Upon seeing people act – or fail to act – in ways that lead to such suffering, sensitive people naturally wonder why this situation has arisen.
“How could they do – or neglect to do – such things?” they ask.
And, just as importantly, how could they seem so completely unfazed by the pain displayed by the victims of this behavior?
“I would feel afraid, guilty or ashamed of acting that way. So why don’t they?”
Such attempts to understand the roots of cruelty and callousness, and to possibly address them, are age-old. For millennia, everyone from theologians to philosophers to scientists has asked these questions. So it was probably inevitable that I, too, would eventually become fascinated with them. Indeed, even before I could clearly articulate it, it was certainly a desire to understand the nature and causes of hurtful behavior that drove much of my study in areas ranging from child development to personality types to relationships to politics.
Through all of this study, I came to understand that a variety of reasons underlie the existence of cruelty in our world.
Some of what we may perceive as cruelty simply occurs as part of the natural conflict and competition of development and life. Even healthy families, societies and ecosystems are faced with periodic hardships and challenges. However, there remained other behavior that I saw and experienced that seemed too sadistic and systematic to be explained simply as "the way life is."
An additional swath of cruelty could be explained as emerging from the system of incentives that dominates many of our social institutions, often rewarding exploitative behavior while discouraging long-term compassionate approaches. In other words, those enacting this behavior may not personally intend to do harm. They may simply be taking the well-worn path of least resistance within the organizations in which they participate. But this only raised the question of who allowed or encouraged these institutions to develop such a destructive incentive system in the first place.
I finally started to get more satisfying answers when I learned more about conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This opened the door for me to begin understanding how mental illness, and especially personality disorders, played a role in the emergence of unnecessarily destructive behavior in our institutions and our world. Gradually, I came to realize how just a few "toxic" characters could disproportionately and detrimentally shape and influence a human system.
And yet, some of the harmful behavior that I saw and experienced seemed even more egregious, strategic and consistently devious than could be explained by BPD and NPD alone. It lacked the signs of underlying insecurity and repression that mark NPD or the fear-driven, alternating, splitting features of BPD.
There simply still had to be more to it.
Eventually, persisting in my search for deeper understanding about the genesis of extreme manifestations of cruelty, I was led to Andrew M. Lobaczewski’s extraordinary book Political Ponerology (A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes) and to the field of ponerology. From there I was led to related books like:
- Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work
- The Sociopath Next Door
- Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend
In short, I was led into the fascinating and chilling world of the psychopath.
Of course, having earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and having studied and done several rotations in psychiatry in medical school, I was familiar academically with psychopathy (though I feel that, for a variety of important reasons, the topic remains underemphasized). And, eventually, re-encountering Derrick Jensen’s track "Locked in a Room with Psychopaths" from his Stand Up Tragedy album reminded me that he had long ago introduced me to the central role psychopaths have played in fueling our culture’s destructiveness. Yet, as is so often the case, it wasn’t until my own experiences drove me to revisit and expand my understanding of the topic that I finally managed to internalize the importance and magnitude of influence of psychopathy.
What is Psychopathy?
- Lack of conscience
- Extremely limited emotional range – Psychopaths may simply be biologically incapable of experiencing certain common human emotions.
- Severe reduction in ability to experience empathy for others – One cannot empathize with emotions in others that one is almost completely unable to experience oneself.
- Willingness and remarkable ability to lie convincingly
- Superficial, deceptive charm – Because psychopaths are able to skillfully feign emotional understanding and connection, they frequently come across to others as quite likeable, and, therefore, go unsuspected of devious behavior. Associates and acquaintances are often quite surprised when their actions do come to light.
- Aggressive pursuit of selfish goals
- Various forms of reckless power and thrill-seeking
- Highly Machiavellian behavior – In fact, psychopathy, along with Machiavellianism and narcissism make up what is known as the "dark triad" of character traits.
- Lack of guilt or remorse for consequences to others of their destructive behavior
Tools for Diagnosing and Measuring Psychopathy
The PCL-R was originally developed in the early 1990’s and often applied in criminal populations to predict an offender’s likelihood of recidivism as an aid to deciding on appropriate sentencing and treatment. However, over the years, it has been validated for application in a wider variety of settings.
Using the PCL-R, a qualified professional analyzes a subject’s case history and a structured interview to rate the degree of presence or absence of twenty specific criteria – similar to those listed in the previous section - including various aggressive, narcissistic and manipulative personality traits and elements of an irresponsible lifestyle. The subject’s score is then compared to that of the prototypical psychopath and, if it is above a certain threshold, the condition is diagnosed.
Hare’s work followed and built upon the seminal work of Hervey Cleckley, M.D. In his landmark 1941 book The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality, Cleckley – who also co-authored The Three Faces of Eve, a famous account of a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder - brought the condition to the public’s attention to an unprecedented degree while laying out a checklist of what he considered the sixteen core features of psychopathy.
Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder
But even Brown acknowledges that many experts recognize sometimes subtle, but very important, distinctions between them, even if they disagree somewhat on exactly what those distinctions are.
Having consulted various sources and synthesized their feedback, here are some general guidelines on the relationships and distinctions between these three terms. It is important to note that future changes, including the publication of new classifications in the DSM-V (the next version of psychiatry’s main diagnostic and statistical manual, the DSM-IV) and additional research into genetic and environmental origins, may bring additional clarity about the connections between these conditions, as well as others, like NPD and BPD, which also can, at various intervals, share a fundamental feature of reduced empathy.
PsychopathyPsychopathy is not an actual clinical diagnosis in the DSM-IV. Instead, it is a term used by people in a variety of fields to describe an individual marked by a particular set of characteristics. These characteristics generally include those mentioned earlier and have been even more precisely defined and operationalized in the diagnostic tools discussed in the previous section.
Some of these traits overlap those that define antisocial personality disorder. However, psychopaths are recognized as displaying a level of callousness not necessarily seen in all of those with ASPD or in all sociopaths. And, while both conditions are defined by a combination of traits or temperament and behaviors, one is labeled a psychopath primarily based on his or her traits or temperament, while one is diagnosed as ASPD primarily based on observable behaviors.
Criminality and Non-Criminality among Psychopaths
Psychopaths can display the full range of criminality or non-criminality. Some psychopaths are caught committing illegal acts and are therefore identified as criminals. Others commit criminal acts but are never caught. Still others, however, while acting in ways many of us would find unethical, never actually cross the line into lawbreaking. And some psychopaths are not only never identified as criminals, but are highly successful and even widely admired individuals. This contrasts with ASPD, the diagnosis of which usually requires criminal and overtly aggressive behavior.
Psychopathy’s Biological Focus
The term psychopathy originated within the "hard sciences." Therefore, there is a tendency to view the term as referring to those who differ from non-psychopaths because of significant differences genetically and in brain structure and function. These differences and their implications will be discussed in much greater depth later.
SociopathyLike psychopathy, sociopathy is also not listed as an actual clinical diagnosis in the DSM-IV. Unlike psychopathy, this term originated within the "softer" social sciences in the course of examining how our behavior is influenced by our environment and our nurturing (or lack of nurturing).
In Snakes in Suits, Robert Hare describes sociopathy as referring to:
"…a pattern of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large, but are seen as normal or necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they developed."In other words, a sociopath might inherently be an ethical person, born with a normal genetic and biological capacity for empathy and conscience, who internalizes potentially destructive propensities for behavior through their development and participation in some pocket within society. This would include many of those discussed earlier who contribute to destructive acts not because they themselves are malicious, but simply because of their adherence to the norms of the exploitative institutions of which they are a part.
Antisocial Personality DisorderUnlike psychopathy and sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder is, as of this writing, an actual clinical diagnosis. It is listed in the DSM-IV as one of the Cluster B (the dramatic, emotional or erratic) personality disorders, along with NPD, BPD and Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD).
