Note: I am not a mental health professional. I’m just a psychopath who loves to read and research psychopathy. Nothing I say here should be taken as psychiatric advice or diagnosis. Please consult your doctor if you feel you are a danger to yourself or anyone else.
THE PSYCHOPATH CHECKLIST
If there is one thing you’ve heard or read about psychopathy, it’s the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, or “PCL-R”. The checklist was created by world renowned psychopathy expert, Dr. Robert Hare, and is one of the most widely used tests to determine whether a person is a psychopath or not. It’s also really expensive to get the manual which trains a person to properly administer the interview and evaluation, so a ton of people will go by just the basic names of the twenty psychopathic “traits” on the checklist. This, of course, has led to a ton of weirdos online doing self evaluations, and probably not doing them correctly. In this post, I’ll talk a little about the PCL-R and tackle the first trait on the list, “Glib and superficial charm”.
The actual PCL-R examination is not self reported, but actually has to be administered by a mental health professional that has been trained in its use. This is the only way an actual diagnosis can come about from the use of the checklist. The PCL-R includes the aforementioned interview in which the administrator can then evaluate the subject on each trait. These traits are given either a 0, 1, or 2 depending on how high the subject qualifies. At the end, the scores are added up. A 30 or above means the subject is a strong candidate for psychopathy. A score less than 30 does not necessarily mean the subject isn’t a psychopath, as the lack of criminality and deviance could severely lower someone’s scores, even if a person has a psychopathic brain.
You can probably see how self reporting this test can be a problem. We all have altered perceptions of ourselves, and it’s hard to give an honest answer when we are unconsciously feeding ourselves this rose-colored reality. It’s because of this that I’m not going to give you what I believe my score to be, but rather talk you through each of these traits and try to discover where we could potentially fall into this psychopathy scale. If you would like to take a quick self-reporting alternative, you can do the Levenson Self-Reporting Psychopathy Scale, and see where you place. We’ll talk properly about that test another day, but for now we’ll discuss about the traits of the PCL-R. These traits include:
1. Glib and superficial charm
2. Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
3. Need for stimulation
4. Pathological lying
5. Cunning and manipulativeness
6. Lack of remorse or guilt
7. Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
8. Callousness and lack of empathy
9. Parasitic lifestyle
10. Poor behavioral controls
11. Sexual promiscuity
12. Early behavior problems
13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17. Many short-term marital relationships
18. Juvenile delinquency
19. Revocation of conditional release
20. Criminal versatility
Now that you know what lies ahead on the list, let’s take a look at the first trait, “Glib and superficial charm”.
THE SHOW ROOM
You walk into a dealership with a decent down payment in your bank account and your guard completely up. You’ve dealt with “their” kind before – or at least you’ve seen movies. The point is, you ain’t no punk-ass chump. In your eyes, this spotless showroom might as well be a lion’s den. The salesman with the shiny, overly-whitened teeth are just waiting to sink those canines into your wallet, pushing for every upgrade and warranty they can think of. But you know better. You know where you are and what you want, and you are ready to take control of a typically powerless situation.
A salesman comes up to you. He says his name is Bill. He asks if he could help you look at some cars today. You tell him with a firm voice that you are there to buy a 2018 Hyundai Kona. He snaps his fingers quickly, startling you. With a deep sigh, followed by a laugh, he explains that he just lost a bet to his coworker, Mark. You see, Bill bet Mark that you were in there looking for a 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe. You just “look like the type”. You don’t really know how to take that. It must be a compliment, right? It doesn’t matter; you reaffirm your stance that you are there to buy a Kona. He just smiles impossibly wide and says he could get that paperwork started for you immediately, oh and the Vans you’re wearing are really cool. He likes collecting Vans Shoes because they are very comfortable and the styles are usually fashionable with a large variety of outfits. You tell him you feel the same way, and that you go to the outlet store to get new pairs because the Vans store is so expensive. He doesn’t know this outlet store, but he thanks you because you’re so smart and you just saved him a bunch of money with his Vans obsession. Way to go, you. God damn, there is something about his smile…
Three hours later you drive out of there in your 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe which cost $8,000 more than the Kona, not to mention the three years of OnStar you signed up for, the XM package, and the various other bells and whistles that you just barely have an understanding of. What the hell happened? Well, my friend, you just met a psychopath well versed in superficial charm.
Superficial charm is the personality trait of surface-level adaptability. Someone with this trait would produce a smooth, likeable version of themselves which would somehow say everything you want to hear. They are charming and appear vulnerable with how open they are willing to be with you. I like to think it is akin to cold-reading psychics. They often initiate conversations and slyly introduce subjects until something hits. It’s important to know that this whole act can be harmless, or it can be positioning you to be more open to the psychopath’s suggestion.
I like to think of this primarily as a first impression kind of trait, (though, it is fun to try and use superficial charm to gain back the trust of someone after you’ve lost it). It’s important in the use and understanding of psychopaths, because a ton of charismatic leader-types use superficial charm as the base of their power. The charming first impression can gain someone’s trust and entrench that trust deep in the person’s conscience. This is how cult leaders gain followers and business leaders gain support. This is especially how politicians get votes. For others, it’s just a way to be liked.
It is important to most psychopaths to be liked. Actually, when we’re talking about the PCL-R, the scale is weighed on two factors. Factor 1 is more related to the narcissistic personality traits, such as our “glibness and superficial charm”. Factor 2 deals more with the deviant spectrum of psychopathy. This could take an extreme form where the psychopath needs to be loved by people, rather than merely liked. Cult leaders are especially likely to need that form of validation. People like me, however, just like to be liked.
I think that this is where we can really break down whether we can estimate if we reflect trait 1. Working retail most of my life, I enjoyed using superficial charm on customers in order to gain their trust. It didn’t matter what I was selling – I hated selling, even when I worked on commission. I just loved finding out how a person ticked. I wanted to see what the best way to get in their favor was. So, I utilized a lot of another trait on the list, pathological lying, and had in-depth conversations with people about shit I knew nothing about. Fuck, I still do that sometimes. There is this compulsive nature in the psychopathic mind which wants some understanding from another person. We’ll go into theory of mind and cognitive empathy a bit later to better understand why this compulsion may exist.
When it comes down to it, we just want to be charming. These traits should also not be seen as designated only for the extremes – serial killers, sexual psychopaths, car salespeople, etc. There are plenty of law abiding citizens who could qualify as a 2 on this trait. Are you the kind of person that utilizes superficial charm to earn a person’s trust in order to use them, or simply because you like to be liked? Either way, the psychopath using superficial charm always has something to gain.