WHEN we think of psychopaths, we envisage evil serial killers responsible for a shockingly brutal murder we see on the news. We have barely any concern that we will personally ever come across such an evil human being.

But, research from the Mind Research Network shows about one per cent of the population - or five of your Facebook friends - are psychopaths.

While this doesn't mean they're cold-blooded killers, their ruthless and manipulative behaviour as a friend, a colleague in the workplace, your boss or, god forbid, your boyfriend, can still be very dangerous and incredibly damaging.

And according to research, which I'll explain in a moment, we are terrible at recognising psychopaths when we come into contact with them.

The term psychopath describes those among us with no moral conscience, a limited capacity for empathy and a tendency to use others as pawns for their own gain.

So, when a normal person does something wrong, a physical sensation of emotion helps them to recognise they've acted poorly, and this shapes their future behaviour.

Take the physical feeling of guilt. It's uncomfortable as it actualises in our chest, and it tells us we have acted against our value system. Through this discomfort we learn not to repeat anti-social actions. Guilt, it could be said, is the physical manifestation of our own morality.

Psychopaths are born without the sensation of guilt. If they abuse or mistreat a stranger, a friend, a mother, or a child, they do not flinch. No regret. No shame. No pain at all to make them think twice about their actions.

Since psychopaths are never incentivised to consider the wellbeing of others, they are more than willing to inflict pain to get what they want.

What they want is power, sex, pleasure, and money - just like the rest of humanity. The psychopath is motivated solely by his, or her, own pleasure.

This is where things get dangerous, because unlike criminal psychopaths, the successful psychopath knows the law, and how to control their behaviour in order to stay out of real trouble.

With an education and a higher than average IQ, the successful psychopath is alarmingly invisible.

Successful psychopaths have the ability to lie with mastery, to manipulate and plough down those in their path, exuding charm and faux-warmth all the while. Keeping a psychopath in your sphere can be an injurious pastime.

The best line of defence we have is to recognise them, so that we can move far away, as quickly as possible.

However, recognising them is the problem. A 2008 study by the University College of London and the University of Westminster suggests that relative to other mental health issues we are not so good at recognising psychopathy when we see it.

This may be because psychopaths are over represented as murderers and serial killers in popular culture, for example Batman's Joker, or any James Bond villain.

In reality, successful psychopaths will not be tipping you off with their maniacal laugh, or be sporting thick layers of face paint.

But there are proven red-flags that may alert you to an anti-social personality type. First, as suggested by Simon Baron-Cohen* in his book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, you want to look for evidence that the suspected psychopath is willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy their desires.

This includes dramatic over reactions to the smallest obstacles in their path, or calculated cruelty to get what they want.

Also, Baron-Cohen suggests looking to see if the psychopath's lack of care of other people's feelings extends into pleasure, when they witness others in pain.

Day to day, you may see the psychopath responding to damage they have caused without remorse, and responding to tragic world events in the news with ambivalence.

Dr. Peter Jonason of Western Sydney University, who has spent a decade studying dark personality types, suggests that it takes time and careful observation to catch a psychopath.

Paying attention to their life history may be the best place to look, in particular, Jonason suggests focusing on relationship history "if they haven't had long term relationships, friendships, or romantic partners that could be a sign of an anti-social personality".

Another giveaway recognised in psychological circles arises when you ask psychopaths about themselves. Unlike most individuals, psychopaths will never bring up their moral traits, they will only discuss themselves in relation to non-moral values such as power, money or attractiveness.

A psychopath will never tell you they prize their own loyalty or their big heart.

Successful psychopaths are capable of regulating their behaviour in ways that criminal psychopaths are not. Through the facade of normality, you may be able to piece together clues that suggest when an individual isn't part of the normal population.

Since psychopaths are predators; your animal instincts might already be at work, telling you stay away from someone without you even being aware of it. Keep your eyes open so that when you meet a psychopath, you can make sure it's for the last time.

* Yes, Sasha's brother. He is a world-renowned psychological researcher.

Rikki Markson is a provisional psychologist, author and crisis counsellor.

News Corp Australia

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