Narcissist or Psychopath—How Can You Tell?
Updated: Aug 19, 2019
A question I am often asked on social media is: What differentiates the narcissist from the psychopath? This is a profound question that has many divergent views depending on who you talk to.
As I have written in previous articles, narcissists, in my experience, are noteworthy for their principal trait of overvaluing themselves at the expense of devaluing others. They think of themselves as special, privileged, entitled, and void of flaws—in other words, they give themselves plenty of latitude while giving others little to none. In their mind, they are always right, and the rules don’t really apply to them. They are incapable of admitting mistakes and taking responsibility. If things work, they believe it is thanks to them. If things fail, it’s the fault of others.
Most of all, narcissists (as defined by and meeting the criteria in Dangerous Personalities, Rodale 2014) cannot bring themselves to see anyone else as their equal. So, they put others down (co-workers, subordinates, family members), crush their aspirations, criticize, or treat them with indifference, disdain, or contempt. If challenged, they will react not with anger, but with rage. They are incapable of true empathy or understanding and in all ways, they see themselves as perfect, even though they are, according to Dr. Stuart C. Yudofsky, author of “Fatal Flaws: Navigating Destructive Relationships With People With Disorders of Personality and Character,” severely flawed of character.
Here is a reminder of how narcissists view themselves. These specifics may seem breathtaking in their arrogance and haughtiness – but then, those are traits that define the narcissist:
I love myself and I know you do, too; in fact, everyone does—I can’t imagine anyone that doesn’t.
I have no need to apologize. You, however, must understand, accept, and tolerate me no matter what I do or say.
I have few equals in this world, and so far, I have yet to meet one. I am the best (manager, businessman, lover, student, etc. . . .).
Most people don’t measure up. Without me to lead, others would flounder.
I appreciate that there are rules and obligations, but those apply mostly to you because I don’t have the time or the inclination to abide by them. Besides, rules are for the average person, and I am far above average.
I hope you appreciate all that I am and everything that I have achieved for you—because I am wonderful and faultless.
I do wish we could be equals, but we are not and never will be. I will remind you with unapologetic frequency that I am the smartest person in the room and how well I did in school, in business, as a parent, etc., and you must be grateful.
I may seem arrogant and haughty, and that’s OK with me—I just don’t want to be seen as being like you.
I expect you to be loyal to me at all times, no matter what I do; however, don’t expect me to be loyal to you in any way.
I will criticize you and I expect you to accept it, but if you criticize me, especially in public, I will come at you with rage. One more thing: I will never forget or forgive, and I will pay you back one way or another—because I am a “wound collector.”
I expect you to be interested in what I have achieved and in what I have to say. I, on the other hand am not at all interested in you or in what you have achieved, so don’t expect much curiosity or interest from me about your life. I just don’t care.
I am not manipulative; I just like to have things done my way, no matter how much it inconveniences others or how it makes them feel. I actually don’t care how others feel—feelings are for the weak.
I expect gratitude at all times, for even the smallest things I do. As for you, I expect you to do as I demand.
I only associate with the best people, and frankly, most of your friends don’t measure up.
If you would just do what I say and obey, things would be better.
As you can imagine, the narcissist is quite the pill to take if you live with one, work for one, or are governed by one. But don’t take my word for it. Talk to anyone who has been victimized by a narcissist. It is a graduate-level lesson in humiliation and indifference.
Psychopath By Another Name — Predator
Now we come to the psychopath. Here is where definitions and terms get a bit tricky, because there is little agreement between Robert Hare (the premier expert in the world on psychopaths), criminologists, and mental health professionals. Compounding all of this, for the average person seeking to educate themselves or help, the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th revision) and the World Health Organization’s ICD-10 (The International Statistical Classification of Diseases-10th edition) are frankly no road maps to understanding these individuals who habitually live by taking advantage of others physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, or financially—without remorse.
That is why, when I wrote Dangerous Personalities with Toni Sciarra Poynter, I avoided using the term psychopath, choosing instead to use the term predator. I felt that for the average person, this term was easier to understand than all the other terms upon which there was little agreement, such as sociopath, psychopath, habitual criminal, or anti-social personality. If the objective is to keep the public safe—and that is certainly mine—far better to have a term that people can understand and can put to use.
In talking to victims of social predation for more than thirty-five years and in doing research for various books, I found that victims don’t care whether the person who held a knife to their throat or who took their life’s savings is a psychopath or a sociopath. The only thing they care about is recognizing what these individuals are like so they can avoid them or deal with them effectively.
