Some Basic Concepts Needed to Understand Psychopaths in Our World
As psychologist Martha Stout has pointed out so eloquently, psychopaths seem to be born without a conscience.
Conscience seems to depend on the ability to imagine consequences. But most "consequences" relate to pain in some way, and psychopaths really don't understand pain in the emotional sense. They understand frustration of not getting what they want, and to them, that is pain. But the fact seems to be that they act based solely on a sort of Game Theory evaluation of a situation: what will they get out of it, and what will it cost? And these "costs" do not seem to factor in being humiliated, causing pain to others, sabotaging the future, or any of the other possibilities that normal people consider when making a choice. For some reason, the ability to think about such things is lacking in the psychopath. Since imagining, daydreaming, is so much a part of human thought processes, it is hard to imagine someone who cannot. In short, it is almost impossible for normal people to even "imagine" the inner life of the psychopath.
Again, it should be emphasized that psychopaths are interesting as all get out - even exciting! They exude a captivating energy that keeps their listeners on the edge of their seats. Even if some part of the normal person is shocked or repelled by what the psychopath says, they are like the mouse hypnotized by the torturing cat. Even if they have the chance to run away, they don't.
Many Psychopaths "make their living" by using charm, deceit, and manipulation to gain the confidence of their victims. Many of them can be found in white collar professions where they are aided in their evil by the fact that most people expect certain classes of people to be trustworthy because of their social or professional credentials. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, politicians, psychiatrists and psychologists, generally do not have to earn our trust because they have it by virtue of their positions. But the fact is: psychopaths are found in such lofty spheres also, and more often than most people suppose!
Psychopaths make their way by conning people into doing things for them; obtaining money for them, prestige, power, or even standing up for them when others try to expose them. But that is their claim to fame. That's what they do. And they do it very well. What's more, the job is very easy because most people are gullible with an unshakable belief in the inherent goodness of man.
Manipulation is the key to the psychopath's conquests. Initially, the psychopath will feign false emotions to create empathy, and many of them study the tricks that can be employed by the empathy technique. Psychopaths are often able to incite pity from people because they seem like "lost souls" as Guggenbuhl-Craig writes. So the pity factor is one reason why victims often fall for these "poor" people.
Hare cites a famous case where a psychopath was "Man of the Year" and president of the Chamber of Commerce in his small town. (Remember that John Wayne Gacy was running for Jaycee President at the very time of his first murder conviction!) The man in question had claimed to have a Ph.D. from Berkeley. He ran for a position on the school board which he then planned to parlay into a position on the county commission which paid more.
At some point, a local reporter suddenly had the idea to check up on the guy - to see if his credentials were real. What the reporter found out was that the only thing that was true about this up and coming politician's "faked bio" was the place and date of birth. Everything else was fictitious. Not only was the man a complete impostor, he had a long history of antisocial behavior, fraud, impersonation, and imprisonment. His only contact with a university was a series of extension courses by mail that he took while in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. What is even more amazing is the fact that before he was a con-man, he was a "con-boy." For two decades he had dodged his way across America one step ahead of those he had hoodwinked. Along the way he had married three women and had four children, and he didn't even know what had happened to them. And now, he was on a roll! But darn that pesky reporter!
When he was exposed, he was completely unconcerned. "These trusting people will stand behind me. A good liar is a good judge of people," he said. Amazingly, he was right. Far from being outraged at the fact that they had all been completely deceived and lied to from top to bottom, the local community he had conned so completely to accrue benefits and honors to himself that he had not earned, rushed to his support!
And it wasn't just "token support." The local Republican party chairman wrote about him: "I assess his genuineness, integrity, and devotion to duty to rank right alongside of President Abraham Lincoln." As Hare dryly notes, this dimwit was easily swayed by words, and was blind to deeds.
This has been observed in many psychopathy cases; more often than not, and it tends to make one shake their head in wonder at how many people seem to WANT to be duped, to be made fools of. What kind of psychological weaknesses drive people to prefer lies over truth?
