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The Smirk of the Narcissist & the Stare of the Psychopath
Before examining some of the more popularized expressions and nonverbal gestures of dark triad personality types and traits (i.e., narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism), remember there is quite a bit of overlap among the Cluster B personality disorders as described in the DSM-5. There is also confusion between the term psychopath and sociopath. The former is typically born disordered and the latter is largely a product of their environment. Neither terms are a diagnostic label, but these monikers are applied to those clinically diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder. It is also important to remember that while all sociopaths and psychopaths are inherently narcissistic not all narcissists exhibit antisocial behavior.
While the coiffed blonde comb-over of one US President has been captured in countless images, his smirk is also orbiting in cyberspace and etched in many of our minds. The smirk of a narcissist is a thing; it’s a superiority thing. It’s an “I’m better than you” thing. The narcissistic smirk is an expression of great contempt and disdain for another person.
And as for that more pernicious behavior of legend known as the psychopathic or sociopathic stare, I thought it was all but a conspiracy theory until I reflected upon my work at several Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Corrections facilities where I interacted with inmates. The prevalence of antisocial personality disorder is notably high in incarcerated populations.
Different theories have been proposed as to why individuals with antisocial personality disorder (psychopaths and sociopaths) stare, but manipulation and predation of targets and victims are high on the list of reasons. It has been long proposed that staring may evoke a startle response as a means of manipulating or intimidating others, but it has also been construed as a predatory gaze directed at potential targets.
While we may not know exactly why they stare, science does provide an explanation for the biological mechanisms that may facilitate the prolonged stare observed in these disordered and often deviant humans. Individuals who score high on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist exhibit a deficiency in emotion-modulated startle behavior compared to non-psychopaths. These include a reduction in blink reflex rate and pupillary dilation when compared to neurotypicals subjected to adverse stimuli.
In addition to these psychophysiological markers, researchers have recently discovered that individuals exhibiting psychopathic traits are also more rigid and focused in their head orientation during interpersonal communication, which further supports the characteristic stare of the psychopath. These findings along with skin conductance and heart rate serve as markers for investigating psychopathy in incarcerated populations.
Gullapalli, A. R., Anderson, N. E., Yerramsetty, R. Harenski, C. L., Kiehl, K. A. (2021) Quantifying the psychopathic stare: Automated assessment of head motion is related to antisocial traits in forensic interviews, Journal of Research in Personality 92.