Crime dramas, thriller movies, and mystery novels have popularized psychopathy, contributing to plenty of myths around what it truly means.
For example, sometimes people use “psychopath” interchangeably with other stigmatizing terms, such as “evil,” “violent,” or “criminal.” Perhaps you’ve read psychopaths experience no emotions at all and care nothing for the consequences of their actions.
You might’ve even heard it’s possible to recognize a psychopath simply by looking into their eyes.
Yet psychopathy is somewhat more complex than these ideas suggest.
First of all, psychopathy isn’t an actual mental health diagnosis. It’s a casual term for traits typically associated with a psychiatric diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
People with ASPD usually:
- lack a clear sense of right and wrong
- have trouble understanding and empathizing with other people’s feelings
- show little remorse for their actions
These traits can certainly increase the chances of someone partaking in unlawful or harmful behavior, but they don’t necessarily make someone violent.
What about the so-called psychopathic stare? Is there any truth to the idea you can recognize psychopathic traits in someone’s eyes? Or is that just another myth? You’ll find an evidence-backed explanation below.
Your eyes, and their movements, can convey a lot of information about mood and emotions, from happiness to humor to boredom to disdain.
While your gaze might linger on someone you find attractive or appealing, you might quickly look away from something that frightens or disturbs you. Your pupils also dilate when you experience strong emotions, including fear, anger, and love (or lust).
The various suggested characteristics of “psychopath eyes” seem to echo the general belief that people with ASPD have no emotions to show.
These descriptions include:
- dead, flat, or reptilian-like eyes
- very dark irises, or eyes that appear black
- pupils that don’t dilate
- an expression, such as a smile, that doesn’t reach the eyes
- a “soulless” stare
Maybe you’ve also heard of the “psychopath stare.”
People generally describe this as a prolonged, predatory gaze, or a fixed stare that feels unsettling and uncomfortable. Maybe you feel like someone’s watching you and catch their eyes every time you look up.
The suggested reasons for this stare vary.
Some people believe those with psychopathic traits use intense eye contact to startle others and catch them off-guard, so they can use manipulation tactics more easily.
Others suggest it’s a way of maintaining power and control during social interactions.
Still, others say it’s simply boredom. Staring intensely could make someone feel nervous, even somewhat fearful — reactions that people who enjoy causing fear and pain would, of course, enjoy.
But there’s little evidence to support any of these ideas. It’s also worth noting that a diagnosis of ASPD doesn’t automatically mean someone enjoys hurting others.
According to Japanese face reading, various elements of your face can offer insight on your personality, abilities, and experiences.
Sanpaku, which means “three whites,” is one element of face reading.
If you look at your own eyes in a mirror, you’ll see the whites (sclera) on either side of each iris, of course. But if you also see white above or below the iris, your eyes are considered sanpaku — they have three whites.
Sanpaku is further divided into two subtypes:
- Yin sanpaku. This refers to the white below the iris. Traditionally, yin sanpaku suggests you may face some type of threat or danger from the world, or that you have a tendency to expose yourself to risks or danger.
- Yang sanpaku. This refers to the white above the iris. It’s said to suggest you face more of a threat from within. In other words, you’re more likely to have a hard time managing unwanted emotions, which could negatively affect both your behavior and overall well-being.
George Ohsawa is generally credited with introducing the idea of sanpaku to Western society. His explanation, however, deviated somewhat from traditional face reading, as he suggested sanpaku had more negative connotations.
Yang sanpaku, in particular, became associated with mental illness and psychopathic traits, including:
Someone’s habitual facial expressions can absolutely offer clues to their personality or mood. That said, no scientific evidence to date supports any association between sanpaku and psychopathic traits.
Researchers have observed two main differences when comparing the eyes or gaze of people with traits of ASPD to people without those traits.
Here’s a brief snapshot of their findings.
A 2018 study explored the connection between psychopathic traits and pupil dilation in response to stimuli.
Researchers started by measuring primary and secondary psychopathy traits in 82 male psychiatric hospital inpatients:
- Primary psychopathy traits refer to interpersonal-affective traits and behaviors, such as lack of guilt, low empathy, and a tendency to manipulate.
- Secondary psychopathy traits refer to lifestyle-antisocial behaviors, such as lawbreaking, conduct problems, and impulsive or risky behavior.
They then showed participants a combination of images, video, and sound clips intended to provoke negative, positive, or neutral emotional responses.
When looking at negative images or angry faces, participants with higher levels of primary psychopathy showed less pupil dilation than other participants.
Experts didn’t notice any change in pupil dilation in response to the positive images, or any of the audio clips. They also didn’t find a similar response in participants who scored high on measures of secondary psychopathy, but not primary psychopathy.
The study authors offered a potential explanation that levels of psychopathy tend to be lower in community samples.
In other words, the primary traits they later connected to pupil response may not show up as often, or as strongly, in the general community — only in people who score very high on measures of psychopathy.
Three separate studies challenge the idea of the so-called “psychopathic stare.”
Findings from these studies suggest people who score higher on measures of psychopathy are actually less likely to make eye contact or fixate on the eyes of others.
A 2017 study compared 30 men who had at least one conviction for violence with 25 men who didn’t.
When shown images of faces, participants with higher boldness scores on the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure (a questionnaire designed to identify psychopathy) were slower to look at the eye region. They also spent less time overall looking at the eyes.
The study authors suggested this could support links between psychopathic traits, difficulty processing emotions, and a decreased fear response.
Through a series of face-to-face conversations with 30 incarcerated adults, researchers found that those with higher affective psychopathy scores tended to make less eye contact throughout the conversation.
Together, these findings contradict the idea of a psychopathic stare.
They also support existing research that suggests people with psychopathic traits have trouble recognizing and processing emotions, social cues, and facial expressions.
It’s pretty much impossible to “see” psychopathy in someone’s eyes, or in any other physical characteristics.
Yes, people with specific psychopathic traits may show less pupil dilation when encountering frightening images. Still, as experts have pointed out, this may be less obvious in everyday life — especially when you don’t know exactly what to look for.
Even then, the lack of dilation could have another explanation. And, don’t forget, decreased pupil response didn’t seem to apply to people with mostly secondary psychopathic traits.
Research also counters other common assumptions about psychopathy.
For example, people with ASPD can:
It’s always best to avoid making assumptions about personality based on appearance or body language. Personality disorders, like any other mental health condition, show up in different ways from person to person.
Only trained mental health professionals have the knowledge and expertise needed to accurately diagnose ASPD. They’ll make this diagnosis by exploring long-standing patterns of exploitation and manipulation in a person’s behavior — not by looking into their eyes.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.