Psychopathy is the psychological root of evil. Understanding what makes psychopaths tick can offer us invaluable emotional protection from those who intend to harm us. It can also help us understand better complex and mystifying historical phenomena. Written for a general audience, psychotherapist Steve Becker’s new book, The Inner World of the Psychopath: A definitive Primer on the Psychopathic Personality, deciphers the psyche of the psychopath, making a significant contribution not only to the fields of psychology and self-help, but also to history and sociology as well.
Psychopaths, Becker contends, constitute only one percent of the human population. Despite being relatively few, they cause enormous damage. When they rise to power in dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, they can wreak havoc on entire populations. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were no doubt psychopathic individuals. It is difficult to assess which one hurt humanity most; which one was the most evil. All of them killed tens of millions of people. Yet, as historian Timothy Snyder rightly argues in Bloodlands, “Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death”. (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Basic Books, 2012). While numbers can’t capture the scale of emotional suffering, they do give us a sense of the magnitude of damage psychopaths can cause.
Hitler was bent on eradicating the Jewish people from the face of the earth. He also planned—and nearly succeeded—in enslaving entire Slavic and Baltic nations throughout Nazi occupied regions in the East (Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, etc.). Snyder indicates that the numbers of civilians killed by the Nazis under Hitler’s regime reached well over 11 million people, of which nearly 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Although Stalin didn’t target a particular race as systematically as Hitler did, he deliberately starved to death five million people during the famine of 1930-1933, which began in Soviet Kazakhstan and spread to Soviet Russia and the Ukraine. A few years later, during the Great Terror, launched upon a pretext (Kirov’s assassination) in August 1937, Stalin sent millions of innocent people to gulags on false charges. This led to the murder of about 680,000 individuals. Mao’s Cultural Revolution—a cultural and agricultural policy that showed no regard for human life and suffering–led to the deaths of 30 million Chinese.
Stalin, Hitler, and Mao: these are some of the most notorious psychopaths that fill the pages of history. We are also used to reading in the news about psychopathic serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, Charles Ng, Charles Manson, or, more recently, members of the terrorist organization ISIS: sadists who take great pleasure in harming others or in directing their minions to destroy lives.
While these are the kinds of psychopaths we’re most likely to read about, Steve Becker emphasizes that these are not the kinds of psychopaths we’re most likely to encounter in our personal lives. Most psychopaths are not influential dictators or serial killers. In fact, he points out, most of them aren’t even behind bars because they don’t get caught in criminal or violent acts. Yet, in many respects, the “ordinary” psychopaths we’re likely meet are also the most dangerous to us. We can find them in our neighborhood or at our work place; we may even date or marry them. Invariably they will harm us, at the very least emotionally, but often also financially or physically. Invariably, they will exploit us. Reading The Inner World of the Psychopath—a succinct, clearly written and psychologically insightful book–can help us identify not only the psychological traits of psychopaths but also their techniques of luring us as potential victims.
Who are these heartless human beings? Psychopaths, Becker argues, are “consciously violating” individuals. We may all, at some point in our lives, hurt others: sometimes out of momentary anger, at other times without even meaning to. Usually we regret the harm. Psychopaths, on the other hand, take great pleasure in causing deliberate harm. All human beings have some selfish qualities; selfishness, however, is the number one trait of a psychopath. This quality becomes all the more dangerous when it’s combined with charisma and sexual appeal. While psychopaths may profess love, they regard their sexual partners as objects to be preyed upon. Becker explains, “The sexualized psychopath uses sex manipulatively and seductively. Of course, the flip side is much darker; the psychopath can be sexually degrading and abusive because, at bottom, he will relate to you as a sexual object” (118). Rape or murder constitute the most extreme manifestations of objectifying another human being. While few psychopaths rape and even fewer murder, all psychopaths use and manipulate others with no regard whatsoever for their feelings and needs.
