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No strings on me: Is there a psychopath in your life?

No Strings

"Psychopaths feel few if any emotional ties to anyone" courtesy of Nestor Galina

I've got no strings
So I have fun
I'm not tied up to anyone
They've got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me!

Lyrics form Pinocchio: 'I've got no strings'

What is a psychopath? Do you know one? Ever been the victim of one? The chances are that the answer is yes, even if you may not realize it. The scientific consensus is that one in a hundred people is psychopathic and this breaks down evenly between men and women. (1) Scary thought, huh? What is your idea of a 'psychopath'? A serial killer? A crazy person foaming at the mouth? Think again.

Movie madness - muddling psychosis and psychopathy

Hollywood loves psychopaths and psychotics because they make such wonderful (or terrible, depending on your point of view) baddies. But if you think that because you've seen lots of movies featuring baddies who are 'mad' in some way you will therefore be able tell a psychotic from a psychopath, you are mistaken, because the movies regularly mix them up. Perhaps the most famous 'mad' movie baddie of them all, Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, is regularly branded a psychopath, although he was no such thing. He was a delusional psychotic. 'Hearing voices' or 'seeing things' that aren't there can be symptoms of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, but does not mean that you are a psychopath. Of course, schizophrenia itself is another condition often misrepresented in the movies, which pursue the dramatic possibilities of 'split personality' while failing to acknowledge that it has nothing whatever to do with schizophrenia.

To see a more accurate movie psychopath, turn to the eponymous cold hired assassin 'the Jackal' in The Day of the Jackal, or the scheming and manipulative Tom Ripley (brilliantly portrayed by Matt Damon) in The Talented Mr Ripley.

In reality, most psychopaths are not criminal - although many criminals are psychopaths - but they are certainly amoral. The great majority are not killers; they are 'bad' rather than 'mad'. So how do you tell if there is a psychopath in your life?

The charming manipulator

The socialized psychopath is likely to be too smart to end up in jail.

The socialized psychopath can appear extremely charming. You have to know them really well and have a fair amount of insight yourself to spot that they always and only ever do what suits them. As long as they are getting their own way, they can be as charming as you could wish, and the most delightful company. But they will lie at the drop of a hat, without the slightest twinge of anxiety or guilt (so the old 'lie detector' polygraph test wouldn't be likely to catch them out). They will use other people for their own ends without the smallest concern - treating them as no more than chess pieces in their 'game'. They have no sense of guilt or remorse and will always be able to come up with plausible rationalizations for their behavior which allow them to lay the blame for any subsequent disaster on other people. And, of course, once chess pieces have served their purpose, there is no reason why they should not be discarded.

Is it surprising that politics and show business are thought to have more than their fair share of socialized psychopaths?

Cruel yet magnetic

The socialized psychopath can be very attractive for the very qualities that make them psychopathic. This is not as contradictory as it sounds. A person whom we sense is not encumbered with the same inhibitions, doubts, uncertainties and sensitivities that plague the rest of mankind can seem very attractive. They can have such an aura of confidence and freedom about them. They may be enormously fun sensation-seeking risk takers. There are 'no strings on them' - or so it would appear. They may even seem like heroes to us. And they will keep us onside while we are useful to them. If you watch them carefully, however, their humor will tend to be on the cruel side.

Cult leader Jim Jones was very magnetic and attracted a great number of followers to his 'Jonestown' settlement where they met their tragic deaths. He was reported to have enjoyed dissecting live animals as a child - a common childhood indicator of psychopathy. Other people's suffering does not shock the psychopath as it does ordinary people, although they can look as shocked as anyone on the surface. How so?

Feigning empathy

Someone with Asperger syndrome (a mild form of autism) finds it difficult to empathise with other people because they are to some extent 'emotion blind'. They find it hard to read the emotions of others, or to see a connection between the emotional responses of others and what they themselves have actually done or said. As a consequence, they can sometimes seem cruel or insensitive, but they don't mean to be. They assume that other people see the world in the same way as they do themselves, and struggle to comprehend that there really are different perspectives. This makes someone with Aspergers actually less likely to lie or attempt to deceive - they see no need for it.

