Psychopaths are the most dangerous individuals in society, causing more damage and chaos than all other mental disorders combined. They're completely without conscience and can be found in any profession, but are particularly drawn to positions of authority and trust, such as the military, managers of a company, and the police force.
Though psychopathy literally means 'mental illness', psychopaths are not clinically insane or out of touch with reality. They do not have delusions or hallucinations, nor are they distressed about their condition. They are rational, logical, and fully aware of what they are doing.
One French clinician, Philippe Pinel, referred to psychopathy as "insanity without delirium" because though the crimes psychopaths committed seemed like something no sane person would do, the psychopaths were fully aware of their actions. Some psychologists refer to psychopathy as "moral insanity", though psychopaths are technically sane.
The terms 'psychopath' and 'sociopath' are often used interchangeably depending on the user's views and determinants. Sociopaths, who are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, are forged through social forces and early experiences and are diagnosed solely on socially deviant behaviours. Psychopaths come from psychological, biological, and genetic factors on top of the social aspects. They are not only recognised by their behaviours, but also by their atypical brains and odd brain wave patterns. As one psychopath put it, "A sociopath misbehaves because he's brought up wrong, but a psychopath does things just because he wants to."
According to modest estimates, there are over two million psychopaths in North America and one percent of the North American population is psychopathic, which is the same prevalence of schizophrenia. But that one percent of psychopaths is responsible for more distress and chaos than all other psychiatric disorders combined.
A quarter of all wife-beaters are psychopaths and twenty percent of criminals imprisoned are psychopathic and account for over half of the serious crimes committed. Even in prisons, psychopaths stand out because their crimes are more varied and frequent. Unlike most normal criminals, they have no 'specialty'. Even criminals have a moral code, though it differs from normal society, but psychopaths don't have any moral code and commit crimes simply for the fun of it. The recidivism rate of psychopaths is double that of other offenders, triple for violent crimes.
Many psychopaths escape detection and prosecution, though they're on the shady side of the law. Antisocial behaviour may include conning, irresponsible use of company resources, philandering, child or spousal abuse, and neglect of family members.
White-collar psychopaths are found in careers such as financial consultants, lawyers, ministers, and counsellors and are every bit as dangerous as their criminal counterparts, but they can maintain a better and more consistent appearance of normality. Though they won't assault you, they will try and likely succeed in conning you out of your life savings. They move up the company ladders and receive promotions fairly quickly. Those who work under them despise them and their abuse while these psychopaths charm their superiors. Dr. Robert Hare, the world's leading psychopathy researcher, has said that if he didn't study psychopaths in prison, he would study them in the Vancouver Stock Exchange, since large businesses handling finances are breeding grounds for psychopaths.
Describing Psychopathic Characteristics
Psychopaths are glib and superficial, witty and articulate, and very charming. They have clever comebacks and can tell unlikely but convincing stories. Astute observers may note that they are only acting. A psychopath can tell even horrifying stories in a carefree manner, as if they were discussing a neutral subject.
Egocentric and grandiose, they're very arrogant and think that they're superior to everyone else and that they're above the law. They often represent themselves in court, usually to their own downfall. They aren't ashamed of legal, financial, or personal problems and figure these problems are temporary setbacks caused by bad luck, unfaithful friends, or an unfair system.
They think big, which can be part of their charm and puts them in authority positions. Because of the psychopath's egocentricity, investigators have developed a unique way of questioning psychopaths. Instead of simply asking questions about what happened at the scene of the crime, instead the interview will word the questions differently so that the psychopath will start bragging about his offense.
They have a complete lack of guilt and remorse. They never feel guilty, often think that their victims got off easy or even benefitted from the offense, and the psychopath himself will play the victim as though he'd made some tragic sacrifice. Ted Bundy, a well-known psychopathic serial killer, says this: "Guilt is a mechanism we use to control people and is unhealthy." Another psychopath, insisting that his victim was let off easy, said "Knife wounds to an artery are the easiest way to go." Psychopaths often pretend to have other mental disorders. To them, remorse is just a word to be used in the game of manipulation and deceit.
