at such times. During the most solemn perjuries he has no difficulty at all in looking anyone tranquilly in the eyes. Although he will lie about any matter, under any circumstances, and often for no good reason, he may, on the contrary, sometimes own up to his errors (usually when detection is certain) and appear to be facing the consequences with singular honesty, fortitude, and manliness.
After being caught in shameful and gross falsehoods, after repeatedly violating his most earnest pledges, he finds it easy, when another occasion arises, to speak of his word of honor, his honor as a gentleman, and he shows surprise and vexation when commitments on such a basis do not immediately settle the issue.
The conception of living up to his word seems, in fact, to be regarded as little more than a phrase sometimes useful to avoid unpleasantness or to gain other ends. How inadequate such ends may be to account for the psychopath’s neglect of truth can be shown in a brief example: In a letter to his wife, at last seeking divorce and in another city, one patient set down dignified, fair appraisals of the situation and referred to sensible plans he had outlined for her security. He then added that specified insurance policies and annuities providing for the three children (including their tuition at college) had been mailed under separate cover and would, if she had not already received them, soon be in her hands. He had not taken even the first step to obtain insurance or to make any other provision, and, once he had made these statements in his letter, he apparently gave the matter no further thought.
Lack of Remorse or Shame
The psychopath apparently cannot accept substantial blame for the various misfortunes which befall him and which he brings down upon others, usually he denies emphatically all responsibility and directly accuses others as responsible, but often he will go through an idle ritual of saying that much of his trouble is his own fault. When the latter course is adopted, subsequent events indicate that it is empty of sincerity-a hollow and casual form as little felt as the literal implications of “your humble and obedient servant” are actually felt by a person who closes a letter with such a phrase. Although his behavior shows reactions of this sort to be perfunctory, this is seldom apparent in his manner. This is exceedingly deceptive and is very likely to promote confidence and deep trust. More detailed questioning about just what he blames himself for and why may show that a serious attitude is not only absent but altogether inconceivable to him. If this fails, his own actions will soon clarify the issue.
Whether judged in the light of his conduct, of his attitude, or of material elicited in psychiatric examination, he shows almost no sense of shame. His career is always full of exploits, any one of which would wither even the more callous representatives of the ordinary man. Yet he does not, despite his able protestations, show the slightest evidence of major humiliation or regret.
Though the psychopath is likely to give an early impression of being a thoroughly reliable person, it will soon be found that on many occasions he shows no sense of responsibility whatsoever. No matter how binding the obligation, how urgent the circumstances, or how important the matter, this holds true. Furthermore, the question of whether or not he is to be confronted with his failure or his disloyalty and called to account for it appears to have little effect on his attitude.
They may apply their excellent abilities in business or in study for a week, for months, or even for a year or more and thereby gain potential security, win a scholarship, be acclaimed top salesman or elected president of a social club or perhaps of a school honor society. Not all checks given by psychopaths bounce; not all promises are uniformly ignored. They do not necessarily land in jail every day (or every month) or seek to cheat someone else during every transaction. If so, it would be much simpler to deal with them. This transiently (but often convincingly) demonstrated ability to succeed in business and in all objective affairs makes failures more disturbing to those about them
The psychopath’s unreliability and his disregard for obligations and for consequences are manifested in both trivial and serious matters, are masked by demonstrations of conforming behavior, and cannot be accounted for by ordinary motives or incentives. Although it can be confidently predicted that his failures and disloyalties will continue, it is impossible to time them and to take satisfactory precautions against their effect.
Poor Judgment and Failure to Learn by Experience
Despite his excellent rational powers, the psychopath continues to show the most execrable judgment about attaining what one might presume to be his ends. …
This exercise of execrable judgment is not particularly modified by experience, however chastening his experiences may be. … It is my opinion that no punishment is likely to make the psychopath change his way. … Despite the extraordinarily poor judgment demonstrated in behavior, in the actual living of his life, the psychopath characteristically demonstrates unimpaired (sometimes excellent) judgment in appraising theoretical situations. In complex matters of judgment involving ethical, emotional, and other evaluational factors, in contrast with matters requiring only (or chiefly) intellectual reasoning ability, he also shows no evidence of a defect. So long as the test is verbal or otherwise abstract, so long as he is not a direct participant, he shows that he knows his way about.