Control over other human beings—be it in the form of the spell they cast over some of their partners or in the form of menace and abuse—gives them a sense of near omnipotence and—quite simply–entertains them. “Let us not forget,” Becker reminds us, “you exist to satisfy him. Thus it might entertain him to entertain you, in which case, to the best of his ability, he may want to leave you feeling swoons of rapture. Conversely, it might entertain him to degrade and abuse you, or otherwise leave you feeling humiliated. Regardless, his entertainment will supersede everything” (118). Often the psychopath will start out by idealizing a victim. During the luring phase he’s likely to entertain himself by simulating and inspiring romantic love. During the course of the relationship, however, the psychopath generally grows tired of that victim or moves on to others. He then begins exercising control in more negative and menacing ways. Why do psychopaths objectify others?
Psychopaths, Becker continues, lack empathy, perhaps the most essential quality that makes us human. Consequently, they’re unable to put themselves in other people’s shoes, to register their suffering as something negative that should be avoided, to care about their welfare meaningfully.
There’s some debate in the field of psychopathology whether psychopaths are born or bred. Becker believes the answer to this question depends on the case. Sometimes it can be a combination of both. Sadly, what remains crystal clear is that psychopathy is incurable, particularly past adolescence. Trying to make a psychopath feel your pain through therapy, medication or any other kind of treatment would be like trying to make a completely deaf person hear your voice. Psychopathy is, by definition, a constitutive emotional deficiency that has far more serious implications than any other human deficiency. The psychopath’s lack of empathy translates into the incapacity for love and, even worse, the propensity to harm others.
Sure, Becker grants, psychopaths can act like they care about some individuals. They can put on convincing displays of devotion. However, their actual experiences of those emotions are always egocentric and shallow. They can convey contrition when they do something to harm you, but they won’t mean it, or even when they do, at the moment, it won’t mean much to them and it won’t change their negative behavior in the long run.
Because some psychopaths compartmentalize their lives with great efficiency, they may seem to care about some people while harming others. Some psychopaths may target certain victims while acting “lovingly” to others: such as the serial rapist who attacks strangers at night but returns home to his family and acts perfectly “normal” in the morning. Becker draws the only logical conclusion from the psychopath’s capacity for compartmentalization: “This means that not all psychopaths are ‘acting out’ their psychopathy on those closest to them. But this does not mean that he’s a psychopath toward his victims and nonpsychopathic toward his nonvictims. The psychopath is a psychopath all the time, even if he’s not exhibiting his psychopathy all the time. He is psychopathic because (with the psychopathic mentality we’ve been exploring) he victimizes and exploits anyone, not because he doesn’t exploit and victimize everyone. This last assertion is important. A bank robber is a bank robber if he robs any bank, not because he doesn’t rob every bank” (95-96). He goes on to explain by analogy that just like the bank robber may select particularly vulnerable banks, so the psychopath selects the most vulnerable victims. Yet any human being can be vulnerable—or appeal to a psychopath–at certain times for various reasons. This is why, truly, nobody is safe around a psychopath.
Because of their lack of conscience and inhibitions, psychopaths can be very convincing liars. Often they lie without any embarrassment. In fact, fooling their victims presents an entertaining challenge for them. Victims also state that one of the key the features of psychopaths is charisma, at least during the initial encounter, when they’re trying to lure their prey. Becker underscores that not all psychopaths are particularly charismatic, but those who are can inflict much greater damage. Even psychopaths who aren’t particularly charming individuals, however, initially seduce their victims. They flatter them, love bomb them, sweep them off their feet: whatever expression you choose, psychopaths use any means at their disposal to gain influence and control over their victims, so they can use them for whatever purposes suits them at the moment. As Becker explains, “They size people up, to evaluate their targetability.” Psychopaths therefore are, at core, dangerous social predators. They can be predators that attain historical significance—with disastrous effects upon humanity—or, much more commonly, predators that take advantage of their victims financially and emotionally. Either way, informing yourself about psychopathy by reading Steve Becker’s The Inner World of the Psychopath can help protect you and those you care about from future harm. You can find this book on Amazon.com:
Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness
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