The Scary Truth of Psychopaths
by Dr. Katherine Ramsland, March 3, 2005
With the recent arrest of Dennis L. Rader, a family man and church member, for the series of murders in Wichita, Kan., attributed to a killer self-styled BTK (Burn, Torture, and Kill), people there are asking how such a criminal could have moved among them without detection for so many years.
The surprising, horrifying truth is that despite what people believe, monsters do live among us - easily.
Such offenders do so in part because they are by nature secretive. But they're also assisted by the widespread attitude that monsters are easy to spot. A Cub Scout leader and seemingly responsible citizen such as Rader can succeed in extreme deviant behavior by exploiting such naive assumptions.
We've had clear cases of this before with notorious serial killers. Ted Bundy worked a crisis hotline as he murdered young women. John Wayne Gacy buried boys beneath his house while he ran a business and entertained sick kids. And Robert Yates Jr., Spokane's prostitute killer, was a decorated ex- military pilot with five children.
Rader, arraigned Tuesday, is as yet only a suspect in the 10 BTK murders since 1974 under investigation. Still: Why don't we spot serial killers before they do so much damage?
Many people think our erroneous image of serial killers derives from the way movies and television portray them - that is, as being obviously different from ordinary people. But the real reason for our blindness is more frightening and more complicated.
Some serial killers blend in because they're the type of person who can go through the motions of ordinary living and yet act out against others without giving him- or herself away. They're morally deviant but not obviously deranged; they hide their deviance behind a bland, everyday manner. These people are, in short, psychopaths.
Among the most dangerous features of psychopathy are a callous disregard for the rights of others and a propensity for violating norms. Psychopaths might not necessarily become outright criminals, let alone killers, but the likelihood of exploitative and deceptive behavior is high. Without remorse, psychopaths charm and manipulate others for their own gain. They lack a sense of responsibility, and they con others with no regard for anyone's feelings. In fact, they don't see others as human. Psychopaths with low inhibitions against violence may kill.
Psychopaths are considered to be suffering from a personality disorder (not a mental illness) that involves traits such as narcissism, impulsivity and callousness. From brain-scan studies, it appears that they fail to process the emotional content of situations, such as empathy, concern, or alarm. Those who commit crimes have proven more brutal than other criminals, more aggressive, more diverse in their activities. They also represent a high percentage of repeat offenders. They're resistant to therapy and intolerant of frustration. It doesn't matter whom they hurt; what matters is that they get what they can for themselves. Because they don't have what people need for living in social harmony, some psychologists refer to them as "unfinished souls."
Robert D. Hare, a renowned expert on the disorder and author of Without Conscience, says that while we have plenty of data about psychopaths in prison populations, we know little about how the disorder manifests in the public at large. There are indications, however, that criminal and noncriminal psychopaths share similar personality structures and propensity for unethical behavior. They may be as common as one in every hundred people.
"Psychopathy," Hare believes, "touches virtually every one of us."
For the most part, when they offend, their crimes are cold-blooded. In those who are serial killers, there appears to be a strong tendency toward sadism - such as in the torture exhibited by BTK. They find victims easily because they're glib, charming and predatory, while their victims are generally naive.
So killers may thrive among us in positions such as Rader held, and with homes and families. They may attend church (although without struggles of conscience) and even be considered good neighbors. They know how to go through the motions. But they look for opportunities - a psychopath may take a security job that positions him to meet potential victims, for example - and they have no qualms, when the time is right, about taking advantage. We want to spot them, but they usually spot us first.
The best defense is to realize they're among us, shed our cultural naveté, and be careful whom we trust.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland is author most recently of "Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill." She teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University.