Specific Loss of Insight / Unable to See Himself as Others See Him
In a special sense the psychopath lacks insight to a degree seldom, if ever, found in any but the most seriously disturbed psychotic patients. His insight is of course not affected at all with the type of impairment seen in the schizophrenic patient, who may not recognize the fact that others regard him as mentally ill but may insist that he is the Grand Lama and now in Tibet. Yet in a very important sense, in the sense of realistic evaluation, the psychopath lacks insight more consistently than some schizophrenic patients. He has absolutely no capacity to see himself as others see him. It is perhaps more accurate to say that he has no ability to know how others feel when they see him or to experience subjectively anything comparable about the situation. All of the values, all of the major affect concerning his status are unappreciated by him.
This is almost astonishing in view of the psychopath’s perfect orientation, his ability and willingness to reason or to go through the forms of reasoning, and his perfect freedom from delusions and other signs of an ordinary psychosis.
Usually, instead of facing facts that would ordinarily lead to insight, he projects, blaming his troubles on others with the flimsiest of pretext but with elaborate and subtle rationalization. Occasionally, however, he will perfunctorily admit himself to blame for everything and analyze his case from what seems to be almost a psychiatric viewpoint, but we can see that his conclusions have little actual significance for him. Some of these patients mentioned spoke fluently of the psychopathic personality, quoted the literature, and suggested this diagnosis for themselves. Soon this apparent insight was seen to be not merely imperfect but a consistent and thorough artifact.
Perhaps it was less a voluntary deception than a simulation in which the simulator himself fails to realize his lack of emotional grasp or that he is simulating or what he is simulating. The patient seems to have little or no ability to feel the significance of his situation, to experience the real emotions of regret or shame or determination to improve, or to realize that this is lacking. His clever statements have been hardly more than verbal reflexes; even his facial expressions are without the underlying content they imply. This is not insight but an excellent mimicry of insight. No sincere intention can spring from his conclusions because no affective conviction is there to move him.
Such a deficiency of insight is harder to comprehend than the schizophrenic’s deficiency, for it exists in the full presence of what are often assumed to be the qualities by which insight is gained. Yet the psychopath shows not only a deficiency but apparently a total absence of self-appraisal as a real and moving experience. Here is the spectacle of a person who uses all the words that would be used by someone who understands, and who could define all the words but who still is blind to the meaning. Such a clinical picture is more baffling to me than any of the symptoms of schizophrenia, on which attempts have been made to throw some light by psychopathologic theories. Here we have a patient who fulfills all the ordinary theoretical criteria of a “sound mind,” and yet with this apparently sound mind is more incomprehensible than the psychotic patient.
What I regard as the psychopath’s lack of insight shows up frequently and very impressively in his apparent assumption that the legal penalties for a crime he has committed do not, or should not, apply to him. This astonishing defect in realization often seems genuine, as the patient protests in surprise against the idea that prison might be anticipated for him, as for others under similar circumstances. He frequently reacts to such an idea as if to something unexpected and totally inappropriate.
Inadequately Motivated Antisocial Behavior
Not only is the psychopath undependable, but also in more active ways he cheats, deserts, annoys, brawls, fails, and lies without any apparent compunction. He will commit theft, forgery, adultery, fraud, and other deeds for astonishingly small stakes and under much greater risks of being discovered than will the ordinary scoundrel. He will, in fact, commit such deeds in the absence of any apparent goal at all.
Pathologic Egocentricity and Incapacity for Love
The psychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity. This is usually of a degree not seen in ordinary people and often is little short of astonishing. How obviously this quality will be expressed in vanity or self-esteem will vary with the shrewdness of the subject and with his other complexities. Deeper probing will always reveal a self-centeredness that is apparently unmodifiable and all but complete. This can perhaps be best expressed by stating that it is an incapacity for personal love and that this incapacity (in my experience with well-marked psychopaths) appears to be absolute.
In a sense, it is absurd to maintain that the psychopath’s incapacity for personal love is absolute, that is, to say he is capable of affection for another in literally no degree. He is plainly capable of casual fondness, of likes and dislikes, and of reactions that, one might say, cause others to matter to him. These affective reactions are, however, always strictly limited in degree. In durability they also vary greatly from what is normal in mankind. The term absolute is, I believe, appropriate if we apply it to any affective attitude strong and meaningful enough to be called love, that is, anything that prevails in sufficient degree and over sufficient periods to exert a major influence on behavior.
The psychopath seldom shows anything that, if the chief facts were known, would pass even in the eyes of lay observers as true affection or personal love. His absolute indifference to the financial, social, emotional, physical, and other hardships which he brings upon those for whom he professes love confirms the appraisal during psychiatric studies of his true attitude.
