But all psychopaths aren't necessarily cold blooded killers. We all know people with psychopathic tendencies who heartlessly use and manipulate the people around them. Many of us may even be subjected to their abuse at work or home.
These psychopaths may not commit crimes but they can make the life of people around them a living hell because they're such shrewd manipulators.
Not the slightest pity
It's a fact that one in 100 people has psychopathic tendencies. This means there are quite possibly three children in a school of 300 who are psychopaths. One of your 100 colleagues may be one.
So what makes someone a psychopath, apart from the fact that they may be able to kill and not feel the slightest pity?
Psychopaths, experts agree, have no emotions, conscience or remorse. They may be able to fake emotions to suit their purposes but they don’t ever feel pity for someone else’s pain. And they tell blatant lies without a moment’s hesitation.
Read: Karma and conscience
Watkins completes the picture: psychopaths love themselves and nobody else. They’re impulsive, irrational and often tell lies. They’re unreliable, inconsiderate and may repeat the same offence, as they're unable to learn from experience. They get bored and frustrated quickly and can become truly nasty and aggressive.
Sound familiar? By now you may be wondering about family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. But are they all psychopaths?
No pure psychopaths
"One must be careful not to pick out one feature and say that means someone is a psychopath,” Watkins warns. Trying to define a psychopath is extremely difficult. ‘A person may be immoral, impulsive, a liar and antisocial but still not be a psychopath. And no one is a pure psychopath.
It isn’t a case of all or nothing. You can have elements of psychopathy without going to the extreme of violent crime.
Read: Staying alive during a mugging
"Be careful not to use the term ‘bloody psychopath’ to refer to all criminals or unpleasant and unfeeling people Watkins cautions. “All the symptoms that point to psychopathy may also belong to another condition.” For instance, psychopaths are known to insist on getting their way immediately and resorting to violence if they don’t – but this may also be nothing more than the childish actions of an immature person.
Psychopaths may live a normal life for long periods of time and turn mean only under specific circumstances. Even then their antisocial behaviour may become manifest in just one aspect of their life – they may be charming and gentle at work but a brute at home.
It seems nobody knows what triggers their foul deeds. Sometimes they snap because they’re easily frustrated while at other times they act in a cold and calculatedly brutal way. In some cases substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs may trigger an outburst.To complicate matters further there are different kinds of psychopaths. The worst kind is the ruthless serial killer but many others live their life among us and will only become known as psychopaths if something triggers an act of violence.
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Does the law protect us against psychopaths?
How psychopaths get the way they are
Reviewed by Professor Tuviah Zabow, former head of forensic psychiatry at the University of Cape Town and Valkenberg Hospital.
By Romi Boom