This may have something to do with what is called Cognitive Dissonance. Leon Festinger developed the theory of Cognitive Dissonance in the 50's when he apparently stumbled onto a UFO cult in the Midwest. They were prophesying a coming world cataclysm and "alien rapture." When no one was raptured and no cataclysm he studied the believers response, and detailed it in his book "When Prophecy Fails." Festinger observed:
It seems that part of the problem has to do with ego and the need to be "right." People with a high "need to be right" or "perfect" seem to be unable to acknowledge that they have been conned. "There is no crime in the cynical American calendar more humiliating than to be a sucker." People will go along with and support a psychopath, in the face of evidence that they have and ARE being conned, because their own ego structure depends on being right, and to admit an error of judgment would destroy their carefully constructed image of themselves.
Even more amazing is the fact that when psychopaths do get exposed by someone who is not afraid to admit that they have been conned, the psychopath is a master at painting their victims as the "real culprits." Hare cites a case of the third wife of a forty year old high school teacher:
Psychopaths just have what it takes to defraud and bilk others: they can be fast talkers, they can be charming, they can be self-assured and at ease in social situations; they are cool under pressure, unfazed by the possibility of being found out, and totally ruthless. And even when they are exposed, they can carry on as if nothing has happened, often making their accusers the targets of accusations of being victimized by THEM.
The victims keep asking: "How could I have been so stupid? How could I have fallen for that incredible line of baloney?" And, of course, if they don't ask it of themselves, you can be sure that their friends and associates will ask "How on earth could you have been taken in to that extent?"
The usual answer: "You had to be there" simply does not convey the whole thing. Hare writes:
Here are some examples from Without Conscience:
From an interview with serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley:
Those of us who have had experiences with psychopaths know that the language of the psychopath is two-dimensional. They are, as someone once said, as "deep as a thimble." An analogy is given of the psychopath as a color blind person who has learned how to function in the world of color by special strategies. They may tell you that they "stopped at a red light," but what it really means to them is that they knew that the light at the top means "stop," and they stopped. They call it the "red" light like everyone else, but they have no experience of what "red" really is.
A person who is color blind who has developed such coping mechanisms, is virtually undetectable from people who see colors.
Psychopaths, they use words about emotions the same way people who are color blind use words about colors they cannot perceive. Psychopaths not only learn to use the words more or less appropriately, they learn to pantomime the feeling. But they never HAVE the feeling.
This quality of the mind of the psychopath has been extensively tested with word association tests while the subjects are hooked up to an EEG. Words that have emotional content evoke larger brain responses than do neutral words which is apparently a reflection of the large amount of information that can be packed into a word. For most of us, the word cancer can instantly bring to mind not only the description of the disease, but also fear, pain, concern, or whatever, depending upon our experiences with cancer - whether we or someone we love has had it, or if it had some impact on our lives, and so on. The same is true with many words in our collective and individual vocabularies. And, unless we had a traumatic experience with it, a word such as box or paper will be neutral.
Psychopaths respond to all emotional words as if they were neutral. It is as if they are permanently condemned to operate with a Juvenile Dictionary. Hare writes:
What is more, just as the color blind individual may never know he is color blind unless he is given a test to determine it, the psychopath is unable to even be aware of his own emotional poverty. They assume that their own perceptions are the same as everyone else's. They assume that their own lack of feeling is the same for everyone else and, what's more, they seek to impose that world view on others, by force if necessary. And make no mistake about it: you can NOT hurt their feelings because they don't have any! They will pretend to have feelings if it suits their purposes or gets them what they want. They will verbalize remorse, but their actions will contradict their words. They know that "remorse" is important, and "apologies" are useful, and they will give them freely, though generally in words that amount to blaming the victim for needing to be apologized to.
And this is why they are so good at using Game Theory. And unless we learn the rules of how they think, they will continue to use it on us with devastating results. Normal people HURT when treated cruelly and insensitively. Psychopaths only feign being hurt because they perceive hurt as not getting what they wanted, and tried to get by manipulation!
