Given that psychopaths tend to be relatively bright individuals who have the ability to focus intensely on their goals, one wonders why they’re not more successful. Because, as Martha Stout explains in the The Sociopath Next Door, psychopaths rarely achieve anything in life. They tend to be short-distance runners. They sprint really fast at first, but lose steam rather quickly. They also change direction frequently, which leads them nowhere.
Many start out showing a lot of promise as children. However, once they reach adulthood, most have little or nothing to show for it. They pass through life leaving behind a trail of failure: broken relationships, dysfunctional marriages, children they don’t care about or take care of (if they have any), an education they don’t bother to complete, jobs they don’t pursue long enough to thrive in them. Basically, psychopaths end up disappointing the expectations of all those who care about them. If they had any sense of shame, they’d be disappointed in themselves as well. The principal reason for their failure is not their devious and manipulative nature—since, after all, many bad people succeed–but their boredom.
I’m grouping together two of Hervey Cleckley’s (penultimate) symptoms of psychopathy–boredom and the failure to follow any life plan—since they’re closely related. If psychopaths generally fail to bring to fruition their life objectives, it’s because they’re so easily bored that they give up on them or move on to something new. Cleckley observes, “The psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be one regarded as good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. This is entirely applicable to the full psychopath. On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life.” (365)
Sometimes a psychopath will put on a mask of success. Neil Entwistle appeared to be a successful computer programmer, but in fact he wasn’t. Mark Hacking appeared to be a future doctor, but in fact he wasn’t. They both appeared to be loving husbands involved in happy marriages, but in fact they weren’t. For a psychopath, false image replaces real identity just as lies replace truth. Going to medical school, maintaining a good job, nourishing a relationship, all take hard work, which may not always be exciting. Psychopaths prefer instant gratification and effortless results.
As we’ve seen, they also crave novelty and transgression. Which is why even when they do succeed in their work, they usually sabotage it. For instance, they may embezzle money from their company or engage in sexual harassment or some other kind of shady behavior at the peak of their careers. “By some incomprehensible and untempting piece of folly or buffoonery,” Cleckley explains, the psychopath “eventually cuts short any activity in which he is succeeding, no matter whether it is crime or honest endeavor. At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly. In the more seriously affected examples, it is impossible for wealthy, influential, and devoted relatives to place the psychopath in any position, however ingeniously it may be chosen, where he will no succeed eventually in failing with spectacular and bizarre splendor.” (365)
This logic also applies to a psychopath’s personal relationships. Just when he was about to start a happy new family life in a lovely home with a doting wife and their beautiful baby, Neil Entwistle murdered his family and got himself life in prison. Love, duty and empathy motivate most people to be caring and loyal to their families. Psychopaths, as we know, lack such feelings. A sense of satisfaction for a job well done—as well as financial responsibilities—motivate most people to be honest and dependable in their jobs. Psychopaths don’t care about that either. Therefore, Cleckley reasons,
“If, as we maintain, the big rewards of love, of the hard job well done, of faith kept despite sacrifices, do not enter significantly in the equation, it is not difficult to see that the psychopath is likely to be bored. Being bored, he will seek to cut up more than the ordinary person to relieve the tedium of his unrewarding existence… Apparently blocked from fulfillment at deep levels, the psychopath is unnaturally pushed toward some sort of divertissement… What he believes he needs to protest against turns out to be no small group, no particular institution or set of ideologies, but human life itself. In it he seems to find nothing deeply meaningful or persistently stimulating, but only some transient and relatively petty pleasant caprices, a terribly repetitious series of minor frustrations, and ennui.” (The Mask of Sanity, 392)
As we’ve seen, psychopaths attempt to alleviate their boredom by relentlessly pursuing a series of short-lived thrills. They move from one affair to another, one place to another, one job to another, one endeavor to another, one hobby to another and one vacation to another. Life, to them, represents a series of what any normal person would consider senseless activities, most of which are geared to dupe, con and harm others. Martha Stout notes that in viewing life as a game, psychopaths often sabotage themselves as well. They leave behind, like hurricanes, a trail of devastation.
In college, psychopaths are much more likely to pursue a lot of women rather than focus on their education. Their marriages are usually short-lived or one-sided because they get bored with their partners. When they last, it’s usually due to the gargantuan and self-defeating efforts of their spouses. As we noted, psychopaths aren’t willing to work on improving their relationships and are incapable of any genuine self-sacrifice. They prefer to deal with problems in their relationships by assigning blame to their partners and by diverting themselves through manipulating, lying and cheating on them. In addition, psychopaths don’t succeed in any positive sense of the term because their goals themselves are destructive.
For instance, a psychopath may “work” for years to persuade his wife to move far away from her family and leave her job and home, all under the pretext that he’s going to offer her a better and happier life elsewhere. Then, as soon as she agrees to do so or actually moves to that location with him, he leaves her for another woman or, at any rate, loses interest in her. That’s because his goal never was to build a better life together, as it would be for any normal person who wants a solid marriage. Instead, the psychopath wanted to isolate his wife from her family and job in order to get her under his thumb. Once he achieved this goal, he felt like he had “won” the match and moved on to a new challenge.
To offer a second example, let’s say a psychopath who engages in an extramarital affair asks his girlfriend to divorce her husband for his sake so that they can live happily together. Once she gives in to his pressure and asks her husband for divorce, however, the psychopath suddenly loses interest in her. His mask of “love” falls off and their relationship quickly disintegrates. To a normal person, he’s failed because the relationship itself has failed. In the psychopath’s mind, however, he “won” because he succeeded in isolating his girlfriend, bending her to his will, conquering her from her husband and perhaps even destroying her marriage. These were his real goals all along.
Whatever constitutes “success” for any normal person–a good, stable and lasting romantic relationship, love for one’s children and grandchildren, close friendships and professional achievements–isn’t likely to entertain a psychopath for long. Anytime the going gets tough in any aspect of their lives, psychopaths get going. They usually choose the path of least resistance and, above all, of most pleasure at other people’s expense.
Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness
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