“Impression management is the psychopath’s favorite tool.”
Not every Psychopath looks and acts like Hannibal Lecter and they won’t all eat you for dinner. But one thing that they do all have in common is a desire to manage your impressions of them.
Once you meet one, you learn that one of the defining features of psychopathy is the dangerous—and often hard to spot—tendency to con others through lying, manipulation, and glib charm. If you’re one of the innocent who have been duped by a psychopath, you can be left feeling hurt, deceived, humiliated, and used. If you are really unlucky, you may become one of the people brutalized by one. Odds are, when you look back on it, you might even feel a bit foolish.
It’s possible that psychopaths treat people with cold disregard just because they can, or it may be because of a desire to “get something” from you. Some researchers suggest that it’s possible that they just can’t help themselves. I don’t pretend to know the answer to that one. I am aware though, that the personality traits involved in psychopathy usually develop over a lifetime, and through habit and to some degree, reinforcement, those individuals with these traits generally see no reason to change their devious ways.
Psychopathy is defined in a study of psychopathic traits as “a constellation of affective, interpersonal, and behavioral characteristics including impulsivity, irresponsibility, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse, pathological lying, and persistent violation of social norms and expectations.”
The most dangerous part about all of it is that very few of us can spot it before things spin out of control. By way of defense, knowing that you’re being manipulated can be the first step towards resisting the psychopath’s attempts to lure you into their trap. But as I mentioned, you can’t always recognize it. Learning to see through their “impression management” techniques will help you as you “just say no” to their requests that you do things for them. But first you have to learn these techniques.
Now, in order to do what I need to do here, I am going to give you some background from a 2017 study done on psychopathy. It might seem a bit long, but stick with me and you will see how it comes together by the end.
In the abovementioned 2017 Texas A&M study, Shannon Kelley and her colleagues, using a college sample, investigated the balance between ratings by individuals of their own psychopathic traits, and the ratings of them by their roommates. Previous research has shown that people high in psychopathy can and do, in the safety of a controlled research setting, admit to their psychopathic tendencies. How would such apparent honesty translate into everyday behavior, when those high in psychopathy have everything to lose by demonstrating their manipulative tendencies?
As the Texas A&M researchers note,
“Contrary to concerns regarding response style and poor insight, research currently suggests that psychopathic individuals are able to accurately self-report interpersonal and affective dysfunction, as well as externalizing tendencies.”
In other words, those high in psychopathy have some insight into their negative traits—they know. This might suggest that they really don’t like themselves all that much. The thinking is, if you can penetrate through their outer shell in which they hide their true selves, you might be able to establish a realistically good relationship, as implausible as that might seem.
In the Kelley study, college students rated themselves and their roommates on a basic set of personality measures that included a brief measure of psychopathy measuring these three constructs:
These are not exactly nice qualities to have around your dinner table.
- Boldness includes the tendency to dominate others, to be immune to stress, and fearless.
- Meanness includes the components of callousness, sensation–seeking, and cruelty.
- The Disinhibition subscale measures impulsiveness, unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions, and an inability to regulate one’s own emotions.
Another assessment asks people to report on whether they (or their roommate) show aggressive tendencies and rule-breaking behavior.
Tapping into the tendency to try to manipulate others, the Texas A&M researchers used a measure seldom utilized in research on psychopathy, but really good for the purposes of their study. The PIM, or Positive Impression Management scale asks participants and their roommates to rate themselves and each other on a set of somewhat sketchy—but still typical—behaviors people engage in occasionally, such as finding a way to avoid paying your fare on public transit. Statements that measure PIM might include:
“I find it easy to resist temptations,”
or, “I rarely gossip.”
