The Charming Psychopath

June 12, 2017

Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. Hannibal Lecter. These are the psychopaths whose stunning lack of conscience we see in the movies and in tabloids. Yet, as this report makes abundantly clear, these predators, both male and female, haunt our everyday lives at work, at home, and in relationships. Here’s how to find them before they find you.

She met him in a laundromat in London. He was open and friendly and they hit it off right away. From the start she thought he was hilarious. Of course, she’d been lonely. The weather was grim and sleety and she didn’t know a soul east of the Atlantic.

“Ah, travelers’ loneliness,” Dan crooned sympathetically over dinner. “It’s the worst.”

After dessert he was embarrassed to discover he’d come without his wallet. She was more than happy to pay for dinner. At the pub, over drinks, he told her he was a translator for the United Nations. He was, for now, between assignments.

They saw each other four times that week, five the week after. It wasn’t long before he had all but moved in with Elsa. It was against her nature, but she was having the time of her life.

Still, there were details, unexplained, undiscussed, that she shoved out of her mind. He never invited her to his home; she never met his friends. One night he brought over a carton filled with tape recorders—plastic-wrapped straight from the factory, unopened; a few days later they were gone. Once she came home to find three televisions stacked in the corner. “Storing them for a friend,” was all he told her. When she pressed for more he merely shrugged.

Once he stayed away for three days and was lying asleep on the bed when she came in midmorning. “Where have you been?” she cried. “I’ve been so worried. Where were you?”

He looked sour as he woke up. “Don’t ever ask me that,” he snapped. “I won’t have it.”

“What—?”

“Where I go, what I do, who I do it with—it doesn’t concern you, Elsa. Don’t ask.”

He was like a different person. But then he seemed to pull himself together, shook the sleep off, and reached out to her. “I know it hurts you,” he said in his old gentle way, “but I think of jealousy as a flu, and wait to get over it. And you will, baby, you will.” Like a mother cat licking her kitten, he groomed her back into trusting him.

One night she asked him lightly if he felt like stepping out to the corner and bringing her an ice cream. He didn’t reply, and when she glanced up she found him glaring at her furiously. “Always got everything you wanted, didn’t you?” he asked in a strange, snide way. “Any little thing little Elsa wanted, somebody always jumped up and ran out and bought it for her, didn’t they?”

“Are you kidding? I’m not like that. What are you talking about?”

He got up from the chair and walked out. She never saw him again.

There is a class of individuals who have been around forever and who are found in every race, culture, society and walk of life. Everybody has met these people, been deceived and manipulated by them, and forced to live with or repair the damage they have wrought. These often charming—but always deadly—individuals have a clinical name: psychopaths. Their hallmark is a stunning lack of conscience; their game is self-gratification at the other person’s expense. Many spend time in prison, but many do not. All take far more than they give.

The most obvious expressions of psychopathy—but not the only ones—involve the flagrant violation of society’s rules. Not surprisingly, many psychopaths are criminals, but many others manage to remain out of prison, using their charm and chameleon-like coloration to cut a wide swathe through society, leaving a wake of ruined lives behind them.

A major part of my own quarter-century search for answers to this enigma has been a concerted effort to develop an accurate means of detecting the psychopaths among us. Measurement and categorization are, of course, fundamental to any scientific endeavor, but the implications of being able to identify psychopaths are as much practical as academic. To put it simply, if we can’t spot them, we are doomed to be their victims, both as individuals and as a society.

My role in the search for psychopaths began in the 1960s at the psychology department of the University of British Columbia. There, my growing interest in psychopathy merged with my experience working with psychopaths in prison to form what was to become my life’s work.

I assembled a team of clinicians who would identify psychopaths in the prison population by means of long, detailed interviews and close study of file information. From this eventually developed a highly reliable diagnostic tool that any clinician or researcher could use and that yielded a richly detailed profile of the personality disorder called psychopathy. We named this instrument the Psychopathy Checklist (Multi-Health Systems; 1991). The checklist is now used worldwide and provides clinicians and researchers with a way of distinguishing, with reasonable certainty, true psychopaths from those who merely break the rules.

What follows is a general summary of the key traits and behaviors of a psychopath. Do not use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or others. A diagnosis requires explicit training and access to the formal scoring manual. If you suspect that someone you know conforms to the profile described here, and if it is important for you to have an expert opinion, you should obtain the services of a qualified (registered) forensic psychologist or psychiatrist.

Also, be aware that people who are not psychopaths may have some of the symptoms described here. Many people are impulsive, or glib, or cold and unfeeling, but this does not mean that they are psychopaths. Psychopathy is a syndrome—a cluster of related symptoms.

Key Symptoms of Psychopathy

Emotional/Interpersonal:

Glib and superficial

Egocentric and grandiose

Lack of remorse or guilt

Lack of empathy

Deceitful and manipulative

hallow emotions

Social Deviance:

Impulsive

Poor behavior controls

Need for excitement

Lack of responsibility

Early behavior problems

Adult antisocial behavior

Glib and Superficial

Psychopaths are often voluble and verbally facile. They can be amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a clever comeback, and are able to tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light. They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming.

One of my raters described an interview she did with a prisoner: “I sat down and took out my clipboard,” she said, “and the first thing this guy told me was what beautiful eyes I had. He managed to work quite a few compliments on my appearance into the interview, so by the time I wrapped things up, I was feeling unusually… well, pretty. I’m a wary person, especially on the job, and can usually spot a phony. When I got back outside, I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for a line like that.”

Egocentric and Grandiose

Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their own self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the center of the universe, justified in living according to their own rules. “It’s not that I don’t follow the law,” said one subject. “I follow my own laws. I never violate my own rules.” She then proceeded to describe these rules in terms of “looking out for number one.”

Psychopaths often claim to have specific goals but show little appreciation regarding the qualifications required—they have no idea of how to achieve them and little or no chance of attaining these goals, given their track record and lack of sustained interest in formal education. The psychopathic inmate might outline vague plans to become a lawyer for the poor or a property tycoon. One inmate, not particularly literate, managed to copyright the title of a book he was planning to write about himself, already counting the fortune his best-selling book would bring.

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