In the book Violent Attachments, women and men have noted the particular stare of the psychopath - it is an intense, relentless gaze that seems to predict his destruction of his victim or target. Women, in particular, have reported this stare, which is related to the "predatorial" (reptilian) gaze; it is as if the psychopath is directing all of his intensity toward you through his eyes, a sensation that one woman reported as a feeling of "being eaten." They tend to invade peoples' space either by their sudden intrusions or intimidating look-overs (which some women confuse for sexuality.)
Another extremely interesting study had to do with the way psychopaths move their hands when they speak. Hand movement can tell researchers a lot about what are called "thought units." The studies indicate that psychopaths' thoughts and ideas are organized into small mental packages. This is handy for lying, but makes dealing with an overall, coherent, integrated complex of deep thoughts virtually impossible.
Most people are able to combine ideas that have consistent thought themes, but psychopaths have great difficulty doing this. Again, this suggests a genetic restriction to what we have called the Juvenile Dictionary. Not only are they using extremely restricted definitions, they cannot, by virtue of the way their brains work, do otherwise. Virtually all of the research on psychopaths reveals an inner world that is banal, sophomoric, and devoid of the color and detail that generally exists in the inner world of normal people. This goes a long way to explain the inconsistencies and contradictions in their speech.
Psychopaths are notorious for not answering the questions asked them. They will answer something else, or in such a way that the direct question is never addressed. They also phrase things so that some parts of their narratives are difficult to understand. This is not careless speech, of which everyone is guilty at times, but an ongoing indication of the underlying condition in which the organization of mental activity suggests something is wrong. It's not what they say, but how they say it that gives insight into their true nature.
But this raises, again, the question: if their speech is so odd, how come smart people get taken in by them? Why do we fail to pick up the inconsistencies?
Part of the answer is that the oddities are subtle so that our general listening mode will not normally pick them up. But my own experience is that some of the "skipped" or oddly arranged words, or misused words are automatically reinterpreted by OUR brains in the same way we automatically "fill in the blank" space on a neon sign when one of the letters has gone out. We can be driving down the road at night, and ahead we see M_tel, and we mentally put the "o" in place and read "Motel." Something like this happens between the psychopath and the victim. We fill in the "missing humanness" by filling in the blanks with our own assumptions, based on what WE think and feel and mean. And, in this way, because there are these "blank" spots, we fill them in with what is inside us, and thus we are easily convinced that the psychopath is a great guy - because he is just like us! We have been conditioned to operate on trust, and we always try to give the "benefit of the doubt." So, there are blanks, we "give the benefit of the doubt," and we are thereby hoisted on our own petard.
One psychopath interviewed by Hare's team said quite frankly:
Another psychopath admitted that he never targeted attractive women - he was only interested in those who were insecure and lonely. He claimed he could smell a needy person "the way a pig smells truffles."
The callous use of the old, the lonely, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, is a trademark of the psychopath. And when any of the victims wake up to what is happening, they are generally too embarrassed to complain.
One of the chief ways psychopaths prey on others is to make use of the normal person's need to find meaning or purpose in life. They will pose as grief counselors, or "experts" of various sorts that attract followings of people who are looking for answers. They are masters of recognizing "hang-ups" and self-doubts that most people have, and they will brazenly pander to them to gain a follower to use later.
Hare tells of a staff psychologist in a mental hospital whose life was destroyed by a psychopathic patient. He cleaned out her bank account, maxed out her credit cards, and then disappeared. How did he get to her? She said that her life had been "empty" and she had just simply succumbed to his sweet words and verbal caresses. As we already know, such words are cheap legal tender to the psychopath. They can say "I'll pray for you," or "I love you" just to create an impression. It really, really doesn't mean a thing. But some people are so lonely and so desperate that even imitations are better than nothing.
Then, of course, there are people who are just simply so psychologically damaged themselves that the psychopath is the obvious choice for a partner. They may have a need to be treated badly, or a need to be excited by danger, or a need to "rescue" or "fix" somebody whose soul is in obvious peril.
