Keeping up with the Kardashians: Is Scott a Psychopath?

Confronting the problem of psychopathy isn’t reserved just for criminologists, psychotherapists or journalists who cover crime stories on the news. Because it often occurs in our daily lives, it also appears on popular reality shows.  In one of the recent episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Khloe wonders out loud if Scott, her sister’s boyfriend, is a psychopath. She laughingly dismisses the idea, as the whole Kardashian family struggles to accept Scott. After all, he’s the father of Kourtney’s baby, Mason Dash, and Kourtney herself seems to really love him. And yet, much of the tension in the Kardashian family revolves around Scott’s bad behavior, usually followed by repeated apologies and reconciliations. He lies without any apparent compunction to Kourtney and others, cheats on her, picks fights with family members but magically smooths things over whenever it suits him (which is usually when he’s about to be thrown out for good). One of the most memorable scenes of the show is when Scott gets very drunk, attacks a waiter and aggressively shoves money into his mouth. True, people do strange things when intoxicated. But in my eyes, Scott’s behavior seemed more about asserting dominance than about being inebriated.

Another bad sign is the fact that Scott teases Kourtney about her weight gain after she gives birth to their baby so much so that she develops a complex about it. In one episode, she literally faints from not eating enough and excessive exercise. Psychopaths usually begin a relationship with flattery and sweetness, to reel you in. But as the relationship unfolds, they normally switch to criticism to get you to focus on your (real or perceived) flaws, so that you feel weaker and more insecure. This strategy also has the added benefit (for the psychopaths) of distracting you from what they’re doing wrong. That way, rather than focusing on the glaring flaws of the toxic relationship and on the personality disorder of your partner, you focus instead on how to improve yourself to please the psychopath in your life.

Of course, even therapists administering the Hare Psychopathy Test can’t diagnose this personality disorder from afar, much less the rest of us watching it on T.V. Which brings me to the main point of this post. For most of us, the purpose of gathering information about psychopathy is NOT to become a trained specialist in the field and make a clinical diagnosis. It is to recognize dangerous personality traits and protect ourselves and our loved ones from people who manifest those characteristics and behavior. Making a clinical diagnosis of personality disorders is, of course, only up to experts. But identifying potentially dangerous traits isn’t just for experts because any of us can be adversely affected when we allow disordered individuals into our lives. Knowledge is the most essential form of self-defense. Widespread information about physical and emotional abuse has saved millions of people from domestic violence. Spreading information about psychopathy may help save millions of additional lives from harm.

Khloe Kardashian recognized dangerous personality traits in Scott Disick but eventually dismissed her doubts because she was comparing him to Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious serial killers. Although psychopaths tend to share common symptoms–glibness and charm, extreme egocentricity, grandiose sense of self, deceitfulness, manipulativeness, impulsiveness, an underlying need to control others, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, lack of remorse for harm inflicted on others, hypersexuality, the need for constant stimulation, etc–mercifully for the rest of society only a small percentage of them become violent criminals. That still doesn’t make a “sub-criminal” psychopath good boyfriend or spouse material. Scott Disick may or may not be a psychopath. But given his behavior so far, I predict that the intrigue of Keeping up with the Kardashians will continue to revolve around keeping up with the problems he causes in their lives. 

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness


Psychopaths: The Real-Life Vampires

My native country, Romania, is best known for a fictional character, Dracula, which is only loosely based on a historical fact: the infamous legend of Vlad Tepes. Novels that draw upon this legend—ranging from Anne Rice’s genre fiction, to the popular Twilight series, to Elizabeth Kostova’s erudite The Historian–continue to be best sellers. Yet, ultimately, no matter how much they may thrill us, the “undead” vampires we encounter in novels are harmless fictional characters that play upon our fascination with evil. However, real-life vampires, or individuals who relish destroying the lives of others, do exist. We see them constantly featured in the news and, if we don’t know how to recognize them, sometimes we even welcome them into our lives.

What do O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, Neil Entwistle and the timeless seducers of literature epitomized by the figures of Don Juan and Casanova have in common? They are charming, charismatic, glib and seductive men who also embody some of the most dangerous human qualities: a breathtaking callousness, shallowness of emotion and the fundamental incapacity to love. To such men, other people, including their own family members, friends and lovers, are mere objects or pawns to be used for their own gratification and sometimes quite literally discarded when no longer useful or exciting. In other words, these men are psychopaths.