Psychopaths lack empathy entirely. They view others as less than human, only existing for their benefit. They have a smaller amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions, and don't feel physiological responses like the heart pounding in fear. Their emotional depth is limited to words alone.
As well as having no empathy, psychopaths have extremely shallow emotions and only know the dictionary definitions of them. They can't comprehend emotions, confusing anger with irritation, sadness with frustration, and love with lust. They can imagine the emotions, but, due to their smaller amygdales, can't actually feel them. One psychologist referred to them as "proto-emotions", primitive responses to immediate needs. A psychopath can turn emotions on and off at will. After committing a harmful act, they experience indifference, a sense of power, pleasure, or satisfaction, but never feel shame or guilt.
Deceitful and manipulative, psychopaths are unfazed by being found out. They rework stories without pausing if they're found out. They know they're lying and sometimes lie for no other reason than to feel the "duping delight". The best of these liars intertwine deception and truth. They take advantage of programs in correctional facilities so they can be let out of prison sooner. Whatever they learn from these programs they use to lie more convincingly and find people's weaknesses more efficiently.
They're impulsive: don't think, don't plan, just do. Absorbed in their own wants and needs, they live day by day and often change plans. They never worry or give serious thought to the future. Consequences usually don't even come to mind let alone worry them. Their poor behaviour controls are overcome at the slightest provocation. They have extreme, short-lived outbursts over even trivial setbacks and then act as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Psychopaths have a need for excitement and will often do stupid or illegal things purely for the adrenaline rush. One psychopath gets a metaphorical high from walking into an airport laden with drugs, says it was a favourite pastime of hers. Another psychopath loves the rush that comes from being chased by the police, which is part of why he commits crimes. Psychopaths are very easily bored and will slack off in jobs that require long hours of intense concentration or repetition.
They'll give undivided attention to whatever interests them, almost hyper-focusing, while ignoring everything else. They pay so much attention to rewards that they ignore the consequences, whether those consequences are harming another person or going to jail.
They also lack responsibility. Their promises mean nothing and they take care of no one but themselves. Sometimes they even disregard their own safety for the thrill of the moment.
Early behaviour problems are a sign of psychopathy. Psychopaths often take drugs, cut school, and have sexual experiences before they're even in their teens. Early animal cruelty is a sure indication of a serious problem. Cruelty to other children, often siblings, is a common occurrence, as well as vandalism. Later in life, they look back on their cruel acts with enjoyment.
In spite of the history, people who grew up with the psychopath are shocked when he has committed a senseless crime. These reactions imply that psychopaths can not only manipulate another person's impression of him but also ignorance of his early history.
The parents of psychopaths notice that something's wrong before the child even starts school. These children are more difficult, willful, aggressive, and deceitful. Normal signs of psychopathy in elementary school children are casual and habitual lying, an indifference or inability to understand the feelings of others, defiance of authority figures and their rules, unresponsive to scolding and threats of punishment, petty theft, a habit of skipping school and breaking curfew, a pattern of animal cruelty, early experimentation with sex, and acts of vandalism and fire setting.
In elementary school, teachers and counsellors already notice that something is seriously wrong with the child. If intervention is to have any effect on the psychopath, it will have to occur in these early childhood years. By adolescence, it is usually too late. But many professionals dealing with children showing psychopathic symptoms don't deal with the situation head-on for multiple reasons. Some of them work only on controlling the behaviours instead of treating a personality issue with its combination of traits and symptoms. Others feel uncomfortable diagnosing a child with a disorder widely believed to be untreatable. Others are in denial, finding it hard to believe that their children are not simply showing exaggerated forms of normal behaviour that results from bad parenting or poor social conditioning.
