Why Sociopaths Win By Losing

In The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout raises the following excellent question: “If sociopaths are so focused on their goals and so driven to win, then why do they not win all the time?” She goes on to explain that, basically, sociopaths are losers: “For they do not [win or succeed in life]. Instead, most of them are obscure people, and limited to dominating their young children, or a depressed spouse, or perhaps a few employees or coworkers… Having never made much of a mark on the world, the majority are on a downward life course, and by late middle age will be burned out completely. They can rob and torment us temporarily, yes, but they are, in effect, failed lives.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 188)

I think that Martha Stout, Robert Hare, Steve Becker and many other experts on sociopathy are right to say that sociopaths play games in life and aim to win.  They’re also right to observe that sociopaths generally don’t win because they tend to sabotage every relationship and endeavor by cheating, lying and engaging in other destructive behavior. But all this assumes that psychopaths have the same conception of “winning” that normal people have. It’s true that psychopaths lose in life by normal standards. But, as we well know, psychopaths lack normal standards and perspectives in pretty much all areas of life. They don’t view “winning” in the positive sense of achieving success–be it successful long-term relationships or professional endeavors–but rather as causing others to lose.

To offer one noteworthy example, from a normal perspective, Hitler and Stalin are the Big Losers of history. They’re evil dictators who trampled over countless human lives in their march to absolute power. But keep in mind that their goal was not governing strong nations in general, as was arguably Napoleon’s goal. These two totalitarian rulers wanted to achieve total control over several nations: and the entire world, if possible. Total control can’t be achieved without the subjugation, and even the annihilation, of any dissenting voice; without the inculcation of fear; without violence.

Sociopaths would rather win by becoming notorious for their crimes rather than famous for their achievements. How else can one describe the motivations of serial killers like Ted Bundy and so many others, who take pride in violent crimes and the ability to get away with them (at least for awhile)? Fortunately for the rest of humanity, most sociopaths aren’t world dictators or serial killers. However, looking at these prominent examples helps us understand better the distorted logic of sociopathy. It’s an “I win if you lose” mentality. In their own warped perspectives, sociopaths win by destroying other human beings and their social institutions, regardless if that enables them to achieve anything in life or lands them straight in prison.

Perhaps a sociopath’s only fear is being unmasked as evil, because that exposes the nature of his game. As Harrison Koehli eloquently puts it, “[Psychopaths] hang on to their masks with such conviction because they are predators, and without them, they cannot survive… To let down that facade would reveal that they are little more than unfeeling intraspecies predators that feed off the pain and suffering of others and thus destroy their chances of feeding. Even a psychopath is aware of the consequences of such a revelation. His ‘dreams’ of a boot forever stomping on the face of humanity are crushed.” Unfortunately, for as long as there will be people protecting, colluding with, and covering for sociopaths, these parasites will continue to feed on us, even if it means the destruction of both predator and prey. Sociopaths play a very dangerous game, whereby they win by losing. 

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Psychopaths and Boredom

Given that psychopaths tend to be relatively bright individuals who have the ability to focus intensely on their goals, one wonders why they’re not more successful. Because, as Martha Stout explains in the The Sociopath Next Door, psychopaths rarely achieve anything in life. They tend to be short-distance runners. They sprint really fast at first, but lose steam rather quickly. They also change direction frequently, which leads them nowhere.

Many start out showing a lot of promise as children. However, once they reach adulthood, most have little or nothing to show for it. They pass through life leaving behind a trail of failure: broken relationships, dysfunctional marriages, children they don’t care about or take care of (if they have any), an education they don’t bother to complete, jobs they don’t pursue long enough to thrive in them. Basically, psychopaths end up disappointing the expectations of all those who care about them. If they had any sense of shame, they’d be disappointed in themselves as well. The principal reason for their failure is not their devious and manipulative nature—since, after all, many bad people succeed–but their boredom.

I’m grouping together two of Hervey Cleckley’s (penultimate) symptoms of psychopathy–boredom and the failure to follow any life plan—since they’re closely related. If psychopaths generally fail to bring to fruition their life objectives, it’s because they’re so easily bored that they give up on them or move on to something new. Cleckley observes,  “The psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be one regarded as good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. This is entirely applicable to the full psychopath. On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life.” (365)

Sometimes a psychopath will put on a mask of success. Neil Entwistle appeared to be a successful computer programmer, but in fact he wasn’t. Mark Hacking appeared to be a future doctor, but in fact he wasn’t. They both appeared to be loving husbands involved in happy marriages, but in fact they weren’t. For a psychopath, false image replaces real identity just as lies replace truth.  Going to medical school, maintaining a good job, nourishing a relationship, all take hard work, which may not always be exciting. Psychopaths prefer instant gratification and effortless results.