If there’s one thing helpful to learn from psychology it’s the dangerous characteristics of these social predators, so that we can recognize them more easily and avoid them whenever possible. By definition, a predator is “one that preys, destroys or devours.” Not exactly boyfriend or spouse material, yet psychopaths manage to lure numerous partners into their nets.  Most of us are used to hearing the largely interchangeable terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” applied only to serial killers such as Ted Bundy or to murderers such as Scott Peterson. These men made national headlines for remorselessly killing strangers or family members. However, as Robert D. Hare documents in Without Conscience, only a very small percentage of psychopaths actually murder. Whether or not they do is not what makes them psychopathic or dangerous to others. Most psychopaths wreak havoc in our daily lives in more subtle yet sometimes equally destructive “sub-criminal” ways. They may engage in a pattern of deception and betrayal, an endless string of seductions, emotional and psychological abuse of their loved ones, domestic violence or the financial exploitation of others.

As, the website started by Donna Andersen to help victims indicates, psychopaths are exceptionally selfish individuals who lack empathy. Consequently, they’re incapable of forming real love bonds with others. They establish instead “dominance bonds,” claiming possession of those closest to them rather than genuinely caring for family members, lovers and friends. Their top goal is control, their principal weapon is deceit and their main means is seduction: sometimes physical, but most often psychological in nature. Moreover, it’s not just the naïve and the gullible that get taken in by them. Anybody can fall prey to the psychopathic charm. As Martha Stout illustrates in The Sociopath Next Door, psychopaths tend to be extremely charismatic. They say all the right things to reel you in. They’re also supremely self-confident, highly sexual, have low impulse control and are amazingly good liars. Like real-life vampires, they feed upon people’s dreams, vulnerabilities and emotions. They move from person to person, always for their personal advantage, no matter under what other-regarding pretext or guise. Only the most notorious cases make it into the news or get profiled by popular shows such as Forensic Files, Cold Case Files and Dateline. But there are millions of psychopaths in this country alone who poison, in one way or another, tens of millions of lives.

Unfortunately, their personality disorder often passes unnoticed until they commit a horrific crime. Some psychopaths, like Charles Manson, would appear crazy to a normal person even from miles away. In those cases, psychopathy is probably compounded by psychotic tendencies which render the disorder much more obvious to others. But most psychopaths move among us undetected. Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking and Neil Entwistle appeared to be normal young men even to those who thought they knew them best, such as their spouses, parents, in-laws and friends. In fact, in some respects, they seemed better than normal. According to their family members and friends, they could be exceptionally charming. Nothing in particular led them to kill their wives and babies. The media has ascribed traditional motives to their crimes, such as financial distress, girlfriends on the side and the desire for freedom or promiscuous sex. But these motives don’t even begin to explain the viciousness, gratuitousness and callousness of their acts. Perhaps one can understand, even if not condone, lack of empathy towards strangers. As history has shown time and time again, it may be easier, in certain circumstances, to dehumanize those one doesn’t know more intimately. But these men killed those who loved them most, trusted them fully and were closest to them. They murdered their innocent babies and wives who were either pregnant or had just given birth to their children. They didn’t become “crazy” all of a sudden due to a crisis. In some cases, marital squabbles or financial distress may have functioned as a catalyst. But the underlying personality disorder that enabled these men to commit such vicious crimes was present before, during and after the gruesome murders that rendered it visible to the public eye.

What distinguishes a psychopath who commits murder from one who doesn’t isn’t his conscience, since all psychopaths lack it. What makes the difference may be nothing more than his desires, opportunities, whims and short-term objectives.  Most psychopaths choose to dispose of an inconvenient wife or girlfriend in the traditional manner. They divorce or break up with her. A few, like Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking and Neil Entwistle, decide that murder is the better route for them. Such men believe that they’re clever enough to fool the police and get away with their crimes. They commit murder to appear to be grieving spouses rather than risk being unmasked for what they really are even before the crimes: empty souls hiding behind a façade of lies. What a psychopath is capable of doing in order to protect his phony good image or to fulfill his deviant desires can’t be predicted in advance.

For normal people, it’s difficult to imagine such a disordered human being. To most of us, the psychopath represents a distant danger or an abstraction. It’s a concept we can comprehend intellectually, but not on an emotional level. Yet this is precisely what Martha Stout asks us to envision: “Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you have taken…” (The Sociopath Next Door, 1) Her conclusion to this thought exercise is quite clear. Without a conscience, one can do anything at all. No evil act is beneath a psychopath. Once his crime is discovered, people tend to say that they never knew such evil existed. Unfortunately, it does. What’s worse, it’s common and well hidden enough to present a danger to us all.