Adult antisocial behaviour is very common in adult psychopaths. They make their own rules and think the expectations of society are inconvenient. They are very self-serving.
The last thing an egocentric, selfish, demanding, callous person wants is someone just like him. But occasionally, there will be a partnership of psychopaths, often made up of a talker and a doer, in which both will benefit. If caught, each of them will blame the other. Sometimes a psychopath and a borderline psychotic will join forces, the former controlling the latter.
Psychopaths have little aptitude for experiencing emotional responses that are the basis of a conscience, so a psychopath will do anything he thinks he can get away with. The links between prohibited acts, anxiety, and threat of punishment are weak. Their inner voice lacks emotion and therefore impact.
Some psychopaths' words are contradictory. In the same breath, they sometimes deny and admit to their offenses. Sometimes they even pick the wrong words, leading Dr. Hare to wonder about the mental process behind these words.
In tests, psychopaths responded the same to emotional words like 'death' as they did to neutral words such as 'tree', showing that they experience no emotional impact.
When people make hand gestures, these gestures are often empty and convey no meaning. These movements are called beats. The brain centers that control these beats also control speech. In some unknown way, perhaps by increasing the total activity in these brain centres, these beats seem to help our speech flow more smoothly. People who are bilingual often move their hands while speaking their second language.
Sometimes a high rate of beats can mean difficulty converting thoughts and feelings into speech. These beats can also tell us about the size of the thought units underlying speech. A thought unit can be as small and simple as one word to something as complex as a group of ideas or complicated storylines. Beats seem to mark off these units. More beats equals smaller units.
Psychopaths tend to use more beats than the average person, especially when talking about an emotional subject, indicating that emotions are foreign to them. This also indicates that psychopaths have smaller mental units, which make these units easier to move around. This is handy while lying, but the smaller packaging can also be put together wrong, resulting in a story that is rather choppy and contradictory. Most of us combine ideas so that they are consistent with an underlying theme, but psychopaths seem to have trouble doing this. How they string together words and sentences is what suggests abnormality, not what they say.
One theory says that psychopathy's a reproductive strategy. There are two ways to ensure that one's genes are passed on. The first is to have a few offspring, but to nurture them so they thrive. The other, the one psychopaths seem to unconsciously use, is to mate so many times that the odds are some of the offspring will survive.
Others think psychopathy is an abnormally slow rate of mental maturation. There are similarities between EEGs (brain scans) of adult psychopaths and normal adolescents, plus similar behaviours between psychopaths and children, But anyone who has been a parent to a psychopath will agree that there is no connection between a psychopath, even a young one, and a normal child.
Another theory is that it's caused by early brain damage or dysfunction due to similarities between psychopaths and patients with frontal lobe damage, such as poor long-term planning, low frustration tolerance, shallow effect, irritability and aggressiveness, and socially inappropriate behaviour. But research has not found evidence of frontal lobe damage in psychopaths.
Most people believe that psychopathy is a result of early childhood trauma, such as poverty, abuse, neglect, or inconsistent disciplinary techniques. But Dr. Hare can find no evidence that nurture alone causes the syndrome. Though abused or neglected kids do act out more than normal kids, this does not make them psychopaths, not to mention many psychopaths come from nurturing families.
Maybe psychopathy is a combination of nature and nurture. Though their genes provide a poor basis for socialization and conscience formation, this doesn't mean that all psychopaths are destined to live a socially deviant lifestyle. And though parents, teachers, other authority figures, and adverse childhood experiences aren't solely responsible for psychopathy, a child's upbringing can still influence their behaviour, meaning that discipline influences the behaviour but has no effect on the individual's lack of empathy. No amount of social conditioning on its own can create a conscience.
In studies, no evidence was found that the family backgrounds of criminal psychopaths were different from those of normal criminals. Non-psychopathic criminals from a troubled background first appeared in adult court at the age of fifteen while criminals from a more privileged background appeared for the first time at twenty-four. Psychopaths, however, first appeared in adult court at the age of fourteen, regardless of their backgrounds.
