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

Charismatic Psychopaths: Mark Hacking and Neil Entwistle

The most dangerous social predators are, unfortunately, also the most common and the best camouflaged.  Charismatic psychopaths rely upon their natural trademarks–glibness, magnetism and charm–to lure others into their lives. Romantic relationships with such individuals tend to have one thing in common: they initially appear to be absolutely perfect, the very picture of happiness and the envy of all your friends. Charismatic psychopaths give their partners flowers and say all the right things to win their trust and love. They engage in ostentatious public displays of affection that leave other women drooling, wishing they too could have such romantic partners. But we must remember the age-old adage: what seems too good to be true usually is. If predators weren’t especially alluring and didn’t behave exceptionally well at first, they wouldn’t trap so many victims into their dangerous nets. They also wouldn’t be able hold on to the partners they inevitably come to mistreat.  Few women are so masochistic as to be enticed into a relationship by overt and immediate signs of abuse.  Yet many remain trapped in abusive relationships with psychopaths because of the lure of the initial honeymoon period and the vain hope that they can somehow recapture it. In their international study of 75 women who got romantically involved with psychopaths, entitled, appropriately enough, Women who love psychopaths, Sandra Brown and Liane Leedom observe:

“The early days of being wooed and lured by a psychopath are the most exciting times that women remember. Consistently described as ‘charming’ the psychopath is irresistible in his personality traits. Women described him as ‘a charming and engaging conversationalist, agreeable, insightful, sweet, twinkling eyes, a compelling talker, funny, a great storyteller, fun to be with, delightful, exciting, companionable, loyal, enthusiastic, upbeat, fun-loving, intense and sensitive.’ From this list of traits, it’s easy to see why women are enamored with his personality. By this list, what’s not to like?” (93)

As it turns out, what’s not to like is absolutely everything about this dangerous and sometimes deadly charmer. His image of perfection is only a mask, set up to ensnare his target into a vision of her dream come true, which eventually turns into a nightmare. This is precisely what happened to Lori Kay Soares and Rachel Entwistle, two young women who believed that they had married their dream lovers. In actuality, however, they fell into the clutches of psychopathic partners who killed them for the flimsiest of reasons. The most common question people ask when they hear or read about such cruel and senseless crimes is: why did he or she do it? Even the journalists who cover these crimes ask this question, which shows quite clearly that they lack a basic understanding of the kind of people they’re dealing with. Once again, psychopaths don’t have rational or comprehensible motives. They don’t steal primarily for money, which they could get through honest means. They don’t rape primarily for sex, which they could get voluntarily. They don’t kill their spouses primarily for freedom, which they could get through a legitimate divorce. They have malicious motivations.  They harm others primarily for pleasure and fun; for the sport of it. Hurting others, sometimes even killing them, gives psychopaths the greatest rush of euphoria and power. This constitutes their only real purpose in life. Fooling their families, their lovers, their colleagues, their buddies, the media and even the police into thinking that they’re decent, caring human beings–or, when caught, that they feel genuine remorse or have been victimized themselves–offers the extra bonus. It’s the icing on the cake, so to speak. It also enables psychopaths to sometimes get away with their evil deeds.

Mark and Lori Hacking

Mark Douglas Hacking and Lori Kay Soares appeared to be the perfect couple. They were both in their late twenties and had been together for ten years. Their seemingly idyllic relationship was the envy of Lori’s friends. From the moment they met on a trip in Lake Powell, Utah in 1994, Mark and Lori fell in love and become practically inseparable. Mark in particular seemed absolutely crazy about his wife. He was an outgoing, fun-loving young man who appeared to have a promising future ahead of him. The couple planned to move to Chapel Hill, where Mark was supposed to attend medical school. Lori was expecting their first child.  According to family and friends, the couple was looking forward to the birth of their baby and to their promising life together in North Carolina. But tragedy struck on July 19, 2004, when Lori went out for a walk and didn’t return. That morning, Mark called Lori’s work to inquire about her whereabouts. Lori’s colleague, Brandon Hodge, told him that she didn’t come to work yet. This struck him as somewhat unusual, since Lori was punctual. Mark responded that his wife went jogging earlier that morning. He claimed that was the last time he saw her. Although Lori had been missing for only a few hours, Mark sounded very concerned. He told Hodge that he went jogging for three miles on the trail his wife took, but couldn’t find her. About half an hour later, Mark called the police to report his wife as missing. They informed him that a person must be gone for at least 24 hours for them to start an official search.

