For simplicity’s sake, the psychopath will always be a male in the following article.
For most of us when we hear the word “psychopath” pictures of criminals committing violent offences will come to mind. Although on average 20 percent of prison inmates also score high on psychopathy, not all psychopaths are necessarily criminals. Therefore, there is a high percentage of psychopaths who might never go to prison as they manage to adapt well or are simply successful in never getting caught. Such individuals will often choose professions through which they can exert some degree of power and control, allowing them to create a facade of normalcy and succeed in getting what they want. Such professions may include: lawyers, police officers, doctors, business people.
Key features of a psychopath
Glib and Superficial
Psychopaths can be very articulate, amusing conversationalists, always having a clever comeback comment. Most of their stories will appear quite unlikely, what we often call “too good to be true”, but they can also be very convincing.
Egocentric and Grandiose
A key characteristic of a psychopath is his egocentricity. Everything seems to evolve around themselves, they are the centre of attention. They tend to follow their own rules, disregarding societal norms.
Grandiosity might appear in a more dramatic fashion (e.g in a courtroom). Psychopaths are highly likely to fire their own lawyer and take on their own defence. They will often view them as incompetent, not being able to accept that others might also have a valid opinion. They will rarely seem/feel embarrassed of any legal or financial difficulties, since they will not view such drawbacks as their problem but rather as a temporary setback or bad luck.
Lack of remorse/guilt
Even if their actions have caused some devastating effects, psychopaths will feel no guilt or remorse. When a psychopath was asked if he felt remorse for stabbing a victim he responded “Get real. He spends a few months in a hospital and I rot here. I cut him up a bit but if I wanted to kill him I would have split his throat. That’s the kind of guy I am. I gave him a break” (Hare, 1999, p. 41). Psychopaths tend to rationalise their behaviour and as a result feel no remorse over their actions. They often do come up with excuses for their actions or may simply deny that they ever did it.
Lack of empathy
Others’ feelings are of no concern to a psychopath. For them, people are like objects that can be used for their own amusement and benefit.
Deceitful and manipulative
Lying and manipulating people comes naturally to psychopaths. They are also unconcerned with the possibility of getting caught and if they do they will not feel any embarrassment and will quickly change their story. They are proud of their ability to con others and since lying becomes so natural to them, observers may often wonder if psychopaths do actually know that they are lying. Even people who are working for decades with psychopaths can at some points be conned. Everyone might lie, but what differentiates a psychopath is how easy it is for them to do so, and the callousness that comes with it.
A psychopath will rarely weight the pros + cons of a situation. They mostly act on how they feel at that moment. They are only concerned with their own needs and will ignore what others want. They also rarely commit to one plan, unconcerned about the future.
Poor behaviour controls
Most of us have an inhibitory control over our behaviour and therefore in situations that may cause aggression we are able to reserve ourselves. For psychopaths, this inhibitory control is weaker, they are more short-tempered and readily responsive to criticism. However, the outburst is also short-lived and once they are done, they will continue with their normal day routine.
Need for excitement
Psychopaths have an urge to live on the edge and will easily break the rules in need to fulfil this excitement. They get easily bored and therefore you will rarely find them in an occupation that requires intense concentration compared to occupations that have this sense of excitement.
Lack of responsibility
Obligations and commitment to a promise or a plan, are of no concern to them. They will often view their children as an inconvenience and will be indifferent as to their welfare.
Anatomy of a psychopath
To be very concise, we have two hemispheres, each playing a crucial role in information processing. The left hemisphere is mainly responsible for language production and comprehension. The right hemisphere is mostly responsible for spatial and imagery perceptions, as well as emotional regulation. Evidence has shown, that for psychopaths, neither hemisphere processes emotional cues. More specifically, recent studies supported that neutral words like “pen” convey less information compared to emotional words like “kill”. When displaying such words on a computer screen whilst measuring their brain responses, it was shown that for individuals who were low within the psychopathy checklist, brain responses for emotional words tended to be larger compared to neutral words.
However, this was not the case for prison inmates, high on the psychopathy checklist. Their neural responses were similar to both word types, supporting the fact that words do not hold the same emotional effect on psychopaths. For most people, a word can elicit a very powerful emotional reaction. For instance, when we hear the word “cancer” we might feel a bit uneasy and concerned. For a psychopath, hearing this would just be a normal word.
