Contemporary interest in superficial charm goes back to Hervey M. Cleckley‘s classic study (1941) of the sociopath: since his work it has become widely accepted that the sociopath/psychopath was characterised by superficial charm and a disregard for other people’s feelings. According to Hare, “Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything.”
Subsequent studies have refined, but not perhaps fundamentally altered, Cleckley’s initial assessment. In the latest diagnostic review, Cleckley’s mix of intelligence and superficial charm has been redefined to reflect a more deviant demeanour, talkative, slick, and insincere. A distinction can also be drawn between a subtle, self-effacing kind of sociopathic charm, and a more expansive, exhilarating spontaneity which serves to give the sociopath a sort of animal magnetism.
The term also occurs in Hotchkiss’ discussion of narcissists: “Their superficial charm can be enchanting.” For such figures, however, there is no substance behind the romantic gestures, which only serve to feed the narcissist’s own ego.
Narcissists are known as manipulative in a charming way, entrapping their victims through a façade of understanding into suspending their self-protective behaviour and lowering their personal boundaries. Closely related is the way impostors are able to make people fall in love with them to satisfy their narcissistic needs, without reciprocating in any real sense or returning their feelings.
Social chameleons have been described as adept in social intelligence, able to make a charming good impression, yet at the price of their own true motivations. Their ability to manage impressions well often leads to success in areas like the theatre, salesmanship, or politics and diplomacy. But when lacking a sense of their own inner needs, such superficial extraverts may end up (despite their charm) as rootless chameleons, endlessly taking their social cues from other people.
A “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.
Critics object that there are few objective criteria whereby to distinguish superficial from genuine charm; and that as part of the conventional niceties of politeness, we all regularly employ superficial charm in everyday life: conveying superficial solidarity and fictitious benevolence to all social interactions.