Ask yourself: what do you think a psychopath is? A murdering, violent, unthinking monster, right? Actually, no. The somewhat creative way the term “psychopath” is often used throughout much of the media hints that this is indeed the definition, but it’s not at all.
Psychopathy is often ambiguously defined, and its details are hotly debated among experts.
Craig S. Neumann, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Texas, recently explained that although psychopathy is definitely real, it's not as simple as a yes/no option for people. It's almost certainly about a variety of traits, not just one defining characteristic.
"Despite the media’s portrayal and the general publics’ conception of the psychopath as seemingly inhuman and fundamentally unlike most people, the empirical evidence from large-scale studies suggests that psychopathic traits are dimensional in nature and thus are continuously distributed from low to high, as opposed to being a categorical condition where one either has the disorder or does not," he wrote in a blog post.
In general, if someone has psychopathic tendencies, then they likely exhibit a few or most of these characteristics to varying degrees of severity: a lack of empathy, an ability to become emotionally detached, a lack of remorse, extremely bold social behaviors, a lack of fear, and unconscientiousness.
Even these are sometimes debated, however – and it’s worth pointing out that psychopathy isn’t yet a truly diagnosable, unique personality disorder, partly because a consensus on what it specifically is hasn't been reached.
Psychopaths are also more likely than others to exhibit narcissism and Machiavellianism (i.e. be manipulative), but not always. They aren’t necessarily crazy, deranged or violent, and they can either struggle or excel intellectually. CEOs, journalists, astronauts, negotiators, and surgeons often exhibit psychopathic tendencies – but again, not always.
It’s not even certain how many people in society might be psychopathic to some degree. The proliferation of varyingly rigid psychological tests that let you self-diagnose your psychopathy arguably doesn’t help things out in this regard.
The point is that this is an issue that people want to be more black and white, more clear-cut, and simpler to understand, but it’s not. Experts in their respective fields are still trying to understand it themselves, which is why they’re conducting as much research on it as possible.