Though family background has a large influence on the life and choices of a non-psychopathic criminal, this background has no effect on a psychopath. Even when they come from a wealthy, loving family, psychopaths still live lives of callous self-gratification, even when their siblings had healthy behaviour. But psychopaths from a problematic background often commit more violent crimes, while those from well-off families choose white-collar crimes like conning and swindling.
"With few exceptions, the traditional forms of psychotherapy, including psychoanalysis, group therapy, client-centred therapy, and psychodrama, have proved ineffective for the treatment of psychopathy. Nor have the biological therapies, including psychosurgery, electroshock therapy, and the use of various drugs, fared much better," said Dr. Hare in one of his articles.
In therapy, the patient must see what is wrong with them and want to change it. Psychopaths don't feel as though they have psychological and emotional issues and they see no reason to change their behaviour or conform to social standards to which they don't agree. They see life as a dog-eat-dog world and think that it is okay to deceive and manipulate their way to obtaining their "rights". Their way works for them so why would they want to change it?
Psychopaths are not fragile. Their personalities and behaviours are rock-solid by the time they get therapy. Many enjoy their way of life because they never suffer any consequences due to well-meaning family members and friends protecting them. The interpersonal relations vital to success are unimportant to a psychopath.
Most therapy programs only better equip psychopaths with new excuses and rationalizations to explain their behaviour and a better understanding of human vulnerability. Often, therapy makes them worse. In one study, once the criminal psychopaths were released from prison, the rate of return was significantly higher after therapy compared to others who went without it. In another study, psychopaths in therapy were almost four times more likely to commit a violent offence than those not in therapy.
In therapy, psychopaths often play head games with the group leaders and other patients. As the psychopath dominates the proceedings, he offers little insight into his own behaviour. Psychopaths in prison use the prison programs to further their education in manipulating others. Psychology, sociology, and criminology are very popular choices. These programs are used only to convince the trusting and gullible that they have been rehabilitated or 'born again'.
The only chance to reform a psychopath is at a very young age, but even when others intervene with young psychopaths, there are often no positive long-term effects. Some intervention programs have been developed for children and adolescents with attitude and behavioural problems and have been successful. Many of these programs deal not only with the child but with their families and social context as well. If used at a very early age, it is possible that some of these programs will be successful in altering their self-gratifying behaviour into satisfying their wants and needs in a less harmful way.
Almost all evidence on psychopathy treatment is based only on criminal psychopaths in prison, so even if all these psychopathic criminals were treated, there are still millions of other psychopaths on the loose who would not even consider therapy and society has no means of forcing them to do so.
Though there have been hundreds of attempts to treat psychopaths, there have been very few programs that meet scientific and methodological standards. Also, very few programs are designed specifically for psychopaths. Psychopaths don't want to be treated because their behaviour benefits them. In order for a psychopathy treatment to have any effect, the psychopath would have to be convinced that their current attitudes and behaviours are not in their best interests. In a normal program, the therapist would try to reinstall conscience and empathy, but with a psychopath these were never installed to begin with.
Dealing with Psychopaths
Know what you are dealing with. Even experts on the topic can be manipulated and deceived by psychopaths. Try not to be influenced by props such as good looks, a powerful presence, a smooth voice or sharp wit, or mannerisms. Any of these in the arsenal of a psychopath will only be used to manipulate you. Many find the psychopath's intense, emotionally dead stare unnerving. Many people look you in the eye but the stare of a psychopath is far more predatory and it is only a matter of time before they pick up on your weaknesses. The psychopath's gaze is a tool, used to intimidate and control others.
Enter new relationships with your eyes open. Psychopaths use flattery and fake concern/ kindness and phony stories. Cracks will show in the mask eventually but it may still be too late, after they've already drawn you in. Police and consumer advocates offer this advice: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Proceed with caution. When you meet someone new who is financially or romantically interested in you, make inquiries about them and their families. Psychopath's replies will often be vague, evasive, or inconsistent.