ASPD is defined primarily based on an individual’s externally verifiable behaviors - especially those that break the law or violate the rights of others – and less so, as in the case of psychopathy, on character traits or temperament. Thus, ASPD is more clearly detectable than psychopathy, which often goes unrecognized.
Anyone who exhibits the definitive features and behaviors can be diagnosed as having ASPD. But in only some of those cases is the individual’s presentation driven by the types of character, and presumably genetic and other biological, differences associated with being labeled a psychopath. Thus, ASPD is far more prevalent than psychopathy and only a fraction of those with ASPD also qualify as psychopaths.
Who and Where are the Psychopaths?
But narrowly focusing on such descriptions is dangerous. It reinforces the myth that psychopaths are exceptionally rare and only affect the few people unlucky enough to encounter them in some wildly extreme situation. The truth is that psychopaths are a far more prevalent and diverse group that influences all of us on a daily basis.
Here are some very important facts about psychopaths:
Psychopaths are More Common than You ThinkThere is some debate about the exact prevalence of psychopathy, as well as of the overlapping conditions termed antisocial personality disorder and sociopathy. However, Robert Hare estimates in Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us and Snakes in Suits that the condition exists in about 1% of the population, making it about as common as schizophrenia. (Estimates for antisocial personality disorder are even higher at 3% for men and 1% for women according to the DSM-IV. Martha Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door, estimates that 4% - fully 1 in 25 – of the population qualify as sociopaths).
Even using the estimate of a 1% prevalence of psychopathy in the general population, we realize that this is a surprisingly common condition. While 1% may sound small to some, this amounts to 1 out of every 100 people you see around you. In a population of 7 billion people, this amounts to 70 million psychopaths walking among us. In the United States alone, assuming a population of 300 million, it amounts to 3 million of our neighbors, incapable of empathy, who are willing to charm us and lie to us in ruthless pursuit of their selfish ends.
Even more disturbingly, for a variety of reasons we will soon discuss, members of this callous minority – already larger in size than we might imagine - regularly attain positions that afford them disproportionate influence on the rest of us.
Psychopaths are EverywhereAs alarmist as it might sound, it is simply a fact that psychopaths truly are all around us and among us. They are scattered throughout the population in every capacity.
You may work with them, since - as is the focus of Snakes in Suits - they are particularly influential in corporate and business settings. You may go to school with them. As we will discuss later at length, they maintain an instrumental presence in the political arena, so you may have voted for or been governed by them. Hare also describes in Snakes in Suits how religious organizations are particularly vulnerable to infiltration by psychopaths. As implied by Stout’s title The Sociopath Next Door, psychopathic individuals may be your neighbors. Or you might even have psychopaths within your very own family.
In short, whatever the context, if you’ve ever experienced strategic, devious behavior, lacking in compassion, you may have been in the midst of an environment being influenced by a psychopath.
Psychopaths are Notoriously Skilled at DeceptionUpon learning just how prevalent and pervasive psychopathy actually is in our society and how likely it is that they themselves have been touched by it, most people are quite surprised. This is actually a curious situation. How is it that a condition that is so common and so influential, and with which nearly all of us are familiar to some extent from the many popular sensationalized accounts, can nonetheless remain under the radar when we are right within its midst? The answer lies in the psychopath’s remarkable capacity for deception.
Throughout nature, a variety of predatory and parasitic organisms employ a combination of mimicry and adaptability to prevent other organisms on which they depend from detecting their energy-draining motives. Amongst humans, psychopaths are the keepers of this tradition.
While unable to actually experience or empathize with many of the emotions of those around them, psychopaths’ ability to lie without experiencing guilt or shame, as most of us would, enables them to fake it quite well. Through careful observation, they may learn to simply mimic some of the outward expressions and phrases that they notice others interpret as signs of sensitivity and rapport. As a result, they can project the appearance of emotional insight and concern without genuine feeling or understanding. This is why it is commonly said that, in terms of emotions, psychopaths "know the words, but not the music." (This description was even used in the title of a study about psychopaths' processing of affect and language.)
Unfortunately, for their uninformed targets – and, at times, even for those familiar with their duplicity – the "words" alone can be persuasive enough. So convincing is the psychopath’s resulting superficial charm that it not only puts potential victims at ease, but, in many cases, even turns them into admirers. Consider one of recent history’s most famous psychopaths, serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy often impersonated others or faked vulnerabilities or injuries in the process of luring his victims to their gruesome deaths. Yet, despite his murderous motives, he often provoked deep attraction and was commonly described as "handsome," "cultured," and "charismatic."
This combination of sinister intent lurking beneath a convincing and appealing exterior is so core to psychopathy that Cleckley chose to make it the focus of his landmark book’s title, The Mask of Sanity. If this mask allows even extremely violent individuals like Bundy to fool their victims, imagine how effectively it can be employed by apparently charismatic, charming manipulators and predators working more insidiously from established positions in business, politics or other sectors of society.
As we have seen, professionals can ultimately identify psychopaths using well-researched and validated tools like the PCL-R. And, as we will soon discuss, some claim that psychopaths are adept at recognizing and attracting each other. But for most of us, in everyday life situations within modern society, it requires great vigilance to avoid being fooled by their mask and to recognize the presence or influence of a psychopath.
The Spread of Psychopathic Influence in Society
How is it that this relatively tiny minority has been able to achieve such a remarkable feat? The answer lies in a combination of the abilities made possible by the psychopath’s unique traits and talents and certain characteristics of modern society’s structure which they themselves may have helped create.
Psychopaths are Especially Adept at Negotiating, Manipulating and Climbing HierarchiesPsychopaths are tremendously skilled at identifying leverage points – what needs to be done and who needs to be pressured, wooed or manipulated – for achieving their desired ends within hierarchical systems of power. And once they recognize them, they are willing to lie without guilt and exploit others’ vulnerabilities and weaknesses without conscience in the process of pressing those levers. Furthermore, they are extremely savvy not only at evading detection, but at engineering situations so that they are, in fact, rewarded with money, status, recognition, power or influence.
Both Evil Genes and Snakes in Suits look more deeply at just how psychopaths go about expertly using these talents to rise up the ranks of our business, political and other hierarchies.
Modern Civilization’s Extremely Hierarchical Structure Offers Vast, Previously Unseen Opportunities for Exploitation by PsychopathsThroughout nearly all of our species’ hundreds of thousands of years on this planet, we lived in relatively egalitarian bands and tribes of just a few hundred people at most. This social structure was characterized by several important, relevant features, including:
- Even the most powerful leader was quite limited in the number of people and the amount of resources over which he or she could exert control.
- Living at the mercy of, yet dependent upon, a sometimes perilous wild environment, in which few, if any, individuals could survive alone, the maintenance of cooperation and mutual support within a band or tribe was a life or death matter for all of its members. Thus, not only was the incentive to detect and neutralize the destructive influence of deceitful, selfish individuals extremely high, but, living in such small groups and in such close quarters, it was, at least in many cases, relatively difficult for these individuals to hide that toxic social influence for long.
A story reported by Dr. Jane M. Murphy, now director of Harvard’s Psychiatric Epidemiology Unit, serves as an example of the vigilant stance that one millennia-old indigenous culture – a group of Inuit in Northwest Alaska – takes regarding psychopathic types within their midst. So aware is this group regarding the existence of these individuals that their language includes a term for them - kunlangeta – which is used to refer to a person whose "mind knows what to do but does not do it," resulting in such acts as lying, cheating, stealing and taking advantage of the tribe without making sufficient contribution. And how seriously do the group’s members take the need to respond to the threat such individuals pose to the group’s sustainability? When asked what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, Murphy was told “Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”
In time, many seem to have been lulled to sleep, forgetting almost entirely about the social threat posed by their culture’s own version of the kunlangeta.
Psychopaths Took Great Advantage of this New, Highly Exploitable Social StructureGiven their talents for climbing hierarchies and their extraordinary lust for the thrill of power, psychopaths were well adapted for this new kind of social structure and, unsurprisingly, took to it like a virtual playground. Once positions with such obscene power existed, within a society that remained undereducated about psychopathy and lacked immunity to its insidious influence, psychopaths disproportionately found their way into those circles of power. Evil Genes examines in depth how this flow of the empathy-disordered into positions of leadership and influence in our society has posed a problem of inestimable importance with incredibly destructive consequences.
Due to Their Inherent Nature, as well as Their Power within Hierarchies, Psychopaths May Have Historically Bred Relatively More Often, Thus Significantly Increasing Their Representation in the Gene PoolAs they were busy climbing these newfound hierarchies, psychopaths were also hard at work increasing the proportion of individuals carrying their genes. Many psychopaths employ sex and sexual manipulation as tools of power and have few qualms, if need be, about leaving behind a number of neglected children. So it is likely that, in any even moderately hospitable environment, they would begin to increase their numbers.
But the spread of "psychopathic genes" may have been even further propelled as a growing number of psychopaths attained positions of power. Like many others in such positions, this status often granted them greater sexual access than the rest of the population – perhaps to an even larger degree in past centuries than today. Some rulers and warlords even maintained vast harems. The result, somewhat shockingly, is that some quite possibly psychopathic individuals were able to breed on such a relatively large scale that it actually had a statistically significant impact on the prevalence of their genes in the population.
For example, Guinness World Records declares that the record for most children is held by Ismail Ibn Sharif, a sultan who ruled Morocco in the 17th and 18th centuries. Guinness credits him with 867 children, conceived with a number of wives and concubines. The sultan also happens to be nicknamed "Ismail the Bloodthirsty" for his legendary and almost inconceivable cruelty. When we consider the number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on produced by such a number of children over the course of just a few generations, we see that – in a classic example of exponential growth – it can quickly and significantly impact the makeup of the gene pool.
This concept was stunningly demonstrated in a 2003 study published in the The American Journal of Human Genetics entitled "The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols". The study was covered in UPI in an article called "Genes of History's Greatest Lover Found?" by Steve Sailer. The study showed that, of the Asian men tested, 8% had a virtually identical Y chromosome, indicating a common forefather. This meant that that one forefather’s Y chromosome – and presumably some of his other genetic material, as well – is carried by an estimated 16 million men in a region spread over a vast expanse of Asia. To put it more starkly, this person’s genes reside in 1 of every 200 men alive today. And that is only counting the male descendants! To put it even more starkly, this man was 800,000 times more successful at passing on his genes than the average male.
By estimating the time in which this man must have lived and the amount of power and influence required to parent so prolifically, the study’s authors concluded that he is none other than Genghis Khan, known, due to his epic ruthlessness, as "Mighty Manslayer" and the "Scourge of God." Sailer reports that among the mothers of these many children were daughters of kings that Khan conquered and many women that he raped in the course of his warring. He also quotes a historian’s report that the one special privilege that Khan demanded from his subordinates upon plundering a territory was that beautiful young women be handed over to him.
Thus, while still not numerically dominating the population, civilization’s hierarchies laid the foundation for a few conscienceless, bloodthirsty conquerors to prolifically spread what Barbara Oakley cleverly terms their Evil Genes. This may have set in motion a positive feedback cycle that, to an extent, continues to progress today. If so, it would represent one of the most important such feedback cycles in human history.
Psychopaths May be Adept at Recognizing and Attracting Other Mutually Supportive PsychopathsAs if the hierarchy-climbing exploits of an increasing number of individual psychopaths weren’t chilling enough, consider Martha Stout’s claim that, while difficult to identify for the rest of us, such sinister characters seem to have a special knack for identifying and attracting each other to work toward mutual goals. If true, this would add another layer to our understanding of how this small group manages to achieve so much influence. There is enormous power in the combination of even a few such people - without conscience or respect for boundaries, willing and able to lie and bully inconspicuously and remorselessly – mutually reinforcing and rewarding each other’s efforts.
Certain Modern Institutions Have Come to Mirror Psychopathic TraitsDue to the combination of all of the aforementioned factors, psychopaths have been so successful at influencing modern society that they even appear to have shaped whole institutions in their image. For instance:
- The film The Corporation uses World Health Organization ICD-10 and DSM-IV criteria to show how the very structure of modern corporations encourages behavior that exemplifies psychopathic patterns.
In a sense, the case is made that the corporate legal structure forms the corporation itself into a psychopathic entity.
- Others have documented the oft-repeated and frequently catastrophic historical tendency for psychopaths and similarly disordered individuals to progressively penetrate and shape governments.
In Political Ponerology, Lobaczewski adopts the term "pathocracy" to refer to "a system of government...wherein a small pathological minority [consisting of those he calls 'pathocrats'] takes control over a society of normal people" and details the mechanisms by which, time and again, such destructive regimes have risen to power.
Psychopathy May Have Even Been Instrumental in the Genesis of Civilization ItselfIt may be no coincidence that modern civilization is flush with opportunities for psychopathic exploitation and image-shaping. Some, including myself, have hypothesized that exactly this type of psychopathic influence may have played a role in the transformation of human societies from hunter-gatherer bands and tribes to civilization in the first place. A look at the nature of civilization’s emergence explains why.
Our modern civilization was born when a certain form of agriculture, which Daniel Quinn calls "totalitarian agriculture," began to be practiced around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. Quinn describes how early practitioners of this intensive form of agriculture, driven both by its inherently expansive nature and a possibly religious belief in its status as the "one right way" to live, began to conquer neighboring cultures and force them – violently, if necessary - to similarly "take up the plow."
This new, expanding form of food production enabled, in an unprecedented fashion, a sedentary lifestyle characterized by large surpluses of food and storable goods which required guarding. And it was out of this newfound need for security that hierarchical power structures and militaries emerged. The ultimate result of this process was the growth of cities and the modern civilization within which nearly all surviving humans live today.
The question that must be asked and which leads to hypotheses about the role of psychopathy in civilization’s rise is this:
What kind of people would develop such a dominating form of agriculture that literally requires constant expansion, insist on it as the "one right way" for everyone to live and then set about ruthlessly forcing them to do so through often violent conquest, setting in motion a process that would eventually engulf nearly the entire world?Given what we know of their nature, it must at least be considered that psychopathic individuals may have been centrally involved.
Evolutionary Views of Psychopathy
Given this evolutionary history, we understand clearly why the emergence of empathy and conscience were so central to human survival and success. The sustainable functioning of a band or tribe, and the survival of its members, would have been nearly impossible without the widespread development among individuals of the abilities to:
- Recognize and care for the feelings and needs of others
- Experience guilt and remorse, which motivate us to make amends, upon unfairly harming or neglecting another
This is why, in The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout claims that, perhaps even more fundamental than gender or race or intelligence, the presence or absence of conscience is "possibly the single most meaningful characteristic that divides the human species." How then do we explain the case of the psychopath, who lacks the very aspects of character upon which the emergence and survival of human societies have relied?
Defect or Alternate Evolutionary Strategy?Well, the most basic approach simply views psychopaths as mutations or aberrations of the normal human being, who, as reviewer Martha Beck put it, "lack scruples the way someone born blind lacks eyesight." Advocates of this perspective would explain that, just as some people are born with damaged eyes or hearts or kidneys, psychopaths suffer from a birth defect involving the moral and emotional processing centers of the brain. In Political Ponerology, Lobaczewski informs us that, at one time, psychiatrists often used to describe those whom he calls "essential psychopaths" – people with a form of psychopathy that he believed to be inherited and most centrally involved in catalyzing pathocracy – as "Daltonists of human feelings and socio-moral values," thus making the analogy between them and people with a form of color blindness known as Daltonism.
However, other experts hold a more complex view of the psychopath not as a "broken" normal human, but rather as a different type of human entirely. They believe that, just as humans of conscience were naturally selected for via the pressures of their environments, certain environments may also, in parallel, have naturally selected for the survival and reproduction of a certain number of humans without conscience. In this paradigm, psychopaths are seen as a subset of humanity, wired to enact an alternate evolutionary strategy that - though perhaps reprehensible to many of us and possibly dangerous to our long-term sustainability - has nonetheless served them relatively effectively within the context of our recent history.