Unfortunately, predators have always been with us, in one form or another, and they’ve been called many things. In the Bible, there are more than six hundred entries dealing with “evil.” Past or present, when people speak of someone who is evil or who has done something evil, what they’re generally talking about is social predation. Victimizing others without a conscience defines Cain in the book of Genesis, as well as the serial rapist in any university town today.
Social predators live by taking advantage of others. They come in all varieties, shapes, and forms, from every level of society. Some live lawlessly on the streets, mugging people or worse. Others have respectable jobs where they transact mayhem. They see themselves as unrestrained by rules or laws. Morals and ethics, to them, are mere words. They have little or no regard for others and once more, they will take advantage of them finding exploitable weaknesses or the right opportunity. No matter how safe you think you are, social predators will undermine and get around whatever safety mechanisms you have in place. They lack the ability to be introspective or to restrain themselves from doing harm to society and are quite content violating human rights.
What predators have in common is a gross disregard for the sanctity of others. For them, the most important priority isn’t living according to a higher social standard, but rather not getting caught. The Ted Bundys, Bernard Madoffs, and Jerry Sanduskys of this world are impervious to decency. Human lives are something to prey upon in their own chosen way, and they have absolutely no regrets about what they do. They are evil, yes, but more specifically they predators, and as such, they need a human to take advantage of. Unctuous, beguiling, deceptive, mendacious, amoral, cold, degenerate, Machiavellian, malevolent, sleazy, uncaring, wicked, and unfeeling — that is who they are. They differ from the narcissist in that taking advantage of others is their most prized objective in their life.
From talking to predators over a quarter of a century, as I have, one learns a few things. Here are some chilling eye-opening quotes from them as to how they feel about themselves, life, and their victims. If you need a trigger warning, this is it—a medieval-sized trebuchet trigger warning.
How the Predator Thinks
I could care less about human rights — what about my rights? I have to take care of me first.
Laws and rules are meant to be broken — there is always a shortcut—there is always a way around the rules.
Most people are dupes—they should have seen it coming. I can’t help it if they can’t defend themselves.
Women deserve to be treated the way they are – look how they dress and lead us on. You don’t think they don’t know what they are doing to us?
Cheating? Everyone does it; everyone is out for themselves. I am no more of a cheat than a bank.
So what if I lie, what’s the harm? Everyone lies. In any case, I needed to.
Law and rules are meant to be broken – they are stupid rules, anyway. The trick is to not get caught.
It’s not my concern if someone suffers – they shouldn’t have been there – it was their bad luck. Accidents happen all the time, this was no different.
I don’t know why I did it. I just felt like doing it.
I don’t feel emotions like everyone else. I just don’t. I don’t get it. I feel the same every day.
Yeah, I have a long rap sheet. I’ve been in and out of jail all my life —but that’s not who I am—the police are always picking on me.
She begged for her life but at that moment, it didn’t mean anything — I had control over her and it felt good.
She kept saying no, but I couldn’t stop. I didn't want to stop.
She kept arguing with me so I punched her, and that stopped her complaining. What’s the big deal? She asked for it. She knew better than to push me.
All investments are risky—in a way they, too, are to blame for being so greedy. It’s their greed that made them invest with me.
Take a deep breath. Did you note how callous and indifferent these individuals are? They truly have no conscience, as Robert Hare pointed out so well in his book Without Conscience. They do as they please and they rationalize everything they do. In most cases they will not change and they don’t respond well to therapy. They are out to get you or something you value or hold dear with as much concern as a snake has for a passing rodent.
In Dangerous Personalities, we enumerated over two-hundred* specific traits that differentiate the narcissist from the predator, and those should be examined closely if you truly want to differentiate these two personality types. Nevertheless, one of the things that I look for in people flawed of character is this: What are they after? Do they want recognition and praise? Or do they want something from you? If so what?
Another differentiator is that narcissists tend to do things in public; they cherish public adulation and recognition and love a servile, laudatory audience. In contrast, the social predator, for the most part, wants to work in secret and prefer isolation. Any effort to isolate you should be a red flag saying DANGER!
These individuals want to separate you from family and friends or isolate you out of public view. In isolation, they can do their deeds. They may seek to control your mind or emotions (as in a cult) or, worse, they will want you in a place or situation where they can take control of your body. Thus, they may corner you between parked vans, try to get you into the car, or get you to go to their hotel room or a house out of the way; anywhere they can have their way with you in isolation. Alternatively, the conman / swindler may want you to invest your money with them without telling anyone; they restrain you from asking others for their opinions; they create exigent circumstance where time is a factor or any other excuse to keep you from thinking about what you are doing or making a phone call.
