How Psychopaths Use 'Negative Mimicry' To Hide Their True Intentions

What makes us fall for psychopaths despite their harmful traits? Scientific research shows that their enchanting demeanor is often a well-curated deception.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | October 2, 2023

A new study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science examines how heterosexual men with psychopathic traits tend to function in romantic contexts to attract partners. Surprisingly, such individuals often have many intimate relationships in their lives.

Psychopathic traits consist of four main categories, according to the study:

  • Interpersonal traits. These encompass tendencies such as lying, manipulation, a sense of superiority and domineering, controlling behavior in social interactions.
  • Affective traits. These traits involve callousness, a disregard for others' emotions, a lack of concern for their suffering and an inability to form deep or enduring bonds.
  • Lifestyle traits. These include displaying impulsivity, recklessness, irresponsibility and constantly seeking out stimulation and excitement.
  • Chronic antisocial behavior. This refers to a willingness to break the law, having tendencies of violence and aggression without remorse and an indifference to societal norms.

"Our team has been interested in trying to unpack how psychopathic individuals seem to acquire so many partners. What kinds of tactics do they use in social interactions to potentially appeal to others as dating partners, despite their true underlying negative or antisocial traits?" says Kristopher Brazil of the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, the lead author of the study.

To investigate this, the researchers asked participants in the study to complete questionnaires assessing psychopathic traits and personality traits including the "prosocial personality triad." This triad includes:

  1. Honesty-humility, referring to one's level of fairness and sincerity
  2. Emotionality, referring to one's capacity for sentimentality and dependency
  3. Agreeableness, referring to one's capacity for forgiveness, patience and flexibility

Next, participants viewed the video of an attractive young woman describing herself as being kind, caring and devoted. The participants were then asked to once again complete the personality questionnaire but with instructions to make themselves appear most attractive to the woman in the video.

The findings revealed some important insights. The researchers discovered that individuals with psychopathic traits used "mimicry" to present a more favorable image of themselves to a potential opposite sex partner.

Psychopaths Are Adept At The Delicate Art Of Negative Mimicry

"Mimicry in the context of our study means that young men changed how they described their personality so that it would be closer to what they perceived the woman in the dating video would have wanted in a dating partner," explains Brazil.

Psychopaths typically exhibit low levels of prosocial personality traits and other socially desirable qualities. The researchers suggest that as a result, such individuals employ "negative mimicry," which refers to the exercise of camouflaging their real and more aversive identity and increasing their display of romantically appealing traits as a mate attraction tactic.

"How this might play out during social interactions with young men who have psychopathic traits might look like him presenting himself as more honest, emotional and agreeable than he truly is so that he can gain the romantic interest of a dating partner. For instance, he might talk about his love of pets, the importance of being kind to others or having a forgiving attitude," says Brazil.

A 2019 study suggests that people are interested in different personality characteristics while dating, depending on whether they are looking for a short-term or long-term partner, and individuals with psychopathic traits can adapt their mimicry based on the type of relationship a potential partner signals interest in.

"Psychopathic individuals are geared toward short-term relationships, so although they might be mimicking long-term partner qualities to convince long-term mate seekers that they are desirable, they are ultimately going to fall short and disappoint them," says Brazil.

Therefore, at least initially, such individuals tend to have success in romantic relationships, even given severe red flags like a history of incarceration. They may temporarily use mimicry to exude charm, kindness and sensitivity to attract partners, which increases their perceived trustworthiness and desirability. For example, they may even "wokefish" their dates by pretending to be socially conscious or politically liberal.

Interestingly, individuals high in psychopathy could even be deceiving themselves while they manipulate their dates, by actually believing what they are saying, such as "it's important to be honest" even if they are usually not. Research shows that those who self-deceive can become persuasive liars.

However, Brazil suggests that it is still possible to detect someone's true intentions. Here are four ways to tell if someone you are dating is concealing psychopathic tendencies.

  • Take your time to get to know them. A psychopath cannot maintain their facade indefinitely. Getting to know partners over time reveals whether they sustain their appealing personality or gradually show their true selves once their self-serving goals are met. The researchers also found that psychopaths are less able to adjust or mimic traits such as perfectionism, organization or creativity, possibly because they are harder to fake. It may be helpful to observe the consistency of these traits in a partner over time.
  • Notice their behavior in different contexts. Brazil explains that mimicry might also be harder to maintain in a variety of contexts with new people. "Mimicry is effortful, but genuineness is automatic," he says. Thus, it can be helpful to observe a potential partner in several contexts or even group settings where there is a higher possibility for competition or hostility. Settings such as bars or social get-togethers where peers and rivals would be present may illuminate their true personality.
  • Notice their communication online. Brazil points out that psychopathic individuals are most skilled in their deception in person, but "lose" that deceptive edge when things go digital. This may be because they require the moment-to-moment cues of what a partner desires to adapt and match it. Noticing the variation between their digital and real-life personality could be a helpful measure of authenticity.
  • Reflect on who you are attracted to. While dating, reflecting on whether aggression, dominance or even psychopathy may be attractive to you, perhaps even unconsciously, is an important exercise for your love life. Seeking a partner who stays consistently emotionally available and supportive over a long period of time can help you see through those who have more malevolent intentions.

"Be aware that not all prosocial behavior and communication is genuine. There are many people who think it unfathomable that virtues such as honesty, caring and gentleness can be exploited for some self-serving purpose. This doesn't mean we need to walk around all day being suspicious of every new person we meet. It just means having an extra level of awareness available to us," concludes Brazil.

A full interview with psychologist Kristopher Brazil discussing his research can be found here: New research reveals why psychopaths are deceptively charming on first dates