Intraspecies Predator or Subspecies of Homo sapiens?Our understanding of the psychopaths’ essential difference is reflected in the labels attributed to them by some experts. Because their life strategy, generated by their profound biological differences, frequently places them in fierce – though often unseen - competition with their fellow humans, Robert Hare has referred to the psychopath as an "intraspecies predator."
Others have gone even farther, drawing the perspective out to its ultimate conclusion by classifying the psychopath as a separate subspecies of humanity - what Lobaczewski, in one interview, termed "a para-Homo Sapiens." For these thinkers, empathy and conscience are so fundamental to what it means to be a normal human being that a person without those traits represents a new evolutionary branch.
The Biological Basis of Psychopathy
Research is finding that, far from simply normal humans motivated - due to poor parenting, trauma, abuse or just personal preference - to make unethical choices, psychopaths are, in some respects, "a different animal" from the rest of us. Various techniques are allowing us to correlate their many abnormal traits and behaviors – their lack of empathy and conscience, their inappropriate reactions to disturbing emotional stimuli, their inability to experience normal fear, guilt and shame, their failure to relate to the horror of victims – with demonstrable differences in their physical constitution.
Some of the relevant studies and findings include:
Genetic Basis for Psychopathy
- "Evidence for Substantial Genetic Risk for Psychopathy in 7-Year-Olds" – This twin study demonstrated 81% heritability for antisocial behavior among those twins that were highly psychopathic. As Barbara Oakley puts it in Evil Genes, “Discarding the belief in the natural innocence of children and eliminating a century of social engineering, this means that some kids are born with a marked tendency toward evil.”
Since psychopathy is not 100% heritable, that means that the environment does play some role in determining whether a person ultimately becomes a psychopath or displays antisocial behavior. However, the exact role that the environment plays can vary in sometimes surprising ways. For instance, Oakley explains how, in some cases, those who experienced a normal upbringing actually show more severe neurological impairment than those who were abused as children.
Brain Abnormalities in Psychopaths
- "Limbic Abnormalities in Affective Processing by Criminal Psychopaths as Revealed by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging" – This study showed that criminal psychopaths, when repeating emotionally charged words, show less activity than normal people in some brain areas and more activity than normal people in others. In other words, criminal psychopaths process emotions using different brain regions in different ways than do the rest of us.
- The amygdala, a brain area deeply involved in emotional processing and reactions, has been shown to be less reactive in some situations among psychopaths than among normal people.
- While still being investigated, preliminary findings have shown that psychopaths may exhibit differences in the functioning of mirror neurons, special neurons that allow us, upon observing the actions and responses of others, to simulate them in our own minds, and therefore to empathize.
- A number of studies show impairments in psychopaths in specific brain areas whose activation is associated with the experience of moral feeling.
- Some of the symptoms of psychopathy are reproduced in patients with injuries in relevant brain areas. A University of Haifa study showed that the psychopath’s impairment in empathy is remarkably similar to that found in frontal lobe brain injury patients. And the term "pseudopsychopathy" has been coined to refer to those who exhibit certain psychopathic traits after incurring frontal lobe lesions.
- "Corpus Callosum Abnormalities in Psychopathic Antisocial Individuals" – This study revealed that, in psychopaths, the corpus callosum, the area that connects the two brain hemispheres, has significantly more white matter volume and is longer and thinner than normal. This means that their brain hemispheres may have difficulty communicating properly with each other.
- "Temporal Lobe Abnormalities in Semantic Processing by Criminal Psychopaths as Revealed by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging" - Psychopaths show less activity than others in the right anterior superior temporal gyrus when hearing abstract words, though they show similar activity to others when hearing concrete words. This may explain the psychopath’s diminished ability for grasping abstract concepts.
I strongly recommend the book and those sections to anyone interested in learning more about the origins of harmful behavior in our world.
Reducing Psychopathy’s Detrimental Impact
Doing so will entail measures in a variety of areas. But the decisions about which specific measures to take, or not to take, will provoke significant controversy and raise riveting ethical quandaries previously the domain of science fiction. Some of the potential strategies may seem highly unreasonable to implement. And yet, at the same time, the consequences of doing nothing seem equally unreasonable.
Here is a categorized look at some of the measures that might be considered as part of an attempt to address psychopathic influence.
Measures Focused on Managing or Treating Psychopaths
Identifying PsychopathsIn considering any approach to managing psychopathy’s effects, we are immediately faced with the question of how, and to what extent, we should aim to identify psychopaths. Especially as genetic, physiological and anatomical markers become more defined, the following questions will become even more pressing:
- Should we enact proactive screening of any kind to detect psychopaths?
- If so, who should be screened? Should we screen everyone? Should we screen particular groups known to be at higher risk? Should we screen those seeking important offices or positions?
While some find a certain degree of screening sensible, for others it raises enormous civil rights and privacy concerns. Some scientists - including even Robert Hare, himself a proponent of fundamental reforms - have expressed serious qualms about the potential abuses that such measures could unleash.
Early Intervention in FamiliesAs we have seen, psychopathy does, in many cases, begin to reveal itself at early ages. Therefore, to whatever extent we choose to implement proactive screening, we may want to employ it to properly identify high risk children. We increasingly test children for various other physical and psychological disorders so that we can mitigate their detrimental expression by intervening early with special attention or care for them and their families. For a variety of reasons, including slowing the generational cycle of abuse, we might consider doing the same in the case of psychopathy.
Such a strategy, however, raises challenging questions:
- How would such programs be guarded against the same potential for abuse of power that dogs any such screening program?
- What is the proper special attention and care for psychopathic or at-risk children? We have already seen that even the healthiest upbringing and nurturing often fails to eliminate the condition. And, strangely, in some cases, healthier parenting seems to be associated with even more severe neurological impairment. So while we should certainly investigate how to most effectively intervene with such families, we should also be prepared for some counterintuitive results.
- What if, in the course of the screening process, we discover that the parents or other caregivers are themselves psychopaths? This would raise unbelievably difficult ethical questions about the rights vs. responsibilities of any authorities to mediate contact with the children - especially if there was no concrete documentation of abuse.
Incarceration or InstitutionalizationCurrently, most psychopaths that are caught committing serious enough crimes are sentenced to prison or institutionalized to protect the public from them. These will likely remain primary methods of responding in such cases. As our understanding of psychopathy progresses, however, we will increasingly be challenged to determine to what degree particular offenders belong in which setting and what exactly should take place while they are there. We will also be challenged to continually re-establish the degree of offense necessary to merit separating a psychopath from society.
Psychological and Behavioral Treatment of PsychopathsWe should certainly work with psychopaths to reduce their harmful behavior to the extent that we can. But, as we have seen, research reveals that psychopathic behavior is significantly genetically based and emerges from substantial abnormalities in brain structure and function. This biological basis imposes limits on our ability to alter psychopathy through non-invasive forms of therapy.
Within the mental health community, there is widespread, though not unanimous, understanding that psychopathy is a condition that cannot be treated in the traditional sense. In other words, most experts believe that there is no currently feasible method that can change the psychopath him or herself into a healthy – or even reasonably healthier - normal human being. In fact, some, including Robert Hare, have warned that it can even be dangerous to attempt to treat psychopaths in typical psychodynamic or group therapy contexts.
Here is why:
Many attendees of such treatment programs, even if they have acted inhumanely in the past, still have somewhat normal capacities for empathy and conscience intact. Thus, they can become more caring as a result of the interactions with therapists and fellow group members and go on to apply their newfound skills toward more pro-social ends. Psychopaths, on the other hand, are likely biologically incapable of even moderate levels of empathy or conscience. Thus, traditional treatment programs do little more than provide these master manipulators with access to even more advanced knowledge of how to exploit others. They are able to interact with professionals, observe guided dialogues about the vulnerabilities of their fellow attendees, absorb new understandings and skills, and then apply them to even more ruthlessly and effectively pursue their own selfish ends.
