Dangerous Mind Games: How Psychopaths Manipulate and Deceive

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.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

See no Evil: Why is there so little Psychopathy Awareness?

It seems like people tend to research psychopathy and other personality disorders after they’ve been burned. I have decided to repost an entry from last year that examines some of the reasons why there is so little psychopathy awareness in the general public. Ideally, this information can reach the general public, so people can spot the symptoms of dangerous personality disorders before they get harmed.

Perhaps because they’re so dangerous and destructive—the closest approximation to metaphysical evil that human beings can embody–the general public has a morbid fascination with psychopaths. We see them featured frequently on the news. The media seems to be intrigued by men like Scott Peterson and Neil Entwistle, who remorselessly murder their wives so that they can fool around more easily with other women. The public eats up this sordid information. True crime books about psychopathic killers tend to be best sellers. Similarly, biographical works about Hitler and Stalin continue to sell well. Yet, paradoxically, as fascinated as the general public may be with psychopaths and their evil deeds, they’re far less interested in what makes these people tick and how to recognize and avoid them in real life. As mentioned, there are a few highly informative studies of psychopathy, some of which–Stout’s The sociopath next door, Babiak and Hare’s Snakes in Suits and Brown MA’s The women who love psychopaths–are written for a general audience. These books describe clearly and without unnecessary jargon the psychology of evil individuals. Unfortunately, however, such informative works tend to be less popular than the dramatic news coverage of psychopathic killers or the horror stories we read in true crime and thrillers. Why so?

The first answer I’ll offer is in the form of an analogy. When I (and probably most other people too) shop for a car, I don’t need someone to explain to me in great detail the mechanics behind how the car functions. I may read Consumer Reports online to see how the car’s rated in various relevant categories, such as overall quality, safety and gas mileage. Then I look at it in person, to see if I like it and if it’s the right size to suit my family’s needs. In other words, a superficial knowledge of the car suffices for me. That’s how most people feel about the psychopaths featured on the news, in history or true crime books and in the movies. They grasp the phenomenon superficially: that evil people exist and do horrible things to others. But they don’t feel like they need to understand these people on a deeper psychological level. Which brings me to my second reason. We tend to view psychopaths as a form of titillating, if morbid, entertainment. We may disapprove of their horrific crimes, but their capacity for evil fascinates us. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we hold psychopaths at arm’s length, so to speak, in our own minds. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people interviewed on the news about a violent murder say that they can’t believe it happened to their families or in their neighborhood. We believe that the great misfortune of being the victim of a psychopathic killer, rapist, conman, spouse or lover only befalls others. Somehow, we assume that our families and we are immune to such terrible things happening to us. Perhaps we believe that we’re too wise, too well educated and live in too good of a neighborhood to fall into the hands of social predators.

If you think about it rationally, however, you come to realize that this belief rests upon an illusion. It may be true that you and your loved ones are not statistically likely to fall prey to a psychopathic serial killer. Experts estimate that there are only about 50 to 100 serial killers circulating in the country at any given moment. It’s therefore rational not to live your life in the fear that you’ll be attacked by one of them. But it’s not statistically likely that you’ll avoid any intimate involvement with a psychopath for the rest of your life. As mentioned, psychopaths constitute roughly 4 percent of the population. This is significant, given the number of lives they touch and the kind of damage they can inflict. Psychopaths are exceedingly sociable, highly promiscuous, have many children, move from location to location and, generally speaking, they get around. Their malady is technically called “antisocial personality disorder” not “asocial personality disorder.” An asocial person avoids human contact. An antisocial person, on the contrary, seeks others in order to use, con, deceive, manipulate, betray and ultimately destroy them. That’s what psychopaths do. They feed, like parasites, upon our lives. They live for the thrill of damaging healthier, more productive and more caring human beings.

Statistically speaking, there are decent chances that you have a psychopath in your extended family. There are even better odds that at some point you ran across one or will encounter one in your life. Perhaps it was a boyfriend who seemed perfect at first but turned out to be an abusive sex addict. It may be a difficult boss who makes work unbearable for his employees. Or maybe it was a manipulative professor who became a minor despot in the department. Perhaps it was a teacher who got too chummy with his students and even seduced some of them. Or perhaps it was a friend who appeared to be kind and loving, only to repeatedly backstab you. Maybe it was a conartist who took your elderly mother’s life savings, or a portion of her hard-earned money, and vanished into thin air. Moreover, any psychopath can cause you physical harm and endanger your life. It doesn’t have to be one predisposed to rape and murder. Scott Peterson and Neil Entwistle were not sadistic serial killers. They were your garden variety charismatic psychopaths who found marriage a bit too inconvenient and incompatible with the new, wilder paths they wanted to pursue in life. Their incapacity to regard others as fellow human beings renders all psychopaths extremely dangerous.

Since empathy, moral principles and the capacity to love don’t play a role in any psychopath’s decision-making process, the transition from sub-criminal to criminal psychopath can be fluid and unpredictable.  Just about any psychopath could easily engage in violent behavior. My main point here is the following: learning about psychopathy is not a matter of technical psychology research or of abstract theories that are largely irrelevant to the general public. This information is highly pertinent to all of us. It’s far more useful than learning all the technical details about how your car works, to return to the analogy I offered earlier. You will never need to rebuild your car from scratch. At most, you may need to learn how to change a spare tire. But it’s likely that you’ll need to defend yourself, at least emotionally and psychologically, from a psychopath who touches your life and aims to undermine your wellbeing. A basic knowledge of psychopathy can save you years of heartache at the hands of a spouse or lover whom you can never please, who never stops lying and cheating on you and who keeps you dangling on the hook. It can spare you a lifetime of struggles to save an incorrigibly bad child from his or her own misdeeds. It can help you avoid being scammed by con artists who are great at their game. It can give you the strength to move on from a job where your boss keeps everyone in terror by constantly oscillating between sugar-sweetness and abuse.

Obviously, such knowledge can’t protect you from all harm caused by evil individuals. Even if you’re informed about psychopathy, you may still have the misfortune of becoming the victim of a random crime or of being part of a society ruled by a psychopathic dictator. But at least a basic knowledge of psychopathy can help those of us who are fortunate enough to live in free societies determine that which lies largely within our control: whom we choose to associate with and whom we choose to avoid or leave. It can help us recognize the symptoms of this dangerous personality disorder so that we don’t invite a bad person into our lives with open arms. It can give us the strength to end a toxic relationship with an emotional predator for good, once his disorder becomes obvious to us. In other words, knowledge about psychopathy constitutes the best defense that the general public, not just those who have been personally harmed, can have against evil human beings: to avoid them whenever possible and to escape them whenever we become ensnared into their webs. Needless to say, even those of us who become well informed about psychopathy won’t be qualified to clinically diagnose them, unless we acquire professional training in this domain.  But we can become capable of recognizing them well enough in real life to want to get away from them. For all practical purposes, that’s what matters most.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction