Thursday, May 30, 2013

Inside the mind of a psychopath: how psychopaths think

The most commonly-accepted method of identifying psychopathy is Hare's Psychopathy "checklist", which uses a twenty-point marker to evaluate to what extent someone is a psychopath. The maximum score is forty, but someone with a score of more than thirty is considered a psychopath, while anyone with a score of more than twenty may be considered a "semi-psychopath": potentially dangerous to be around socially, but not necessarily a risk to your personal safety.
As a general rule, psychopathy is thought to exist between one and five percent of the male population, and around one percent of the female population. Psychopathy is generally understood to be a combination of behaviours ("markers", as listed below), usually seen as a combination of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Anti-Social Behaviour Disorder (ASPD). As an aside, adoptees are also disproportionately-likely to "suffer from" psychopathy, as I wrote about a few months back.
As a reminder, the main behavioural "markers" are:
  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotionally shallow
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsibility
  • Poor behavioral controls
But what does the world look like to a psychopath?

In some ways it's easier to consider psychopaths almost a different species, rather than as human beings in the conventional sense. Psychopaths are far more like "human predators" than human beings.

As a "human predator", they see the world as a jungle of predators and prey; where victims are there to be used for the psychopath's own purposes, and rival "predators" are quickly assessed as either a challenge to be defeated (as a boost to their own deeply-narcissitic ego), or one to be avoided. The assessment of risk, however, depends on the intelligence of the individual psychopath.

First of all, they have no sense of morality in the human sense; for them, there is no "right and wrong", only what is convenient for them. Brain scans comparing psychopaths and normal people have explained medically why this is: the front part of their brain (which deals with morality) is less active than a normal person, so the moral concept is simply not there. They can justify any of their actions, regardless of the consequences, and never feel "guilty" about anything, because for them, it is always someone else's fault. In their own eyes, they are faultless: if anything goes wrong in their lives, there is always someone else to blame. 

Likewise, psychopaths do not recognise the concept of "lying" or "truth" - they simply say whatever is convenient at the time, in order to resolve a situation to their greatest benefit. Similarly, when their lies get caught out in front of them, they can further invent the most ingenious fabrications to cover up the inconsistency, sending their sane listeners into impossible logical contortions trying to keep up. Some politicians can be like that, as I've said before.   

(A longer discussion of what attracts psychopaths to politics can be found here.)

Psychopaths therefore are capable of appallingly irresponsible or cold-blooded behaviour - theoretically, even murder - and be able to convince themselves that it was the victim's (or someone's else's, or "society's") fault. Furthermore, they will likely justify the action by claiming that the victim "deserved it"; alternatively, in the case of fraud or some other dishonest act, they would even believe that the victim would benefit psychologically from a "harsh lesson", in order to make the victim a stronger person. 
The only reason for behaving in a socially-acceptable way would be for the sake of convenience: avoiding crime not because it is morally wrong, but because it is potentially risky or inconvenient. But that judgement depends on how smart and cunning the psychopath is; a psychopath can as easily find a justification for the most appalling crimes (like the "Moors Murderer" Ian Brady, or as a political leader, such as Joseph Stalin); then again, he might appear to behave normally in the short-term for the sake of a longer-term goal, for example. Then again, they may be able to find a way to appear socially-normal, in order to mask over their darker habits, such as infamous celebrity "philanthropist" Jimmy Savile.

Psychopaths view the world therefore in a deeply cynical, distrustful and self-interested way. As cynics of human nature, altruism is mistrusted; a psychopath may even mock such behaviour as foolish, and something to be taken advantage of. Humanity is a resource to be milked; individual humans to be used and discarded of when no longer useful. How people fit into a psychopath's world depends on how long the psychopath wishes to use them; if a person is needed for a longer-term goal, they may be indulged in order for the psychopath to reach his longer-term goal. This is how psychopaths view other humans. 

(For all these reasons, this is why psychopaths make up a disproportionately-large segment of criminals  - Robert Hare even thinks psychopaths may well be responsible for up to half of all crime; and it thus can be argued are also responsible for much of what is wrong with human society, and even including such issues as poverty and world inequality, when you consider how a disproportionate segment of managers and key decision-makers are psychopaths. While very few psychopaths are serial killers, many serial killers and violent criminals are psychopaths)

As all actions are guided by an amoral sense of purpose, and nothing is ever seen as their fault, many psychopaths are usually incapable of learning from their mistakes and crimes. Some of them may be repeat offenders or serial con artists, for example, having served years in prison, yet still unable to break the cycle of behaviour, seeing themselves as victims of an unforgiving society rather than the cause of their own misfortune, and therefore justified in trying to take whatever they want from it. 
Alternatively, others may be irresponsible businessmen, deep in debt after repeated business failures, and will seek to drag in others into their orbit in order to milk them for what they can get, feeling entitled to the charity from others.

So when not acting as out-and-out predators, psychopaths are like vampires or parasites, using their permanent sense of entitlement to suck others dry; either financially, psychologically, or both.

