Narcissist or Psychopath? How to Tell
Psychopaths are end-stage narcissists, so there are a lot of similarities between them and other types of narcissists. There are some differences, though, so here is a short list of questions you can answer to try and make the distinction. Be warned though—there are also narcissists who have psychopathic tendencies but are not full-blown psychopaths, so it can be tricky.
1. Does this person become overly emotional, throw tantrums or become hysterical?
Most of the time, you will not see a psychopath behave this way. They don't have access to the type of emotion that is required to become upset enough to throw a tantrum. They don't get upset, they don't have meltdowns, they don't have fits when they can't get what they want. Psychopaths in contrast often seem to have no emotion at all. They don't react to things the way they should and they may be deliberately cruel or inappropriate.
2. Does this person seem unable to understand emotions or why people react emotionally?
Most narcissists have issues in this area, but non-psychopathic narcissists at least understand what emotions are and how they work, even if they don't care or recognize them in other people. They know why people get upset, and they know what getting upset is. Psychopaths, on the other hand, have no actual understanding of emotions at all. Like other types of narcissists, psychopaths have no emotions for anyone else but unlike other types of narcissists, they also have no emotions for themselves. They just have no emotions, period. They don't understand anything about how normal people react to things, either. Multiple studies have shown that psychopaths literally don't even recognize emotions when they see them. They do not recognize fear or distress on other people's faces and cannot read emotion in other people's eyes.
For example, a psychopathic inmate was being shown pictures of people's faces with different expressions. When he was shown someone with a fearful face, he said, “I don’t know what you call this emotion, but it’s what people look like just before you stab them.”
Another example would be an interview with serial killer John Wayne Gacy conducted by FBI profiler Robert Ressler. Gacy tried to claim that he was not responsible for any of the 30+ bodies found buried in his crawlspace and on his property. He stated that someone else killed these young boys and that he had even seen one. He stated that a guy who stayed with him had one of the victims over at the house and the next time Gacy saw the victim, the victim was dead. He was asked what he did next and he said he went to bed because there was nothing he could do about it.
Notice the total lack of understanding of how most people would react here. Most people who saw a dead body in their house would freak out. They would become upset, call the police, there would be a huge problem. Gacy felt that it would be considered a normal reaction to say he simply went to bed and left a dead body lying there on the floor in his home. No trying to help. No becoming upset. His attitude seemed to be that it was not his problem. The fact that someone died, that a young life was lost had zero impact on him whatsoever. Total disconnection to human emotion here; a complete lack of understanding of how to even fake a normal reaction. If you spend enough time around a psychopath, you will eventually notice things like that because though they may be a very clever mimic, that's all they are. They know the words, but not the music.
3. Does this person seem to have clouded perception or come across as delusional?
Most narcissists see everything through the veil of emotion. Feelings are facts to most narcissists. Emotions cloud their perception and this is what leads them to accuse people of things that did not happen, or of having motives they don't have, etc. They may perceive things so differently from everyone else that they even seem delusional. Psychopaths do not have this problem. They are not delusional, nor do they appear delusional. Their perception is not clouded by emotion or anything else. They are often rational and analytical to the point of seeming robotic because they are unable to comprehend any emotional values or aspects of a situation. For example, a psychopath who attends a funeral may behave in ways that other people find inappropriate. They may make jokes or talk about the money it's all costing. They don't understand what the fuss is about, nor do they understand why it is perceived as cruel or odd to say things like that.
4. Does this person seem disordered or crazy?
Psychopaths, in general, do not appear crazy. They don't even seem abnormal, most of the time, until you get to know them and you realize how empty and emotionless they actually are. Many narcissists seem disordered almost from the moment you meet them. They may behave bizarrely, tell outrageous lies, have really exaggerated mannerisms or facial expressions, seem overly friendly, overly attached, seem to misunderstand things that are said to them, seem really reactionary, jealous, angry or odd. You may get a vibe from them that is very off-putting. They may seem very intense and say things that seem a little weird or inappropriate. Psychopaths, in general, don't fall into this category. The more psychopathic a narcissist is, the less disordered or crazy they will seem. All of the confused emotions and conflicts that cause these kinds behaviors fall away the further down the narcissistic spectrum a person is.
5. Does this person seem to have no fear?
Most narcissists, as a rule, are pretty fearful people, on the inside. They fear abandonment, rejection, they fear being found out as a fake, they fear many things. Psychopaths feel no fear. At all. They don't fear consequences. They don't fear rejection. They don't fear injury. They fear nothing. They just don't react. They intellectually understand consequences, but they are not afraid of them. They will try to avoid them, but this is not out of fear. It's so that they can continue to do what they want without interruption. If they do get caught, there is still no real reaction. There may be a primitive outburst of rage, but it will not last and it is not the same as the tantrum behavior you often see from other types of narcissists. There will be smooth denials, rational denials, and logical explanations of why they aren't actually guilty. We see this with politicians all the time. Like other types of narcissists, when proof is introduced into the situation, they will continue to lie. However, the emotional explosions you often see with other types of narcissists when they are caught will probably not happen.
6. Does this person seem calculated?
Most types of narcissists are manipulative and vengeful, but they are not always especially calculated. They are often too emotional and impulsive to create long-term plans and wait, and cannot always appreciate consequences. If the person you are dealing with seems very calculated and patient, they may be psychopathic. For example, most narcissists will exact revenge on someone as immediately as possible. Psychopaths can wait a long time, sometimes years. They never forget, they never move on and they never lose focus. They can wait. When younger, psychopaths can be impulsive and as adults, some less organized ones can be as well, but generally, if you are looking at a sophisticated level of calculation, you are probably looking at a psychopath. There are stories of psychopaths behaving in a manner that implies calculation and planning even at the age of 2 years old when it technically shouldn't even be possible.
7. Is this person a really good liar?
Most narcissists lie. They lie for many reasons, and for no reason. They aren't always great liars though. They may forget the lies they've told, or change their story repeatedly. They don't always sound convincing and they may overlook glaring holes in their story. Psychopaths, in contrast, are usually superb liars. They rarely miss a step. They don't get flustered by emotions, therefore their mind is like a machine. A computer. They are often successful con artists, master manipulators, and skillful negotiators. They can create entire backstories and live that image to the letter without ever making a mistake. Other types of narcissist create false personas too, but they do it in defense against pathological self-hatred and the mask is very flimsy. Psychopaths usually do it to con other people and their performance is often flawless. They don't have a problem with self-hatred or any other emotion for that matter, so nothing cracks it.
All types of narcissists are driven by reward-based motivations; this is why consequences don't work with them. They are focused on success, not why they didn't succeed. This is why repeated negative consequences do not dissuade them from continuing their behavior. Another reason that negative consequences don't work may be that one study showed psychopaths' brains release 4 times more dopamine than non-psychopathic people. In a way, because of the way dopamine works with addiction and creates pathways in the brain, we could say they are literally addicted to getting what they want, and because there is so much overlap between psychopathy and "regular" narcissism, it is likely that all narcissists' brains work in a similar way. As psychopaths have no emotions to trip them up or get in their way, it may be that their pursuit of reward is more focused and direct than other types of narcissists. They are able to scheme and plot and plan their way to want they want much more easily than other types of narcissists because, in a very real way, there is nothing stopping them.
In the end, the differentiation isn't all that important. Once an abusive person has been identified in your life, the most important thing is to respect yourself and get away from the abuse.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.