Do Psychopaths Know They’re Psychopaths?

Have you ever read the official definition of antisocial personality disorder? It describes someone who acts like Tony Soprano: remorseless, deceitful, impulsive, and violent.

Pretty dramatic.

The psychopath next door is different. He’s more like George “it’s not a lie if you believe it” Costanza. He’s manipulative, uncaring, and neither a genius nor industrious.

Psychopathy isn’t a binary trait. It exists on a spectrum like any other aspect of personality. (Psychopathy is variously referred to as sociopathy and antisocial personality. The trifling distinctions bore me. The behavior matters more than the label.)

Over at Twitter, my friend Paul asked if people with psychopathic leanings understand their own nature. Are Tony and George aware of their personalities? Do they possess insight?

It depends on the definition of “insight.” Hervey Cleckley, the psychiatrist who pioneered the study of psychopathy in the early 1900s, saw it like this:

“[The psychopath] 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…” (Cleckley, 1988)

These days, self-insight refers to the capacity to understand our own nature. Cleckley meant something slightly different. In his clinical world, working with very ill patients, insight was about adjusting to feedback — a skill at which the psychopath does not excel. Cleckley wrote:

”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.”

That sounds like George Costanza. Cleckley continued:

“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.”

That sounds like Tony Soprano.

To my knowledge, Cleckley didn’t really answer Paul’s question: do psychopaths understand their own character and reputation? In 2011, a group of researchers looked into it. They wrote:

“Psychopathic individuals appear capable of reporting accurately on psychopathic traits when there are no direct consequences to accurate reporting (i.e., sentencing). It may be that the lack of concern for the consequences of these traits has been mistaken for a lack of insight into them” (Miller et al. 2011).

Both stances can be correct. Cleckley can be correct that psychopaths reject feedback and responsibility. Miller et al. can be correct that psychopaths see themselves as others see them — they just don’t care, and they’re willing to lie about it.


A Thought Experiment

I asked a former clinical supervisor what would happen if, hypothetically, he told a psychopath, “Bub, yer a psychopath.”

My supervisor is skilled. He wouldn’t do that. But the population with which he works puts him in a good position to speculate on how the conversation might unfold. He said the patient might take offense or feel unfairly pathologized, provided he didn’t understand the label.

However, if he understood the label, he might feign indignation or try to gain information he might use later. Or he might simply shrug and disregard the diagnosis if he saw no utility in the discussion.

I took my supervisor’s response to mean that a true psychopath would use the label the same way he uses other information: as a potential tool for manipulation or profit.

I’m reminded of a different study which asked whether narcissists possess insight into their personality and reputation (Carlson et al. 2011). The answer seems to be yes. Narcissists generally understand:

  1. Others see them less positively than they see themselves.
  2. They make positive first impressions that deteriorates.
  3. Others see them as arrogant.

If you tell a narcissist he displays narcissistic characteristics, like conceit or entitlement, he’s likely to agree. He overvalues everything about himself, including his narcissistic behaviors. (The findings are more nuanced than that, especially on the lighter end of narcissism. The paper is worth reading.)

Of course, you and I know narcissistic behavior hides (from the narcissist) the fear that he’s unworthy of love or attention. That’s why the narcissist isn’t injured when you call him egotistical; he is injured when you question whether he should be.

Try it sometime, if you’re feeling psychopathic, and watch what happens.

As Cleckley noted, the undiluted psychopath has no such concerns about worthiness. He’s too busy having fun. By definition, he doesn’t care what you think about his character.

Undiluted psychopathy is uncommon, but lesser psychopathy isn’t. I can confidently predict you know someone (or are someone) who’s a little like George Costanza — willing to transgress occasionally just because he can get away with it.

That person isn’t necessarily a villain. Nor is he necessarily bright.

One study (Paulhus and Williams, 2002) described such “subclinical” psychopaths as low in agreeableness and conscientiousness, with verbal IQ scores slightly lower than nonverbal — and no special intellectual advantage overall. Other studies have found a negative relationship between IQ and psychopathy (e.g. Spironelli et al. 2014).

That’s hardly the recipe for world domination, nor is it a recipe for being invested in the opinions of others. If this person has an advantage in life, it’s the willingness to do what other people won’t, with little regard for morality. But that will only take a person so far. (Jail is one destination. Politics is another.)

One of the most useful things to know about people like George Costanza is that they have their own shifting and self-serving moral compass. That can be disorienting. Your sense of ethics and fair play don’t apply when dealing with them. If you can accept that, then you might be able to navigate a relationship of sorts.

As for Paul’s question, it’s hard to imagine George Costanza is unaware that others dislike his scheming. It’s equally difficult to imagine that he cares.


Carlson, E.N., S. Vazire, and T.F. Oltmanns. 2011. “You Probably Think this Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of their Personality and Reputation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101:185-201.

Cleckley, H. 1988. “The Mask of Sanity.” Private printing downloaded from

Miller, J.D., S.E. Jones, and D.R. Lynam. 2011. “Psychopathic Traits From the Perspective of Self and Informant Reports: Is There Evidence for a Lack of Insight?” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 120:758-764.

Paulhus, D.L. and K.M. Williams. 2002. The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality 36:556–563.

Spironelli, C., D. Segrè, L. Stegagno, and A. Angrilli. 2014. “Intelligence and Psychopathy: A Correlational Study on Insane Female Offenders.” Psychological Medicine 44:111-116.