By the way, there is nothing that says a person cannot be both a malignant narcissist and a social predator. History is replete with these individuals who, when they act out, bring pure misery. Just take a look at Jim Jones of Jonestown in Guyana and Charles Manson, for starters. But that’s for a different day.
As you can imagine, there are many more differences between the narcissist and the so-called psychopath that should be explored — this is a brief take from my perspective. There are many books that can help you study the differences between the two if you are so interested, I have listed some below.
I will caution you that at some point in your life you will either associate with, work alongside, work for, or be governed by a narcissist or a social predator. The quicker you identify these individuals for what they are as result of their behavior, the greater your chances of avoiding being victimized. Lastly, after talking to hundreds of victims over the years, it bears repeating here and that is, “You have no social obligation to be tormented or to be victimized—ever.” Stay safe.
* * *
*For a full checklist of the traits of the narcissist and the social predator, please see Dangerous Personalities (Rodale) chapters I and IV.
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American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Text rev. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Arrigo, Bruce A. 2000. Introduction to Forensic Psychology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Babiak, Paul & Robert D. Hare. 2006. Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work. New York: Regan Books.
Blackburn, R. 1989. Psychopathology and personality disorder in relation to violence. In Clinical Approaches to Violence. K. Howells and C. R. Hollins, ed., New York: Wiley: 187-205
Blair, James, Derek Mitchell, & Karina Blain. 2006. The Psychopath: emotion and the Brain. Malden, Ma: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.
Butcher, James N., ed. 1995. Clinical Personality Assessment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Christie, Richard & Florence L. Geis, ed. 1970. Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.
Coleman, James C., et. al. 1984. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, Seventh Ed. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Connolly, Kate. 2008. “I was born to rape, Fritzl tells doctor.” The Guardian, October, 22. Retrieved, August 9, 2013 from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/oct/23/josef-fritzl-trial
Fox, James Allen & Levin, Jack. 2005. Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Giannangelo, Stephen J. 1996. The Psychopathology of Serial Murder: a Theory of Violence. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Guinn, Jeff. 2013. Manson. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hare, Robert D. 1993. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Pocket Books.
Hare, Robert. Et. Al. 1991. “Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100:391-398.
Kernberg, Otto F. 1985. Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.
Meloy, J. Reid. 2001. The Mark of Cain: Psychoanalytic Insight and the Psychopath. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Meloy, J. Reid. 1998. The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.
Meloy, J. Reid. 2000. Violence Risk and Threat Assessment. San Diego: Specialized Training Services.
Meloy, J. Reid. 1997. Violent Attachments. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.
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Monahan, John. 1981. Predicting violent behavior: An assessment of clinical techniques. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Myers, David G. 1993. Exploring Psychology, 2nd ed. New York: Worth Publishers.
Navarro, M.A., Joe. “Are You Being Manipulated by a Social Puppeteer?” Psychology Today/Blog/ Spycatcher, January 7, 2013. Retrieved February 21, 2013 from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher/201301/are-you-being-manipulated-social-puppeteer
Navarro, Joe with Toni Sciarra Poynter (2014). Dangerous Personalities. New York: Rodale.
Navarro, Joe. How to spot a psychopath. Kindle Edition, 2010.
Navarro, Joe. 2005. Hunting terrorists: a look at the psychopathology of terror. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.
Navarro, Joe & John R. Schafer. 2003. Universal principles of criminal behavior: a tool for analyzing criminal intent. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (January): 22-24.
Navarro, Joe. 2013b. Wound Collectors. Psychology Today/Blog/Spycatcher. Retrieved July 20, 2013 from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher/201304/wound-collectors
Rule, Ann. 2001. The stranger beside me: Ted Bundy the shocking inside story. New York: Signet Printing.
Stout, Martha. 2005. The sociopath next door. New York: Broadway Books.
Thomas, M.E. 2013. Confessions of a Sociopath: A life spent hiding in plain sight. New York: Crown Publishers.
Twenge, Jean M. & W. Keith Campbell. 2009. Living in the age of entitlement: the narcissism epidemic. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Yochelson, John & Stanton E. Samenow. 1989. The criminal personality. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc.
Yudofsky, Stuart C. 2005. Fatal Flaws: Navigating Destructive Relationships With People With Disorders of Personality and Character. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.