(by Jennifer Copley, Last Updated 13 April 2011)
Psychopaths, also known as sociopaths, comprise 20-25% of the prison population, but 50% of those who have committed serious crimes. However, the majority of psychopaths are not violent—most are users, scam artists and shady businesspeople. There is some evidence that psychopaths may be overrepresented in the fields of business, politics and entertainment.
Targeting the Vulnerable
Psychopaths are good at spotting exploitable vulnerabilities in others. Many psychopathic scam artists seek lonely individuals and promise them a lifetime of love and partnership. Others target the grief-stricken or those who have suffered a recent setback or breakup and are therefore less apt to look closely at what appears to be a compassionate helping hand. Alternatively, psychopaths may exploit someone’s need to be needed, finding a motherly or fatherly soul that they can milk for sympathy and cash. They are also inclined to marry people with low self-esteem and convince them that they are somehow to blame for any abuse they suffer in the marriage.
The Sympathy Ploy
Psychopaths usually play on the sympathies of others. When people’s empathic responses are aroused, they are less inclined to scrutinize an individual’s behaviour, or they will attribute bad behaviour to an abusive childhood or other trauma. This provokes the sort of nurturing response that enables the psychopath to manipulate and extract what he wants from others. In extreme cases, sympathy and deception are combined as a deadly lure. Serial killer Ted Bundy wore a cast and used crutches to make himself appear harmless and vulnerable to his victims.
While often appearing cold and deadpan, when they are trying to manipulate others, psychopaths often engage in dramatic, short-lived emotional displays designed to provoke sympathy or guilt, or even cause people to believe that they must be crazy for questioning the psychopath’s motives. Psychopaths say whatever will get people to give them what they want. Many work hard to give the impression that all of their problems stem from cruel treatment at the hands of others, and that they could change for the better if only some kindly soul would take an interest in them and support them. And because 24 out of every 25 people is not a psychopath, they find plenty of kindly souls willing to do so. They usually reward these people by breaking their hearts and cleaning out their bank accounts, as well as physically abusing them in some cases.
The Dynamic Persona
The psychopath can be an exciting companion at first because she takes risks that others wouldn’t take and thus can appear courageous and impressive. Psychopaths often pose as brilliant eccentrics, misunderstood geniuses or difficult artistic types, and so people are inclined to attribute bad behaviour to a creative temperament. Self-assured, cool under pressure and socially adept, they may appear larger than life. Their tendency to maintain intensive eye contact and move into the personal space of others enhances the image of forcefulness and confidence.
Because many psychopaths have a surplus of charm and the gift of gab, they are able to dazzle their audiences and con them into believing all sorts of outrageous stories. Excellent self-promoters and fast talkers, they boast and dazzle their targets with a variety of grandiose plans. The target usually experiences a wild ride and is left disappointed, financially poorer and wondering how everything the psychopath said could have seemed so plausible at the time.
In The Miser, Moliere noted that “People can be induced to swallow anything, provided it is sufficiently seasoned with praise.” A common tool of the psychopath is excessive flattery. Most people enjoy receiving compliments, and those who suffer from either low self-esteem or an overinflated sense of self-worth can be particularly vulnerable to this sort of approach. Beware of those who tell you everything you want to hear all the time. A compliment or two is nice, but someone who continually peppers the conversation with flattery should be suspect.
Excuses and Empty Promises
A psychopath does not keep his commitments or obligations. He breaks his word, stands people up, abandons those who care about him at critical times in their lives, cheats with impunity, and makes promises he has no intention of delivering on to get what he wants. Psychopaths may disappear and reappear in the lives of friends and family, causing worry and heartbreak, without ever adequately explaining what they’ve been up to. However, they always have excuses, and it is always someone else’s fault.
Psychopaths abandon their spouses and children without the slightest concern. And while many don’t commit crimes for which they can be convicted, they often live what could be termed as a sub-criminal existence, engaging in a variety of secretive and shady dealings. When they do achieve success, it is usually through causing harm to others. Their lack of commitment to anything is evident in the many contradictory and hollow statements they make. However, they hang onto the people in their lives by promising to change, or even changing, briefly, only to revert back to their old ways in time.
How Good People Become Targets of Psychopaths
Good people are vulnerable to manipulation by psychopaths because they wouldn’t harm others and so they’re not inclined to be suspicious—good people tend to assume that other people are good as well. And psychopaths don’t look like diabolical monsters. They appear ordinary, or even attractive.
