New Research Reveals Why Psychopaths Are Deceptively Charming On First Dates
Researcher Kristopher Brazil explains how psychopaths are able to evade detection and date successfully in the short-term.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 19, 2023
A new study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science examines how heterosexual men with psychopathic traits tend to use psychological tactics such as "mimicry" to appear more likable to their potential romantic partners.
I recently spoke to Kristopher Brazil of the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, lead author of the study to discuss how such individuals operate in dating contexts, and how to identify them for one's own safety. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to delve into the study of how individuals with psychopathic traits navigate social interactions, particularly in dating contexts?
Among the various behavior that individuals with psychopathic traits seem to display, atleast two things have been very consistent, going back to the earliest descriptions of psychopathy.
The first is a tendency toward violence and aggression without seeming remorseful. This is possibly the most textbook view of what a psychopath is—someone who is violent without remorse. But a second consistent finding is that psychopathic individuals have many intimate relationships.
This may not seem surprising given some of the traits of psychopathy (e.g., sensation seeking, superficial charm), but it really does beg the question of how these individuals seem to capture the hearts and passions of prospective partners—even if those relationships are short-term—despite their personality consisting of negative and aversive traits such as selfishness, callousness, and recklessness.
Thus, 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?
How did you go about assessing the relationship between psychopathic traits and mimicry of prosocial personality traits? Could you provide an overview of the study's design?
Our overall design was meant to capture how willing young heterosexual men would beto change their self-described personality after viewing a video of an attractive young woman.
We had young men first complete valid measures of psychopathic traits and "baseline" normal personality traits, which includes three prosocial personality traits called Honesty-Humility (e.g., fair, sincere), Emotionality (e.g., sentimental, dependent), and Agreeableness (e.g., patient, flexible).
We called this version their "baseline" normal personality because it captured the participants' regular personality before introducing the video of an attractive woman to them. They next watched the video of an attractive woman describing herself with different personality descriptors, including those that capture prosocial traits (e.g., kind, caring, devoted).
After watching the video, the young men were asked to complete the normal personality measure again, but with the instructions to make themselves appear most attractive to the woman in the dating video.
The second time completing the personality measure we called their "mimicked"personality because it shows how much they changed, and potentially mimicked (i.e.,tried to match), their personality to that of the woman in the dating video.
Could you offer a brief explanation of what psychopathic traits encompass? What are some key characteristics that define individuals with these traits?
Psychopathic traits consist of 4 categories of behavior that are exhibited on a chroniclevel across settings and over time.
First are interpersonal traits, which includes being prone to lying, manipulating others, seeing yourself as better than others, and being domineering and controlling in social interactions.
Second are affective traits, including a tendency toward callousness and disregarding others' emotions, lacking concern for the suffering of others, and not having deep or enduring bonds or affiliations toward others.
The third category is lifestyle traits, which include being impulsive, reckless, irresponsible, and seeking out stimulation and excitement.
Lastly, the fourth category is chronic antisocial behavior, which is often captured by a willingness to break the law or rules, being aggressive and bullying, and being unmoved by the constraints of societal norms.
Although some people might exhibit 1 or 2 of these categories at high levels, a psychopathic individual is someone who exhibits all 4 of these categories of behavior at higher levels relative to the norm.
Your study revealed that individuals with psychopathic traits tend to mimic prosocial personality traits. Could you elaborate on what you mean by "mimicry" in this context and how it plays out during social interactions?
Mimicry in the context of our study means that young men changed how they describedtheir personality so that it would be closer to what they perceived the woman in thedating video would have wanted in a dating partner.
Mimicry in our study meant matching oneself to be similar to another. The greater the change in personality traits across the baseline and mimicked responses, the more indicative this was of mimicking what the woman "wanted."
Of course, there are limitations to the design—e.g., we only used self-report of personality and did not observe behavior—;our study still points to the willingness to match oneself in personality to another in a dating context, despite that matching being deceptive (i.e., not representative of one's true self).
How this might play out during social interactions with young men who have psychopathic traits might look something 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.
How do the study's findings shed light on the intricate balance between genuine behavior and intentional mimicry, especially when it comes to psychopathic individuals seeking romantic partners?
One thing to keep in mind when thinking about deception in psychopathy is the idea of self-deception. It may be that psychopathic individuals actually believe what they are saying during a prospective dating encounter (e.g., "it's important to be honest"), which might suggest they are deceiving themselves in the moment, because they don'tactually believe this most of the time.
This would fit with Robert Trivers's research showing that those who can self-deceive are actually better liars—;it takes less cognitive capacity to hold onto and differentiate the lies from the truth.
This could make it genuinely difficult to detect someone's true intentions, including whether the individual is objectively higher on psychopathic traits despite their tendency to show prosociality to impress or influence prospective partners' perceptions.
