When thinking about the concept of “psychopath”, most people have in mind the image of a murderer , someone who kills for pleasure and whose actions obey only his own interests, without a trace of empathy and disregarding the needs, feelings and desires of those around him (which he also uses as objects to achieve his ends). This image seems very clear… but detecting these characteristics is not so easy in real life.

Until relatively recent times, no tools have been developed that can measure this alteration accurately, distinguishing it from mental and medical pathologies. In this sense, one of the main contributions in the detection and evaluation of psychopathic characteristics is the one made by Hare, who created the Hare Psychopathy Evaluation Scale or PCL (Psychopathy Checklist).

Psychopathy: what are we talking about?

To understand the Hare psychopathy rating scale, it will first be necessary to establish a definition of what we mean by psychopathy.

The concept of psychopathy refers to a personality disorder in which there is a more or less complete absence of empathy and concern for the other and a deep focus on oneself and one’s needs. It is not considered a clinical entity, that is, is not a mental disorder . The definition of this construct can vary greatly depending on the authors who express it and the type of psychopathy we’re talking about (in fact, we could find very diverse types of psychopaths, with some authors even proposing as many as nine).

Although the image that most people have of them is the one mentioned in the introduction, the truth is that not all of them are criminals or commit crimes : there are psychopaths integrated into society and in fact in many cases they become political leaders (some of whom have even committed great abuses) or big businessmen.

However, there are a series of characteristics common to most psychopaths : the most defining and determining factor is the inability to develop affective relationships, lack of empathy and indifference towards the feelings of others. In addition to this, the use of others to achieve their ends, the absence of guilt and sense of responsibility over one’s own actions, the low intensity of most of their emotions, arrogance and self-centredness, the capacity for seduction and superficial relationships in which the other person is not valued and manipulation are usually some of the most common characteristics.

There are also** problems in planning or assessing the future or the consequences of one’s actions**, the need to look for sensations, impulsiveness, discordance between language and behaviour and the need for immediate gratification.

What are its causes?

It is important to note that technically psychopathy is not considered a mental disorder. This is a condition of unknown cause but in which strong genetic components have been detected (for example, it is frequent that in the study of twins it is observed that both have psychopathic characteristics), although at least half of the variance in suffering or not from this disorder is linked to environmental factors.

Some differences have been observed at the biological and temperament level that complicate the socialization processes during growth, not integrating the primary experiences of socialization in an adaptive way. These are people who are fully aware of their acts , not presenting alterations in the volitional capacity and in which there is no affectation of the basic cognitive functions (beyond the emotional sphere).

PCL: The Hare Psychopathy Rating Scale

The Psychopathy Checklist , PCL or Hare’s psychopathy assessment scale is one of the most widely used assessment instruments to evaluate the existence of psychopathy.

Originated and based on the grouping of factors and criteria already proposed previously by Cleckley, this is a scale created by Hare that evaluates through 20 items (although originally there were 22), the main personality traits and characteristics of subjects with psychopathy.

This is a scale that must be filled in based on the information obtained during the semi-structured interview with the subject, the observation and analysis of his behaviour, interviews with his environment and knowledge obtained from his file. The interview itself can be completed in about two hours, although it depends on each case. Each item is scored with a 0, 1, or 2 depending on whether the item in question cannot be applied to the subject (0), can be applied in a certain sense (1), or can be applied to the subject as something consistent in his/her behavior (2). The maximum score is 40 and the existence of psychopathy is considered for those cases that exceed 30 points (although this should be contrasted with interviews with the subject’s environment and checking other possible interviews and records referring to the subject. Scores over 25 are considered predictors of antisocial and violent behaviour .

It is important to bear in mind that this is an instrument created on the basis of the prison population, in clinical and forensic practice, and has been shown to be useful in predicting the probability of recidivism, assessing possible sentence violations and predicting the occurrence of antisocial behaviour.

What do you value? Scale items

As we have seen, within the PCL (in its revised version) or psychopathy assessment scale created by Hare we find a total of 20 items that try to assess the existence of different characteristics of psychopathy. Specifically, the following items are evaluated.

1. Superficial charm/localization

One of the most common characteristics of psychopaths is their ease of handling and their superficial attractiveness, often being very seductive . They are considered fun and entertaining and seem to master many subjects and topics of conversation.

2. Egocentrism and feelings of grandeur

The psychopath tends to have an overvalued view of himself, with great self-confidence and with an egocentric attitude . Furthermore, he tends to see only his own vision of things and focus on his own needs. You may feel admired and envied.

3. Sensation seeking

Another frequent feature of people with psychopathy is the tendency to get bored easily and to look for stimulating activities , looking for action, competition and opportunities.

4. Pathological lie

Lying and cheating are frequent elements in the behavior of the psychopath. He can make up easily credible stories and doesn’t usually worry about being discovered. He has no trouble breaking his promises .

5. Handling

Psychopaths generally tend to be manipulative, using their skills and their capacity for seduction to make it easier for others to obtain and achieve their goals, often without worrying about the effects on the manipulated person .