As we’ve seen, they also crave novelty and transgression. Which is why even when they do succeed in their work, they usually sabotage it. For instance, they may embezzle money from their company or engage in sexual harassment or some other kind of shady behavior at the peak of their careers.  “By some incomprehensible and untempting piece of folly or buffoonery,” Cleckley explains, the psychopath “eventually cuts short any activity in which he is succeeding, no matter whether it is crime or honest endeavor. At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly. In the more seriously affected examples, it is impossible for wealthy, influential, and devoted relatives to place the psychopath in any position, however ingeniously it may be chosen, where he will no succeed eventually in failing with spectacular and bizarre splendor.” (365)

This logic also applies to a psychopath’s personal relationships. Just when he was about to start a happy new family life in a lovely home with a doting wife and their beautiful baby, Neil Entwistle murdered his family and got himself life in prison. Love, duty and empathy motivate most people to be caring and loyal to their families. Psychopaths, as we know, lack such feelings. A sense of satisfaction for a job well done—as well as financial responsibilities—motivate most people to be honest and dependable in their jobs. Psychopaths don’t care about that either. Therefore, Cleckley reasons,

“If, as we maintain, the big rewards of love, of the hard job well done, of faith kept despite sacrifices, do not enter significantly in the equation, it is not difficult to see that the psychopath is likely to be bored. Being bored, he will seek to cut up more than the ordinary person to relieve the tedium of his unrewarding existence… Apparently blocked from fulfillment at deep levels, the psychopath is unnaturally pushed toward some sort of divertissement…  What he believes he needs to protest against turns out to be no small group, no particular institution or set of ideologies, but human life itself. In it he seems to find nothing deeply meaningful or persistently stimulating, but only some transient and relatively petty pleasant caprices, a terribly repetitious series of minor frustrations, and ennui.” (The Mask of Sanity, 392)

As we’ve seen, psychopaths attempt to alleviate their boredom by relentlessly pursuing a series of short-lived thrills. They move from one affair to another, one place to another, one job to another, one endeavor to another, one hobby to another and one vacation to another. Life, to them, represents a series of what any normal person would consider senseless activities, most of which are geared to dupe, con and harm others. Martha Stout notes that in viewing life as a game, psychopaths often sabotage themselves as well. They leave behind, like hurricanes, a trail of devastation.

In college, psychopaths are much more likely to pursue a lot of women rather than focus on their education. Their marriages are usually short-lived or one-sided because they get bored with their partners. When they last, it’s usually due to the gargantuan and self-defeating efforts of their spouses.  As we noted, psychopaths aren’t willing to work on improving their relationships and are incapable of any genuine self-sacrifice. They  prefer to deal with problems in their relationships by assigning blame to their partners and by diverting themselves through manipulating, lying and cheating on them. In addition, psychopaths don’t succeed in any positive sense of the term because their goals themselves are destructive.

For instance, a psychopath may “work” for years to persuade his wife to move far away from her family and leave her job and home, all under the pretext that he’s going to offer her a better and happier life elsewhere. Then, as soon as she agrees to do so or actually moves to that location with him, he leaves her for another woman or, at any rate, loses interest in her. That’s because his goal never was to build a better life together, as it would be for any normal person who wants a solid marriage. Instead, the psychopath wanted to isolate his wife from her family and job in order to get her under his thumb. Once he achieved this goal, he felt like he had “won” the match and moved on to a new challenge.

To offer a second example, let’s say a psychopath who engages in an extramarital affair asks his girlfriend to divorce her husband for his sake so that they can live happily together. Once she gives in to his pressure and asks her husband for divorce, however, the psychopath suddenly loses interest in her. His mask of “love” falls off and their relationship quickly disintegrates. To a normal person, he’s failed because the relationship itself has failed. In the psychopath’s mind, however, he “won” because he succeeded in isolating his girlfriend, bending her to his will, conquering her from her husband and perhaps even destroying her marriage. These were his real goals all along.