Sadly, as we see, psychopaths have no lack of victims because so many people are ready and willing to play the role. And in many, many cases, the victim simply refuses to believe the evidence that they are being victimized.
Psychological denial screens out knowledge that is painful, and persons with large investments in their fantasies are often unable to acknowledge that they are being deceived because it it too painful. Most often, these are women who rigidly adhere to the traditional role of the female with a strong sense of duty to be a "good wife." She will believe that if she tries harder or simply waits it out, her husband will reform. When he ignores her, abuses her, cheats on her, or uses her, she can simply just decide to "try harder, put more energy into the relationship, and take better care of him." She believes that if she does this, eventually he will notice and will see how valuable she is, and then he will fall on his knees in gratitude and treat her like a queen.
The fact is, such a woman, with her fierce commitment to such a man, her dedication to being a proper wife, has allowed such fairy tales to distort her sense of reality. The reality is that she is doomed to a lifetime of abuse and disappointment until "death do us part."
One of the basic assumptions of psychotherapy is that the patient needs and wants help for distressing or painful psychological and emotional problems. The psychopath does not think that they have any psychological or emotional problems, and they see no reason to change their behavior to conform to standards with which they do not agree. They are well-satisfied with themselves and their inner landscape. They see nothing wrong with they way they think or act, and they never look back with regret or forward with concern. They perceive themselves as superior beings in a hostile world in which others are competitors for power and resources. They feel it is the optimum thing to do to manipulate and deceive others in order to obtain what they want.
Most therapy programs only provide them with new excuses for their behavior as well as new insights into the vulnerabilities of others. Through psychotherapy, they learn new and better ways of manipulating. What they do NOT do is make any effort to change their own views and attitudes.
One particular psychopath studied by Hare and his team of researchers was in a group therapy program in a prison. The prison psychiatrist had written in his record: "He has made good progress... He appears more concerned about others and to have lost much of his criminal thinking."
Two years later, Hare's staff member interviewed the man. (At this point, it ought to be made clear that, in order to make the research more accurate, the terms were that nothing said by the subjects to Hare or his staff could or would be repeated to the prison authorities, and they kept to their agreement in order to insure that the subjects felt free to talk to them. Psychopaths, if they know that they won't be penalized for what they express, are very happy to boast about their prowess in deceiving others.) The man, assessed above by his prison psychiatrist as having made such remarkable improvement, was described by Hare's staffer as "the most terrifying offender she had ever met and that he openly boasted about how he had conned the prison staff into thinking that he was well on the road to rehabilitation. "I can't believe those guys," he said. "Who gave them a license to practice? I wouldn't let them psychoanalyze my dog! He'd shite all over them just like I did."
Psychopaths are not "fragile" individuals, as Robert Hare says after years of research. What they think and do is produced from a "rock solid personality structure that is extremely resistant to outside influences." Many of them are protected for years from the consequences of their behavior by well-meaning family and friends. As long as their behavior remains unchecked or unpunished, they continue to go through life without too much inconvenience.
Some researchers think that psychopathy is the result of some attachment or bonding difficulty as an infant. Dr. Hare has turned the idea around, after all his years digging into the background of psychopaths. He says:
In other words: they are born that way and you can't fix them.
To many people, the idea of a child psychopath is almost unthinkable. But the fact is, true psychopaths are born, not made. Oh, indeed, there is the psychopath that is "made," but they are generally different from the born psychopath in a number of ways.
The fact is, clinical research clearly demonstrates that psychopathy does not spring unannounced into existence in adulthood. The symptoms reveal themselves in early life. It seems to be true that parents of psychopaths KNOW something is dreadfully wrong even before the child starts school. Such children are stubbornly immune to socializing pressures. They are "different" from other children in frightening and inexplicable ways. They are more "difficult," or "willful," or aggressive, or hard to "relate to." They are difficult to get close to, cold and distant and self-sufficient.