It follows from this that psychopaths are driven more than anything by control and power. They will use their cunning and charm to manipulate those around them for whatever ends meet their purpose. A psychopath is therefore naturally-talented as a career-climber; creating conflict between two (more talented) rivals, while at the same time currying favour with the boss in order to gain a promotion. Machiavellian behaviour is second nature to a psychopath, having the multiple effect of benefiting their situation, and providing a sadistic boost to their ego as they enjoy seeing the results of their schemes.

So a psychopath's life is the predatory pursuit of amoral self-advancement, at the expense of everyone else. 

The psychopath's emotional desert

Apart from being amoral, psychopaths are also emotionally arid. Their general emotional state is blank, because they are usually incapable of feeling "real" deep, human emotions. More likely, they will find "normal" human emotions puzzling or annoying - emotional baggage that is an inconvenience. It is for this reason that they are usually incapable of empathy; they cannot emotionally relate to another person if they do not physically understand the other person's emotion. They may well see the full range of other people's emotions as trivial and a distraction; more they may even view them with something approaching disgust, and intellectually beneath them. This is another form of a psychopath's vanity.

For psychopaths, "emotions" are usually used as part of their wider defence mechanism - they often successfully learn to mimic and act in order to blend in, but these short-term uses of emotion are simply another part of the the psychopath's weaponry. They learn how to be overtly charming and flirtatious where necessary in order to get what they want, and may be capable of hiding their real emotional emptiness very successfully. Because none of their emotions are genuine, they can find it easy to switch to whichever "mask" fits the bill. It's for this reason why a psychopath may well convincingly appear as a totally different person, depending on who they're interacting with. 

Although psychopaths are usually emotionally shallow, they can also be susceptible to short-term flashes of emotion, that will flare up suddenly, and can fade away just as quickly. Psychopaths are generally short-tempered and quick to anger, if caught unawares by something. The cause of these potentially-dangerous bursts of violent emotion can seem trivial to a neutral onlooker, but to the psychopath it may be deadly serious. This is also due to their maladjusted conception of emotions, so can behave in an emotionally inappropriate way because they have no sense of social guilt or perspective.
Psychopaths have a skewed sense of perspective, different from the rest of society; as a result, their reactions tend to be wildly disproportionate in response to unfavourable outcomes. If something doesn't go their way, they can become dangerously temperamental. Similarly, a psychopath may violently lose his temper in a flash simply because someone looked at him the wrong way; similarly, if someone has got the wrong side of a psychopath, they can make the person's life a living hell, simply for the sake of "getting even".

The only emotions a psychopath truly "understands" are primal and animalistic: pleasure and pain. "Love" is a concept not only alien to many psychopaths; it might even seem ridiculous or pathetic: sex is simply either a pleasure to be enjoyed amorally, or a tool for further advancement. As a psychopath only truly understands the primal concepts of pleasure and pain, it also follows in their emotionally maladjusted psychology, that psychopaths tend to be sadists. As they feel no guilt or proper emotions, and see humanity as a tool for their own purposes, people themselves become dehumanised in the eyes of a psychopath. 

Two types of psychopathic sadism

Two "types" of psychopathic sadism can be distinguished from the wider aspect of psychopathy: the "amoral sadist", and the "malicious sadist".

Joseph Stalin, as I mentioned before, is a prime example of an amoral sadist. This is the "classic psychopath" amoral use of sadism for the purposes of pure convenience eg. a psychopath dictators' unflinching use of mass murder to achieve a particular result (i.e. the preservation of power), without any show of empathy for the victims; likewise, a psychopathic CEO who fires thousands of staff at a stroke, or recklessly causes an environmental disaster (such as in Bhopal, India thirty years ago) could also be classified as signs of "amoral sadism". This psychopath does not feel any measurable "pleasure" from such actions; he simply does it to achieve a result that benefits him. Stalin was what may be called a "classic psychopath" as he simply did whatever needed to be done to achieve his aims. In that sense, he was more like a "mafia boss" that happened to rule the largest country in the world, who eliminated his rivals and enemies,  encouraging a climate of fear, and opportunistically used foreign policy as an instrument to extend his power.  Like the mafia boss, for Stalin it was "nothing personal, just business".

By contrast, Adolf Hitler could more realistically be called a "malicious sadist". This is a psychopath who had more a malignantly narcissistic syndrome channeled into a need for "revenge" against perceived enemies or to "right" or a long-perceived "wrong" at the expense of "the enemy"; Hitler's sadism was based on perceived historical injury, and directed primarily at the Jews. With the "malignant sadist", it is the overwhelming narcissism that is the main motivation for sadism. Sexual sadists may also fall more accurately into this category.
To be strictly fair, Stalin's belief in Communism was arguably also used as a weapon for some aspects of malignant sadism (he had a strong antipathy of the Poles), but Stalin was more obviously a cold-hearted, amoral and calculating individual who used his position more for amoral self-preservation than Hitler's strong desire for narcissistic "revenge" and delusional flights of fantasy, like his architectural obsession with "Germania".