Whatever constitutes “success” for any normal person–a good, stable and lasting romantic relationship, love for one’s children and grandchildren, close friendships and professional achievements–isn’t likely to entertain a psychopath for long. Anytime the going gets tough in any aspect of their lives, psychopaths get going. They usually choose the path of least resistance and, above all, of most pleasure at other people’s expense.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Why Psychopathy is Incurable: Nothing Can Fix a Psychopath

Psychopathy, along with borderline personality disorder and malignant narcissism, is an incurable personality disorder. Personality disorders are character deficiencies that are so deeply ingrained in one’s personality that they are, for all practical purposes, unchangeable. Most websites and books on romantic relationships tell readers what steps to take to get them or improve them. By way of contrast, I tell you bluntly and in detail why and how to disengage for good from the psychopathic bond. If there’s one kind of relationship that’s not worth saving, it’s one with a psychopath. You can’t change a psychopath. Consequently, you also can’t improve your relationship with him.

Psychologists call psychopathy “pathological.” They state that psychopaths suffer from a severe “personality disorder,” not just normal human flaws that can be worked on and ameliorated. Sandra L. Brown, M.A. underscores in How to spot a dangerous man before you get involved that “Pathology is forever.” (23) It’s the result of a faulty brain wiring, sometimes coupled with emotional trauma that occurs during childhood development, which can’t be altered in any significant way once the psychopath reaches adulthood.  Brown doesn’t mince words when she describes a psychopath as “an emotional predator” who represents “the pinnacle of poisonous and pathological dating choices.” (179) When involved with such an individual, she cautions, “You will never change his physiology or his bad wiring. You will never love him into safety, sanity, or sanctity.” (21)

Women involved with psychopaths have been conditioned by their partners to assume most of the blame for the problems that occur in the relationship. They’re often deeply in love. They hope that the psychopath will magically improve and grow to love them more meaningfully. Often, they seek therapy, counseling or support groups. They grasp at any straw that can help them salvage the pathological relationship. As time goes on, they focus on the increasingly fewer positive aspects of the relationship. They cherish the memories of how well they were treated in the beginning. They go into denial so that they don’t have to face the deliberate malice of the person they love, to whom they may have devoted their entire lives.

When faced with the vast discrepancy between the psychopath’s nice words and his malicious actions, they feel lost, disoriented and alone. They stubbornly cling to the psychopath and to the fantasy of romantic love he initially created. They believe the psychopath has a good side, which reflects his real positive qualities, and a bad side, which they often take the blame for. Psychopaths don’t have a good side. That supposedly good side—made up mostly of fake charm, manipulation and lies–is only a mask they put on in order to establish dominance over other human beings and use them for their selfish purposes. Because we want to believe there’s some good in every human being, it’s difficult to accept that psychopaths are, at core, evil. Unfortunately, that’s the case. As Liane Leedom puts it, psychopaths are “driven to do evil”. Their compulsion to harm others and their predatory desires are physiologically rooted in their personality structure. This is what I’ll explain next.

Since the early 1940’s, when Hervey Cleckley conducted his study of psychopathy, psychologists have tried to understand the physiological basis for this dangerous personality disorder. During the nineteenth century, psychopathy used to be called “moral insanity.” It could also be called “the malady of lovelessness,” since it’s caused by shallow emotions. Robert Hare shows that the root of the problem lies in the fact that for psychopaths neither side of the brain processes emotion properly. To psychopaths, emotionally charged statements such as “I love you,” “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” “I’ll never do it again,” mean absolutely nothing. They’re just words they use to deceive and manipulate others. Of course, they’re not random words. Psychopaths see that other people attach a special meaning to them. They notice that when they say “I love you,” “I’ll always be faithful to you” or “You’re the woman of my life,” they get a positive reaction. These hollow phrases help them seduce others, establish their trust and use them for their own selfish purposes. Psychopaths lack the capacity, however, to experience, and thus to fully grasp, the meaning behind emotionally charged words. Hare observes:

“Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.” (Without Conscience, 129)

To verify these findings, Hare and his research team conducted experiments on psychopaths versus non-psychopaths. They connected their subjects to an EEG machine, which records the electrical activity of the brain. Then they flashed on a screen strings of letters. Some of them formed real words while others formed only gibberish. They asked their subjects to press a button as soon as they identified a true word. A computer measured the time it took them to make the decision. It also analyzed their brain activity during the performance of this task. They found that non-psychopathic subjects responded quicker to emotionally charged words–such as “death” or “love”–than to non-emotional ones, such as “tree.” By way of contrast, emotionally charged words had no effect whatsoever on psychopaths. Hare elaborates,