Keep your guard up in high risk situations. Psychopaths look for lonely victims, who want companionship or a good time, at singles' bars, clubs, resorts, cruises, and airports, for example.
Know yourself and your weaknesses. Psychopaths are particularly adept at finding weak spots. When you notice someone who is aware of your weaknesses and zeroes in on them, be very cautious.
If you are already involved with a psychopath, obtain professional advice. Make sure the clinician you consult is familiar with psychopathy. If you have the resources, get multiple opinions. Diagnosing a psychopath is time-consuming and requires many reliable resources. Many professionals are charmed by the psychopath; if they don't specialize in psychopathy and may say you are the problem.
Don't blame yourself. If you are in a relationship with a psychopath, that is because of their manipulation, not because of you. If your child is psychopathic, that is no fault of your either. There is no evidence that parenting causes the disorder. Know who the victim is. Psychopaths are actors and often pretend to be the victim, insisting that the real victim is the one at fault.
You are not alone. If you have been hurt or humiliated by a psychopath, chances are you aren't the only victim. If you can track down another victim, you might be able to work out the problem between you two.
Psychopaths are obsessed with power. They will use anything from charm to violence to be in control. Sometimes you can use this obsession to your advantage. Set firm ground rules and reinforce them.
Don't expect dramatic changes for that will only lead to disappointment. A psychopath will only change if and when it benefits him. This change is almost always temporary. Psychopaths do tend to mellow with age.
Instead of trying to adapt to the situation, it may be better to recognize that in order to survive emotionally and physically, you must take charge of your life and get out. This is a tricky move, especially when children are involved, and professional help may be needed.
A/N: I wrote this essay for my high-school psychology class and got a hundred percent on it, probably because I know more than our textbook did. Most of my information came from Dr. Hare's research. But why am I posting it here? Mostly for your benefit. Psychopaths often make good villains. If you're scripting a psychopath as the bad guy, now you have a better understanding of how they operate. But more importantly, I want you to be equipped with the information to protect yourself. From personal experience I know how dangerous psychopaths can be. If you can recognize the symptoms you will be better at protecting yourself. Knowledge is power.
There are two psychopathy checklists: one by Robert Hare and the other by Hervey Cleckley. Both are very useful in helping one recognize a psychopath. If you find yourself using these, read the guidelines on how to score very carefully. If somebody scores below five, chances are they are a normal, healthy person. A full-blown psychopath usually scores over thirty. Non-psychopathic criminals tend to score somewhere between psychopaths and non-criminal non-psychopaths. I would like to point out that psychopaths do sometimes get a low score on the checklist; that's because they're exceptionally good at covering their tracks and hiding who they are, which makes them more dangerous than a high-scoring psychopath. For example, Hannibal Lector, a fictional serial killer who is also a psychiatrist, is said to have scored an eleven on the checklist.
Keep in mind that you are not a professional. If you use these checklists without actually having years of knowledge and education, you need to keep this in mind. You are using these lists to figure out what you're dealing with, not as an official diagnosis. (Though I'd like to point out a lot of psychologists actually don't know what they're talking about when it comes to psychopaths even with their PhDs because they don't have intuition. Diagnostics is as much about gut instinct as it is fancy medical texts. If your gut is telling you that something's not right, you should probably listen to it. Just remember that the law requires a professional to back your diagnosis if you want to use this as a defense in court.)
Take the checklists seriously. This is not a game that you can play with your friends, nor is it a silly quiz that tells you which movie character you would be. This is a tool used by professionals and it is a tool that can cost people their freedom or their life if used wrong, so take it very, very seriously.
If you think you're dealing with a psychopath, do your research and find a way to get out. Try to enlist the help of a professional, but be very careful because even professionals can be fooled by psychopaths. Best of luck and God bless.