Superficial charm

Superficial charm

Superficial charm (or glib charm) is "the tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile."[1]

The phrase often appears in lists of attributes of psychopathic personalities, such as in Hervey Cleckley's The Mask of Sanity[2] and Robert Hare's Hare Psychopathy Checklist.[3]

Associated expressions are "charm offensive", "turning on the charm" and "superficial smile".


Early history

Classical rhetoric had early singled out the critical category of 'a superficial charm; his words sounded well enough, but if you analysed them you found there was no solid matter'.[4]

In the nineteenth century, George Eliot explored the darker side of the Victorian feminine ideal, concluding that 'there is no hardness like the hardness of a narrow mind polished into superficial charm...feminineness of manner'[5] only.

Psychopathic charm

Contemporary interest in superficial charm goes back to Checkley's classic study (1941) of the sociopath: it has since become generally accepted that 'psychopathy includes emotional shallowness, superficial charm (...) and disregard for the feelings of others'.[6] According to Hare, "Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything."[7]

Subsequent studies have refined, but not perhaps fundamentally altered, Chekley's initial assessment. In the latest diagnostic review, 'although ostensibly similar to Checkley's "superficial charm and good intelligence" criterion, the "glibness and superficial charm" of the PCL-R (...) is in fact defined in a more deviant manner (i.e., reflecting an excessively talkative, slick, and insincere demeanor)'.[8]


The term also occurs in Hotchkiss' discussion of narcissists: "Their superficial charm can be enchanting."[9] For such figures, 'those big romantic gestures that at first proved so alluring are in fact the whole deal, symptomatic of these men's need to show off and be the centre of attention'.[10]

Narcissists can be 'skilful and charming manipulators', specialising in ' Entrapment: the luring of a victim in some beguiling way, such as by fake warmth and understanding, into suspending his self-protective behavior and compromising himself'.[11] Closely related is the way 'some imposters have a great ability to make their victims fall in love with them, only to betray them afterwards. They are governed by the narcissistic need to prove to themselves that they are capable of being loved; they remain unsatisfied nonetheless, and take revenge for their dissatisfaction'.[12]

Social chameleons

'Those who are adept in social intelligence (...) the stuff of interpersonal polish, the necessary ingredients for charm, social success, even charisma' may yet only have 'a hollow social success - a popularity won at the cost of one's true satisfaction (...) social chameleons, champions at making a good first impression'[13] but nothing more. 'To the extent that these traits lead to effective impression management, they are highly prized in certain professions, notably acting, trial law, sales, diplomacy, and politics'.[14] But 'if these interpersonal abilities are not balanced by an astute sense of one's own needs', such superficial extraverts may 'end up as anchorless social chameleons'.[15]

Similarly in the histrionic personality, 'the need for excitement and attention seeking, which leads to a superficial charm and interpersonal presence...further reinforces the dissociation and denial of the real or inner self from the public self, and the cycle continues'.[16]

Positive outcomes

'Potentially positive outcomes' have nonetheless been noted for the superficial charmer, including 'good conversation skills; lighthearted in social settings; fun and entertaining to be around; good at interacting with others; improved romantic opportunities; power to please'.[17]

Charm offensive

Charm offensive is a related concept meaning a publicity campaign, usually by politicians, that attempts to attract supporters by emphasizing their charisma or trustworthiness. The first recorded use of the expression is in the California newspaper The Fresno Bee Republican in October 1956.[18]

Literary analogues

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald - the 'poet of the meretricious'[19] - explored the destructive consequences of excess charm in stories like "Magnetism". '"You can't control charm. It's simply got to be used. You've got to keep your hand in if you have it, and go through life attaching people to you that you don't want" (...) unconsciously promising a possible admission to the thousand delights and wonders that only he knew and could command'.[20]

See also


  1. ^ Hare's checklist, as cited in Psychopathy: antisocial, criminal, and violent behavior. Theodore Millon, Erik Simonsen, Morten Birket-Smith, Roger D. Davis NY: Guilford P 2002 p 173
  2. ^ Cleckley, Hervey (1988). The Mask of Sanity (5th ed.). Emily S. Cleckley. ISBN 0-9621519-0-4. Retrieved 14 November 2009. 
  3. ^ The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised by Robert D. Hare, 1991. Multi-Health Systems, 908 Niagara Falls Blvd, North Tonawanda, New York, USA, 14120-2060
  4. ^ M. L. Clarkson/D. H. Berry, Rhetoric at Rome (1996) p. 146
  5. ^ David Carroll ed., George Eliot: The Critical Heritage (1996) p. 308
  6. ^ Bella DePaulo/Leah Wilson, The Psychology of Dexter (2010) p. 7
  7. ^ Antisocial Personality, Sociopathy, and Psychopathy
  8. ^ R. F. Salekin/D. R. Lynam, Handbook of Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (2010) p. 22
  9. ^ Hotchkiss, Sandy & Masterson, James F. Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism (2003)
  10. ^ Simon Crompton, All about Me (London 2007) p. 68-9
  11. ^ Alexander Abdennur, Camouflaged Aggression (2000) p. 87 and p. 156
  12. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 374
  13. ^ Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (London 1996) p. 118-9
  14. ^ Goleman, p. 120
  15. ^ Goleman, p. 119-120
  16. ^ Len Sperry, Handbook of diagnosis and treatment of DSM-IV-TR personality disorder (2003) p. 138
  17. ^ Salekin, p. 414
  18. ^
  19. ^ Malcolm Bradbury, in Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (London 1991) p. xxi
  20. ^ F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bernice Bobs Her Hair and other stories (Penguin 1968) p. 149 and p. 154

Further reading

  • Fritz Wittles, "The Criminal Psychopath in the Psychoanalytic System", Psychoanalytic Review XXIV (1937)
  • Mark Snyder, "Impression Management", in L. S. Wrightman/K. Deaux, Social Psychology in the '80s (1981)

External links

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