There are probably some angelic folk among us who can honestly say that they live those words, but for most of us, it’s a matter of degree. A person with psychopathic personality traits would, when compared to the average person, more than likely identify more strongly with these statements when responding in an honest and open way. Keep in mind, given that psychopathy is usually defined as involving a desire to “look good,” individuals rating high in this trait would likely get lower scores than their roommates. What made the Kelley study so interesting was that researchers could match the way people responded about themselves, with the way their roommates actually saw them. Roommates can find it hard to hide all of their Machiavellian behaviors from each other. If you don’t believe me, just think back on the behaviors of your first roommates.
What they found was that the scores of roommates and their informants were “moderately related” to each other. The authors concluded that there was:
“…little evidence that psychopathy contributes to poor insight
concerning the presence of associated personality traits.”
Look…I am not in any way saying that people high in psychopathy won’t try to con you; in fact, the higher the individual was on the boldness score, the more important impression management was to them. The more psychopathic individuals, in other words, saw themselves in a really positive light, and so did their roommates.
However, people high in boldness also had higher scores on the antagonistic traits of psychopathy. So, as it turns out, people in the study that scored most highly on those features of psychopathy saw themselves as optimistic and resilient to stress, while people around them usually saw them as insensitive and/or unsympathetic.
Through the eyes of the psychopath, these findings were gained in a safer setting, i.e., in a research lab, considered much safer than in the real-world settings where people measuring high in psychopathy can find themselves getting into trouble for their socially inappropriate and deviant behavior. Spoiler Alert: They don’t usually want you to know what’s wrong with them. Yet, when there’s no downside to being honest, the study suggests that psychopathic individuals will be honest about their thoughts and impulses. On the other hand, when they have every reason to hide in everyday life, their honesty will disappear behind superficial charm, lies, and distortions.
With the results of the Texas A&M study findings in mind, it isn’t difficult to draw some similarities between these people and learn some basic ways to see through the manipulation in the impression the highly psychopathic individual creates about themselves:
They don’t see their traits as problematic.
There’s evidence from the self/other correlations, especially in the boldness domain, that people high in psychopathy don’t mind showing how fearless they are, even if it means they come across as dominating. You might think that they just don’t get it.
They don’t care about the negative consequences of their actions.
People high in psychopathy may be aware of their undesirable traits but not be particularly concerned about their impact on others. They just don’t care the same way as you do.
They will try to dominate others.
You’ll know if you’re in the presence of psychopathic individuals if you sense that you’re being pushed around. It can be gentle—or relentless—but it never stops.
Assign a higher purpose to their devious motivations.
The Kelley study concluded that high boldness plus high impression management ratings would cause people high in psychopathy to feel that they’re not subject to the same concerns as others. They may even give higher purposes to their behavior than their behavior would merit.
They try to present themselves as unusually honest.
Being honest doesn’t come naturally to people high in psychopathy, but their self-lies can cause them to imagine that they are. It’s easy to be swayed by this apparent high-mindedness. It just sounds so real.
Shallowness, lack of empathy, and a tendency to perform disagreeable acts are part of the profile of the people high in psychopathy. Although under the right circumstances they can see themselves honestly, but this doesn’t mean they won’t try to deceive you and behave in severely antisocial ways. Knowing the ways they will try and manipulate you will help you become better able to identify and resist their manipulations.
Keep your eyes and ears open and remember that if you see or feel it, it might just be so. And remember, you won’t often see it; listen to your gut. Your safety might just depend on it.
So, what do you think? Have you run into this in your life lately or have a friend who has?
If you are, give me a call so we can talk about it… Schedule a time for a free call and tell me about it.
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Kelley, S. E., Edens, J. F., Donnellan, M. B., Mowle, E. N., & Sörman, K. (2017). Self‐ and informant perceptions of psychopathic traits in relation to the triarchic model. Journal of Personality, doi:10.1111/jopy.12354
Linberg, Laajasalo, Hoti, Putkonen, Weizmann-Henelius, and Hakanen-Nyholm (2009) Psychopathic traits and offender characteristics – a nationwide consecutive sample of homicidal male adolescents. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health