This is why Hare has proposed a tailored approach focused not on eliminating, but on managing the psychopaths’ condition. He advocates for pragmatic methods that accede to their emotional and moral limitations, while appealing to their self-interest. Primarily, such work focuses on helping psychopaths to develop and reinforce alternate strategies that allow them to meet their needs without committing violations that are likely to result in consequences, such as incarceration, that even they themselves find undesirable. Hare has summarized his views on treatment along with co-author Dr. Steve Wong in Guidelines for a Psychopathy Treatment Program.
Biological Treatment of PsychopathsPerhaps no area will be more ripe for controversy and science fiction-like speculations than the issue of biological treatment of psychopaths. Because the impact of psychological and behavioral treatments is so limited, as we are better able to identify psychopaths, we may be tempted to employ more invasive measures. These might include the provision of existing or newly developed medications, surgical procedures or, someday, perhaps even gene therapies.
And, in the case of each method, we will have to decide at what point, if any, coercive treatment is merited. Should psychopaths be subjected to such invasive approaches even if they have only been identified by screening, but have committed no crime? What if a psychopath has committed antisocial acts, but technically broken no law?
As challenging as these questions already are, they become even more intriguing in light of data such as that revealed in the University of Haifa study, which shows that the psychopath’s empathy challenges are remarkably similar to those of frontal lobe brain injury patients. What would our approach be if a person underwent a severe head injury and, as a result, began to treat those around them in a dehumanizing way? Is it possible that we should be treating psychopaths less like psychological clients and more like neurological patients with brain injuries?
Measures Focused on Educating the Public, Relevant Professionals and Officials about the Truth of Psychopathy
Given this situation, it is imperative that we work to make sure that the public at large, as well as those in key professional and social positions, are aware of and making decisions based on solid understanding about the nature of and threat posed by the condition.
Raising AwarenessIn recent decades, we have seen massive education campaigns regarding many serious disorders and diseases ranging from depression to AIDS to lupus. While not everyone heeds the warnings, we’ve made great progress in alerting people about the dangers of, for example, sexually transmitted diseases or smoking-induced lung cancer.
Yet, as history has shown time and again, even one person with psychopathy or another empathy-reducing disorder, when situated in a key position in a human system, can contribute as significantly to a public health risk – through consequent wars, genocide, economic collapse or the domestic and child abuse that tend to perpetuate them - as anyone with any other condition. As we develop even more advanced technologies of control and destruction, this only becomes ever more true. Therefore, in order to instill a greater immunity to their tactics, the facts about these disorders need to be widely known. It is a travesty that, in our society, conditions like psychopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder are not yet household names.
Using an array of communication mechanisms, including television, radio, print media and the Internet, to aggressively educate the public, we can prepare them to better detect and respond to deceptive psychopaths. It is especially important that we properly train and inform those who work most directly with psychopaths, those whose work often focuses on issues or institutions touched by psychopathy’s influence and those authorities with the power to shape public opinion about the condition. These include mental health and public health professionals, educators and school administrators, legal scholars and law enforcement agencies, activists and watchdogs.
Overcoming Denial of Psychopathy’s Fundamental Nature and Relative IntractabilityUnfortunately, even after being educated, some have found it hard to accept – or even to believe – the truth about psychopathy.
The evidence increasingly shows that psychopathy is biologically based, hardwires an incapacity for empathy and conscience, often appears early in life, does not respond well to most treatment, and is seldom substantially improved by even the best parenting, most compassionate social measures or harshest punishment. Environmental factors are relevant. In some cases, it seems that a healthier environment may lead a psychopath to develop less destructive behavior. And investigations of many of the most violent psychopaths do reveal severe abuse in their past. But, these external influences can limit the destructive potential of psychopathy only to a degree and only in a proportion of cases.
These facts have profound implications for all of us, including those who work with psychopaths professionally, as well as those who simply encounter them or the systems they affect in our daily lives. But, for a variety of reasons, our defense mechanisms may urge us not to believe them. As a result, we may continue to respond to psychopathic behavior with denial or repeated attempts, doomed to failure, to somehow evoke care and compassion from them or the institutions they shape.
It is especially troubling that such ineffective and irresponsible responses persist even within the systems whose frequent encounters with the condition’s effects should make them the most aware of its true nature – often the very systems most trusted to protect us from its dangerous consequences.
Such denial was demonstrated remarkably within the law enforcement community in the 1990’s when Robert Hare worked to reform how Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) treated psychopaths within its prison system. He urged them to stop attempting to treat psychopaths in the same groups and using the same methods as were used with other inmates. Officials were close to implementing a new approach based on his ideas. But, shortly before the implementation, the service changed personnel. Hare was extremely frustrated when the new administrators scrapped his plan based on a viewpoint that Hare has summarized as "We don't believe in the badness of people." Driven by this untested, politically correct belief system, the leadership insisted on continuing to treat psychopaths just as before.
It is very telling that Hare’s ideas met strong resistance within CSC. It shows that even administrators experienced in working with a violent prison population can find it uncomfortable to accept that there are people who, even with intensive treatment, are simply incapable of respecting the feelings and needs of others. For many, even in the face of contrary evidence, hope springs eternal.
As Hare explained in a 2001 interview:
"There's still a lot of opposition -- some criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists don't like psychopathy at all," Hare says. "I can spend the entire day going through the literature -- it's overwhelming, and unless you're semi-brain-dead you're stunned by it -- but a lot of people come out of there and say, 'So what? Psychopathy is a mythological construct.' They have political and social agendas: 'People are inherently good,' they say. 'Just give them a hug, a puppy dog, and a musical instrument and they're all going to be okay.'"If experienced professionals have had such difficulty accepting the truth about psychopathy, you can imagine how difficult it can be for many everyday people. Yet, despite the denial, research increasingly demonstrates that psychopathy is a real, fundamental and highly influential condition that may not be treatable – and may even be made more dangerous – by most mainstream methods. It is in our best interest to heed these lessons, however they may clash with cherished dogmas about human nature.
Luckily, in recent years Hare’s ideas on treatment of psychopathy are being revisited and further disseminated in the mental health and law enforcement communities. This is a step in the right direction that we can only hope will continue and be mirrored in other areas of society. But it will take persistent work, as it always does, to foster acceptance of rational, realistic, evidence-based approaches in the face of dearly held mythology and wishful thinking.
Measures Focused on Limiting Psychopaths’ Leverage and Resources
We recognize the irresponsibility of allowing even the most well-meaning child, still limited in foresight, discretion and impulse control, unsupervised access to inappropriate levels of control or dangerous materials. But consider how much greater is the threat posed by a psychopath, allowed - or even intentionally granted - similar access, who also lacks these attributes and who is capable, to a degree far greater than most children, of consciously planned malice. Just as responsible parents must child-proof their homes, so must we all contribute, to the best of our ability, to the psychopath-proofing of our world.
This psychopath-proofing approach may consist of several components, each of which can be addressed to more or less radical degrees.
Limiting Access to Influential PositionsTime and again, modern power structures have proven highly vulnerable to infiltration – due to force and/or voter manipulation - by psychopathic characters. As long as we maintain such structures, it is crucial that we more effectively guard them against this occurrence. Doing so may involve a combination of education about the "mask of sanity," fostering greater skepticism about charming figures who aim to manipulate important systems, and stricter screening and oversight of both visible and behind-the-scenes players that vie for impact on powerful institutions.
At the more radical end of the spectrum are those, including many anti-corporatists and anti-statists, who believe that the very existence of inordinately influential positions will inevitably lead, in a world harboring a significant contingent of Machiavellians, to the evolution of a pathocracy and, thus, represents an inherently untenable risk. They favor greater decentralization of power, if not outright abolition of governments and/or certain types of corporate and other institutional structures.