One possibility, however, would be interacting with the individual in multiple contexts and across different times to assess the genuineness of their "prosociality". For instance, if they are mimicking prosociality—;rather than genuinely being prosocial—because they think it's what you
want in a partner, this mimicry might be harder to maintain across settings with new people and new interactions to observe them in and across time. Mimicry is effortful, but genuineness is automatic.
The concept of "negative mimicry" was mentioned in relation to psychopathic traits. Could you elaborate on this concept and its role in the study's findings?
Negative mimicry is like camouflaging yourself to prevent others from seeing your true identity. You conceal something about yourself that you don't want others to see.
In terms of how this concept relates to our study, it is more an interpretation of why the change in personality scores occurred. Negative mimicry would suggest that young men higher in psychopathy know that their true personality is aversive and not appealing to women, so when asked, they may be increasing their scores on prosocial personality dimensions to conceal their aversive true personality.
Future studies could try to examine negative mimicry more directly by for instance asking participants why they might have changed their scores from one setting to another.
The study suggests that men with psychopathic traits might adjust their mimicry strategies based on short-term vs. long-term mate preferences. How might this understanding impact our perceptions of dating dynamics and mate selection?
Evolutionary researchers David Buss and David Schmitt uncovered that people payattention to or are interested in different characteristics in mates depending on whether we are looking for a short- or long-term mate.
Our study did not clarify this distinction to the woman in the video nor the participants, so we hope we can spur additional research that might look at this distinction in relation to mimicry and psychopathy.
One general idea to take away though is 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 the long-term mate seeker.
Again, playing out the relationship across contexts and time could reveal whether the long-term characteristics being displayed are genuine or not.
More contentiously, what can we say about the short-term mate seeker who may find aggression and dominance attractive, or even finds the idea of psychopathy attractive? This is a difficult topic to traverse because it involves navigating individual choice and ethical or moral sensibilities. I think many people are interested in having this conversation, but it will take overcoming simplistic and misleading headlines like, "women love psychopaths."
In your view, what are the key implications of this study's findings for our broader understanding of psychopathic traits and their impact on interpersonal dynamics?
The most important implication is that psychopathy, although damaging and socially undesirable, may be functional for the individual. Although deceptive and self-serving, which again are damaging and undesirable on a social level, the mimicry and othertactics we might see in psychopathy are skilled and goal-directed, which seems to suggest a functional quality to the traits.
This does not mean that we need to condone them or admire the traits, but with understanding comes greater ability to contain and control them.
For this reason, our research and others' that take an evolutionary perspective of such antisocial conditions like psychopathy are important for interventions, even if they are not in vogue in most professional or clinical settings.
The uniqueness an evolutionary perspective offers intervention approaches is to grant anability to see potential purpose behind behavior, even antisocial behavior, rather thanbeing bewildered by why people continue to engage in these damaging and negativeapproaches to life.
Given the prevalence of misinformation and deception in the digital age, how can the study's findings help individuals make more informed choices in their interactions and relationships?
It's easier to fake positive qualities and genuineness online than in person... for the average person. But some research suggests that psychopathic individuals are most skilled in their deception in person, but "lose" that deceptive edge when things go digital.
This may be because psychopathic individuals need the moment-to-moment cues to read and respond dynamically to the situation. In a weird twist then, it may actually be less likely someone will be exploited or deceived by a psychopathic individual specifically if you are doing most communication online.
That said, there is still more research to do on this topic, and given the breadth of people that can be reached online the problem of deception having consequences for even a small numberof those people could be profound.
What avenues for future research do you foresee based on the outcomes of this study? Are there specific areas or questions that you believe should be explored further?
It would be interesting to examine real-time mimicry in facial expressions while men interact with a potential mate.
In addition to reporting on personality traits, it would also be interesting to examine how young men with psychopathic traits might differ in how they describe themselves in a dating video in response to a woman's description of herself. For instance, are they more likely to describe themselves with similar terms as she describes herself? What about if the woman describes more short- vs. long-term mating interests? Are psychopathic men more likely to match those differing profiles?
It would also be interesting and informative to examine how individual differences like psychopathy may be influential during interpersonal contexts involving groups of people,especially those that have an undercurrent of competition or hostility (e.g., bars, parties,hang-outs). Dating contexts aren't always just one-on-one discussions and getting-to-know-yous. They also implicate broader groups where peers and rivals are present.
What message would you like to convey to readers and the general public about the importance of understanding psychopathic traits and their implications on social interactions, particularly in the realm of dating?
Be aware that not all prosocial behavior and communication is genuine. Although suspicious people might read that and balk, there are many people who think it unfathomable that virtues such as honesty, caring, and gentleness can be exploited forsome 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.