How do Psychopaths Construct their Mask of Sanity?

The first very influential book about psychopathy was Hervey Cleckley’s groundbreaking The Mask of Sanity. Here Cleckley went over every major symptom of this dangerous personality disorder. What is most striking about psychopaths, as opposed to other disordered or deranged individuals, is how well they blend into the rest of society, to use, dupe and harm other human beings. Their glibness and charm, as well as their uncanny ability to lie convincingly, makes them the perfect wolves in sheep’s clothing. Cleckley observes, “More often than not, 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 with and seems to have a good many genuine interests. There is nothing at all odd or queer about him, and in every respect he tends to embody the concept of a well-adjusted, happy person. Nor does he, on the other hand, seem to be artificially exerting himself like one who is covering up or who wants to sell you a bill of goods. He would seldom be confused with the professional backslapper or someone who is trying to ingratiate himself for a concealed purpose. Signs of affectation or excessive affability are not characteristic. He looks like the real thing.” (The Mask of Sanity, 339)

Because they appear to be easy-going, friendly and genuine, psychopaths attract many potential partners. They tend to be great conversationalists, orienting the subjects of discussion around each of their targets’ personal interests. Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking and Neil Entwistle seemed true gentlemen and fun-loving guys not only to their wives, but also to their in-laws and friends. Generally speaking, they behaved appropriately for the circumstances before committing their gruesome crimes. They knew how to open the car door for their partners, how to engage in polite conversation with their in-laws and how to joke around with their buddies.

Not only do psychopaths tend to be extraordinarily charismatic, but also they can appear to be rational, levelheaded individuals. They usually talk in a way that shows common sense and good judgment. “Very often indications of good sense and sound reasoning will emerge and one is likely to feel soon after meeting him that this normal and pleasant person is also one with high abilities,” Cleckley continues. (338)

Psychopaths generally present themselves as responsible men. They seem to be in charge of their lives, their families and their careers. As we’ve seen, for several years Mark Hacking led his wife and her family to believe that he was a college graduate on his way to medical school. Only members of his own family knew (and hid) the truth. Similarly, Neil Entwistle convinced his entire family that he was a successful computer entrepreneur. In actuality, he was a bankrupt spammer. He also led Rachel to believe that he was a faithful, loving husband while actively seeking promiscuous liaisons on adult dating websites.

Although most psychopaths fail at their endeavors, it’s usually not due to a lack of natural intelligence. Cleckley notes, “Psychometric tests also very frequently show him of superior intelligence. More than the average person, he is likely to seem free from social or emotional impediments, from the minor distortions, peculiarities, and awkwardness so common even among the successful.” (338) Psychopaths succeed in fooling others not just because of what they say, but also because of how they say it. Their demeanor tends to be self-assured, cool, smooth and collected. Even though, at core, they’re more disturbed than individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses–such as psychotics or schizophrenics–their personality disorder doesn’t show through.

The fact that psychopathy tends to be well concealed beneath a veneer of normalcy makes it all the more dangerous to others:  “Although the psychopath’s inner emotional deviations and deficiencies may be comparable with the inner status of the masked schizophrenic,” Cleckley goes on, “he outwardly shows nothing brittle or strange. Everything about him is likely to suggest desirable and superior human qualities, a robust mental health.” (339)

Absence of Delusions and Other Signs of Irrational Thinking

Despite being capable of actions that we’d associate with insanity—such as killing their family members in cold-blood, then going out to party afterwards—psychopaths are in fact clinically sane. But what does it actually mean to be “sane,” in light of such severely disturbed behavior? It simply means being in touch with reality and aware of the legal, social and moral rules that govern one’s society. Sanity doesn’t imply processing this information normally or behaving normally.  Cleckley elaborates,

“The psychopath is ordinarily free from signs or symptoms traditionally regarded as evidence of a psychosis. He does not hear voices. Genuine delusions cannot be demonstrated. There is no valid depression, consistent pathologic elevation of mood, or irresistible pressure of activity. Outer perceptual reality is accurately recognized; social values and generally accredited personal standards are accepted verbally. Excellent logical reasoning is maintained and, in theory, the patient can foresee the consequences of injudicious or antisocial acts, outline acceptable or admirable plans of life, and ably criticize in words his former mistakes.” (339)

The psychopath constructs his mask of sanity by imitating the rest of us.  He mimics our emotions. He pays lip service to our moral principles. He pretends to respect us and our goals in life. The only difference between him and normal human beings is that he doesn’t actually feel or believe any of this on a deeper level. His simulation of normalcy functions as a disguise that enables him to fool others and satisfy his deviant drives. However, because of the psychopath’s extraordinary charm and poise, those perverse needs aren’t likely to be obvious to others.

For as long as a psychopath can hide his true nature, his real desires as well as the seedier aspects of his behavior, he appears to be the very picture of sanity: an upstanding citizen, a loyal friend, a loving husband and father. “Not only is the psychopath rational and his thinking free of delusions,” Cleckley pursues, “but he also appears to react with normal emotions. His ambitions are discussed with what appears to be healthy enthusiasm. His convictions impress even the skeptical observer as firm and binding. He seems to respond with adequate feelings to another’s interest in him and, as he discusses his wife, his children, or his parents, he is likely to be judged a man of warm human responses, capable of full devotion and loyalty.” (339)

Absence of Nervousness or Psychoneurotic Manifestations

Psychopaths display an almost reptilian tranquility. Their paradoxical combination of calmness and thrill-seeking behavior may render them, at least initially, more intriguing than normal individuals.  A psychopath can appear to be the rock of your life, promising a solid foundation for a lasting relationship. Cleckley observes,  “It is highly typical for him not only to escape the abnormal anxiety and tension fundamentally characteristic of this whole diagnostic group but also to show a relative immunity from such anxiety and worry as might be judged normal or appropriate in disturbing situations.” (340) While their general aura of coolness and calmness can be reassuring, psychopaths tend to be too calm in the wrong circumstances. Upon closer observation, their mask of sanity includes fissures, or attitudes and elements of behavior that don’t conform to their normal external image.

For instance, they may laugh when (and even because) others cry. They may remain too serene in traumatic circumstances. Or they may appear theatrical and disingenuous in their displays of emotion, as Neil Entwistle did in court. In those moments when they behave inappropriately, psychopaths reveal their underlying abnormality.  This shows through not only before they commit some crime but also afterwards, in their lack of genuine remorse, regret or sadness.

Neurotics feel excessive anxiety. By way of contrast, psychopaths feel too little anxiety. When they experience regret or pain, it’s for getting caught or for being momentarily inconvenienced, not for having hurt others. When they get frustrated, it’s for not getting their way or out of boredom, not because they’re troubled by what they did wrong. As Cleckley puts it, “Even under concrete circumstances that would for the ordinary person cause embarrassment, confusion, acute insecurity, or visible agitation, his relative serenity is likely to be noteworthy… What tension or uneasiness of this sort he may show seems provoked entirely by external circumstances, never by feelings of guilt, remorse, or intrapersonal insecurity. Within himself he appears almost as incapable of anxiety as of profound remorse.” (340) Empathy, fear of punishment, anxiety and remorse represent the main forces that prevent normal people from engaging in dangerous and harmful behavior. Psychopaths lack such restraints.  No matter how good their disguise, dangerous and harmful behavior is all they enjoy and desire to pursue in life.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


1 Comment

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Comments RSS