Subtle & dangerous: SA study shows female psychopaths differ from males

Female psychopaths are much harder to detect than males. And they tend to 'throw shade' whereas male psychopaths 'throw punches'

01 September 2019 - 00:00 By Tanya Farber
The cold-hearted character of Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in 'The Devil Wears Prada' is an example of a female executive with psychopathic traits.
The cold-hearted character of Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in 'The Devil Wears Prada' is an example of a female executive with psychopathic traits.
Image: YouTube/20th Century Fox

Psycho. The word might conjure up an image of a demented serial killer of the Hannibal Lecter variety who ends up behind bars as a violent menace to society.

But increasingly researchers are whipping out their gender lenses and asking themselves a crucial question: are female psychopaths the same as their male counterparts?

The answer is no, and just as important, only a tiny minority of psychopaths (regardless of gender) commit murder. The vast majority are lurking in our everyday lives, and when they’re female, they’re even harder to detect.

Now, a ground-breaking study has taken place in the South African context, the results of which were published recently in the South African Journal of Psychology.

The study follows decades of research into psychopathy that has been skewed towards male offenders in a Western context, and very seldom towards females in a multicultural context like SA.

In the study, 108 female offenders were drawn from three female prisons in the Eastern Cape, the Free State and Gauteng so that the researchers could explore the relationship between female psychopathy and other personality disorders.


Their findings are the same as studies the world over: female psychopaths are at great risk of having other personality pathologies, particularly what’s known as the Cluster B personality disorders, which are described as being the more dramatic, emotional and erratic personality disorders. They include antisocial, borderline, histrionic and narcissistic personality disorders.

“The good news is that there seems to be some universality as far as psychopathy is concerned,” University of the Free State forensic psychologist Dap Louw, one of the researchers, told the Sunday Times.

Whereas the expression of psychopathy in females is more “subtle and internalised”, males with psychopathic traits exhibit more “overt, externalised and physically aggressive behaviours”, according to Louw and his fellow researchers, Ryan Botha and Sonja Loots.

Melissa Burkley, a global expert on psychopathy and a columnist for Psychology Today, writes that female psychopaths might spread gossip and manipulate and deceive those around them, whereas the males “tend to display their aggression in their behaviour” — physically assaulting others, abusing animals or committing violent crimes.

So, if female psychopaths “throw shade” when the males “throw punches”, as Burkley puts it, how do we know if diagnostic tools are suitable for detecting psychopathy in both genders? That’s a question for the clinical world and one that has prompted researchers such as Louw to change the narrative.

Psychopaths’ traits played out in the workplace cause depression, anxiety, burnout and physical illnesses among co-workers

But what about the rest of the population who encounter such people in their daily lives?

According to the University of Stellenbosch Business School, psychopaths’ traits played out in the workplace cause depression, anxiety, burnout and physical illnesses among co-workers, conditions that cost the South African economy more than R40bn annually.

As women rise through the ranks in the workplace, they become more responsible for some of that burden.

Renata Schoeman, a psychiatrist in the Western Cape who is affiliated with the business school, says that chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic traits of all jobs, a rate second only to that among prison inmates.

Compared to the 1% of the population with psychopathic traits in general, among business leaders the statistic changes to one in 25.

“No actual study has been done, but it is logical that as we see more women in powerful positions, it stands to reason that more of that female psychopathy is in our faces,” she says.

Female executives with psychopathic traits “tend to be less overtly aggressive” and more verbally nasty, she says, citing as an example the cold-hearted character of Miranda Priestly in the film The Devil Wears Prada. Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, is believed by many to be based on US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, notorious for her cut-throat attitude to achieving her goals.

WATCH | Miranda Priestly's most savage moments in 'The Devil Wears Prada'.

“The nastiness and sense of control she exhibits are psychopathic traits,” says Schoeman, adding that Priestly stands in sharp contrast to Jordan Belfort, the so-called Wolf of Wall Street (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film) who was a charming stockbroker who paid for a life of debauched excess by defrauding others.

“Such significant fraud and white-collar crime are typical of psychopaths,” she says, “because, unfortunately, things that make people successful are the same things that signify narcissism and psychopathy: charm, smooth talk, drive, no empathy…”

But, adds Schoeman with caution, “not everyone with loads of confidence and who is successful … has a personality disorder”.


Beyond the corporate corridors, there are two other professions that tend to attract psychopaths: politics and preaching.

Like Schoeman, Louw says that not everyone who succeeds in these fields is a psychopath, but certainly these are “professions which lend themselves to people with psychopathic tendencies such as manipulation, a lack of conscience, broken promises”.

He says there is a strong genetic basis for psychopathy — deficits in the empathy circuitry of the brain are major culprits — and this can affect both men and women. Then again, there are environmental factors that shape behaviour, “and the way males and females are raised differently can account for the difference. Men are raised to be aggressive.”

Burkley says spotting those with psychopathic traits in everyday life is trickier when the person is a woman. Far from being “deranged killers”, she says, most psychopaths evade detection.

“The stereotypical signs of a psychopath, including animal abuse in violent psychopaths and superficial charm in ‘successful’ non-violent psychopaths, are far more indicative of male psychopathy,” she says. “Female psychopaths exhibit different and often less violent signs. As a result, female psychopaths are more likely to go undetected.”

The flipside is that we may easily assume a killer is a psychopath when this may not be the case.

One of the most disturbing cases involving a female murderer was that of Chane van Heerden. She lured Michael van Eck, a young man she met on an online dating site, to a cemetery in Welkom where she proceeded to stab him to death, mutilate his body, and skin his face. Her boyfriend was the sidekick, she the mastermind — and the public assumed she was a psychopath.

But Louw, called in to testify, surprised everyone with his diagnosis. He declared that Van Heerden was not actually a psychopath despite the cold-blooded nature of the crime.

Chane van Heerden was found guilty of killing Michael van Eck in 2011, yet forensic psychologist Dap Louw testified that she wasn't a psychopath despite the cold-blooded nature of her crime.
Chane van Heerden was found guilty of killing Michael van Eck in 2011, yet forensic psychologist Dap Louw testified that she wasn't a psychopath despite the cold-blooded nature of her crime.
Image: Gallo Images/Foto24/Charl Devenish

“One of the criteria for psychopathy is a history of antisocial behaviour and crime,” he explains, “but that history was not there. I took my students to meet her in the prison and the one outstanding thing was this very innocent-looking girl. Yes, she had a history of strange religious beliefs, but she didn’t have a history of crime.”

He adds: “So, we sat with this very difficult situation where what she had done was typical of a psychopath, but the deed alone cannot be used as a criterion for psychopathy.

“Other factors always have to be taken into account.”

Louw says that in his 40 years of dealing with criminals and murderers, he has encountered his fair share of psychopaths, but is also acutely aware that not many criminals meet the full criteria to be labelled as such.

“Even in prison, maybe only 15% of hardened criminals are psychopaths,” he says.

Just as only a small minority of killers are psychopaths, only a tiny minority of psychopaths become killers.

This means the real psycho in your life isn’t plotting your demise with the candlestick in the ballroom. She is, instead, slowly murdering your self-esteem by the water cooler.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.