Dr. Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience, Snakes in Suits and of the Psychopathy Checklist, which is administered in prisons and psychiatric institutions, estimates that about 1 percent of the population is psychopathic. Because this personality disorder ties into aggression and the need for dominance, the percentage tends to be higher in men than in women. What do psychopaths look like? They look, and superficially even behave, just like the rest of us. They come from every social class, every race, every ethnicity, every nationality, every kind of background and upbringing. They tend to be smarter than average. Some become successful businessmen, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, writers, teachers, artists and scholars. They can be exceptionally charming. They say all the right things to get what they want, without fumbling or sounding artificial. Lacking any real emotional ties to preoccupy them, they’re easily bored and crave constant excitement. Having no conscience yet being glib, they’re compelling pathological liars. They rationalize everything they do, including rape and murder. Consequently, they fail to accept responsibility for anything they do wrong. Since they know no loyalty to anything or anyone but themselves, they don’t play by any rules. Like the Joker in the blockbuster movie, The Dark Knight, they don’t even bond with other outlaws. Even that would require having some loyalty and abiding by some subversive principles. Psychopaths, however, are rebels without a cause. Once they reach adulthood, their character solidifies and their personality disorder becomes unfixable.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Natalee Holloway’s Mom Visits Joran van der Sloot in Prison: Psychopaths and Pathological Lying

On Wednesday Beth Twitty, the mother of Natalee Holloway, entered a maximum security prison in Peru to confront her daughter’s suspected killer, Joran van der Sloot, face to face. He refused to speak to her, so there was no interview. But even if there had been, Twitty wouldn’t have gotten closer to the truth regarding her daughter’s murder. For psychopaths, the concept of truth doesn’t exist, just as the notion of love doesn’t exist either. For such pathological individuals, truth is only a means to an end: whatever gets them whatever they want at the moment or helps them continue to play malicious cat and mouse games with others.  Joran van der Sloot has been playing such sadistic games with the police and with Natalee’s mother for years. Any opportunity to speak to him would be an occasion to continue the deception.

In his groundbreaking work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, Hervey  Cleckley states that the most significant symptoms of psychopathy are “untruthfulness and insincerity.” Psychopaths are pathological liars. They not only lie profusely to others, but also their whole identity is an elaborate ruse. Even when they tell the truth, psychopaths are in fact being strategic. They use both truth and lies to manipulate others. Cleckley observes, “The psychopath shows a remarkable disregard for truth and is to be trusted no more in his accounts of the past than in his promises for the future or his statement of present intentions.” (The Mask of Sanity, 341) We’ve all told lies in our lives. Some lies, especially those we call “white lies,” are relatively innocuous. They enable us to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. If we tell a friend that she looks good in a pair of jeans that’s a little too tight on her, it won’t destroy her life. Other lies, however, deeply damage the lives of others. When we cheat on our spouse, it hurts him or her. It doesn’t matter if he or she knows about the affair or not. It doesn’t even matter if we lie, and say we were with a friend when in actuality we were with a lover, or if we don’t say anything at all.  In both cases, we’re distorting the truth or withholding crucial information that would hurt our spouse and that deeply affects his or her life decisions. Among harmful lies,  Susan Forward, the author of the best-selling book When your lover is a liar, distinguishes between lies by “omission” and lies by “commission.” Psychopaths are very skilled at both. They omit truthful details and they outright lie as well, with extraordinary ease.

Not only do psychopaths believe that they have compelling reasons to lie to others in order to achieve their goals, but also they fail to see why lying is wrong. Cleckley observes that upon questioning, a psychopath “gives the impression that he is incapable of ever attaining realistic comprehension of an attitude in other people which causes them to value truth and cherish truthfulness in themselves.” (341)  When caught in a lie, if convenient, sometimes a psychopath may pay lip service to honesty. But he doesn’t actually believe in it and he certainly doesn’t live by it. The problem is, of course, that it’s difficult to determine when a psychopath’s lying. He can look you straight in the eyes and give you false information. He can make promises he knows to be unrealistic or untrue. Furthermore, he’s so glib and uninhibited that he lies with great eloquence and conviction. As Cleckley observes,

“Typically [the psychopath] is at ease and unpretentious in making a serious promise or in (falsely) exculpating himself from accusations, whether grave or trivial. His simplest statement in such matters carries special powers of conviction. Overemphasis, obvious glibness, and other traditional signs of the clever liar do not usually show in his words or in his manner… Candor and trustworthiness seem implicit in him at such times. During the most solemn perjuries he has no difficulty at all in looking anyone tranquilly in the eyes.” (341)