“For most of us, language has the capacity to elicit powerful emotional feelings. For example, the word ‘cancer’ evokes not only a clinical description of a disease and its symptoms but a sense of fear, apprehension, or concern, and perhaps disturbing mental images of what it might be like to have it. But to the psychopath, it’s just a word.” (Without Conscience, 133)

According to both psychological and physiological research, psychopaths function far below the emotional poverty line. They’re much shallower than what we generally call “superficial” people. This has a lot to do with the faulty wiring in their brains. Hare explains that in most people the right side of the brain plays a central role in processing emotion. By way of contrast,

“Recent laboratory evidence indicates that in psychopaths neither side of the brain is proficient in the processes of emotion. Why this is so is still a mystery. But an intriguing implication is that the brain processes that control the psychopath’s emotions are divided and unfocused, resulting in a shallow and colorless emotional life.” (Without Conscience, 134)

The shallowness of their emotions explains why psychopaths are so callous as to use and abuse even those closest to them: their partners, their children, their parents, their lovers and their so-called friends. It also clarifies why they can’t see anything wrong with their mistreatment of others. Even when they rape and murder, psychopaths feel no remorse. Their theatrical apologies and promises to reform are as empty as their vows of love. When they cry in court after having been sentenced to prison for their crimes, they either feign emotion to gain sympathy or cry about the fact they got caught. While research shows that psychopaths are incapable of real emotional bonding with others, this doesn’t imply that they’re out of touch with reality. When they harm others, even when it’s opportunistically and in the heat of the moment, they’re cold-blooded and deliberate about their actions. They’re also aware of the fact that their misdeeds are considered morally wrong by society. But, fundamentally, they don’t care. In fact, breaking the rules (without suffering any consequences) is the name of their game. As Hare clarifies:

“As I mentioned earlier, psychopaths do meet current legal and psychiatric standards for sanity. They understand the rules of society and the conventional meanings of right and wrong. They are capable of controlling their behavior and realize the potential consequences of their acts. The problem is that this knowledge frequently fails to deter them from antisocial behavior.” (Without Conscience, 143)

Whenever any discussion of criminal or deviant behavior takes place, the age-old debate between nature versus nurture tends to come up. The question thus arises: are psychopaths bad because of their social environment or are they born that way? The simple answer to this question is: they’re born that way and they can be made worse by a bad environment. Unfortunately, they can’t be made significantly better by anything at all. Psychological and sociological research shows that, in fact, psychopaths are much less influenced by their environment than non-psychopaths. This conforms with the general finding that psychopaths have rock solid egos, which are more or less immune to negative input. As we’ve seen, although they enjoy affirmation and praise, as all narcissists do, they don’t care when they’re criticized or punished. While a corrupt environment and abuse is unlikely to cause psychopathy, it can lead a psychopath to express his constitutive emotional callousness through violence. (Without Conscience, 175)

Martha Stout seconds Robert Hare’s conclusions that nature–or the physiological incapacity to experience and process emotion properly–has much more to do with psychopathy than nurture. Stout observes, “In fact, there’s evidence that sociopaths are influenced less by their early experience than are nonsociopaths.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 134). She elaborates,

“The sociopaths who have been studied reveal a significant aberration in their ability to process emotional information at the level of the cerebral cortex. And from examining heritability studies, we can speculate that the neurobiological underpinnings of the core personality features of sociopathy are as much as 50 percent heritable. The remaining causes, the other 50 percent, are much foggier. Neither childhood maltreatment nor attachment disorder seems to account for the environmental contribution to the loveless, manipulative, and guiltless existence that psychologists call psychopathy.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 134)

In other words, psychopathy constitutes a physiological deficiency that causes shallowness of emotions and all the negative implications which stem from it that we’ve explored so far. This deficiency is genetically inherited only half of the time. The other half of the time it may be caused by accidents, brain damage, drugs or other, unknown causes. The saddest implication of the scientific research on psychopathy is the fact that there’s no cure for it. No medication or treatment has yet been discovered that can give a psychopath the neurological capacity to process emotion properly. Consequently, nothing can turn him into a functioning, caring human being. In other words, nothing can transform a psychopath into a non-psychopath.

