The psychopath next door

Be prepared for a fight. “Power and control are important to psychopaths. They don’t like to lose, and will use charm, threats, intimidation, litigation and violence if they judge it is in their best interests,” says Dr. Hare. And don’t expect dramatic changes in the psychopath’s behaviour no matter what he or she tells you…Psychopaths are attracted to opportunity. In the world of the social predator, we are the prey.

The Globe and Mail
January 16, 1999

The psychopath next door
You may think that the only monsters are psychopaths. In reality, they can be apparently normal people with whom we deal every day.
Kelvin Browne

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Underneath a charming sometimes irresistible facade, the closet psychopath is ruthless, ambitious, selfish and dishonest. He could be your neighbour, your employer, a relative or lover.

Fred Taylor is a psychopath. No, he’s not a rapist or a serial killer. He isn’t even a criminal – at least he’s never been convicted of anything. Fred Taylor is a strikingly handsome man in his mid-thirties with a deep voice and a quick wit. Some people think he looks like a young Paul Newman.

He is charming, persuasive and outgoing – a natural salesman, people who know him say. Everything seems to come easily to Fred – jobs, friends, women. But a closer look reveals that things just as frequently go wrong.

Like the time he got caught back-dating invoices to help his boss. Though his boss was fired, Fred managed to shift the blame and hold on to his job. But some of his gloss began to fade.

And for all his success with women, his relationships usually end badly. His live-in girlfriend moved out when she discovered he had been cheating on her. She finally realized he was never going to pay the months of rent he owed her, let alone marry her.

Fred, who has been an adept liar since childhood, seldom calls his parents, and his only brother refuses to have anything to do with him.

Still, he’s managed to get another job, and by all accounts his new boss loves him. Most people who know him agree he’s attractive and clever. Others find him cold; they say he’s not all there, that he’s great when he’s “on”, then he suddenly becomes hard and indifferent.

Fred Taylor is a fictional character, but you probably have known someone who is much like him. Underneath a charming, sometimes irresistible, façade, he is ruthless, ambitious, selfish and dishonest. He could be your neighbour, your employer, a relative or lover. If you’ve known someone like him, you’ve probably been burned one way or another.

You may think that only monstrous people such as Paul Bernardo, Karla Homolka, Clifford Olson and Charles Manson are psychopaths, when in reality they are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Psychopaths can just as easily be people with whom we deal on a daily basis and who appear relatively normal.

(Note that Fred could easily be Freda. There is growing evidence that there are many more female psychopaths than earlier research using male-dominated criminal populations had suggested.)

Robert Hare, a professor at the University of British Columbia, is one of the world’s leading experts on psychopaths. In his book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Dr. Hare describes psychopaths as “social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. He says their most pervasive trait is a stunning lack of conscience. They are glib, lack remorse, guilt or empathy; they are emotionally shallow and lie easily and convincingly.

As far back as 1941, another psychiatrist, Hervey Cleckley (co-author of The Three Faces of Eve), identified psychopaths in his book Mask of Sanity. “More often than not,” Dr. Cleckley wrote, “the typical psychopath will seem particularly agreeable and make a distinctly positive impression when he is first encountered. Alert and friendly in his attitude, he is easy to talk to and seems to have a good many genuine interests.”

Dr. Cleckley continued: “[They] are often witty and sometimes give a superficial impression of that far different and very serious thing, humour. Humour…they never have.” While most psychopaths use sex to get what they want, he said, they do not have particularly strong sex cravings or the ability to sustain adult love relations.

If you consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as DSM-IV), the bible for mental health diagnosis published by the American Psychiatric Association, you won’t find a chapter on psychopaths. The clinical definition most relevant to psychopathy is found in the section dealing with personality disorders. Included with narcissistic, borderline and histrionic disorders is a category called antisocial personality disorder.

According to DSM-IV, the essential feature of antisocial personality disorder- and by inference, psychopathy – is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.

“Psychopath” and “sociopath” do not mean the same thing. Some people assume that a sociopath is a milder version of a psychopath. This is not the case. Sociopaths are persistently antisocial and criminal individuals whose attitudes and behaviours reflect poor social conditioning or a dysfunctional background. They are products of their environment, but nevertheless are capable of deep feelings and loyalty to others of their group. They could be trusted member of a street gang, for instance.

In contrast, psychopaths come from a variety of backgrounds, and their attitudes and behaviour can’t be understood as simply a result of social forces. There is evidence that the personality of psychopaths is influenced by biologically-based predispositions that make it difficult for them to develop strong emotional and social connections with others.

