Recognising the psychopath predator

Robert Hare

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 complete 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 and 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. 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 my life 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 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 summary of the key traits and behaviours 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 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 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, glib or cold and unfeeling, but this does not mean they are psychopaths. Psychopathy is a syndrome – a cluster of related symptoms.

Main symptoms of psychopathy

Glib and superficial
Egocentric and grandiose
Lack of remorse or guilt
Lack of empathy
Deceitful and manipulative
Shallow emotions

Impulsive
Poor behaviour controls
Need for excitement
Lack of responsibility
Early behaviour problems
Adult anti-social behaviour

Glib and superficial

Psychopaths 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 effective in presenting themselves well and are often likable and charming.

Egocentric and grandiose

Psychopaths have a narcissistic and inflated view of their own self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the centre 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.

Lack of remorse or guilt
Psychopaths show no concern for the effects their actions have on others, no matter how devastating these might be. They may appear completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the ensuing pain, and that there is no reason now to be concerned.

When asked if he had any regrets about stabbing a robbery victim who subsequently spent time in the hospital as a result of his wounds, one of our subjects replied, “Get real! He spends a few months in hospital and I rot here. If I wanted to kill him I would have slit his throat. That’s the kind of guy I am; I gave him a break.”

Their lack of remorse or guilt is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalise their behaviour, to shrug off personal responsibility for actions that cause family, friends, and others to reel with shock and disappointment. They usually have handy excuses for their behaviour, and in some cases deny that it happened at all.

Lack of empathy

Many characteristics displayed by psychopaths are closely associated with a lack of empathy and inability to construct a mental and emotional “facsimile” of another person. They seem completely unable to “get into the skin” of others, except in a purely intellectual sense.

They are completely indifferent to the rights and suffering of family and strangers alike. If they do maintain ties, it is only because they see family members as possessions. One of our subjects allowed her boyfriend to sexually molest her five-year-old daughter because “he wore me out. I wasn’t ready for more sex that night.”

Deceitful and manipulative

With their powers of imagination in gear and beamed on themselves, psychopaths appear amazingly unfazed by the possibility – or even by the certainty – of being found out. When caught in a lie or challenged with the truth, they seldom appear perplexed or embarrassed – they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so they appear to be consistent with the lie. The result is a series of contradictory statements and a thoroughly confused listener.

And psychopaths seem proud of their ability to lie. When asked if she lied easily, one woman laughed and replied, “I’m the best. I think it’s because I sometimes admit to something bad about myself. They think, well, if she’s admitting to that she must be telling the truth about the rest.”

Shallow emotions

Psychopaths appear to be cold and unemotional while nevertheless being prone to dramatic, shallow and short-lived displays of feeling. Careful observers are left with the impression they are play-acting and little is going on below the surface.

Impulsive

Psychopaths are unlikely to spend time weighing the pros and cons of a course of action or considering the possible consequences. “I did it because I felt like it,” is a common response. These impulsive acts often result from an aim that plays a central role in most of the psychopath’s behaviour: to achieve immediate satisfaction, pleasure, or relief.

So family members, relatives, employers, and co-workers typically find themselves standing around asking themselves what happened – jobs are quit, relationships broken off, plans changed, houses ransacked, people hurt, often for what appears as little more than a whim. As the husband of a psychopath I studied put it: “She got up and left the table, and that was the last I saw of her for two months.”

Poor behaviour controls

Psychopaths are highly reactive to perceived insults or slights. Most of us have powerful inhibitory controls over our behaviour; even if we would like to respond aggressively we are usually able to “keep the lid on”. In psychopaths, these inhibitory controls are weak, and the slightest provocation is sufficient to overcome them.

As a result, psychopaths are short-tempered or hot-headed and tend to respond to frustration, failure, discipline and criticism with sudden violence, threats or verbal abuse. But their outbursts, extreme as they may be, are often short-lived, and they quickly act as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

Although psychopaths have a “hair trigger,” their aggressive displays are “cold”; they lack the intense arousal experienced when other individuals lose their temper.

Need for excitement

Psychopaths have an ongoing and excessive need for excitement – they long to live in the fast lane or “on the edge,” where the action is. In many cases the action involves the breaking of rules.

The flip side of this yen for excitement is an inability to tolerate routine or monotony. Psychopaths are easily bored and are not likely to engage in activities that are dull, repetitive, or require intense concentration over long periods.

Lack of responsibility

Obligations and commitments mean nothing to psychopaths. Their good intentions – “I’ll never cheat on you again” – are promises written on the wind.

Psychopaths are not deterred by the possibility that their actions mean hardship or risk for others. A 25-year-old inmate in our studies has received more than 20 convictions for dangerous driving, driving while impaired, leaving the scene of an accident, driving without a licence, and criminal negligence causing death. When asked if he would continue to drive after his release from prison, he replied, “Why not? Sure, I drive fast, but I’m good at it. It takes two to have an accident.”

Adult anti-social behaviour

Psychopaths see the rules and expectations of society as inconvenient and unreasonable impediments to their own behavioural expression. They make their own rules, both as children and as adults.

Many anti-social acts of psychopaths lead to criminal charges and convictions. Even within the criminal population, psychopaths stand out, largely because the anti-social and illegal activities of psychopaths are more varied and frequent than are those of other criminals. Psychopaths tend to have no particular affinity, or “speciality”, for one particular type of crime but tend to try everything.

But not all psychopaths end up in jail.

Many of the things they do escape detection or prosecution, or are on “the shady side of the law.” For them, anti-social behaviour may consist of phony stock promotions, questionable business practices, spouse or child abuse, and so forth. Many others do things that, though not necessarily illegal, are nevertheless unethical, immoral, or harmful to others: philandering or cheating on a spouse.

Why are some people psychopaths?

The forces that produce a psychopath are still a mystery. There are theories that view psychopathy as largely the product of genetic or biological factors (nature). At the other end are theories that posit that psychopathy results entirely from a faulty early social environment (nurture).

The position I favour is that psychopathy emerges from a complex – and poorly understood – interplay between biological factors and social forces. It is based on evidence that genetic factors contribute to the biological bases of brain function and to basic personality structure, which in turn influence the way an individual responds to, and interacts with, life experiences and the social environment.

In effect, the core elements needed for the development of psychopathy – including a profound inability to experience empathy and the complete range of emotions, including fear – are in part provided by nature and possibly by some unknown biological influences on the developing foetus and neonate. As a result, the capacity for developing internal controls and conscience and for making emotional “connections” with others is greatly reduced.

Psychopaths don’t feel they have psychological or emotional problems, and they see no reason to change their behaviour to conform to societal standards they do not agree with. Hence, therapy is useless to treat them.

Excerpted from
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us
(Simon & Schuster) by Robert Hare, 1993

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