I've heard the claim that psychopaths are constantly, or at least most of the time acting in order to manipulate people, most recently on an episode of Supernatural, episode 15 of season 7.

The dialogue was as follows:

Sam: So, Jeffrey was just pretending to be the victim.

Sam: Way back in that farmhouse during the exorcism, h-he was just...acting.

Dean: He was a psychopath, Sam.

Dean: That's what they do all the time, is act. Act like they're normal, act like they're not balls-to-the-wall crazy.

Another, perhaps more well known instance of this claim is the titular character on the TV shows Dexter, a self-proclaimed psychopath. It is mentioned throughout the show that Dexter has to act "normal" to fit in and avoid arousing suspicion. Quotes from Dexter demonstrate that:

Dexter: [voiceover] I like to pretend I'm alone. Completely alone. Maybe post-apocalypse or plague … whatever. No one left to act normal for. No need to hide who I really am. It would be … freeing.


Harry Morgan: But most normal people don't, and it's important that you seem normal. Teenage Dexter: Even though I'm not. Harry Morgan: Because you're not.

A major characteristic is that they don't feel empathy or remorse, so I take the claim as above to mean that they are acting to give the impression that they do.

Is there any validity to the claim that people diagnosed as psychopaths are acting a substantial amount of the time, significantly more than most people as implied?

I would guess any surveys or long-term observations could provide a starting point to answering this question.

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    Given that it could be reasonably argued that everyone (in the presence of others) acts most of the time, the meaning of 'acting' needs to be cleared up. – Oddthinking Feb 20 '12 at 23:08
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    @Oddthinking, you don't think the sense in which they are using acting is clear from the context? The quote from Supernatural is pretty clear, acting like they're normal. Episodes of criminal minds or law and order make the same claim. Essentially, acting to fit in with the rest of society. – Sonny Ordell Feb 20 '12 at 23:12
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    @Sklivvz I disagree. The implication in such claims is that non-psychopaths are not acting most of the time. Even if you say that most people all act to some extent, it is nowhere near the same extent that psychopaths are claimed to act. It's the extent that differentiates the claim and makes it addressable. – Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 1:28
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    @Sklivvz, oddthinking -- Since psychopaths don't tend to feel empathy or remorse, the claim is that they are constantly acting to give the impression that they do, to appear normal. That isn't the same thing as people acting to conform and nowhere near the same extent. – Sonny Ordell Feb 22 '12 at 1:21
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    I don't think this is answerable, as "psychopath" isn't very well defined, and the trouble with mental illness is that you'd have a hard time saying "All people with X definitely do Y all of the time." Is it possible for a psychopath to feel empathy? Probably? Some of the time? From wikipedia: "there is no consensus about the symptom criteria for psychopathy, and no psychiatric or psychological organization has sanctioned a diagnosis of 'psychopathy' itself." and "It is defined in different ways, but can involve a lack of empathy or remorse, false emotions..." – John Lyon Feb 22 '12 at 5:52

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