Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sociopaths: They See You as Prey

He constantly asks for sympathy, takes risks , lies to you and when caught shows no remorse. It is unsettling, frightening. Somehow it is your own fault. But what or why would anyone do these things? There is an answer.

The terms, "psychopathy", "sociopath," "sociopath," and others refer to individuals who look human but, in elemental ways, are not. They harbor a condition which cuts them off from us. Their automatic emotional reactions, foundational to limiting wrong behavior, do not exist. These individuals emulate compassion, concern, affection, kindness and love – only to further their purposes. They feel no compunction about stealing, lying, or committing crimes to achieve their goals. They consistently demand sympathy, knowing perfectly well they deserve none.

They do not want or need sympathy. But they do need you to feel sorry for them, to want to help them. It is all manipulation, emotions emulated to get what they want. They know we feel sorry for them and project the existence of emotions they never feel, just another lie.

People catching their eyes report feeling a chill of fear, as if looking into the eyes of a predator. Psychopaths are predators among us. The pain and suffering of those around them mean nothing, is pleasure to them. Their motivations seem inexplicable to the emotionally normal, who comprise 96% of the population.

Psychopaths have no conscience.

Where before little was written on the condition outside of professional journals, now much more is known. This is changing.

The evidence, now mounting, indicates the condition has a genetic element which becomes activated when combined with the conditions in the life of the individual. The last few years have taken understanding of the condition known as 'psychopathy' to new levels.

While only 4% of the population have the condition Martha Stout, PhD., points out in her book, The Sociopath Next Door, you are likely to have contact with psychopathic individuals on many occasions during your life time. You therefore need to understand the danger signs.

Experts in the field of psychology have been researching the problem since 1980. Much is now known.

In 1999 Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. published Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. Today, thanks to Robert Hare, David Kosson, Pd.D, and others, the means exist to reliably diagnose the condition. The test, carried out by qualified professionals, allows us the tools needed to understand and to take steps to help victims. The test, known as Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and the Hare Psychopathy Checklist when used by qualified professionals makes available the means to identify those with the condition. As with other tests it, presumably, will soon be commonly used in court proceedings.

Hare's new book, Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, written with Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and published in 2006, opens the issue of the impact of the condition on the workplace, including large corporations.

Since psychopaths live and work in every part of our culture we must consider this issue. How many sociopaths have worked their way into the management structure of corporate America? Estimates vary widely and lacking documented evidence all numbers are open to question. However, the behaviors associated with psychopathy, lack of conscience, lack of concern for the well being of others, a pattern of blatant lies, and others, strike many as strongly present in corporate culture today. Both the recent banking and mortgage implosions are evidence of this conclusion.

What if the present meltdown is partly due to a growing presence of psychopaths in upper management? Disturbingly, this may well also be true in higher levels of government given the massive cross over which exists at the highest levels of each. Logic supports the theory.

The test originated by Robert Hare has proven to be a valuable tool both to help victims and, increasingly, to open the door for victims to find justice. The work of Hare and his associates may, possibly, be used to the benefit of business and politics as well.

Psychopaths can impact us from every direction. For individual victims there is also hope.

Through the Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy website victims participate with clinicians, therapists and others to move on with understanding. The site provides a Forum for victims, clinicians, and therapists for discussion and could well become the hub needed to generalize understanding of the condition in the general public.

Reading books on the subject, such as the excellent work by Martha Stout, Ph. D., The Sociopath Next Door, provide tools and tests which you can use personally. Dr. Stout, a practicing psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, warns the reader to beware of those who fail the simple tests she outlines. Three lies and your out, is one of simple suggestions she proposes.

In dealing with the overall problem Stout raises other questions which are profoundly on point for all of us today.

On the question of war: Should sociopaths be tolerated as useful in time of war? Are we intentionally allowing psychopaths into the military? Perhaps recruiting them?

Has our toleration and ignorance smoothed the path for ugly behavior in other parts of our culture? What would a psychopath do, if elected to office? If they were the determining factor in deciding what matters, their profit or your health?

Have we considered the dangers the unchallenged presence of psychopaths present when combined with the tendency in most of us to defer to authority?