(NOTE: It is extremely interesting to consider how we can categorize people based on which of society’s power structures they most fear being hijacked for sinister purposes and how they believe we should respond to that potentiality.
Many "small government conservatives" are most fearful of the violations made possible when sinister forces seep into authoritarian centralized governments. Therefore, they want to reduce the size and power of those "abusive parent-like" governments. Yet, many of these same people do not seem as concerned by the transgressions made possible when those same forces seep into powerful corporate or other leadership structures.
On the other hand, many "big government liberals" seem to minimize the dangers posed by malicious infiltration of centralized governments. Instead, they are most fearful of potential violations by unethical people and entities in other sectors of society, such as regionally-institutionalized civil rights abuses and the predations of unchecked Machiavellian corporate power. These people feel that eliminating or highly decentralizing the government would represent a dangerous overreaction that would render us vulnerable because they see a strong, centralized government as the only "protective parent" powerful enough to safeguard us. If they even acknowledge the risk of government hijacking, they claim that we must simply act as constant watchdogs to ensure that its leadership is as clean and accountable as possible.
Then there are those who make less distinction between the various types of power structures and simply see large power structures of any kind as dangerously susceptible to Machiavellian hijacking. These people advocate for limiting the size and power of all such structures, whether political, corporate, religious or otherwise.)
Limiting Access to Potentially Destructive ToolsThe rapidly advancing development and increasing availability of potentially destructive tools and technologies enable even a single psychopathic individual, and certainly a small group under psychopathic influence, to assert leverage within society to a previously impossible degree. In fact, for quite a while, the greatest threats to humanity have included the use of nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction by conscienceless, self-serving terrorists. But, as we have seen in recent years, even the employment of irresponsible, poorly regulated financial instruments can, in the hands of aggressive, greedy profiteers, precipitate a form of mass destruction on a global scale.
Thus, it is essential that we limit psychopathic individuals’ and entities’ access to and control of dangerous mechanisms and instruments. Doing so raises controversial questions about wise non-proliferation policies and regulation of devices, ranging from guns to financial derivative products, which are susceptible to abuse.
The Anti-Civilization ApproachEven more radical than the anti-statists and anti-corporatists are some of those, like Derrick Jensen, in the anti-civilization movement. They believe that civilization itself is inherently psychopathic and, for this reason among many others, can never be sustainable. In their view, there is simply no way within a civilized structure to sufficiently limit abusers’ access to destructive positions and tools. For this reason, they advocate for a revolutionary shift in social structure.
This important and controversial viewpoint is powerfully advocated in Jensen’s Endgame.
Information, Support and Care for Victims of Psychopaths
While some victims, who have achieved consciousness about their encounter with psychopathy, will relate what a harrowing experience it is, most still remain unconscious or in denial of the link between their pain and the existence of such a condition. However, thanks to decades of hard work by researchers and experts and the increasing speed of information distribution, this situation is changing. More and more victims are beginning to consider and investigate how their experience may have roots in the personality anomalies of abusers. As they begin to connect the dots, they seek information and support to make sense of and recover from what happened to them. And they are increasingly finding a world ready to provide the answers and support that they need.
- At the bookstore and online, they encounter a marketplace ever more full with information, published by professionals and laypeople alike, about psychopathy and its consequences.
- If they seek communion with others who understand, they will find growing numbers of online and in-person support groups for victims of psychopaths and other predatory characters.
- If they carefully and selectively seek treatment, they will discover a broadening community of clinicians educated about the impact of psychopathy and related disorders. These professionals, trained to investigate more deeply into the roots of abuses, no longer prematurely misdiagnose victims with simplistic, superficial, symptom-focused labels like "depression" and "anxiety." This group includes clinicians, like Sandra Brown, who actually specialize specifically in treating victims of psychopaths and other antisocial people.
These developments are promising. Not only does recovery have direct benefits on particular victims’ current and future health, but it goes hand in hand with prevention in society at large. Assisting in the recovery of victims is, for a variety of reasons, one of the best ways to generate a ripple effect of awakening and immunity to psychopathy’s influence in the world.
- Most obviously, a conscious and empowered victim, bolstered by the support of caring others, is more capable of taking legal action against the psychopath. This can result in further increasing public awareness and, potentially, impelling the protective removal, through imprisonment or institutionalization, of the psychopath from society.
- A recovering victim who understands the origin and meaning of his or her abuse is also less likely to pass it on to family or others around them.
- Moreover, a recovering victim, empowered to tell his or her heartfelt, genuine story, provides perhaps the most compelling means of all for shedding a more revealing light on the psychopath’s mask of sanity, penetrating layers of defenses, and planting protective seeds of skepticism in others.
- Psychopaths’ brains process moral and emotional experiences and information, as well as abstract concepts, differently than others’.
- As a result, they are simply incapable of conscience and empathy, the very faculties that have always allowed human communities to maintain their bonds and, in turn, for humanity to survive and thrive in harmony with this planet.
- There may be no limit to the ruthlessness and remorselessness with which psychopaths seek their selfish ends.
- While psychopathy is widely understood, not only among the public at large, but even among many professionals, as a psychological disorder, the brain abnormalities that underlie psychopaths’ aggression and lack of empathy more closely resemble those seen in primarily neurological disorders, such as certain brain injuries.
- Psychopathy has a genetic basis and appears to be strongly heritable.
- Therefore, as is asserted by many advocates of the field of ponerology, the "evil" that emanates from the maneuvering of psychopaths may be most usefully framed as a scientific and medical, rather than a theological, concern.
- At best, we may view the psychopath as someone following an alternate life strategy that may have been consistent with sustainability for some period of time within the environment in which it evolved.
- At worst, we may view the psychopath’s condition as the result of dangerous aberrations or mutations that form him or her into a predator, and possibly even, in the eyes of some, a subspecies of Homo sapiens.
- Psychopaths are uniquely suited to exploit civilization’s extremely hierarchical structure. This may be because psychopathy and civilization developed in tandem. The history of civilization may, in fact, fundamentally consist of a positive feedback cycle in which the genetic spread and ascent to power of psychopaths and the development of increasingly extreme hierarchy mutually reinforced each other.
- Psychopathy is more prevalent (1%) than most people realize. It is likely that nearly all of us know or interact with someone with this condition. Even more of us interact with the systems they influence.
- Psychopaths exist within every facet of modern society, from its sleazy underbelly to its middle class to positions of high power and prestige.
- While some psychopaths are indeed stereotypical violent killers, many cause great harm while rarely, if ever, committing such overt physical violence.
- Psychopaths can be quite deceptive and difficult to detect. They can even be quite attractive and charming.
- Psychopaths sometimes operate in isolation and, in other cases, likely attract each other for mutual support.
- The psychopath provides an apt metaphor or symbol that reflects the pattern of qualities and values embodied by many of our modern institutions.
- The profound influence of psychopaths may provide the common thread that connects a wide spectrum of today’s most serious problems – some of which we tend to assume are "just the way things are" – ranging from large scale threats like terrorism or extensive financial fraud to the small scale domestic and child abuse that may reciprocally reinforce those larger issues.
- Some even believe that, throughout civilized history, psychopaths have repeatedly managed to catalyze the establishment of pathocracy, as described in Political Ponerology. Our initial instinct may be to write such people off as wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. But, credible sources, such as Evil Genes and Snakes in Suits, are teaching us more about how just such a thing could, in fact, have occurred. The idea appears still more credible when we stop to consider that perhaps the quintessential horrors of the 20th century were the deaths of untold millions at the hands of pathological leaders and the threat – still with us today - of such people obtaining and using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.
- The psychopaths’ way of life puts them at odds with, and may pose a grave threat to, the future health of humanity and its environment. Even if there ever was a period in which psychopathy was temporarily compatible with sustainability, given the extreme nature of today’s world, that time is, most likely, long past.