What you will often hear people who have had an experience with a psychopath say, are things like “He told me he loved me but he continued sleeping around. He would then beg me to forgive him, tell me he loves me, and turn around and do the same thing”.
What someone who is involved in that relationship fails to understand is that psychopaths, although they are aware of the meaning of their words, they lack the emotional capacity that usually comes with it. The reason for using certain words that would show affection like “I love you” is because they have learnt to use such words by observing others using them, and not because they understand their emotional value. Psychopaths see nothing wrong in telling someone they love them after having assaulted them. They may also mimic the emotional appearance that comes with the words but the feeling itself is not present. They may also use others’ reactions to know how they should behave in a situation.
But how can they manipulate us?
We usually get sucked in by the emotional triggers they push, by how they say things, and not by what they are saying. It is mainly the “show” that they put on and not the use of words that attracts one’s attention and distracts them from the initial question. If the show is not always enough, good looks, expensive cars and a nice outfit will do the job.
I am not saying that there are no exceptions to this. We usually do pay attention to what others say, but research does support that looks play a really important role even when it comes down to a job interview. Hence, having an attractive individual who puts on a show with continuous hand gestures, smiles and eye contact, will most usually distract the listener and will pay less attention to what is being said. You will find yourself following their dramatic gestures or their intense eye contact and before you realize your attention is being drawn away.
Psychopaths are very successful at detecting your vulnerabilities and once they have they will use them to the best of their advantage. They will often seek people who seem more vulnerable and helpless.
People not involved in a situation like this, often wonder why the victim did not report this. Why did they leave this to go on for so long? Well it’s very simple really. Embarrassment plays a very important role. The victim starts questioning why she did not notice all the signs and how could she have let this happen. It may seem obvious now but how could they have been so blinded. Hence, the psychopath gets to get away with his behaviour, leaves one day after having taken what he wanted, trying to find a new victim, whilst the victim is too heart broken, betrayed, tired, or exposed, to press charges.
A “con psychopath” tends to spot mostly “nurturing women”, the women that always try to find the good in others. “He had a difficult upbringing that’s why he is behaving this way”. These women will often take continuous abuse hoping that they are the ones who can help.
There are also situations in which the individual does not see/accept that they are being victimised. Psychological denial is a safety mechanism we might often apply in order to block out painful truths.
Some traits that may appear within early childhood include, being indifferent towards others’ feelings and expectations, petty theft, persistent aggression and lying. Adults who have been diagnosed with psychopathy, are also likely to have met the criteria of conduct disorder as children, where basic age appropriate societal rules were violated. If intervention is to be provided and be successful, it should be given early on within childhood since once the individual enters adolescence, certain behavioural patterns are highly unlikely to change.
Nature vs Nurture
There is the belief that one becomes a psychopath due to their upbringing. Some examples would include poor upbringing, abusive parents and bad companions. Others are true believers that one is born a psychopath. Evidence shows that both nature and nurture play a role. One biological model argues that psychopathic tendencies result due to brain damage and more specifically to the frontal lobes. Similar to patients with an acquired brain injury to the frontal lobes, psychopaths express socially inappropriate behaviours, aggressiveness, impulsivity, poor emotional regulation.
Neglect and emotional deprivation can certainly result into some sort of psychological damage however, evidence has not shown that one becomes a psychopath purely due to early maltreatment. An individual might have had a difficult upbringing but this does not mean that he will necessarily become a psychopath. Or an individual might have had a stable nurturing upbringing and still develop into a psychopath.
No effective treatment has been found yet. The issue when it comes to treatment is that one first needs to recognise that there is a problem. Psychopaths do not feel that they have any emotional problems and see no need of change. They appear satisfied with themselves and see nothing wrong and therefore a psychopath is highly unlikely to seek therapy. It is mostly a family member or a friend that will urge them to see someone. Even if they begin therapy, they are incapable of the emotional intimacy and insight, required for therapy to work. Hence, minimal to no effort will be placed to change their own views and to understand others’ standpoint, a key therapeutic element.
So, the best solution would be to recognise and tackle the presenting problem early within childhood.
Series recommendations: Dirty John, Ted Bundy tapes.
By Vasiliki Gkofa, Psychological Counsellor
BSc Clinical Psychology (Hons), MSc Clinical Neuropsychiatry