General Poverty in Major Affective Reactions
In addition to his incapacity for personal love, the psychopath always shows general poverty of affect. Although it is true that be sometimes becomes excited and shouts as if in rage or seems to exult in enthusiasm and again weeps in what appear to be bitter tears or speaks eloquent and mournful words about his misfortunes or his follies, the conviction dawns on those who observe him carefully that here we deal with a readiness of expression rather than a strength of feeling.
Vexation, spite, quick and labile flashes of quasi-affection, peevish resentment, shallow moods of self-pity, puerile attitudes of vanity, and absurd and showy poses of indignation are all within his emotional scale and are freely sounded as the circumstances of life play upon him. But mature, wholehearted anger, true or consistent indignation, honest, solid grief, sustaining pride, deep joy, and genuine despair are reactions not likely to be found within this scale.
Craig said long ago that patients who suffer from hysteria do not react with awe, reverence, wonder, or pity. Often they do not, it might be said, appear capable of achieving in sincerity the major emotions, although their protestations of such emotions are prominent and their show of feeling is sometimes so vigorous that the observer is often misled to believe that they are in tragic grief or remorse. Although such a diminution of emotional range, especially along the deeper notes, may be seen in the patient with hysteria, in the psychopath it is very much more far-reaching, profound, and final. Even in the situations of squalor and misery into which he repeatedly works himself, when confined in jails and what he regards as lunatic asylums, after throwing away fortunes or catching and transferring gonorrhea to his bride -even under these circumstances he does not show anything that could be called woe or despair or serious sorrow. He becomes vexed and rebellious and frets in lively and constant impatience when confined, but he does not grieve as others grieve.
Psychopaths are often witty and sometimes give a superficial impression of that far different and very serious thing, humor. Humor, however, in what may be its full, true sense, they never have. I have thought that I caught glimpses of it in psychopaths and, despite a typical history, was inclined to question the diagnosis. Further observation of these patients gave convincing evidence that the apparent humor, like the apparent insight, was really an artifact.
Lack of Response in Interpersonal Relations
The psychopath cannot be depended upon to show the ordinary responsiveness to special consideration or kindness or trust. No matter how well he is treated, no matter how long-suffering his family, his friends, the police, hospital attendants, and others may be, he shows no consistent reaction of appreciation except superficial and transparent protestations. Such gestures are exhibited most frequently when he feels they will facilitate some personal aim. The ordinary axiom of human existence that one good turn deserves another, a principle sometimes honored by cannibals and uncommonly callous assassins, has only superficial validity for him although he can cite it with eloquent casuistry when trying to obtain parole, discharge from the hospital, or some other end.
As in attempting to delineate other aspects of the psychopath, we find ourselves again confronting paradox. Although he can be counted on not to be appreciably swayed in major issues by these basic rules, we often find him attentive in small courtesies and favors, perhaps even habitually generous or quasi-generous when the cost is not decisive. Occasionally his actions may suggest profound generosity in that large sums are involved or something presumably of real value is sacrificed. Usually, however, these appearances are deceiving
n relatively small matters psychopaths sometimes behave so as to appear very considerate, responsive, and obliging. Acquaintances who meet them on grounds where minor issues prevail may find it difficult to believe that they are not highly endowed with gratitude and eager to serve others. Such reactions and intentions, although sometimes ready or even spectacularly facile, do not ever accumulate sufficient force to play a determining part in really important issues. The psychopath who causes his parents hardship and humiliation by repeatedly forging checks and causes his wife anguish by sordid (and perhaps halfhearted) relations with the housemaid, may gain a considerable reputation in the community by occasionally volunteering to cut the grass for the frail old lady across the street, by bringing a bottle of sherry over now and then to bedridden Mr. Blank, or by leaving his work to take a neighbor’s injured cat to the veterinarian.
Outward social graces come easy to most psychopaths, and many continue, throughout careers disastrous to themselves and for others, to conduct themselves in superficial relations, in handling the trivia of existence, so as to gain admiration and gratitude. In these surface aspects of functioning, the typical psychopath (unlike the classic hypocrite) often seems to act with undesigning spontaneity and to be prompted by motives of excellent quality though of marvelously attenuated substance.
