We’ve all been burned by psychopaths largely because we fell for their lies and their lines. The better informed people are with their techniques of deception, the more they can recognize them and protect themselves against them. A psychopath gets you within his power largely through deception. As Cleckley noted in The Mask of Sanity, the main reason why people are easily taken in by their lies is not because the lies themselves are that convincing, but because of the psychopaths’ effective rhetorical strategies. What are those?
1. Glibness and Charm. We’ve already seen that these are two of the main personality traits of psychopaths. They know how to use them to their advantage. Psychopaths lie very easily and in a smooth manner. They often pass lie detector tests as well because such tests register emotion, not deception. Psychopaths tend to remain cool under pressure. They can tell you the most implausible stories–such as when they get a call from their girlfriend but tell you that it’s a random call from a jailbird–but do it so matter-of-factly that it makes you want to believe them. Sometimes they distract you from the content of their words with their charm. They look at you lovingly, stroke your hair or your arm and punctuate their speech with kisses, caresses and tender words, so that you’re mesmerized by them instead of focusing on what they’re actually saying.
2. Analogies and Metaphors. Because their facts are so often fabrications, psychopaths often rely upon analogies and metaphors to support their false or manipulative statements. For instance, if they wish to persuade you to cheat on your husband or significant other, they may present their case in the form of an analogy. They may ask you to think of the cheating (or breaking up with your current partner) as a parent who is sparing his drafted child greater harm by breaking his leg to save him from going to war. This analogy doesn’t work at all, of course, if you stop and think about it. Your significant other isn’t drafted to be dumped for a psychopath. You’re not sparing him any pain by breaking his leg or, in this case, his heart. You’re only giving credit to the psychopath’s sophistry and misuse of analogy to play right into his hands, thus hurting both yourself and your spouse.
3. Slander. A psychopath often slanders others, to discredit them and invalidate their truth claims. He projects his faults and misdeeds upon those he hurts. To establish credibility, he often maligns his wife or girlfriend, attributing the failure of his relationship to her faults or misdeeds rather than his own.
4. Circumlocution. When you ask a psychopath a straightforward question that requires a straightforward answer, he usually goes round and round in circles or talks about something else altogether. For instance, when you ask him where he was on the previous night, sometimes he lies. At other times, he tries to divert you by bringing up another subject. He may also use flattery, such as saying how sexy your voice sounds and how much you turn him on. Such distractions are intended to cloud your reasoning and lead you to forget your original question.
5. Evasion. Relatedly, psychopaths can be very evasive. When you ask a psychopath a specific question, he will sometimes answer in general terms, talking about humanity, or men, or women, or whatever: anything but his own self and actions, which is what you were inquiring about in the first place.
6. Pointing Fingers at Others. When you accuse a psychopath of wrongdoing, he’s likely to tell you that another person is just as bad as him or that humanity in general is. The first point may or may not be true. At any rate, it’s irrelevant. So what if person x, y or z–say, one of the psychopath’s friends or girlfriends–has done similarly harmful things or manifests some of his bad qualities? The most relevant point to you, if you’re the psychopath’s partner, should be how he behaves and what his actions say about him. The second point is patently false. All human beings have flaws, of course. But we don’t all suffer from an incurable personality disorder. If you have any doubts about that, then you should research the matter. Google his symptoms, look up psychopathy and see if all or even most of the people you know exhibit them. Of course, even normal individuals can sometimes be manipulative, can sometimes lie and can sometimes cheat. But that doesn’t make our actions comparable to the magnitude of remorseless deceit, manipulation and destruction that psychopaths are capable of. Furthermore, most of us, whatever our flaws, care about others.
7. Fabrication of Details. In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard shows how offering a lot of details makes a lie sound much more plausible. When you give a vague answer, your interlocutor is more likely to sense evasion and pursue her inquiries. But when you present fabricated details–such as when you are with your girlfriend in a hotel room but tell your wife that you were with your male buddy named X, at a Chinese restaurant named Y and ate General Gao chicken and rice which cost a mere $ 5 at a restaurant and discussed your buddy’s troubles with his girlfriend, who has left him because he cheated too much on her–your wife’s more likely to believe your elaborate fiction. Because they excel at improvisation, psychopaths are excellent fabricators of details. Even novelists have reason to envy their ability to make up false but believable “facts” on the spot.
8. Playing upon your Emotions. Very often, when confronted with alternative accounts of what happened, psychopaths play upon your emotions. For example, if his girlfriend compares notes with the wife, a psychopath is likely to ask his wife: “Who are you going to believe? Me or her?” This reestablishes complicity with the wife against the girlfriend, testing the wife’s love and loyalty to him. It also functions as a subterfuge. That way he doesn’t have to address the information offered by the other source. To anybody whose judgment remains unclouded by the manipulations of a psychopath, the answer should be quite obvious. Just about any person, even your garden-variety cheater and liar, is far more credible than a psychopath. But to a woman whose life and emotions are wrapped around the psychopath, the answer is likely to be that she prefers to believe him over his girlfriend or anybody else for that matter. Even in such a hopeless situation–if a psychopath’s partner doesn’t want to face the truth about him–it’s still important to share information with her. Psychopaths form co-dependent, addictive bonds with their so-called “loved” ones. They’re as dangerous to their partners as any hard drug is likely to be. If their partners know about their harmful actions and about their personality disorder, then at least they’re willingly assuming the risk. Everyone has the right to make choices in life, including the very risky one of staying with a psychopath. But at least they should make informed choices, so that they know whom they’re choosing and are prepared for the negative consequences of their decision.
Deception constitutes a very entertaining game for psychopaths. They use one victim to lie to another. They use both victims to lie to a third. They spin their web of mind-control upon all those around them. They encourage antagonisms or place distance among the people they deceive, so that they won’t compare notes and discover the lies. Often they blend in aspects of the truth with the lies, to focus on that small grain of truth if they’re caught. The bottom line remains that psychopaths are malicious sophists. It really doesn’t matter how often they lie or how often they tell the truth. Psychopaths use both truth and lies instrumentally, to persuade others to accept their false and self-serving version of reality and to get them under their control. For this reason, it’s pointless to try to sort out the truth from the lies. As M. L. Gallagher, a contributor to the website lovefraud.com has eloquently remarked, psychopaths themselves are the lie. From hello to goodbye, from you’re beautiful to you’re ugly, from you’re the woman of my life to you mean nothing to me, from beginning to end, the whole relationship with a psychopath is one big lie.
For a fictionalized representation of a psychopathic social predator, check out my new novel, The Seducer, previewed on the links below:
Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness
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