Scott Woodside, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says there are different theories about how psychopaths fit into the diagnostic system. One view holds that such disorders are part of a continuum, with people such as the fictional Fred Taylor at one end of the spectrum and hard-core violent thieves, rapists and killers at the other. “They are basically not treatable with the techniques we have today,” says Dr. Woodside.

Dr. Hare, on the other hand, believes that the diagnosis of psychopath stands on its own both clinically and empirically. But what are people who suspect they are being used by a psychopath to do? In Without Conscience, Dr. Hare writes that “whatever the reason for your involvement with a psychopath, it is important that you do not accept blame for his or her attitudes and behaviour. Be aware of who the victim is.”

If you believe you are involved with a psychopath, his advice is to obtain professional help or join a support group. Set firm ground rules for your interaction with the presumed psychopath. “Don’t try to put yourself in a psychopath’s shoes,” says Dr. Hare. “They don’t think and feel like you.” In the workplace, document their behaviour. Try to avoid being alone with him or her. And since dividing to conquer is an effective manipulative technique of the psychopath, stay in close contact with your colleagues.

Be prepared for a fight. “Power and control are important to psychopaths. They don’t like to lose, and will use charm, threats, intimidation, litigation and violence if they judge it is in their best interests,” says Dr. Hare. And don’t expect dramatic changes in the psychopath’s behaviour no matter what he or she tells you.

Toronto psychologist Sheila Willson has treated people shattered by their experiences with psychopaths who were once spouses, business associates or trusted friends. She says that assuming you “should have known better” isn’t helpful, and encourages her patients to carefully consider why they were susceptible to a particular con, even if it was masterful.

“A painful experience with a psychopath, one where a person has ultimately been manipulated or betrayed, is an appropriate catalyst for self-examination,” says Dr. Willson. “What did the psychopath offer that was so appealing? What emotional need could they fill that authentic experiences could not? What fascinated and perhaps blinded a person to what was really happening?”

Often people with a strong sense of self can recognize psychopathic behaviour and avoid it. Others may recognize it but are unable to resist. Dr. Willson describes patients who knew they were being used by psychopaths but could not give up their debilitating involvements. “Patients can be addicted to the attention they receive and desperate for the excitement these relationship can generate. They break it off, especially after friends point out how it is undermining his or her life, but then they return regardless of the consequences."

For some victims of psychopaths, it is a recurring pattern. This wasn’t the first time they’d lent money to a boyfriend who disappeared, been physically or emotionally abused and felt like a prisoner in their own home, or the only time that a business partner took them to the cleaners, even when their friends warned them. Therapy can help bolster self-esteem so that a victim is not vulnerable to being traumatized again and again.

When stories don’t add up, when actions don’t reconcile with comforting words, or when other things make your human antennae quiver, pay attention. While we should be careful about playing psychiatrist and making blanket assessments on the basis of articles such as this one, it pays to remember that appearances can be deceiving. Psychopaths are attracted to opportunity. In the world of the social predator, we are the prey.

Are you a psychopath?

1. Are you taking this test because you are:
(a) worried that you might be a psychopath, and in danger of hurting people because of your problem, or
(b) concerned that you might appear to be a psychopath, and this would be a career-limiting image?
2. Telling a lie is:
(a) difficult
(b) often unavoidable
(c) necessary to get along
(d) inevitable, and only a problem if you can’t keep your stories straight
3. The last time someone hurt your feelings was:
(a) yesterday
(b) last year
(c) can’t recall
(d) feelings are for losers
4. The thing that matters most is:
(a) your family
(b) your bank account
(c) controlling those around you
(d) demolishing anyone who stands in your way
5. If someone told you how much something you said had upset them, you would:
(a) be very upset yourself, and try to make amends
(b) apologize, but you can’t please everyone
(c) let them know you’re upset with them, too, and make up a reason why
(d) ignore them and get even for raising the issue

Score 1 point for every (b) answer, 2 points for every (c) answer and 3 for every (d). Ad five bonus points if you cheated on this quiz because you though you could anticipate the answers and get away with it.
If you scored from 5 to 10: You’re not a very nice person but likely a psychopath.
10 to 15 points: You should seek help even though you probably think it’s our problem, not yours.
Over 15 points: You should have a scarlet “P” prominently displayed on your breast at all times so the rest of us can avoid you. You’re a monster!

Kevin Browne is a Toronto Writer

For further information on Dr. Hare’s work, see http://www.hare.org


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