Lori’s family, friends and colleagues, however, were sufficiently alarmed to assist Mark in the search for his wife that very day.  On the following day, Lori’s parents held a press conference. They asked for the public’s help in finding their missing daughter. Since Lori was extremely well liked in the community, 1,200 people volunteered to search for her. Mark, however, felt too distraught to join them. Police found him wandering around a local motel wearing nothing but a pair of sandals. He was admitted to the University of Utah psychiatric unit to recover from his apparent anxiety attack. The police, however, expressed skepticism. They wondered if Mark had faked his nervous breakdown to avoid a more thorough interrogation. Their initial inquiries led them to believe that he might have been involved in his wife’s disappearance. Upon questioning Lori’s family, colleagues and friends, they discovered that, in fact, the marriage wasn’t going all that well lately. The couple had fought earlier that week after Lori found out that Mark had deceived her about whom he was and what he was planning to do in life.

Dr. Douglas Hacking, Mark’s father, told the police that his son had lied to his wife about graduating with honors in psychology from the University of Utah. He also deceived her about being accepted to the University of North Carolina Medical School.  Lori discovered the lies by accident, when she called the medical school from work to ask about financial aid for her husband. Some of her colleagues stated that she was visibly upset during that conversation. She left work early that day, probably to confront Mark, they speculated. For a few days, however, the relations between the couple improved. As it turns out, Mark succeeded in persuading his wife of yet another lie. He told her that the reason he wasn’t in the University of North Carolina’s records was because of a computer malfunction. Apparently, however, Lori didn’t buy that excuse for long. She proceeded to verify his claim. Afterwards, the situation went from bad to worse. A few days later, the couple had another altercation.

The extent of the deception led investigators to suspect that if Mark lied so easily and for so long to his wife and others about his education and life plans, he could just as easily be lying to them about his lack of involvement in Lori’s disappearance. In addition, the evidence they found at the Hackings’ residence led them to conclude that they were dealing with a homicide, not a missing person case. From that point on, they considered Mark to be “a person of interest.” Inside the Hackings’ apartment, they collected a receipt for a new mattress and bedding, a bloody knife found in the drawer of the couple’s bedroom, clothing and a letter supposedly written by Lori warning her husband that she’d leave him “if things didn’t change.” Outside, they gathered a cut up mattress that matched the box spring found in the trash bin of University of Utah hospital, where Mark worked. They also removed a clump of dark hair matching Lori’s from a dumpster outside a gas station near the hospital. In addition, the surveillance tapes taken from various locations–the hospital, a Mormon church near the park where Lori supposedly went on a walk and a convenience store–told a different story from the one that Mark shared with the police.

The tapes revealed that on the morning when Mark told police he was searching for his wife in the park, he was actually buying a new mattress at a local store. In addition, the seat of Lori’s car was adjusted for a tall person rather than for her petite frame. Mark was six feet tall, while Lori was only 5’4”.  More significantly, Mark’s two brothers told investigators that he had confessed to murdering his wife. According to them, this was neither a premeditated murder planned long in advance nor a crime of passion perpetrated in the heat of the moment. Mark told his brothers that on the evening of July 18th, Lori confronted him about his newest lie, concerning the supposed computer malfunction. He finally admitted to her that he had deceived her for years about his education. This resulted in a heated argument. Lori then went to bed and Mark began packing his belongings. During this process, he came across a .22-caliber rifle. Around 1:00 a.m., he shot his sleeping wife in the head. He then wrapped up her body in garbage bags and disposed of it in a local dumpster about an hour later. He also cut up the mattress (with the knife that the police removed from his bedroom drawer) and discarded it in the dumpster near the hospital, where it was later found.

