The Scary Personality Disorder That Is Much Harder To Spot In Women

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sullen looking man and woman next to each other

Who comes to mind when you hear the word psychopath? Charles Manson? Ted Bundy? Hannibal Lecter?

It seems like all the high-profiles psychopaths are men, regardless of whether we’re talking about those in the real world or in movies.

But what about women? Is there such a thing as a female psychopath?

The answer is yes. And chances are high that you have at least one in your life.

She could be your boss, your girlfriend, your co-worker, your sister. Maybe even your mother-in-law (admit it, you know you’ve considered that possibility at least once).

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We don’t hear much about female psychopaths. They are rarely depicted in movies or books (notable exceptions being "Fatal Attraction," "Misery," and "Gone Girl").

They are also rarely studied in the scientific literature. But the few studies that have examined female psychopaths confirm that they do exist. In fact, an estimated 17 percent of incarcerated women fit the criteria of a psychopath (compare that to 30 percent of incarcerated men).

But what about outside the prison system, in everyday life? These percentages suggest that the odds are higher that you’ll bump elbows with a male with psychopathic personality traits than a female one, right?

Not so fast.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder — a disease. And diseases are known to manifest differently in men and women.

Take heart attacks as an example. The symptoms usually associated with a heart attack — chest pain, tingling in the left arm, sweating — are common in men. Women suffering from a heart attack are much less likely to experience these symptoms and more likely to have shortness of breath and nausea.

Well, it turns out that psychopathy also manifests differently in men and women.

The stereotypical symptoms depicted in movies like "American Psycho" and "Silence of the Lambs" — animal abuse, physical violence, superficial charm — are far more indicative of a male psychopath.

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Female psychopaths exhibit different, often less violent, symptoms. As a result, they are far more likely to go undetected as compared to their male counterparts.

How do female psychopaths differ from male psychopaths?

1. Narcissism

First, all psychopaths are high in narcissism — meaning they see themselves as superior to others. But female psychopaths are more covert about their narcissistic tendencies.

Male narcissists tend to shout their grandiose self-beliefs from the rooftops (or Twitter feeds). Female narcissists think they are better than you behind your back, but they hide their true feelings when face-to-face.

2. Aggression

Even more distinctive is how female psychopaths express aggression.

Male psychopaths tend to display behavioral aggression. They engage in physical assault, abuse animals, or commit violent crimes.

Female psychopaths prefer relational aggression (think Amy Dunne from "Gone Girl"). They hurt you at work by spreading gossip. They gaslight you to the point that you doubt your own sanity.

They leech off you and trick you into doing their bidding (think Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the movie "Single White Female"). And if you refuse to go along, they threaten to harm themselves in response.

Female psychopaths are master puppeteers, triggering everyone’s buttons and pulling people’s strings to get what they want.

Put simply: male psychopaths throw punches; female psychopaths throw shade.

This difference in aggressive styles likely explains why the percentage of psychopaths in male prisons is twice that of female prisons.

Since male psychopaths are more likely to engage in violent behavior, they are more likely to get caught and locked up. Female psychopaths are better equipped to fly under the radar.

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What do you do if you suspect there is a female psychopath in your life?

The first step is to identify them, which is harder than you may think.

Contrary to what the movies tell us, most psychopaths are not psychotic, raging killers. Instead, most are what psychologists call “successful psychopaths” — they’re your CEO, doctor, lawyer or beloved celebrity (all are professions with high percentages of psychopaths).

So the good news is that if there is a psychopath in your life, he or she is not likely to kill you. The bad news is that they are likely to make your life miserable and harm you in less obvious ways, so detection is key.

But before you start to feel paranoid, know this. Not every woman who gossips or threatens self-harm is a psychopath. Psychopathy is a narrowly defined disorder made up of a combination of traits, not just one.

What if you realize you do have an actual psychopath in your life?

The truth is, there is little you can do to change a psychopath. In many ways, their disorder is hardwired into their brains.

For example, when viewing distressing images or immoral behaviors, psychopaths (both male and female) show reduced activity in the amygdala — the part of our brain that controls and processes emotions.

This research finding explains why psychopaths are unmoved by the suffering of others; their lack of empathy runs deep within their neural architecture. In many ways, psychopathy is really a disease of the emotional circuitry of the brain, especially the part that deals with interpersonal emotions.

So what then? In many cases, the best way to beat a psychopath at their own game is to just refuse to play. Don’t engage in their petty gossip. Don’t take the bait when they push your buttons. Stand your ground and don’t let them intimidate you.

And if all else fails, do what victims in serial killer movies always do: Run!

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Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of 'The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.' She also explores the psychological differences between conservatives and liberals on her blog Red Brain, Blue Brain.