identifying psychopaths

From a Business Insider article. Those of you already familiar with this topic already know where I’m going with this. It’s very difficult to identify people with clinically defined psychopathic characteristics. If you simply assume that everyone is psychopathic, then you might not get duped (though even then it’s not a guarantee you’ll never be victimized), but that’s really no way to live, and almost everyone would be far worse off if they took such an extreme approach.

The article’s outlined suggestions are as follows, with my commentary on bottom.

They constantly use the past tense
They use cause-and-effect statements
They talk excessively about their basic needs
They don’t take responsibility or blame
They contradict themselves often
They are really bad at crying
Their body language is different than what they say

There’s some truth to (some) of these statements. The problem is that you can’t possibly use this information to reliably identify people with psychopathy or with related disorders (involving anti-social characteristics such as persistent lying and manipulation). If you were to assume psychopathy based on the criteria above, you would assume that nearly everyone might be psychopathic. Your rate of false positives would be enormous, and there’s no guarantee that your success rate would be 100% on the positives, unless you assumed that everyone was psychopathic, which is a terrible idea.

As I said, there’s truth to some of the points above (though one of the points is false; I’ll get to that one later).

Psychopaths do seem to be different in how they communicate, frequently and even bafflingly contradicting themselves. An example might be if someone said: “My mother was great. I hated her guts and she was nuts. But she was a great mom. Very loving.” To the listener, these statements make no sense. No normal person would make them. And yet, the average listener would nonetheless resolve this cognitive dissonance by assuming that the speaker meant something to the effect of:  “My mother was a great person, despite her flaws. Although I hated those flaws, I still accepted and loved her.” Again, that is what a listener might hear, even as the actual words were very different.

The explanation: Normal individuals, as listeners, strive to relate to and empathize with the speaker, and will perform the necessary substitutions in most cases. In contrast, psychopaths don’t feel the same emotional depth and do not have the same “connection” with other people; they habitually manipulate others for personal gain or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. They are often described as phenomenally good liars, though some people, including Dr Robert Hare, the “father” of the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, suggest that the more astute listener might catch the clues. Having said that, serial manipulators are very good at what they do, and your chance of catching them and correctly labeling them are remote.

Psychopaths are focused on themselves and their basic needs. They aren’t concerned about rising too high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Their needs are material, sexual, and thrill-seeking. Needs associated with acceptance by the community, intimacy (of the non-sexual sort), and self-actualization are meaningless to the psychopath.

Having said that, it’s highly unlikely that this fact will lead you to correctly label someone as psychopathic without substantial false positives.

Psychopathic body language: I disagree with this one. For normal people (people without psychopathy or related personality disorder), a trained person can reasonably guess someone is being deceptive via incongruent body language (the layperson, however, is awful at said identification, and does so less accurately even than chance). But someone who is psychopathic will not experience the emotions or the stress response associated with deception as a normal person would. Hence, it’s unlikely that the normal “tells” associated with deceptive behavior will happen. In fact, a prototypical psychopath will tell a lie better than the average person will tell the truth. They are natural con artists and really are that convincing.

This quick explanation begs the question: what does one do to identify the psychopath?

For starters, don’t go on a psychopath witch hunt. You’ll probably end up mislabeling everyone. My suggestion is to be skeptical of everyone to some healthy degree until you get to know the person, though not to a degree that is unreasonable or that precludes human contact. The phrase trust, but verify might make sense. You can’t distrust everyone, but you can certainly be on your guard if things seem too good to be true.

Put another way, by default, trust people, but look for evidence of potential deception. This suggestion isn’t just good at self-defense against psychopaths; it can help in everyday situations, while at the same time reducing the possibility of paranoia or cynicism that inevitably happens when you trust no one.

At a later time, I can expound a bit more on this, but this post is long enough. The bottom line is this: you can’t reliably identify psychopaths, but all hope isn’t lost. You can protect yourself while still maintaining healthy human contact and trust. But trust must still be earned, not given away.

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One Response to identifying psychopaths

  1. Pingback: What makes the psychopath so charming? The secret revealed. | Psychopaths and Love « How my heart speaks

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