In Without Conscience, Robert Hare notes the common perception that people have when interacting with a psychopath that “something’s wrong here but I can’t quite put my finger on it.” Psychopaths are notoriously effective at alleviating suspicion, and their victims are left wondering, “how could I have fallen for those lines?” In retrospect, everything the psychopath said appears ludicrous and obviously insincere, but at the time, he manages to come across as genuine and earnest. To avoid becoming a victim:
- Know your weaknesses so that you will be better able to spot those who use them to manipulate you. Psychopaths look for vulnerabilities to exploit such as low self-esteem, loneliness, a need to nurture, or susceptibility to flattery.
- Meet her friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers. Don’t just go on what she tells you about herself, especially if loaning money or becoming romantically involved.
- If he’s asking you to invest in a business, property, etc., check out both the business and his background thoroughly.
- Be on guard in psychopaths’ hunting grounds—cruise ships, social clubs, singles bars, airports, and resorts. Psychopaths look for bored or lonely people they can exploit.
- Be wary of anyone who flatters you excessively or tells you exactly what you want to hear. The person who does this may just have low self-esteem, but flattery is also the tool of the psychopath.
- Look beyond the smoke-and-mirrors display. What is the fast talker with the captivating smile actually saying? Are his statements contradictory, grandiose, or manipulative?
Look for Psychopathic Personality Warning Signs
There are a number of warning signs. Many people will have some of these traits, but someone who has several of them is probably trouble:
- Does she have a string of very short past relationships and claim that all breakups were entirely the fault of the other person? Does he not see or support his children from prior relationships? Is she a neglectful mother? These are red flags.
- Does she have a history of cruelty to animals? This suggests a psychopathic personality.
- Does he brag excessively about his appearance, social status, or achievements? Does he tell grandiose stories trying to make himself appear heroic, successful, or brave? People with low self-esteem may do this to bolster themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with being proud of an achievement. What differentiates the psychopath is excessive bragging.
- Does the person seem too perfect? Anyone who seems too good to be true probably is.
Engage in Damage Control
Dr. Martha Stout suggests using the Rule of Threes: one broken promise, lie, or neglected responsibility could be a misunderstanding and two a mistake, but three means that the individual is not guided by conscience. After three strikes, it’s best to cut your losses. When you attempt to leave, the psychopath will likely play on your sympathies, appeal to your sense of obligation by saying that you owe her, or ask that you conceal her bad behaviour from others. It’s important to stay strong in the face of this emotional manipulation.
If you’ve been burned by a psychopath, don’t blame yourself. Plenty of intelligent people have been taken in, so you’re in good company. The psychopath will likely try to blame you for his bad behaviour—remember that you’re not at fault when someone has cheated on you, lied to you, stood you up, squandered your money, or hit you.
Don’t be fooled again. Take what you’ve learned as useful information for spotting that sort of person in the future. No experience is meaningless if you can use it to your advantage, and living well is the best revenge.
Don’t Expect Significant Changes in Response to Therapy
The best way to predict future behaviour is to look at past behaviour. Psychopathy is remarkably resistant to therapy. There are people who claim to have witnessed the reform of a psychopath. However, in some cases the “psychopath” has been misdiagnosed and was not psychopathic in the first place. In others, the psychopath has reduced his criminal activities after the age of 40, as many do, and given how low people’s expectations of the individual have become, this appears to be significant progress. Sadly, in many cases, the loved one has actually sacrificed his or her needs to cater to the psychopath. Friction is reduced, but only because the psychopath is getting what she wants, when she wants it. By giving in, keeping secrets, and bailing them out, well-meaning families and friends shield psychopaths from the consequences of their actions.
Psychopaths don’t usually respond to therapy because they don’t feel that there is anything about them that needs to be changed. They like themselves and their lifestyles, and feel that it is others who need to adapt in order to better suit the psychopath’s requirements of them. However, some can be encouraged to change certain aspects of their behaviour, if they can be convinced that it’s in their own best interests to do so.
If you get into a power struggle with a psychopath, you will probably lose because the psychopath is unrestrained by ethics. If possible, walk away and never look back. Of course, this can’t be done when the psychopath is one’s child. In this case, leverage all the resources at your disposal—psychiatric, academic support, and anything else available. Intervention when a child is young can make a difference, though expecting dramatic changes will usually lead to disappointment. Set ground rules, and don’t bail the person out of self-created problems.
- Hare, R.D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. The Guilford Press.
- Lilienfeld, S.O., & Arkowitz, H. (28 November 2007). “What ‘Psychopath’ Means.” Scientific American online.
- Stout, M., PhD. (2005). The Sociopath Next Door. Crown Archetype.