Anybody who tells you that a psychopath can be significantly improved does NOT understand the nature of pathology and does NOT have your best interests in mind. If you’ve hired such a therapist, you’re paying him or her just to bolster your own unrealistic expectations and confirm your wishful thinking. Sandra L. Brown, M.A. offers the best advice in How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved (a book that I reviewed on this blog): stay away from such men. Rather than persisting in trying to save them, save yourself and those who are capable of empathy and love. Medication and therapy can’t transform an emotional cipher into a caring man.

Moreover, unlike mental retardation and autism, psychopathy and narcissism are NOT harmless deficiencies. On the contrary, they are very dangerous emotional deficiencies. The individuals who suffer from mental deficiencies like autism and mental retardation are often reduced to a debilitating and life-long dependency upon others to function. By way of contrast, individuals suffering from emotional deficiencies–or personality disorders–can have very high intelligence and they use it to cause harm to others. If any trained professional tells you that mental and emotional deficiencies are comparable–in any respect other than that neither can be significantly altered–I strongly advise you to seek another therapist because that person is (at the very least) incompetent. To see the implausibility of such a comparison, just imagine someone suffering from mental deficiencies machinate the kind of carnage caused by psychopathic dictators like Hitler or Stalin; the predatory murders caused by serial killers like Ted Bundy; the senseless murders carried out by someone like Neil Entwistle, or even the more banal evil caused by your garden-variety psychopath, who continually lies to, cheats on, scams, dupes and manipulates those around him. Psychopaths’ capacity for evil actions is only limited by their malicious imaginations and desires. This means that, for all practical purposes, there are no limits.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


How And Why A Psychopath Pushes Your Buttons

In an earlier post, entitled Relationship Boomerang, I explained that it’s very difficult to get rid of a psychopath even after you break up with him because such an individual rarely lets go of his dominance bonds. He’s usually in the beginning, middle and end phases of numerous relationships simultaneously. He recycles former relationships, to reclaim possession of previous partners. At the root of psychopathy is the most extreme and malignant form of narcissism. In The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley calls the psychopath’s egocentricity and incapacity to love “complete” and “absolute.” A narcissist often dominates others because he wants validation from them. A psychopath, however, carries this personality disorder to an extreme: he dominates others, and puts them down, in order to destroy them. For a psychopath, the ultimate ego trip is shattering the lives of others, not simply proving himself superior to them. He cannot derive pleasure from recognition by others unless it also causes them harm or humiliates them. This is why psychologists state that psychopaths suffer from the most dangerous, predatory and malignant form of narcissism that exists.

Today I’d like to go over how and why a psychopath pushes your buttons, to provoke some type of reaction from you long after your relationship is over. The why is easy: a psychopath regards his partners as his personal property, to use and dispose of as he pleases. Since eventually he gets bored with all relationships, he periodically revisits some of the previous ones, to harass former parters or to sink his claws into them once again.

He does so by testing out different strategies and seeing which ones get the desired reaction. Often, he alternates between nice and complicit interactions (or overtures) and insults, which correspond to the idealized or devalued mirror effects I went over in my previous post, The Psychopath’s Mirroring Effects. One message (or spam) he may praise you, the next one he’ll put you down. This is partly because a psychopath’s moods and attitudes arbitrarily oscillate between idealizations and devaluations of the same person. I call these fluctuations “arbitrary” because sometimes they may be motivated by your actions, sometimes not. For instance, a psychopath may idealize you when you comply with his wishes and regard him as an ideal partner (before you open your eyes, that is, and see him for what he is).

But even during the honeymoon phase, when you’re infatuated with him, he may at the same time devalue you: see you as a gullible individual whom he can use and dupe. This is why even during the honeymoon period, when a psychopath desires and pursues you, there are frequent moments of devaluation, at least in his own mind. Usually, however, during the seduction phase the psychopath hides those negative thoughts far better than when he’s grown tired of you and is ready to move on. As the psychopathic bond unfolds, the moments of devaluation necessarily become more frequent until they eventually set the tone for the entire relationship. At that point, the psychopath puts much less effort in maintaining the “mask of sanity” and shows himself more and more for the evil person he is.

Once the relationship is over, the psychopath will continue to periodically harass you and test the waters, to see if he can reestablish the dominance bond over you, or simply to annoy you. If his oscillations between nice and mean overtures leave you confused, just remember this: both are equally meaningless. They’re just the psychopath’s way of pushing your buttons. This process is not innocuous. Couple his lack of conscience, vengefulness and boredom and what you get is high risk of getting seriously harmed if you go back to the psychopath. Some women were lured to their deaths by giving their vengeful psychopathic ex-partners a second chance, even when those men claimed to still love them. Whether a psychopath is saying negative or positive things to you or about you to others, these claims are  both empty of genuine content.