Because the investigators couldn’t find Lori’s body for a few months, the prosecution team charged Mark with first-degree murder without seeking the death penalty. Two months later, on October 1, 2004, they found Lori’s remains in the Salt Lake County Landfill. Her husband pleaded “not guilty” at the arraignment hearing. During the April trial, however, Mark confessed that he had murdered his wife.  As he described how he killed Lori and disposed of her body, he showed no signs of emotion. Lori’s family expressed not only grief, but also a sense of perplexity. They couldn’t understand what might have led this seemingly adoring husband to kill the woman who was, by all accounts, the love of his life. They were also puzzled by the fact he disposed of her body in such an irreverent fashion, as one does of a pile of garbage.

Neil and Rachel Entwistle

The case of Neil and Rachel Entwistle resembles that of Scott and Laci Peterson, which has received enormous media attention and is the subject of several biographies and true crime books. According to his friends and family, Neil was a charming, handsome, polished and courteous British man. He fell in love with Rachel, a sunny, petite American woman.  The way the couple fell in love was so poetic that it could have been lifted from the pages of a romance novel. They met in the north of England on the Ouse River. Both attended the University of York and participated in the rowing team. Rachel was a coxswain, while Neil rowed. Their friends state that they took an instant liking to each other. Neil, in particular, “adored” Rachel.

Their relationship moved fast and got serious from the very start. The couple envisioned a bright future together. Rachel took a job as a teacher while Neil, described by some of his friends as a “computer wizard,” took a programming job. Their wedding was so lavish and beautiful that it seemed right out of a fairy tale. They honeymooned in the Mediterranean. Pretty soon, Rachel gave birth to a little girl, whom they named Lillian Rose. Both Neil and Rachel appeared ecstatic about the birth of their baby. Neil set up a website, rachelandneil.org, to showcase their wedding pictures and their adorable newborn. Rachel described her husband to her friends as “her knight in shinning armor.” She told her family that she was “blissfully happy” in her marriage. The young woman considered Neil to be her dream come true: handsome, charming, intelligent, humorous, a gentleman, a doting husband, a loving father and a stable provider.  Shortly thereafter, the couple decided to move back to Boston, to be near Rachel’s family. They bought an expensive 4-bedroom house in the suburbs and rented a BMW. On January 19, 2006, only a few days after they moved into their new house, Rachel talked on the phone with her good friend, Joanna Gately. They planned a visit that weekend, since Joanna wanted to see their new house and the baby. Rachel went to sleep that evening and never woke up. Neither did her nine-month-old daughter.  Both had been murdered.

During the course of the investigation, what turned out to be most astonishing for Rachel’s family was that the evidence pointed to the fact that the person responsible for killing them was none other than the doting husband and father who appeared to love them most. Moreover, the image of Neil Entwistle during the trial and his behavior after the murders sharply contradicted the impression of him that his family and friends used to have. Rather than being a faithful, adoring husband, the evidence revealed that he joined an Internet sex-swinger site in England during the time that Rachel was in Boston with their newborn baby. As soon as he joined them in the United States, Neil advertised himself on Adult Friend Finder. He presented himself as a man looking for “American women of all ages,” to see if they were “much better in bed than the women over the ocean.” On January 4, 2006, he wrote to a woman saying that he was “currently in a relationship” but would like “a bit more fun in the bedroom.”

His professional life also turned out to be largely a sham. Rather than being a successful computer programmer, as his wife and the rest of his family were led to believe, he was one of those annoying spammers who promise magical results in the bedroom and in the wallet. Unfortunately, his occupation didn’t bring him such results. Neil was broke and in debt. In addition, the evidence found on his computer pointed quite clearly to premeditated murder. Weeks before his wife and daughter were shot, Neil looked up on the Internet methods of killing, including euthanasia, murder and suicide. Researching suicide doesn’t imply he wanted to kill himself, as some speculated.  Individuals who intend to murder others commonly look into how a homicide could be framed as a suicide, as Neil’s defense during the trial later confirmed.

