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Are psychopaths naturally smart?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy, remorse, and antisocial behavior. Psychopaths can be charming and manipulative, and some exhibit remarkable intelligence. This has led to speculation that psychopaths may be naturally smarter than the average person. In this article, we’ll examine the evidence surrounding the intelligence of psychopaths.

What is psychopathy?

Psychopathy is not formally recognized as a diagnostic category in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it is closely associated with antisocial personality disorder, which involves a pervasive pattern of disregard for others and violation of people’s rights. Key characteristics of psychopathy include:

  • Lack of empathy and remorse
  • Persistent lying, deception, and manipulation
  • Reckless risk-taking
  • Impulsiveness and irresponsibility
  • Antisocial and criminal behavior
  • Superficial charm and glibness

Psychopathy is thought to affect around 1% of the general population. The majority of psychopaths are male, and the condition is often first evident in childhood or adolescence.

Are psychopaths smarter than the average person?

Some research indicates that psychopaths, on average, have higher IQs than non-psychopaths in the general population. For example, a 2002 study tested the IQs of 37 psychopathic males in a high-security hospital against those of 32 non-psychopathic males from the same hospital. The psychopaths scored significantly higher on the IQ test, averaging around 110 compared to 95 for the control group.[1]

Similarly, a 2009 meta-analysis of various studies found a small but significant association between higher intelligence and psychopathic traits.[2] However, most psychopaths do not have exceptionally high IQ scores. Rather, they tend to score in the above-average range, with average scores typically between 100-115.[3]

Factors contributing to intelligence in psychopaths

Researchers have proposed several reasons why psychopaths as a group may have moderately higher intelligence:

  • Genetic factors – Specific genes may contribute to both higher intelligence and development of psychopathic traits.
  • Environmental factors – Psychopaths may receive more reinforcement for intellectual interests rather than emotional development.
  • Cognitive style – Psychopaths exhibit characteristics like reduced emotional reactivity that facilitate performance on tasks requiring reasoning and abstraction.
  • Motivations – Psychopaths may be driven to perform well on assessments of intelligence for personal gain.

However, while psychopaths on average have moderately superior intelligence, there is substantial variation within the psychopathic population. Not all psychopaths are highly intelligent, and many non-psychopaths score in the above-average IQ range.

How do psychopaths use their intelligence?

While psychopaths often score well on tests of intelligence, they seem to use their cognitive abilities in manipulative and antisocial ways. For example, psychopaths tend to exhibit strengths in:

  • Abstract reasoning
  • Making quick decisions
  • Identifying potential victims
  • Mimicking emotions
  • Reading people’s vulnerabilities

These abilities allow psychopaths to charm, deceive, and exploit others. They reflect psychopaths’ lack of empathy and detached view of others as potential targets. In contrast, psychopaths tend to have relative deficits in areas like processing emotional language and recognizing fearful expressions.[4]

High intelligence does not necessarily make psychopaths more successful, however. Many end up in prison due to their chronic antisocial, criminal behavior. Impulsiveness, lack of realistic goals, and inability to learn from punishment also impede real-world functioning for many.

Verbal intelligence vs. emotional intelligence

Most intelligence testing focuses on verbal, logical, and abstract reasoning abilities – areas that represent strengths for psychopaths. However, some researchers argue that psychopaths lack competence in “emotional intelligence.” Elements of emotional intelligence include:

  • Accurately perceiving emotions in oneself and others
  • Using emotions to facilitate thinking and problem-solving
  • Understanding emotional language and concepts
  • Managing emotions appropriately

These skills are vital for empathy, moral reasoning, insight, and social competence – areas in which psychopaths are deficient. So while psychopaths often excel in academic and logical intelligence, they lack competence in understanding emotions, regulating their behavior, and relating to others.

Psychopaths’ intellectual strengths Psychopaths’ emotional deficits
  • Abstract reasoning
  • Verbal abilities
  • Logic and analysis
  • Quick decision making
  • Understanding emotions
  • Empathy
  • Remorse
  • Moral reasoning

Are psychopaths “successful”?

In some ways, psychopaths’ cognitive strengths facilitate succeeding in certain roles, such as business executives, lawyers, or politicians. Their charm, persuasiveness, and ability to make quick, rational decisions may help them achieve career success.[5]

However, true success involves more than status or money. Many experts argue that positive relationships and emotional experiences are integral to a fulfilling life. Psychopaths’ lack of empathy, intimacy, and tendency to exploit others often leads to relationship problems, loneliness, and anxiety. When assessed with well-being measures, psychopaths do not appear to have high levels of life satisfaction.

Downsides of psychopaths’ intelligence

While psychopaths’ cognitive abilities provide some advantages, their emotional deficits yield many disadvantages:

  • Inability to form deep relationships
  • Chronic boredom and emptiness
  • Lack of long-term goals or meaning
  • Impulsiveness and poor self-control
  • Addiction and mental health problems
  • Incarceration and social exclusion

So while psychopaths may possess certain intellectual skills, their antisocial tendencies and absence of emotional bonds mean that few achieve what most would consider true success in life.


In summary, psychopaths on average have moderately higher IQs than the general population. Their cognitive strengths in verbal and logical reasoning may facilitate emotional manipulation and exploitation of others. However, psychopaths lack emotional intelligence and are deficient in empathy, insight, and social competence. While certain intellectual abilities may provide some advantages, most psychopaths are unable to achieve meaningful, positive life outcomes.

So while psychopaths exhibit certain areas of superior intelligence, their emotional and social deficits outweigh these benefits in many respects. Overall, most experts argue that psychopathy is characterized by deficits rather than strengths, and that increased intelligence does not equate to true success in life.