A psychopath is a different kettle of fish altogether. A psychopath is not 'emotion blind'. They can 'read' other people's emotions perfectly well, and mimic them perfectly well. And for them, other people's emotions are just another counter to use in their games. They themselves rarely get worked up about anything except not getting what they want.

How do you deal with someone who has no empathy, guilt, remorse or fear?

A psychopath may understand other people frighteningly well. They can watch dispassionately, with a cold and calculating mind, going convincingly through the motions of empathy on the surface while focusing on how to turn the situation to their advantage. The only way to spot them is to observe them carefully over a significant period of time. Do they regularly say one thing and then do another, more than other people? Do they use people emotionally, sexually, professionally and then discard them casually? Do they sometimes seem strangely un-shocked by shocking events?

Cold hearts

Not surprisingly, many two-faced bullies show strong psychopathic tendencies. As they say: 'You can't turn a lion into a vegetarian by throwing veggie burgers at it.' Trying to appeal to the better nature of a person who hasn't got a better nature is a losing strategy. Psychopaths do not feel guilt or shame. They won't feel genuinely sorry for you and will only put up a front of convincing looking sympathy for as long as it suits them.

If you suspect there is a psychopath causing havoc in your life then you need to avoid them as much as possible. Collect and record evidence of their manipulative behavior. Try to avoid seeing them except when other people are around. Psychopaths leave a string of broken hearts, disappointment, bewilderment and empty wallets in their wake. Romantic relationships with a psychopath (of either sex) are fraught with dangers to your emotional and even physical well-being.

Why do psychopaths exist?

It seems strange that nature sprinkles psychopaths so liberally around human populations. But it could be that just as, in order to be successful overall, human populations need 'creative innovators' and 'caring people', they also need a minority who are cold and ruthless enough to make things work without consideration for other people 'getting in the way'. Such attitudes can have particular social or economic benefits in certain circumstances. For example, it is probably the case that the Special Forces have a higher proportion of psychopaths (albeit acceptably channeled because of the nature of the work) than the social work profession. We may sometimes need the cold detachment of the psychopath.

How do you treat the psychopath?

Traditionally psychopaths have only been 'treated' when they have been caught in criminal misdemeanor, and that 'treatment' has often been no more than punishment. Psychopathy is seen as a 'personality disorder' and therefore pretty much untreatable. Psychopaths may be very happy with being the way they are and there is some evidence that their brains, in some respects, work quite differently from other people's.

In a fascinating study, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, (2) showed six psychopaths and nine healthy volunteers' pictures of faces displaying different emotions. When looking at happy faces (as opposed to neutral faces), the brains of both groups showed increased activity in the areas involved in processing facial expression, although this increase was smaller in the psychopathic group.

In contrast, when processing faces full of fear compared with neutral faces, the healthy volunteers showed more activation and the psychopaths less activation in these brain regions. Psychopaths can be very emotional themselves if they feel thwarted, but they are less concerned with other people's emotions except as a hook by which to manipulate them.

The psychopathic continuum

We can all behave psychopathically sometimes, given extreme enough circumstances. Even whole cultures may be more psychopathic than others. Societies that encourage individuality, material gain and personal power while glorifying violence at the expense of the community display psychopathic tendencies just as surely as individuals do. And some people may manifest some psychopathic tendencies while still on occasion having genuine empathy and consideration.

The vast majority of people do care about others, are shocked and upset by the suffering of fellow creatures and won't tread over all and sundry just to get to the top. And we can all be manipulative, calculating, selfish or ladle on the false charm at times. But for the true psychopath this is par for the course. You have been warned.

Notes

  1. See Robert D Hare's excellent: Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us
  2. This research was conducted by Professor Declan Murphy and colleagues at Kings College London and published in 'Facial emotion processing in criminal psychopathy', British Journal of Psychiatry, 2006 189: 547-555

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Mark Tyrrell
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