Charm and intelligence are two of the most common traits on the psychopathy checklist, devised by Dr. Robert Hare.
This checklist is now used extensively as a tool to determine whether people fall into the category of psychopathy.
On the surface, psychopaths have a reputation for being highly intelligent and charming. This is in no doubt partly due to their portrayal in the media as evil geniuses or in films as charming assassins. Scratch a little deeper into the psyche of a psychopath and the veneer of charisma and intelligence soon fall away. So why are we initially taken in and fooled in the first place?
It is important to understand why a psychopath needs to appear charming in the first instance before we go onto to examine if they really do have a superior intelligence to the rest of the population.
Psychopathy and Charm
The aim of the psychopath is to get you to do their bidding. In order to achieve this, they will use charisma, be verbally entrancing, and make you feel like you are the centre of the universe. They are able to do this because they have absolutely no remorse, conscience or sense of guilt. Psychopaths use charm in order to deceive, to manipulate, to get their own way, which brings us to intelligence.
Psychopathy and Intelligence
The very nature of using charm in a manipulative way would suggest that a person has to have some degree of intelligence.
This is true of psychopaths. Psychopaths plan out their mind games, they choose the best victims, they carry a story, telling lie upon lie, remembering and backtracking whilst adding to the story, constantly having to think on their feet should they trip up. It takes an intelligent person to be able to sustain this amount of deception.
Psychopaths are not necessarily more intelligent
Whilst it is true that some psychopaths are intelligent, research has shown that by no means are all psychopaths highly intelligent. However, there is a common misconception amongst laypeople that most psychopaths are more intelligent than other criminal types. Recent studies support this.
In one study, people were more likely to agree that “psychopaths are often highly intelligent” and “psychopaths are very socially skilled and competent in most social situations.” Other studies link these findings so it would appear that generally, we perceive psychopaths to be highly intelligent. However, numerous research has shown there is no evidence to suggest a correlation between a person with psychopathic tendencies and high intelligence.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, our initial instinct is to class psychopaths as charming and highly intelligent.
Two further studies could shed more light on this.
What other factors do we associate intelligence with?
One study asked participants to rate their perceptions of a defendant in a mock murder trial. They were asked to use Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and rate how strongly the defendant possessed psychopathic traits. The checklist examines two factors of psychopathy:
- Factor 1 – Primary Psychopathy which relates to low empathy and interpersonal coldness.
- Factor 2 – Secondary Psychopathy which relates to aggressive, antisocial behaviour and socially deviant lifestyles.
The defendant was then assessed on other psychological and behavioural characteristics, which included intelligence, amongst other factors.
It was found that those participants that rated the defendant highly in psychopathic traits also rated him highly in Factor 1 traits, i.e. highly intelligent.
This meant that people were associating intelligence with the emotionally cold traits of Factor 1.
In another study, participants were asked to rate traits they found desirable in other people. Factors such as trust, honesty, compliance, and modesty were seen as particularly desirable but not associated with high intelligence. People with these qualities appear, albeit, very nice, but not necessarily clever.
So if there is no evidence to suggest that psychopaths are more intelligent than the average person on the street. We have to blame ourselves for giving them this characteristic.
Perhaps we are so in awe of what psychopaths can do, that we somehow value their intelligence more and give it a weight it is not deserved. Certainly, a highly intelligent and charming psychopath is a force to be feared.
It is true, however, that a highly intelligent person is no more likely to be a psychopath than a less intelligent one, it is just when the two combine the potential for devastation is much greater.