One mother said: "We were never able to get close to her even as an infant. She was always trying to have her own way, whether by being sweet, or by having a tantrum. She can put on a sweet and contrite act..."
The fact is: childhood psychopathy is a stark reality, and failing to recognize it can lead to years of vain attempts to discover what is wrong with a child, and the parent blaming themselves. Hare writes:
Why does it seem that we have a veritable epidemic of psychopaths? Sociobiologists are suggesting that increasing psychopathy is an expression of a particular genetically based reproductive strategy. Simply put, most people have a couple of children and devote a lot of time and effort to their care. Psychopaths systematically mate with and abandon large numbers of women. They waste little of their energy raising children, and in this way, psychopathic genes are being propagated like wildfire. The sociobiologists aren't saying that the sexual behavior of people is consciously directed, only that "nature" has made them a certain way so that it will happen effectively.
The behavior of female psychopaths reflects the same strategy. "I can always have another," one female psychopath coldly replied when questioned about an incident in which her two-year-old daughter was beaten to death by one of her many lovers. When asked why she would want to have another child, (two had been taken into protective custody), she said "I love children." Again we see that the expressed emotion is in contradiction to the behavior.
Cheating skills seem to have an adaptive value in our society. The fact is: psychopaths often end up on the top of the heap.
At the present time, there is something very scary going on in the metaphysical community that may relate to this upsurge in births of psychopaths: talk about the so-called "Indigo Children." One of the chief promoters of this idea, Wendy Chapman, writes:
Sounds like a severe case of denial and wishful thinking, in my opinion. I suspect that the reader already has jumped ahead of me here and realizes what a big snow-job this "indigo children" deal is. Ms. Chapman has kindly provided a check-list to determine an "indigo child." After learning what we have about psychopaths, let's have a look at her list:
What we see above is a list that includes certain definitely psychopathic behaviors along with behaviors of gifted children. We have to wonder at the attempt to weave the two together.
Where did this idea of "Indigo Children" come from? The phrase, "Indigo child" was coined by Nancy Ann Tappe in her book Understanding Your Life Through Color (1982) and refers to the alleged color in these children's aura. Ms. Tappe was interviewed by Jan Tober for her book The Indigo Children (1999) and said: "These young children - every one of them I've seen thus far who kill their schoolmates or parents - have been Indigos."
That didn't stop Tober from writing her book and declaring that these children are "Spiritual Masters, beings full of wisdom, here to teach us a new way of being." The way the followers of the idea justify the fact that "not all Indigo children are filled with unconditional love, tolerance and non-judgment," is by declaring that they require "special" treatment and handling with kid gloves because they are so "special and delicate and sensitive".
One can't help but think that this is simply a manifestation of an evolutionary strategy: somehow, someone or something is trying to make sure that its offspring are well cared for, and that a lot of psychopaths grow up without being identified as what they are.
Nevertheless, there is no explaining the extremes that "true believers" will go to in order to find excuses for inexcusable things. Elizabeth Kirby, a businesswoman in southern California, who has "studied and practiced metaphysics for the last 21 years," writes:
Amazing, huh? Did you catch the remark: "Some of these metaphysical Indigo children are not hesitant about using violence to bring about change, and to bring us to enlightenment."
Don't we find that just a tiny bit contradictory? Aren't we stretching a bit? How about diving straight into denial?
At the present moment in history, the appeal of the psychopath has never been greater. Movies about psychopaths are all the rage. Hare asks "Why? What accounts for the terrific power that the personality without conscience has over our collective imagination? One theorist proposes that people who admire, believe, or identify with psychopaths, are partly psychopathic themselves. By interacting with a psychopath, even peripherally, they are able to voyeuristically enjoy an inner state not dominated by the constraints of morality. Such people are enabled to enjoy aggressive and sexual pleasures at no cost.
For normal people, such movies may serve to remind them of the danger and destructiveness of the psychopath. They will shiver with the sense of something cold and dark having breathed on their neck. For others, people with poorly developed inner selves, such movies and glorification of psychopathic behavior only serves as a role model for serious acts of violence and predation against others.
