Have you got 100 Facebook friends? Chances are, one of them displays psychopathic tendencies. It's like that ad about the ticket inspectors: it's easy to spot a psycho - they look just like you and me. At one time or another most of us have bemoaned the 'psycho boss' or 'psycho ex', probably because they made us work late when we had a party to go to, or laughed when they farted. But what is a psychopath and how can we protect ourselves from them?
Although there are psychopathic serial killers, this is not their only guise. (Nor are all serial killers psychopaths.) There is a spectrum of psychopathy, with the axe-wielding murderers at one end and the angels at the other. But somewhere in the middle is the psycho in disguise: the one who is able to pass him or herself off as 'normal' in real life. This could be the corporate psychopath (the one who brings a bank down with his risky deals) or the psychopthathic best friend (the one who steals your best dress and your boyfriend). They may not take your life, but they'll take your peace of mind.
Fundamentally, a psychopath is a totally and utterly selfish person. Life to them is just a game and all that matters is that they win it. Anyone standing in the way of what they want must simply be removed. Or better, in their view, those around them can be used as pawns to aid them in their quest for the things they want.
With no conscience, psychopaths do not understand the social niceties we take for granted, although they may learn how to mimic the motions - the psychopath expert, Dr Robert Hare, describes this a psycho as having "learned the words but not the music." Tell a psycho you are sad your cat has died and he may manage to grunt a murmur of sympathy but what he's really thinking is: "What a loser!"
The important thing to remember is that it's not a single terrible act that makes a psychopath, rather, their characteristic ways of relating to people. So, in trying to identify a psychopath, you need to look for certain patterns of behaviour.
When forensic psychologists - such as Kerry Daynes, with whom I co-wrote the book - seek to diagnose a psychopath, they refer to a worldwide golden standard, devised by the aforementioned Dr Hare. The Psychopathic Checklist (PCLR-2) identifies 20 fundamental symptoms of psychopathy. It's not a simple Q&A - the psychologist must undertake several hours of interviews with the person in question, as well as read background files and reports from other officials involved.
While the rest of us, as laymen, may not be able certifiably to confirm the condition we can watch out for the core patterns of behaviour that enable us to go on red alert. What, then, are the traits to look out for? "First and foremost it is the lack of the usual emotional repertoire," says Daynes. "Everything a psychopath does is to serve their own purpose. They are not absolutely without emotion but the feelings they do have are short-lived, primitive responses to their own needs. They do not empathise."
Psychopaths can be fun to be around because of their impulsivity and devil-may-care recklessness. But their lack of self-preservation means they do not know when to stop - a psychopath might consume vast amounts of drugs, drink too much, then drive a fast car on top of it all. They are, of course, pathological liars and will not miss a beat if you catch them out - they are never embarrassed if a lie doesn't work, they simply move on to the next thing.
They are remarkably anxiety-free because they don't worry about the future or lose sleep over an unpaid bill. Yet they will blame anyone and everyone else for their problems. They are often social outcasts - even the ones who are particularly brilliant at mimicry and are well-educated, thus perhaps working in a successful job, will rarely have family members that they see regularly or any close friends.
Some psychopathic traits are positively encouraged in today's society: what we might call a lack of conscience, another would call a steely determination to succeed. One man's ability to dust himself off and start again is another psychopath's inability to learn from failure or pain.
If you come across someone you believe to be a psycho, keep it to yourself. Don't confront them with 'the facts' - they will either be pleased or severely displeased with the label. Neither of which will do you any good. Accept the fact that they will not change (psychopaths are resistant to any form of therapy) and remove yourself from them as far as you can. Do not engage in their games or do them any favours. If you are related to them, try to meet them in neutral territory and do not lend them any money. Your own sense of self-regard is the best protection you can have against a psycho. As soon as you fail to be of 'use' to them, they will drop you anyway.
Is There A Psycho In Your Life? by Jessica Fellowes & Kerry Daynes, published by Coronet, is out in paperback on 5th January, priced £6.99
How to spot a psycho
Watch their hand movements. Psychopaths tend to use more 'beats' - this is thought to be because they are socially awkward and do it to give themselves more time to come up with the right words.
The predatory stare. It's not just something that happens in the movies. Psychos don't blink as much.
The nonplussed reaction. Psychos can't 'read' faces. They won't see you getting increasingly uncomfortable with their intensity.
They're rude to the staff. Someone who is nice to you but horrible to the waiter has only superficial charm.
Lack of embarrassment when caught out telling a lie. Most people would blush if spotted at a party when they said they were going to a funeral. Psychos just laugh and carry on.