Failure to Follow any Life Plan
The psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be one regarded as good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. This is entirely applicable to the full psychopath. On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life. By some incomprehensible and untempting piece of folly or buffoonery, he eventually cuts short any activity in which he is succeeding, no matter whether it is crime or honest endeavor.
At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly. In the more seriously affected examples, it is impossible for wealthy, influential, and devoted relatives to place the psychopath in any position, however ingeniously it may be chosen, where he will not succeed eventually in failing with spectacular and bizarre splendor.
Considering a longitudinal section of his life, his behavior gives such an impression of gratuitous folly and nonsensical activity in such massive accumulation that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that here is the product of true madness - of madness in a sense quite as real as that conveyed to the imaginative layman by the terrible word lunatic.
With the further consideration that all this skein of apparent madness has been woven by a person of (technically) unimpaired and superior intellectual powers and universally regarded as sane, the surmise intrudes that we are confronted by a serious and unusual type of genuine abnormality. Not merely a surmise but a strong conviction may arise that this apparent sanity is, in some important respects, a sanity in name only. When we consider his actual performance, evidence of mental competency is sorely lacking. We find instead a spectacle that suggests madness in excelsis, despite the absence of all those symptoms that enable us, in some degree, to account for irrational conduct in the psychotic.
Superficial Charm and Good “Intelligence”
More often than not, the typical psychopath will seem particularly agreeable and make a distinctly positive impression when he is first encountered. Alert and friendly in his attitude, he is easy to talk with and seems to have a good many genuine interests. There is nothing at all odd or queer about him, and in every respect he tends to embody the concept of a well-adjusted, happy person. Nor does he, on the other hand, seem to be artificially exerting himself like one who is covering up or who wants to sell you a bill of goods.
No matter how free from delusions and other overt signs of psychosis the schizoid person may be, he is likely to show specific peculiarities in his outer aspect. Usually there are signs of tension, withdrawal, and subtle oddities of manner and reaction. These may appear to be indications of unrevealed brilliance, perhaps even eccentricities of genius, but they are likely to complicate and cool easy social relations and to promote restraint. Although the psychopath’s inner emotional deviations and deficiencies may be comparable with the inner status of the masked schizophrenic, he outwardly shows nothing brittle or strange. Everything about him is likely to suggest desirable and superior human qualities, a robust mental health
Absence of Delusions and other Signs of Irrational Thinking
The so-called psychopath is ordinarily free from signs or symptoms traditionally regarded as evidence of a psychosis. He does not hear voices. Genuine delusions cannot be demonstrated. There is no valid depression, consistent pathologic elevation of mood, or irresistible pressure of activity. Outer perceptual reality is accurately recognized; social values and generally accredited personal standards are accepted verbally. Excellent logical reasoning is maintained and, in theory, the patient can foresee the consequences of injudicious or antisocial acts, outline acceptable or admirable plans of life, and ably criticize in words his former mistakes. The results of direct psychiatric examination disclose nothing pathologic --- nothing that would indicate incompetency or that would arouse suspicion that such a man could not lead a successful and happy life.
Not only is the psychopath rational and his thinking free of delusions, but he also appears to react with normal emotions. His ambitions are discussed with what appears to be healthy enthusiasm. His convictions impress even the skeptical observer as firm and binding. He seems to respond with adequate feelings to another’s interest in him and, as he discusses his wife, his children, or his parents, he is likely to be judged a man of warm human responses, capable of full devotion and loyalty.
Absence of “Nervousness” or Neurotic Manifestations
There are usually no symptoms to suggest a psychoneurosis in the clinical sense. In fact, the psychopath is nearly always free from minor reactions popularly regarded as “neurotic” or as constituting “nervousness.” The chief criteria whereby such diagnoses as hysteria, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety state, or “neurasthenia” might be made do not apply to him. It is highly typical for him not only to escape the abnormal anxiety and tension fundamentally characteristic of this whole diagnostic group but also to show a relative immunity from such anxiety and worry as might be judged normal or appropriate in disturbing situations. Regularly we find in him extraordinary poise rather than jitteriness or worry, a smooth sense of physical well-being instead of uneasy preoccupation with bodily functions. Even under concrete circumstances that would for the ordinary person cause embarrassment, confusion, acute insecurity, or visible agitation, his relative serenity is likely to be noteworthy.
What tension or uneasiness of this sort he may show seems provoked entirely by external circumstances, never by feelings of guilt, remorse, or intrapersonal insecurity. Within himself he appears almost as incapable of anxiety as of profound remorse