How can you tell when a psychopath is lying? I’m tempted to say, only partly in jest, that it’s when he’s moving his lips. But even that wouldn’t cover all the lies by omission. When dealing with a psychopath–or with any person for that matter–you need to judge his actions, not his words. Very often, a psychopath’s insensitive attitude and despicable actions will contradict his nice words. He will say that he loves you but remain unmoved when you suffer and consistently act against your best interests. He will promise to be faithful while continually cheating on you. The match doesn’t follow any particular rules since psychopaths don’t play fair. Yet, like all games, it includes certain maneuvers. During the next few days, I’ll describe some of the strategies psychopaths use to deceive and manipulate others. In my next post, I’ll begin by analyzing why psychopaths lie, since that gets to the heart of their malice towards others and reveals their inherent cruelty.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

What is a Psychopath? The Case of Joran van der Sloot

There has been some debate in the media recently about whether or not Joran van der Sloot–the young man suspected of killing Nataee Holloway in 2005 and charged with the murder of  Stephany Tatiana Flores Ramirez five years later–is a serial killer, similar to Ted Bundy. What is becoming obviously clear, however, is that he is a textbook case psychopath.

Not everyone is willing to believe that Joran is capable of murder. Some evidence has emerged lately, from one of his girlfriends, Melody Granadillo, that Joran had a charming, romantic and gentle side. The Associated Press reports that during an interview with ABC’s “20/20,” Granadillo stated they would spend hours talking together and gazing into each other’s eyes. She described Joran as “romantic… playful [and] very honest.” Honest, that is, until she repeatedly discovered him cheating and lying to her. “He would lie for no apparent reason at all… and if you caught him in it… he would double down and be even more serious about the story,” she recounts. The romantic and the vicious, the seemingly honest and the actually deceitful, the good and the evil sides of Joran van der Sloot all fit perfectly into the psychological profile of a psychopath. But only one side of a psychopath is real: the monstrous side. The other side is only a mask, used to lure and manipulate potential victims.

So what is a psychopath then? Psychopaths aren’t necessarily serial killers. But they are, like Joran van der Sloot, dangerous and predatory. The experts on psychopathy, Hervey Cleckley, Robert Hare and Martha Stout provide, essentially, the same list of personality traits to describe psychopaths. They state that such individuals exhibit superficial charm and intelligence. They use these qualities to attract people and to control them. Contrary to other kinds of pathological individuals, psychopaths don’t experience delusions or manifest any “other signs of irrational thinking.” For that reason, they appear to be, and actually are, “sane.” When they commit crimes, psychopaths know exactly what they’re doing. They realize that it’s wrong and know why society considers it wrong. They just happen to make exceptions for themselves and for their outrageous behavior, which, in their estimation, lies above the rules that govern the rest of humanity.

Similarly, psychopaths lack nervousness or any “psychoneurotic manifestations.” Not only are they unlike Woody Allen’s comical antiheroes, but also they stay cool and collected even when a normal response would be to experience distress. Although they sometimes engage in histrionic displays of emotion to gain sympathy, inside, psychopaths remain unflappable during a crisis, such as a break-up or divorce from their significant other (because no other is significant to them), a death in the family, when they’re caught for committing a crime or even when they’re being punished for their illegal activities. A psychopath’s motto in life is: “Bad men do what good men dream.” Psychopaths can’t grasp the idea of conscience and feelings for others except as a form of weakness. They don’t understand that their dreams are normal people’s nightmares.

Such individuals are very impulsive and can fly off the handle with little or no provocation, but nothing rattles them for long. Analogously, they can fulfill their obligations for a short period of time to win their targets’ trust, but are unreliable over the longhaul. No matter what promises they make and how important their commitment to fulfill them may be to others, they’ll eventually let people down. In fact, they go out of their way to hurt and betray those who trust them. Psychopaths pursue short-term goals. They say whatever they need to say in order to get what they want at the moment. Their minds function like a GPS system where they’re constantly punching in a new destination. Whatever direction they take changes upon a whim, as soon as they spot anything or anyone they momentarily perceive as a better or more exciting opportunity.

That’s not just because psychopaths are shallow, but also because they’re envious, greedy and power-hungry.  They want whatever other people have that they find desirable. That may be a new partner, a good job, prestige, wealth or a family. They want successful relationships without offering love, honesty or fidelity. To bolster their sense of superiority, without having much to show in terms of personal qualities, talents or accomplishments, they put their partners (and others) down and cultivate their weaknesses. To succeed in their jobs, without doing much work, they charm, intimidate, manipulate and bully their coworkers and staff.  To acquire wealth, they commit fraud or engage in scams. But, generally speaking, psychopaths can’t hold on to anything and anyone because their interests and needs change constantly. Sooner or later, they become dissatisfied with everything they have in life and want something more, or something different.