6. Absence of guilt

Linked to the lack of empathy, the psychopath tends not to feel guilty about what happens around him, as well as the consequences of his actions.

7. Emotional superficiality

Many psychopaths are known to show a flat emotional spectrum, without manifesting major reactions and resulting in their emotional expression often being shallow and even acted upon . They can indeed experience emotions, but they are generally considered to be low intensity and superficial.

8. Lack of empathy

One of the most fundamental characteristics of psychopaths is their lack of empathy. The psychopathic subject is usually incapable of putting himself in the place of others , or not valuing what others may be feeling or wanting. Coupled with the high capacity for manipulation they usually have, they often use others only to achieve their ends.

9. Parasitic lifestyle

This criterion assumes that many psychopaths utilitarianly employ their families and environment to subsist without having to make an effort, unless such work provides them with a motivation that allows them to stand out and be number one.

10. Absence of self-control

People with a psychopathic personality may not have deep emotionality, but their immediate behavioural reactions may be extreme . The use of violence may be one of them, briefly and generally without causing a later reaction.

11. Promiscuity

The high level of loquacity and superficial attractiveness of many psychopaths means that they tend to have an easy time having sporadic sex. Likewise, the absence of empathy and responsibility together with the search for sensation make it difficult to maintain more stable relationships .

12. Previous behavior problems

It is not strange that the psychopathic subject has manifested behavioural problems already in childhood. In this sense is usually related to dissociative disorder , being able to exercise sadistic behaviours and torture animals, for example.

13. Long-term planning issues

Another common element in psychopathy is the fact that they tend to focus on the short term and obtaining immediate gratification. They often don’t think about the future (which also affects their lack of consideration for the consequences of their actions), or they may have some kind of goal that they haven’t thought about how to achieve.

14. Impulsivity

It refers to non-premeditated behaviour, acting immediately on the basis of opportunity and one’s own appetite without considering alternatives or possible consequences.

15. Irresponsibility

This item refers to the lack of commitment to others. You may have a certain level of loyalty to your family and close social circle, but generally you do not pay much attention to obligations and duties towards others.

16. Non-acceptance of responsibility for conduct

Linked to irresponsibility, the subject with psychopathy does not usually take responsibility for his or her own actions. Although he does not feel guilty for them, he usually justifies them and uses different excuses .

17. Short term relationships

The relationships of a subject with psychopathy are not usually stable. Although they may have a partner, as we have said before there is usually no lasting commitment. They may have a marriage or even children, but generally they are neglected and often incur infidelities and other activities.

18. Juvenile delinquency

We have mentioned before that already from childhood the subject with psychopathy manifests a great number of features of this condition. It is not rare that in adolescence there are crimes of greater or lesser severity that can have different repercussions for themselves or for others, and can even lead to serious crimes and even blood crimes.

19. Revocation of Parole

This is an item reserved only for those subjects who have been incarcerated and may have opted for parole.

20. Criminal Versatility

This last item tells us about the existence of different types of crime committed by the subject , which can range from robbery, drug trafficking, murder, assault, sexual crime, kidnapping or reckless driving, among others.

General aspects to take into account

In the PCL or Hare’s Psychopathy Assessment Scale, as we have seen, the personality and behavior of the people analyzed through it are evaluated in search of traits characteristic of psychopathy. The items in question can be grouped into different facets for analysis. Specifically, it is proposed that there are two main factors, with four factors to be taken into account within them.

Factor 1: Interpersonal/Affective

This first factor refers mainly to the more properly internal aspects of the subject, such as his personality, the way he approaches interpersonal relationships, affectivity and cognition. It is related to narcissistic traits . Within it we can find two basic dimensions, the interpersonal and the affective.

Interpersonal Dimension

This dimension evaluates the type of relationship the subject has with his environment and how he relates to others. It includes mainly the items of superficial charm, feelings of grandeur, lying, manipulation, lack of guilt feelings, superficial emotionality, lack of empathy and non-recognition of one’s own responsibility.

Affective Dimension

This second dimension refers to the management and the experience of emotions by the subject . It includes the search for sensations, the lack of self-control and empathy, superficial emotion, lack of sensitivity and empathy.

Factor 2: Social deviation

This second factor mainly refers to elements that inform us about how the subject relates to the world around him and how he behaves in it. It is more linked to factors related to the commission of antisocial behaviour. Within this we can find the lifestyle and the antisocial aspect of his personality.


It refers to the kind of life the subject usually leads in his day-to-day life. Items such as promiscuity, short relationships, lack of commitment or criminal versatility are included. It may also include the need for stimulation or the absence of long-term goals , sensation-seeking and self-centredness.


This section includes the conduct that the subject has had throughout his life, such as the presence of crimes during youth, whether he has been imprisoned and whether his parole has been revoked or the lack of responsibility for his own acts.

Bibliographic references

  • Folino, J.O. and Castillo, J.L. (2006). The facets of psychopathy according to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-revised and its reliability. Argentine Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. XVII:325-330.
  • Lykken, D. (1994) Las personalidades antisociales. Barcelona: Herder.