The Invisible Psychopath – By The Time You Recognize Them It’s Too Late

Sometimes the person you know may not be the person you know…

The word “psychopath” gets thrown around a lot, but in psychiatry it has a specific meaning. Psychopaths are aggressively narcissistic and impulsive and feel a relentless urge for sensation-seeking.They lack empathy and compulsively manipulate others through bullying or deceit. They believe that they are exempt from the rules and show a marked predilection for lying, even when it is not advantageous for them.

Earlier this year Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ronald Schouten published a book, Almost a Psychopath, in which he and co-author Jim Silver describe the ways that people can exhibit quite a few of the symptoms of psychopathy without satisfying the full diagnostic criteria. Such people can be highly deceptive, manipulative, callous, and self-serving, and yet manage to maintain a facade on normality.

This, for me, is perhaps the most disturbing thing about psychopathy: its invisibility. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that a number of people have crossed my paths who at first seemed delightful and charming, but who wound up leaving a trail of wreckage—people who I now recognize were clearly psychopaths, or at least “almost psychopaths,” as Schouten styles them. Once burned, twice shy, you would hope; but no, having been tormented by one or two, I still managed to subsequently fall into others’ charming clutches.

I shouldn’t feel too bad about failing to recognize potential psychopaths, Schouten says. Indeed, when I asked him, the psychopath expert, if he often runs into such people frequently at cocktail parties or business meetings, he told me that, as far as he knew, he hadn’t run into any, at least that he was able to recognize as such. Even for experts like himself, the psychopath’s veneer of normality is too seamless to detect.

As I wrote in a recent article on Gizmodo, when I first met tech guru John McAfee I was utterly charmed. He seemed to be living his life with a clarity and moral courage that I found exhilarating. The first article I wrote about him was effusive, and when I traveled to Belize to meet up with him for a second article, I looked forward to spending time with someone who I felt to be both intellectually and physically adventurous. On this second trip, however, I began to notice a troubling pattern. McAfee spent a lot of his time bragging about the hoaxes he’d pulled off, gleefully styling himself as a “bullshit artist.” Sometimes he lied for fun—like when he told a reporter that his tattoo was a Maori design he’d gotten in New Zealand, a country he’s never actually been to. Sometimes he lied strategically, like the Facebook posting he put up about how he’d just bought a house in Honduras. At the time, he was facing a raft of lawsuits. “The judge in one case couldn’t understand why I would put incorrect information about myself on the web,” he told me. “I said, ‘I thought that if somebody wanted to serve me papers, it would be much more enjoyable for everyone involved if they tried to serve those papers to me in Honduras.'”

After I wrote an unflattering article about him, a number of people from McAfee’s past reached out to me and told me even more troubling stories. I became convinced that McAfee was not merely a disingenuous person but a true psychopath.

Schouten says that we should not be surprised to find psychopaths among the ranks of successful entrepreneurs like McAfee. Indeed, he emphasizes that psychopathic traits can be positively helpful. “Psychopathy could confer a competitive advantage, at least over the short-term,” he says. “Grandiosity and over-the-top self-confidence, as well as skill at conning and manipulating, can go a long way toward convincing investors of one’s vision.”

And success only intensifies a psychopath’s worst traits. One 2009 study from the Kellogg School of Management found that psychologically normal subjects primed to feel powerful were worse at imagining other people’s perspective and less perceptive in assessing facial emotions.

Such a profound disorder, however, is not ultimately compatible with long-term success. Eventually, Schouten says, a psychopath’s personal and professional relationships begin to shred due to accumulated toxicity.

“Downward drift” is a term that psychologists use for the tendency of some mentally ill to slip ever further down the socioeconomic ladder. It’s usually applied to schizophrenics, but it seems apt in McAfee’s case. Each time I returned to write an article about him I found that his prospects had worsened. He was retreating further from the world I knew, into refuges that seemed ever shakier.

Years of destructive behavior had created such a wake of ill-feeling that at last his veneer of innocence was eroding away. At last he had lost the psychopath’s most valuable asset: his invisibility.

Published on November 9, 2012 by Jeff Wise in Extreme Fear via Psychology Today

13 thoughts on “The Invisible Psychopath – By The Time You Recognize Them It’s Too Late

  1. I have experienced two-faced sociopathic board members covering each other’s backs, quashing questions, intimidating objectors, and acting abusively—when there are no witnesses. They persuade non-sociopaths to join their side by implying that protecting their interests is the right thing to do and that anyone who challenges them is really the bad guy; a threat to the organisation itself. An individual facing this type of evil collaboration has no chance of justice. Instead, the abusers of power in organisations gain strength and evil perpetuates…

  2. I couldn’t agree more with a couple of the comments about the importance of psychopathy information and increased public awareness. All psychopaths aren’t serial killers, but they all do hurt people. Knowledge of who they are and the methods they use are the keys to protect oneself. Until understanding of psychopathy is widespread and people are alert, the psychopaths operate unhindered, with suffering and destroyed lives as a consequence.

  3. For years I worked on a variety of issues hoping to improve the world. From each angle, I kept arriving back at the same conclusion – that there was something pathological involved that led to huge resistance to change. It all clicked into place when I learned more about psychopathy and how it works in systems. This led me to the even broader field of ponerology, which I highly recommend people investigate.

    The invisibility of psychopathy – both on the individual level and as a condition – is one of our biggest problems, I believe. We educate the public widely about the dangers of everything from smoking to energy drinks. Yet, we don’t educate them about psychopathy or related disorders. I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence or by design. But I’m glad to see that it seems to be starting to change. In the last couple years I’ve seen more discussion in public circles about psychopathy than ever before.

  4. Psychopaths have odd facial expressions. They seem unable to smile correctly, for example. This often gives their foreheads a peculiar, bulging quality because the muscles in their faces are not moving in the normal way. Muscles that should move with emotion are not moving. There are probably other muscles that are moving too much. They approximate normal emotion without being actually able to experience it. If you start to pay attention to that sense of the expression always being just a little “off” you can learn to recognize them fairly quickly.

  5. This was really interesting! I wrote my extended essay on criminals with antisocial personality disorder, and ever since then I’ve been interested in learning both about sociopaths and psychopaths. It’s a little scary to think that people who seem so charming are actually the people who would mind hurting you the least.

  6. I have resisted applying labels to my ex-husband but after reading Almost A Psychopath, I can’t help but apply that moniker. The part that is so difficult for me to understand is that either he was this way from the time I met him (age 16) and kept it under wraps for 16 years or he developed or manifested more psychopatic tendencies over time. Regardless, the result was the same: I was married to a con man in loving husband’s clothing. Their invisibility is their power. Perhaps by increasing awareness we can help people identify them before they are able to perpetuate too much destruction.

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