Nothing about Neil Entwistle’s true identity conformed to the outward impression he created for his family and friends. Immediately after murdering his family, Neil behaved even less like the loving husband and father he claimed to be. He bought a one-way ticket to England, to avoid police interrogation. He didn’t return to the United States to attend his wife and daughter’s funerals. During his murder trial, the prosecution presented evidence that Entwistle used a .22 caliber revolver to shoot his wife in the head and his daughter in the stomach, both in cold blood and at close range. Perhaps to showcase his “sensitivity,” he told police that he covered their bodies with bedding because he was “closing them off.”

At the trial, Neil pleaded “not guilty.” His defense team argued that Rachel killed the baby and then committed suicide. The only ones who bought this implausible defense even after Neil was found guilty and convicted of first-degree murder were his parents. In spite of the overwhelming evidence that pointed to Neil’s guilt, his mother cast him as the real victim and his murdered wife as the victimizer. She stated, “We know that our son Neil is innocent and we are devastated to learn that the evidence points to Rachel murdering our grandchild and then committing suicide.” By way of contrast, after hearing and seeing the evidence against him, Lori’s family had no doubts that their son-in-law had committed the crimes. But they, along with the prosecution and the press, couldn’t understand what drove Neil to commit such a horrific act against his own family. Joseph Flahery, the spokesman for Pricilla Materazzo, Rachel’s mother, and for her stepfather, Joseph, released the following statement on their behalf: “We may never know why this happened, but we do know Rachel and Lillian Rose loved and trusted Neil Entwistle.”

Neil’s mother denied her son’s actions, while the media, which seemed convinced by the guilty verdict, mischaracterized his motives. Katherine Ramsland, from trutv.com and thecrimelibrary.com, for instance, describes accurately all the facts of the case. However, she characterizes Entwistle’s pathological lying about pretty much every significant aspect of his life as symptoms of so-called “white lies,” which got so far out of hand that he, himself, began to believe them. Psychopaths don’t tell “white lies.” They tell harmful lies to disguise their malicious actions and evil identities from others. The only journalist I’ve read who got the psychological profile of Neil Entwistle right on target was Harrison Koehli, who described him as a psychopath. Like me, Koehli expressed frustration that even the media, which routinely covers such crimes, doesn’t grasp the phenomenon of psychopathy, given that psychopaths commit such a high proportion of these sensational murders.  Koehli identifies several media misreadings of Neil Entwistle’s behavior. He notes:

“The Boston Globe tells us that Entwistle ‘breaks down’ while watching video of his dead wife and daughter. In fact, the description deserves to be quoted in full: ‘Neil Entwistle’s face turned scarlet red and he covered his mouth with his hand, looking down to avert his eyes from the video played today in court that showed the bodies of his wife and infant daughter, found shot to death in bed and frozen in an embrace. Entwistle trembled and for the first time since his 2006 arrest began to cry publicly, tears running down the cheeks of his quivering jaw. As the 20-minute video played for the Middlesex Superior Court jury, he turned his eyes back at the screen and watched, his hand covering his gaping mouth.’ ”

Having watched this video, I agree with Koehli’s interpretation of Neil Entwistle’s reaction rather than that of the Boston Globe journalists, Franci R. Ellement and Andrew Ryan. I see no signs whatsoever of trauma or pain in Entwistle’s expression. Sadistic buffoonery is more like it. I also see Entwistle trying to disguise the fact that he was laughing into his hand as the evidence of his gruesome murder of his wife and child was presented before the jury. Apparently, he treated the trial as a joke and even as a personal triumph. I’m fully on board with Koehli’s description of Entwistle’s reaction, as well as with his dismay at the media’s credulity towards Entwistle’s obviously histrionic displays of emotion. Koehli goes on to say:

“I have to say, to watch that video and to come away convinced that the scene ‘appeared to have a profound impact’ on Entwistle smacks of supreme credulity. A more honest description would appear as follows: ‘Entwistle appeared to enjoy himself, using his hand to hide a large grin and occasional laughter. Every so often he appeared to attempt an unconvincing expression of emotion, forcing his eyes into a crude facsimile of sadness. His obvious smile and alert eye movements, however, betrayed his undisturbed composure and lack of guilt or despair.”