- Evidence reveals that psychopathy is not highly amenable to the types of environmental measures or therapeutic styles that are effective in preventing or addressing the repercussions of other mental health conditions.
Of course, even the most complete understanding of psychopathy will not, on its own, enable us to explain or fix all of the world’s problems. Some of our difficulties must simply be accepted as parts of life that can likely never be eliminated. Other challenges stem from social policies that are misguided, not due to any insidious malice, but simply because, despite our best intentions, our current understanding in areas such as parenting and education is always limited and continuously evolving.
But far more commonly than most of us realize, our world’s complications remain entrenched – and potentially constructive reforms are resisted – at least in part due to the role of mental illness or disorders. Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, psychopathy and related conditions like sociopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder contribute most significantly to these processes. All of them merit greater consideration and investigation.
However, of these disorders, psychopathy is probably the primary one that we are called to understand and address, for at least two reasons:
- Psychopathy is the most striking example of just how deeply malevolent moral and emotional abnormalities can be embedded, even at a genetic and anatomical level. Thus, it serves as a landmark, providing context for the other somewhat similar, though at times less fundamental, related conditions.
- Working together, even in small numbers, psychopaths are often most intimately involved in laying the groundwork for incentive structures that persuade both seriously disordered and relatively normal people to, consciously or unconsciously, cooperate in ultimately detrimental missions.
There are a variety of forces at work in the maintenance of this denial.
Some of these forces confuse or misdirect us from positions outside of ourselves. Among these are:
- The direct effects of particular psychopaths’ deceptive abilities.
- A culture that, for a variety of reasons – perhaps including the influence of powerful pathocrats with vested interests – sometimes makes funding and policy decisions that limit or even discourage related investigation and inquiry.
It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature that, when faced with the surfacing and recognition of crucial, but uncomfortable or frightening, information, many of us go to great lengths to deny, consciously suppress or unconsciously repress this knowledge. This is especially true when the information challenges political correctness, deeply held religious beliefs, or cherished, optimistic views of human nature and a just world. In such cases, our psyches find themselves locked in a classic internal struggle between rational, critical thinking and wishful thinking.
For many, awareness of and knowledge about the existence, nature and threat of psychopathy powerfully trigger such psychic conflicts. We fear ripping off the mask of sanity, afraid of what we will see looking back at us. So, instead, we become increasingly paralyzed as the cycle of perpetration and denial repeats. It is especially troubling that this cycle plays out even within the communities most responsible for addressing psychopathy’s impact, such as among the Canadian law enforcement administrators who so frustrated Robert Hare.
Even after consciousness of psychopathy’s existence, nature and role does finally emerge from beneath our blind spots, some would, nonetheless, prefer to simply attempt to walk away from the issue and go about their lives. Unfortunately, in the grand scheme, this is just not actually possible. It is true that, on the personal level, some of us may be able to walk away from particular psychopaths in certain situations. However, many, tied to them through their ethical obligations in the family or workplace, cannot even escape to this extent. More to the point, in a world where, as ponerology explains, psychopaths wield enormous influence over the entire global structure, frequently exercising sweeping authority from positions of vast political or economic power, we are, in effect, left with nowhere to walk away to!
Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a fight taking place between those with and without empathy and conscience, which is quite possibly pivotal in determining our future. Psychopaths are quick to exploit the vulnerabilities perpetuated when even those with the capacity to care engage in denial and escapism. And, as the CSC case demonstrates, every year spent obstinately defending falsehoods needlessly sets us further behind in implementing realistic protective policies.
So it is left up to those with intact empathy and conscience to wake up, transcend our defense mechanisms and wishful thinking and emerge into a phase of effective discussion and action.
As we do so, we will discover both hopeful and challenging news.
The hopeful news is that, in contrast with our relative impotence in the face of some of the world’s ills, we do have an expanding array of potentially ameliorative approaches at our disposal when confronting those aspects associated with psychopathy.
The more challenging news is that, in choosing amongst these options, there are no easy answers. In the face of various forms of adversity, human systems have always, to an extent, struggled to reconcile the tensions generated by competing values. But, the extreme nature of modern civilized life has elevated such conflicts to a central, almost definitive role. Many of today’s most potent threats at all levels - from the intimate crises that strain the health of families to the scandalous governmental and corporate corruptions that strain the foundations of global structures - force us, in our attempts at resolution, to carry out precarious balancing acts.
Psychopathy is exemplary of these vexing modern issues in confronting us with strategic double binds and ethical quandaries. As we strive to respond appropriately to the threats associated with psychopathy, we encounter various faces of each of these archetypal balancing acts.
First and foremost, in responding to almost any serious threat, we must negotiate a balance between the consequences of taking no action at one extreme and the consequences of taking exceedingly forceful and expansive action at the other. In addressing psychopathy, which imposes serious, inescapable consequences regardless of which of the various available paths we either take or do not take, we must be especially conscientious in continuously determining and aiming for the sweet spot along this spectrum.
In addition, whenever we are faced with an insidious influence, potentially deadly in even small doses, yet difficult to detect, we are challenged to balance our inclination for heightened security with respect for privacy and civil rights. This requires us to implement measures firm enough for protection but not so intrusive that we risk abuses of power as bad as or worse than the original threat itself.
The world has been striving to find this particular form of balance in respect to numerous specific issues, including:
- How do we respect the rights of the public or nations to self-defense while keeping weapons, ranging from guns to nuclear arms, out of the hands of dangerous individuals or groups?
- How do we identify unscrupulous terrorists without invading the privacy of every citizen or traveler?
- In the face of aggressions by seriously disordered leaders, how should we optimally intervene to protect their own people and the rest of the world while respecting sovereignty and the right to self-leadership?
Another related balance, relevant as we respond to many of today’s perils, is that between cultivating a sufficiently protective degree of suspicion and maintaining an atmosphere reasonably conducive to healthy, trusting relationships. Because psychopaths simultaneously aim to take advantage of and threaten to destroy our capacities for trust and mutuality, psychopathy’s challenge offers a tailor-made prism through which to consider this balance.
One way that psychopaths facilitate damage is by feigning a non-threatening, and even helpful, character, thus eliciting unmerited trust and mutuality. This renders the ignorant and gullible, who trust too easily and indiscriminately, easy prey. That is why we have repeatedly emphasized the importance of remaining alert for potential signs of psychopathic influence.
However, if our alertness blurs into indiscriminate and pervasive suspicion, this protective system can, as in the case of an auto-immune disease, backfire. Psychopathy’s very presence can induce damage, at this other end of the spectrum, by fostering generalized paranoia, unleashing a witch hunt in which the "p word" is recklessly thrown about and, thus, rendering impossible the healthy trusting relationships that humanity needs to thrive. In addition, some psychopaths may consciously encourage this crisis of confidence as a form of sabotage by purposely disseminating confusing disinformation or leveling false accusations (perhaps, most ironically, by accusing innocent others, or even their own victims, of actually being the psychopaths, while casting themselves as the real victims). If we allow such chaos and paranoia to take hold, the very purpose of our vigilance would be defeated and, as the cliché goes, "the psychopaths would win."
Our best asset in seeking this balance between appropriate suspicion and reasonable trust is a keen understanding of psychopathy. There is no substitute for a wise approach based on ever-improving precision in discriminating between the dangerously disordered and the rest of society. And the more deeply we learn about psychopathy and how to recognize both its presence and its absence, the more likely we are to protect those that need protection while avoiding the trap of paranoia. We may never be able to perfectly proactively distinguish the genuinely malicious from the relatively benign. But, every improvement in our insight regarding psychopathy will enable us to better reconcile caution with cooperation and to more quickly and appropriately correct our inevitable mistakes when they do occur.