For a psychopath language is purely instrumental, not a way of communicating his real and deep emotions. The psychopath lacks the capacity to feel such emotions. So whether he’s saying I love you or I hate you; you’re beautiful or you’re ugly; you’re smart or you’re dumb, it’s really all just various ways in which he tests the waters to see if he can get a reaction from you and relieve the boredom that plagues his daily life. Once again, the psychopath’s need to push people’s buttons by making contradictory statements  is related to the shallowness of his emotions and his purely instrumental use of language–completely disassociated from any meaningful understanding of truth and falsehood or concept of right and wrong–to get what  (and whom) he wants in life.

Since the early 1940’s, when Hervey Cleckley conducted his study of psychopathy, psychologists have tried to understand the physiological basis for this dangerous personality disorder. During the nineteenth century, psychopathy used to be called “moral insanity.” It could also be called “the malady of lovelessness,” since it’s caused by shallow emotions. Robert Hare shows that the root of the problem lies in the fact that for psychopaths neither side of the brain processes emotion properly.

To psychopaths, emotionally charged statements such as “I love you,” “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” “I’ll never do it again,” mean absolutely nothing. They’re just words they use to deceive and manipulate others. Of course, they’re not random words. Psychopaths see that other people attach a special meaning to them. They notice that when they say “I love you,” “I’ll always be faithful to you” or “You’re the woman of my life,” they get a positive reaction. These hollow phrases help them seduce others, establish their trust and use them for their own selfish purposes. Psychopaths lack the capacity, however, to experience, and thus to fully grasp, the meaning behind emotionally charged words. Hare observes:

“Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.” (Without Conscience, 129)

To verify these findings, Hare and his research team conducted experiments on psychopaths versus non-psychopaths. They connected their subjects to an EEG machine, which records the electrical activity of the brain. Then they flashed on a screen strings of letters. Some of them formed real words while others formed only gibberish. They asked their subjects to press a button as soon as they identified a true word. A computer measured the time it took them to make the decision. It also analyzed their brain activity during the performance of this task. They found that non-psychopathic subjects responded quicker to emotionally charged words–such as “death” or “love”–than to non-emotional ones, such as “tree.” By way of contrast, emotionally charged words had no effect whatsoever on psychopaths. Hare elaborates,

“For most of us, language has the capacity to elicit powerful emotional feelings. For example, the word ‘cancer’ evokes not only a clinical description of a disease and its symptoms but a sense of fear, apprehension, or concern, and perhaps disturbing mental images of what it might be like to have it. But to the psychopath, it’s just a word.” (Without Conscience, 133)

According to both psychological and physiological research, psychopaths function far below the emotional poverty line. They’re much shallower than what we generally call “superficial” people. This has a lot to do with the faulty wiring in their brains. Hare explains that in most people the right side of the brain plays a central role in processing emotion. By way of contrast,

“Recent laboratory evidence indicates that in psychopaths neither side of the brain is proficient in the processes of emotion. Why this is so is still a mystery. But an intriguing implication is that the brain processes that control the psychopath’s emotions are divided and unfocused, resulting in a shallow and colorless emotional life.” (Without Conscience, 134)

The shallowness of their emotions explains why psychopaths are so callous as to use and abuse even those closest to them: their partners, their children, their parents, their lovers and their so-called friends. It also clarifies why they can’t see anything wrong with their mistreatment of others. Even when they rape and murder, psychopaths feel no remorse. Their theatrical apologies and promises to reform are as empty as their vows of love. When they cry in court after having been sentenced to prison for their crimes, they either feign emotion to gain sympathy or cry about the fact they got caught.

While research shows that psychopaths are incapable of real emotional bonding with others, this doesn’t imply that they’re out of touch with reality. When they harm others, even when it’s opportunistically and in the heat of the moment, they’re cold-blooded and deliberate about their actions. They’re also aware of the fact that their misdeeds are considered morally wrong by society. But, fundamentally, they don’t care. In fact, breaking the rules (without suffering any consequences) is the name of their game. As Hare clarifies:

“As I mentioned earlier, psychopaths do meet current legal and psychiatric standards for sanity. They understand the rules of society and the conventional meanings of right and wrong. They are capable of controlling their behavior and realize the potential consequences of their acts. The problem is that this knowledge frequently fails to deter them from antisocial behavior.” (Without Conscience, 143)

Whenever any discussion of criminal or deviant behavior takes place, the age-old debate between nature versus nurture tends to come up. The question thus arises: are psychopaths bad because of their social environment or are they born that way? The simple answer to this question is: they’re born that way and they can be made worse by a bad environment. Unfortunately, they can’t be made significantly better by anything at all.