While other media accounts automatically translate Entwistle’s expression and gestures into more or less comprehensible human responses, Koehli sees them for what they are: The decidedly abnormal and inhuman reactions of a psychopath. Koehli observes that “Entwistle cannot control the fact that his face appears to be smiling, but he can attempt to hide it by covering his face and attempting to fake crying, which is what he is obviously doing. He is smiling, but it is not because that is just how he looks when he cries. It is because he is thoroughly enjoying himself. He is sadistic and he is a psychopath.” This description fits. Not only does Entwistle show no remorse about murdering his family, but also he obviously takes sadistic pleasure in the presentation of his crimes. If he tries to disguise his reaction, it’s in a rather unsuccessful attempt to cover up his abnormality, which the prosecution is in the process of publicly unmasking.  Deprived of his mask of sanity, a psychopath lacks the means by which he can fool and use others.

Koehli comments that even those who have written at length about psychopaths, such as Keith Ablow, a forensic psychiatrist and the author of Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, mischaracterize Entwistle’s reaction. Ablow states: “Men like Entwistle … feel like stripping their masks away is tantamount to killing them, because they believe those thin, synthetic disguises are all that keep them from dissolving into nothingness and feeling the full weight of unspeakable emotional turmoil, with roots that always reach deep into their pasts.”  This sounds existential and even poetic, but psychopaths lack the emotional depth to experience such angst. Their flashes of anger are as shallow and fleeting as their infatuations. I’m with Koehli, once again, when he advises the media and the general public to reread Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity in order to gain insight into how the minds of psychopaths work:

“Sorry Keith, but you need to reread Cleckley. There’s no fear of unspeakable emotional turmoil lying behind that mask of sanity. Psychopaths do not even know the meaning of those words. They 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.”

Without understanding the phenomenon of psychopathy, we’re much more likely to fall into the traps set by these social predators. We’re also more likely to give them second chances in life when they mistreat us or commit crimes, believing that they’re capable of reform and redemption. They’re not. All the evidence points to the fact that psychopaths don’t learn from negative experiences. They’re therefore not intimidated by punishment. When freed, they go out to commit the same kind of crimes again. Spreading information about this personality disorder constitutes the public’s main line of defense against such evil individuals. However, when even the police, that routinely runs across such criminals and the journalists that present their crimes in the news fail to understand psychopaths, what hope is there left that the general public will get the necessary tools to protect itself from them? Koehli advises all of us to inform ourselves–and others–about these perfect invisible predators in our midst. His appeal for spreading information about psychopathy is so well justified and eloquent that I’m citing it in full:

“When I read comments like Ablow’s and the youtube commentator’s, comments so steeped in ignorance and projection, I get in a bit of a funk. After all, if only people would first accept the existence of psychopathy, we would not be so likely to fall for their cheap ’emotional’ manipulations. You see, psychopaths are wired differently than normal humans. They do not feel close to others, they do not feel remorse, they do not feel others’ pain, they are completely egocentric, and they derive a pathological ‘joy’ from others’ suffering.  Neil Entwistle’s sick display of joy at the sight of his dead wife and daughter, and his transparent attempt to feign sadness should be apparent to every normal, rational human being. Unfortunately it is not, and we all suffer as a result, and we will continue to suffer, and millions more will die, until we decide to grow up and accept the most pressing truth about our reality. What is that truth? That not only do psychopaths live among us, but also through our ignorance we have allowed them to rise to positions of almost absolute power over us. Widespread knowledge of the reality of psychopathy on this planet is the essential first step to securing our future and that of our children. Make it your priority to spread the word.”

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


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