The only difference that family background seems to make is how the psychopath expresses himself. A psychopath who grows up in a stable family and has access to positive social and educational resources might become a white-collar criminal, or perhaps a somewhat shady entrepreneur, politician, lawyer, judge, or other professional. Another individual with the same traits, and a deprived background might become a common con-artist, a drifter, mercenary, or violent criminal.
The point is, social factors and parenting practices only shape the expression of the disorder, but have no effect on the individual's inability to feel empathy or to develop a conscience.
Robert Hare once submitted a paper to a scientific journal. The paper included EEGs of several groups of adult men performing a language task. The editor of the journal returned the paper saying "Those EEG's couldn't have come from real people."
But they did. They were the EEG's of psychopaths.
Some people have compared psychopathy to schizophrenia. However, there is a crucial distinction as we will see:
"More and more data are leading to the conclusion that psychopathy has a biological basis, and has many features of a disease," says Sabine Herpertz, a psychiatrist at the RWTH-Aachen University in Germany.
The brain imaging techniques of positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provide the opportunity to investigate psychopathy further. They might allow researchers to discover whether psychopaths' physiological and emotional deficits can be pinned down to specific differences in the anatomy or activation of the brain.
Among researchers who are starting to explore this area, there are two main theories of psychopathy. One, championed by Adrian Raine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and supported by the work of Antonio Damasio of the University of Iowa, gives a starring role to a brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex. This is part of an area of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, involved in conscious decision-making.
The other theory, promoted by James Blair of University College London, holds that the fundamental dysfunction lies within the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure that plays a critical role in processing emotion and mediating fear. Recently, using PET scanning, Blair has shown that activation of the amygdala in normal volunteers is involved in responding to the sadness and anger of others, and he hypothesizes that amygdala dysfunction could explain the lack of fear and empathy in psychopaths.
The two theories may not be mutually exclusive, Blair points out, as the orbitofrontal cortex, which does the 'thinking', and the amygdala, which does the 'feeling', are highly interconnected.
Following widespread concern that the criminal justice and mental health systems are failing to deal effectively with dangerous psychopaths, there is a movement in several countries to instigate fundamental legal reform. The most controversial suggestion is to make it possible for individual who have severe personality disorders to be detained in secure mental institutions even if they have been accused of no crime. Although these particular provisions have alarmed civil liberties campaigners, the raft of measures also includes a major initiative within the prison service to improve the handling of those with APD--including psychopaths.
According to one individual who suffered at the hands of a psychopath:
Over and over again we come up against the problem of religion and belief systems that have to be defended against objective evidence or the beliefs of others. We have to ask ourselves "where did these belief systems come from that so evidentially are catastrophic?" And then, we have to think about the fact that now, in the present day, when many of these systems are breaking down and being replaced by others that similarly divert our attention, it becomes necessary to "enforce" a certain mode of thinking. And that is what Psychopaths do best.
Psychopaths dominate and set the standard for behavior in our society. We live in a world based on a psychopathic, energy stealing food chain, because that's just the way things are. Most people are so damaged they no longer have the capacity to even imagine a different system based on a symbiotic network.
With just a cursory historical review, we become acutely aware that this is NOT a phenomenon confined to our present "time." It is a trans-millennial social disease that, step by step, has brought us to our present pandemic state. As Wilhelm Reich wrote about the problem (though he was unable to identify it as psychopathy):
No, it was because of psychopaths that infiltrated societies, reproduced, and grew powerful. All the great social and political tragedies of humankind can probably be attributed to endemic and pandemic psychopathy. Carlos Castaneda struggled with this problem as well and put the following words into the mouth of his semi-mythical Don Juan:
George Gurdjieff put the problem in similar terms:
Intolerance and cruelty are NEEDED to guarantee the "cover-up" of the take-over of humanity by psychopaths. A certain kind of "human being" acts on behalf of this cover-up. And in this sense, psychopaths, as Reaction Machines are the playing pieces in the Secret Games of the Gods.