Jimmy Savile is a more contemporary example of a malicious (and clearly very narcissistic) sadist; his form of sadism was more about psychological torture and control over his many "victims", who he would intimidate into silence.   

For a maliciously sadistic psychopath to "win" in a situation, it follows that someone else must be seen to "lose"; otherwise the situation is of only marginal benefit to the psychopath. This is the crux of this latter type of psychopath's sadism; to gain pleasure from another's pain, especially when inflicted (directly or indirectly) by the psychopath himself.
Married with their sense of entitlement, and that their victims either "deserve" their fate, or will somehow benefit from it in the long-term, psychopaths see human interaction as simply a power-play.

In reality, most psychopaths may have some combination of the two, with one "type" more dominant than the other: a psychopath can be sadistic for the sake of amoral convenience, or pleasure, or both.

Partners of psychopaths will be treated as objects to be dominated and controlled, either psychologically, physically or sexually. They will cheat on partners and blame it on their partner, or worse, leave a collection of single mothers with an absent father in their wake. Psychopaths are usually sexual sadists and view sex as amorally as anything else ; as a result, they also tend to be fascinated by the darker and more extreme side of sexuality, delving in amoral perversion and extremes. This might include paedophilia, physical sadism for sexual pleasure, and so on. You can read more on "sexual psychopathy" here.

Looking for the next thrill

Further than that, psychopaths are always on the look-out for the next challenge or opportunity, and their "career choices" usually reflect this. Psychopaths are thrill-seekers, often without thought to the effect on others or even themselves. They usually seek to live in places with a fast pace of life: large and diverse cities, for example, in order to fulfill their many and fast-changing whims. A small number of psychopaths may be more schizoid (i.e. anti-social and openly misanthropic); they may alternatively seek to find a "niche" (eg. a small town) where they can feel superior to the local population, so they can become the master of their domain, nurturing their ego as a "big fish in a small pond". 

But as they get bored easily, many of them find it difficult to settle down in one area for long, before they feel the need to "challenge" themselves, or pursue unrealistic goals. Hence psychopaths (if not "socially-adjusted") are often adulterers or serial divorcees, or will quit a job at a moment's notice with no regard to the inconvenience to the company. Or if they have attained a position of high status, they will make reckless decisions that affect the lives of many, with no regard to the consequences. As they are bored easily, they can always justify making snap decisions by coming up with a convenient excuse. Or if (as is often the case) their snap decision goes wrong, they will always find someone else to blame. 

A psychopath never feels the need to be responsible for his actions; yet at the same time, he praises himself when he is the recipient of good fortune.
The life of the psychopath is an amoral pursuit of pleasure and power, and a shameless flight from responsibility.

It seems no coincidence that psychopaths can therefore become very successful capitalists. 

The world's globalised economy seems almost designed to most benefit psychopaths. Furthermore, strands of psychopathic thinking and sadism can be found in the world's most common ideologies
Not only that, but there is good reason to think that psychopaths have evolved through a combination of natural selection and adapting to social conditions, playing an important role in human evolution itself.

For all their flaws, psychopaths appear to be a natural product of evolution. They are nature's hunters. As the author of the book "The Wisdom Of Psychopaths" points out, there can be "good psychopaths" as well as the more infamous "bad psychopaths". 

What decides which one is which is most likely a combination of environment and intelligence.



  1. I cannot thank you guys enough for exposing these creatures to us who have been through already and were looking for the missing pieces of the puzzle,to those who are still with them and are baffled , and to those who could still save themselves from these monsters. Every single word about them is a fact indeed and I have found my answers through reading so many blogs like the above. Every single blog, article I have read so far has at least one new fact that I missed in the other and was still guessing why was that missed out from the traits. I salute the researchers, therapist and all individuals who has been taking time and putting efforts together to write blogs and articles. THIS IS FOR REAL and is not fiction of any kind.

  2. Interesting article, although some of the qualities you attribute to them could also be attributed to other people, things like "thrill seeker" and "shizoid".
    It might be dangerous to associate these comparatively innocent qualities with the more negative ones. It might be better to stick with the main defining qualities.

    1. Hi, yes some psychopaths have been known to be "schizoid", and certainly many psychopaths are "thrill seekers", owing to their shallow nature of always looking for something to fill their easily-bored nature.
      To be a psychopath means to have all or a large number of the attributes mentioned in the checklist: being only a "thrill seeker" itself is not enough, which is why in isolation these attributes are not indicative of a personality disorder.
      That being said, it is also a question of degree, as Kevin Dutton (mentioned in one of my other articles on psychopathy) explains - there is such a person as a semi-psychopath, too.

    2. For more on the varieties of psychopathy, check my article on "The Wisdom Of Psychopaths"

  3. they do so know right from wrong !!! why else do they do things in a sneaky , underhanded, secretive way ? they are morally culpable. they know exactly what they are doing.

    1. I agree, they do "know right from wrong", but they are amoral: they simply don't care about morality and right and wrong, but simply do what they need to do to get what they want.