If winning is the only thing that matters there is nothing you will not do. Recognizing no limits, psychopaths ignore the damage to others. As any small, determined group can change the world for the good, as Margaret Mead said, so a small number of individuals could destroy it. We need, therefore to limit the access of psychopaths to power while identifying them to the public.

A short tour through the books and the Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy site raise questions which may well open up new understanding of ourselves. As individuals, parents, activists, and businesspersons, as Americans, we need to know.

This is the first in a series of articles about psychopathy and how we can solve the problems it presents by the author. Thanks to David Kosson, Ph.D., for his help in generously providing information and for his editing. - MP-F


Jon Roland said...

It is somewhat imprecise to use the terms psychopath and sociopath interchangeably. Psychopathy encompasses all forms of mental disorder, whereas sociopathy is one kind, and in many ways a more dangerous kind, because sociopaths are functional in ways other kinds are not. They hide among normals, preparing to prey on them.

It is my observation that sociopathy is a matter of degree. Some have a little conscience, but not enough. One can also say that many children and adolescents are partially sociopathic, but develop a conscience when they get older. Those that never do are the ones we need to identify.

A political system can be characterized by the kinds of persons it elevates to positions of authority. I'm afraid our system is particularly prone to elevating sociopaths. I have encountered many of them in government, more than in other walks of life.

There is also an interesting result from game theory, particularly of the iterated prisoners' dilemma game, where a stable pattern can develop of most of the players cooperating but a persistent minority of them defect to take unfair advantage of the trust of the rest. That is indicative that criminal or sociopathic behavior is rational, and sustained by success. That makes it more difficult to eliminate it.

Melinda Pillsbury-Foster said...

Actually, the characterization comes from David Kosson, Pd.D., who I interviewed for the article. Those who have been researching the condition are moving towards a more unified understanding of the condition, he said.

The condition is neurological. Those affected cannot recover. Attempts to rehabilitate only serve to provide additional means for successful abuse of normal people.

The political system will always be controlled by psychopaths because they will, by their nature, do anything necessary to get power. That is why the system must be changed.

For anyone interested in freedom and individual rights there is no way to cooperate or ethically interact with psychopaths. Game theory correctly notes the inevitable outcome - identifying and disallowing participation is the only solution.

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Anonymous said...

Actually, Jon, I think it is the other way around. The DSM has tried to put everyone who demonstrates anti-social behavior - external signs - under the term "sociopath" and has more or less tried to get rid of the term psychopath. This is a problem, as Dr. Hare has pointed out on a number of occasions. The problem is that the psychopath is "without conscience" but this is not obvious because very often he wears a very good "mask of sanity" and they become "snakes in suits." That is, their true nature is concealed and they can only be discerned by the effects on people around them. There are many sociopaths in prisons but not all of them are psychopaths. Martha Stout should have entitled her book "The Psychopath Next Door," it would have helped to sort out the confusion.

Henry See said...

I find it helps to use the term 'psychopath' to describe those who are born into the condition, while 'sociopaths' describe those who are 'made' through unhealthy situations as they grow up.

A fascinating look at psychopathy in politics is the book "Political Ponerology" by Andrew Lobaczewski, a Polish psychologist who studied the problem in depth with a group of researchers in Eastern Europe under Communist rule (working in secret). He lists many different types and shows how they work together to take over social movements and political parties to achieve their aims. He also goes into great detail about how they affect society and each of us who come into contact with them.

As Melinda states in her post, a small group of these individuals can do enormous damage to any large group. It is vital that 'normal' people, to use Lobaczewski's term, become informed about psychopathy if we are to find our way out of the mess we are in.

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Jon Roland said...

These recent uses of the term "psychopath" are confusing the issues. The original, and still best, meaning, is any pathological mental condition, including dementia, retardation, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia, brain damage, neurosis, and all the various personality disorders, like narcissism. It is synonymous with "mentally ill". "Sociopathy" is not "anti-social behavior", since most sociopaths never manifest that unless or until they can get away with it. It is the lack of conscience as a guide to behavior, but behavior can still be rationally guided by external rewards or penalties. The danger they present is that we cannot depend on external factors to control them. Without conscience, they are a bomb waiting to go off.

Recognize a Sociopath said...

I wonder what in our society is producing this personality type in such abundance? Seems to be spreading worldwide - i.e. Dominique Strauss-Kahn.