What makes someone a psychopath?

A criminologist has revealed the key traits displayed by psychopaths – and why some people might be attracted to them – ahead of the finale of crime thriller Happy Valley this weekend.

Birmingham City University Professor David Wilson explained that it is likely that everyone knows someone who could be classed as a psychopath, with roughly one in every hundred people.

He said that actor James Norton’s portrayal of killer Tommy Lee Royce in the BBC drama is ‘incredibly convincing’, but, avoiding spoilers, added that ‘he has gone out of character in terms of psychopathy’ in the last couple of episodes.

Presenter Phillip Schofield then asked the expert to explain what it means to be a psychopath.

‘Firstly, psychopathy is a personally disorder, it’s not a mental illness,’ the professor said.

Speaking on This Morning on ITV today, Professor David Wilson explained what three traits can be detected in psychopaths

He explains that the disorder is usually characterised ‘by three different clusters of behaviours or traits’, which can often draw people to them.

Firstly, he says, they have ‘risk-taking personalities’ which he said means they ‘say things you and I would never say, do things you and I would never do.’

‘He wants to be the centre of attention by behaving in that way and that’s why initially we’re so attracted to them.’ 

Secondly, he describes them as having ‘shallow affect’, meaning they struggle to feel emotions as most people would.

‘They don’t really have emotion. They might know the word sadness, they might know the word love, but they don’t feel sad, they don’t feel love.’

Finally, he said, they would be ‘very glib, very grandiose. They would say things that place them in the top one per cent, the top hundred people in the country.’

Professor Wilson said that actor James Norton's portrayal of killer Tommy Lee Royce (pictured) in BBC drama Happy Valley is 'incredibly convincing'

Professor Wilson said that actor James Norton’s portrayal of killer Tommy Lee Royce (pictured) in BBC drama Happy Valley is ‘incredibly convincing’

‘Those three things,’ he explains, ‘are initially why we’re attracted to them, but then the difficulties we have are once we get close to them.

‘Once you are close to a psychopath that’s when they use you.’

He said that the vast majority, around 9 out of 10, are male and while around one per cent of the world’s general population are psychopaths, that figure jumps to about 20 to 25 per cent of the prison population. 

The former prison guard said crime is one example of risk-taking typical of psychopaths, but that the most serious crimes like murder are not always a result of psychopathy, and can just be the result of ‘five minutes of madness’.

He also explained that people can be functional psychopaths, working high up in the corporate world for example.

‘If you have shallow affect and you don’t feel you can make people redundant on Christmas,’ he said.

The crime expert also explained why some people, in particular women, might be attracted to people with the personality disorder.

Norton’s character has been labelled the ‘sexiest ever psychopath’ by some online, largely owing to the handsome actor who others felt was ‘miscast’ as the evil murderer.

But host Holly Willoughby pointed out that Tommy Lee Royce is not the only psychopath people, in particular women, have been attracted to, referencing cases of people marrying killers with psychopathic traits. 

The professor said he tells his female and male pupils alike, ‘The psychopath is very good at seducing you.

‘It would be easy if they horns on their head and a long, pointed tail, but that’s not how a psychopath operates. A psychopath operates by being seducing.

‘I say to my female students, “You know that bloke in the club that’s just too good to be true, when he’s chatting you up”, that’s a psychopath!

‘The female students understand that but the male students rarely do because they’re less regularly chatted up.

‘Initially these are really shiny, exciting characters to be around, it’s only once you’re in their company you begin to go “hang on a minute this person is hollow, this person is shallow, this person doesn’t really love, this person is using me”, but by then it’s too late.’

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