Psychological and sociological research shows that, in fact, psychopaths are much less influenced by their environment than non-psychopaths. This conforms with the general finding that psychopaths have rock solid egos, which are more or less immune to negative input. As we’ve seen, although they enjoy affirmation and praise, as all narcissists do, they don’t care when they’re criticized or punished. While a corrupt environment and abuse is unlikely to cause psychopathy, it can lead a psychopath to express his constitutive emotional callousness through violence. (Without Conscience, 175)

Martha Stout seconds Robert Hare’s conclusions that nature–or the physiological incapacity to experience and process emotion properly–has much more to do with psychopathy than nurture. Stout observes, “In fact, there’s evidence that sociopaths are influenced less by their early experience than are nonsociopaths.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 134). She elaborates,

“The sociopaths who have been studied reveal a significant aberration in their ability to process emotional information at the level of the cerebral cortex. And from examining heritability studies, we can speculate that the neurobiological underpinnings of the core personality features of sociopathy are as much as 50 percent heritable. The remaining causes, the other 50 percent, are much foggier. Neither childhood maltreatment nor attachment disorder seems to account for the environmental contribution to the loveless, manipulative, and guiltless existence that psychologists call psychopathy.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 134)

In other words, psychopathy constitutes a physiological deficiency that causes shallowness of emotions and all the negative implications which stem from it that we’ve explored so far. This deficiency is genetically inherited only half of the time. The other half of the time it may be caused by accidents, brain damage, drugs or other, unknown causes.

The saddest implication of the scientific research on psychopathy is the fact that there’s no cure for it. No medication or treatment has yet been discovered that can give a psychopath the neurological capacity to process emotion properly. Consequently, nothing can turn him into a functioning, caring human being. He will always remain an absolutely narcissistic and malicious human being.

It’s up to you to decide if you wish to sacrifice the rest of your life to a man who, at best, may become somewhat less impulsive and dangerous with medication, but who was, is and will always remain incapable of appreciating you and of reciprocating your love.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Dr. 90210: The Hollywood Sociopath Next Door?

If you watched the popular show Dr. 90210–or even if, like me, the most you could stand is periodically watching it for a few minutes while flipping channels–you might be wondering what planet this guy landed from. Dr. Roberto M. Rey Jr. presents himself as a sophisticated Brazilian, but dresses more like a Brooklyn pimp. He works out compulsively and shows off his body  like a textbook example of the somatic narcissist. He promotes himself through a whole line of products, ranging from shapewear to cosmetics, but doesn’t let the generally loquacious shopping channel hostesses get a word in edgewise. He shamelessly flirts with his female patients, but seems to take special delight in putting them under, emitting strange vibes of necrophilia. Whatever Dr. Rey does, one thing is perfectly clear: he’s on a huge ego trip. A few years ago, The New York Times suggested that he’s a hack:

“‘Dr. 90210’ is the show that traditional plastic surgeons love to hate. Critics including Dr. Mark L. Jewell, the president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, say that Dr. Rey is a skilled surgeon, but his informal way with patients is inappropriate, even undignified, and the reality show gives viewers the impression that plastic surgery is a casual beauty treatment rather than a serious surgical procedure.” (Natasha Singer, March 16, 2006)

Even more worrisome than his dubious credentials and unprofessional manner with patients is the way he treats his wife, who seems to have developed a serious eating disorder (anorexia nervosa) during the filming of their reality show. While Dr. Rey’s celebrity–and ego– keep expanding, she’s literally melting before our eyes. Although he puts on a mask of chattering charm with his patients, Dr. Rey relentlessly criticizes his wife, complains about her being too controlling, and even tries to separate her from her family by stepping in between her and her mother. Keeping in mind that a psychopath’s main characteristics are superficial charm, absolute narcissism and the need for total control over those closest to him through an insidious mixture of isolation and criticism, Dr. Rey makes a pretty good candidate for the Hollywood sociopath next door.

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 lovefraud.com, 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

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