One more archetypal balance associated with solving many modern problems is that between concentrating our focus on perpetrators and paying significant attention to the needs of victims and potential victims. In the case of psychopathy, our quest for security requires us to recognize, understand, neutralize and, at times, bring to justice the small, but disproportionately influential portion of the population who are themselves abusive psychopaths. But, at the same time, we must never forget that our ultimate goal is not to sustain a battle against psychopaths for its own sake. It is to ensure that the vast majority of humanity who are not psychopaths has the opportunity to live healthy, sustainable lives within the ecosystem of which we are all a part. Therefore, there is a crucial complementary role for providing psychopaths’ victims and those vulnerable to their predations with avenues by which to identify themselves, share their stories and receive protection and rehabilitation.
Considering the enormous stakes involved for ourselves, our descendants, and even other species, we as a society, as well as most of us personally, still have a ways to go in achieving a stance toward the threat of psychopathy that appropriately balances these various concerns. We have even further to go in discovering and developing the third-hand solutions that will not only balance our competing values, but transcend the relevant dichotomies via integral solutions. Thus, we must, remaining mindful of both the opportunities and risks, embark on an honest exploration of potentially constructive strategies. In developing a sound, multi-pronged approach, we will be forced to consider:
- How far to go in applying our ever-improving identification capabilities to screen for psychopathy in individuals, families and institutions
- Which interventions, given psychopathy’s often counterintuitive dynamics, are actually most effective
- When to resign ourselves to the limited impact of non-invasive approaches - such as Hare’s suggested treatment model based on appeals to the psychopath’s self-interest - and which behavioral lines psychopaths must cross to warrant more invasive, or even coercive, intervention
- How to "psychopath-proof" our powerful political and technological machinery, denying charming impostors access to positions, tools, mechanisms and resources that they can leverage to do serious damage.
The Inuit, sensitive to the stakes involved and acceding to the condition’s intractability, responded to the kunlangeta’s disturbances by floating him or her out on the ice. It may be difficult, especially for those who benefit from the status quo most, to accept that the persistently reckless influence of psychopaths may someday require such radical approaches from us.
As we advance the conversation about how to stimulate a ripple effect that will replace psychopathy’s cycles of abuse with cycles of protection, prevention and immunity, our struggles with all of these controversies will intensify. But, in the meantime, we can take some relief in the fact that at least a few initial steps appear to be "no-brainers."
We should first reject approaches, regardless how established or ostensibly beneficial, that ultimately fail to generate real benefits or even, paradoxically, do harm. For instance, we must stop attempting to treat psychopathy using techniques that alleviate other conditions, but that, when applied to psychopaths, only strengthen the arsenal of knowledge, tools and skills that they can maliciously deploy. This also implies the importance of reducing misdiagnosis by professionals who are confused or misled by the superficial or inessential symptoms that psychopathic clients may exhibit or deceptively project.
We should accept that, while addressing the role of the social and familial environment in psychopaths’ development may yield some worthwhile dividends, such approaches have limited impact and cannot ultimately be our main priority.
Each year, many of us enjoy the benefits of the new, even more powerful resources that modern industrial civilization seems to perpetually produce. But, along with each advance that we enjoy come greater risks associated with psychopaths acquiring control over those very resources and employing them to do damage. Thus, as time goes on, the mask of sanity hides ever greater potential for destruction. Education is urgently needed to begin to tear off that mask. There are several educational endeavors in which we should certainly invest as soon as possible.
- We should institute a proactive public education campaign, harnessing a broad range of media, to begin shattering barriers of denial, provoke investigation and raise awareness and understanding regarding the truth about and unrecognized impact of psychopathy and related conditions like BPD and NPD. Ideally, these terms should become a widely and accurately used part of the public’s working vocabulary.
- We should also ensure that updated, high quality, detailed informational materials about these subjects are readily available at those teachable moments when people break through their defense mechanisms and bravely seek answers.
- We should aggressively institute training programs based on our most current research and knowledge of best practices for relevant professionals and officials.
- We should remember to maintain a focus on reaching out to, supporting and caring for victims (a category that increasingly, in some sense, includes our entire ecosystem) to help them process their experience, integrate it, and go on to share their stories and serve as examples in the community.
- Thanks to experts like Robert Hare, we now have clearer definitions of and measurement tools for psychopathy than ever before.
- Researchers throughout the world continue to bolster our understanding of the genetic foundation and brain abnormalities that underlie psychopathy.
- A growing number of books, organizations and entire fields such as ponerology – many of which have been featured here – are disseminating this knowledge more extensively than ever before.
- Thanks largely to the Internet, all of this information is spreading at an ever-accelerating rate.
- Support groups are increasingly available, both on and offline, to cultivate healing fellowship amongst victims of psychopaths.
- More authorities are learning and accepting the therapeutic realities of psychopathy.
- More clinicians, including an expanding cadre of specialists, have internalized the truth about psychopaths’ impact, allowing them to avoid yesterday’s pitfalls while offering much more effective care for their victims.
- In their discussions about the next major versions of their classification systems, the psychiatric and psychological establishments are considering new definitions and conceptual frameworks that may better embody and reflect the truth about psychopathy and related disorders. Whatever the actual outcome of these discussions, the ongoing debates alone may serve to provoke crucial dialogue about the nature of and relationships between these disorders.
- We even find a number of lawyers, teachers and other professionals conscious of psychopathy and beginning to integrate that knowledge, when relevant, into their practice.
We are, in a sense, in a race. It is a race not just against any particular current manifestations of destructive behavior – war, poverty, environmental threats like global warming and species extinctions, economic collapse, domestic and child abuse and so on. Rather, it is a race against an overall pattern of various forms of harm, ever-evolving, mutating and adapting to newfound opportunities and resources, driven by and encouraged within a vulnerable populace by psychopaths and similarly-disordered people.
There are cultures that have been, or nearly been, wiped out due to their ignorance of the serious threat posed by aggressive psychopathic behavior. If we want to avoid that path, and address the ills of our age and of the near future, we must recognize the centrality of the split in humanity between those with and without empathy and those with it must continue to study and learn more about psychopathy and take action.
Here are some more resources to help you do that. I highly recommend a thorough review of these materials. It will forever change the way you view and understand history, humanity and our world.
Books About Psychopathy and Related Topics
Films About Psychopathy and Related Topics
The Corporation by
Jennifer Abbott & Mark Achbar
Other Informational Resources About Psychopathy
- "Without Conscience" – Leading expert Robert Hare's website devoted to the study of Psychopathy
- The Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy (SSSP) – "A non-profit, professional organization which was developed to promote the conduct and communication of scientific research in the field of psychopathy and to encourage education and training in those fields of science that contribute to research in psychopathy."
- "Is Your Boss a Psychopath?" – Article from Fast Company Magazine in which Robert Hare, Martha Stout and others reveal the frightening and growing role of psychopathy, as well as narcissism, in the business world. Also touches on the possibilities for and implications of screening public officials and corporate leaders for psychopathy.
Resources Supporting Victims and Others Impacted by Psychopathy
- Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy Foundation – A non-profit organization formed by leading psychopathy experts including Robert Hare and Paul Babiak and supported by interested researchers, therapists, survivors and their loved ones. Provides information to educate the public about psychopathy and its cost to individuals and society. Supports research on prevention and reduction of psychopathy and its impact. Offers support for victims of psychopathy. Sponsors a moderated discussion forum and radio show.
- Safe Relationships Magazine – Online magazine published by Sandra Brown’s Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education. Provides up to date research from experts on personality disorders and psychopathy for the lay reader to educate the community and relevant professionals. Promotes training for prevention of pathological relationships. Features information and promotes products and many resources including coaching, consulting and even certain legal services. Particularly focused on supporting women recovering from pathological relationships, but has resources relevant to all.
Other SystemsThinker Resources Related to Psychopathy
- My page about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
- My page about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
- My blog piece “Publicizing the Threat of Personality Disorders Among Those in Positions of Power”
- All of my Blog Posts Tagged Psychopathy
- All of my Blog Posts Tagged Psychopaths
- All of my Blog Posts Tagged Sociopathy
- All of my Blog Posts Tagged Sociopaths