Psychopaths are unpredictable even in their unpredictability. Nobody can tell in advance when they’re going to sabotage your life and happiness, or even their own, for that matter. Psychopaths can be highly believable pathological liars. Most people may lie sometimes. Psychopaths, however, tell harmful lies for the sport of it and with malice. To them, lying functions as a means of controlling others by manipulating their perception of reality. It’s also a form of free entertainment. Because of their shallow emotions, psychopaths get easily bored. Their psychological hollowness propels them into a perpetual quest for new people to use, new sexual encounters, the newest business ventures as well as new and exciting ways to transgress social rules.

Psychopaths manifest poor judgment and fail to learn from experience. Epicurus defined pleasure as the absence of pain. By that standard, psychopaths aren’t Epicurean. They seek positive pleasures: highs, thrills and the sensation of constant euphoria. But they aren’t particularly bothered by pain or by negative consequences in general. They sabotage their own futures and harm others in momentary flashes of anger or for the sake of short-lived fun. A lot of their problems stem from their fundamental narcissism, or what Cleckley calls their “pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love.” To psychopaths, people are objects whose needs and even lives don’t matter except in so far as they can use them.  After using people, they toss them away.

Psychopaths can’t feel anything, not even joy or happiness, very deeply. They exhibit, Cleckley indicates, a “general poverty in all major affective reactions.” Hare states that psychopaths experience “proto-emotions” rather than the full range of human feelings. They feel momentary pleasure, glee or delight when they do or get what they want. By way of contrast, they feel fleeting frustration or anger when their desires are thwarted. But they can’t experience the deeper emotions, such as other-regarding love, empathy, remorse, sadness, regret or even anxiety and depression. Their main emotion is contempt for other human beings, which they often mask underneath a thin layer of sociability and charm. Upon meeting new people, psychopaths perform an intuitive cost-benefit analysis, to classify them as targets, accomplices or obstacles in the pursuit of whatever they want at the moment. Targets are used as accomplices, then discarded as obstacles once their usefulness has expired. Since psychopaths eventually alienate all those around them with their unscrupulous and callous behavior, the only people who continue to find their mask of sanity plausible over time are those who don’t know them well, those who suffer from a similar personality disorder, or those who have an unhealthy emotional investment in them. Those who refuse to face the truth about the psychopath in their lives often become his alibis, sticking by him despite all rational evidence of his personality disorder and his wrongdoings.

Due to their shallowness, psychopaths suffer from what psychologists call “specific loss of insight.” Not only are they incapable of understanding how others function on a deeper emotional level, but also they lack an understanding of their own motivations and behavior. They intuitively know how to deceive and manipulate others. But they can’t grasp why they feel compelled to do it. Because they don’t see anything wrong with themselves and their actions, they also fail in therapy. Improving one’s behavior requires having the insight to see your flaws and the desire to change for the better, especially for the sake of those you care about. Psychopaths lack such incentives. They live only for their own pleasure. To entertain themselves, they engage in what Cleckley calls “fantastic and uninviting behavior.” This is made worse by various addictions—to sex, drugs and/or alcohol—that are quite common for them, largely because of their low impulse control and need for constant excitement.

Psychopaths thrive on depravity and transgression. After behaving more or less normally for a period of time, they can all of a sudden become boisterous and unruly, pull their pants down in public, hit their spouse or start a brawl without provocation. Cleckley also notes that for psychopaths, “suicide is rarely carried out.” Just as they’re incapable of experiencing a deeper form of happiness which for most people results from leading an orderly life and loving one’s family and friends, they’re also incapable of experiencing a deeper form of unhappiness, which drives some individuals to suicide.

Cleckley and Hare both observe that for psychopaths “sex life is impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated.” Psychopaths can, however, sometimes experience intense attachments without emotional bonding. Some of them have such obsessive infatuations that they may even stalk their targets for an extended period of time. This behavior, however, is not tied to any genuine feelings of love or even to “being in love.” Rather, it stems from a sense of entitlement and ownership. Psychopaths believe that it’s their right to possess the women they momentarily desire and to discard them as soon as they no longer want them. Generally speaking, for psychopaths sexual relationships function as a release and as a form of exerting control over others. They’re not a means of connecting, which, over time, implies shared emotional ties and mutual moral obligations.

Finally, psychopaths are noted for their “failure to follow any life plan.” A few psychopaths may be very ambitious. Yet fewer become powerful or famous. However, most lack the patience to pursue far-reaching goals that require dedication and hard work. Instead, they move from one temporary–and usually destructive–diversion to another, in search of something to alleviate their pervasive sense of boredom.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction