re there really psychopaths who don’t kill?
Most psychopaths are not murderers. They’re all around us – often successful in careers from blue-collar to high level executives and professionals. Think of it as a Psychopathic Spectrum – a scale that measures the number of psychopathic traits in an individual. Like any scale, a person can have a few traits (mild) to so many traits it dominates behavior. Serial killers fall at the extreme range of the spectrum. A stubborn lover who always has to get his way, inside or outside the bedroom, doesn’t care what his partner needs or wants may be a psychopath on the milder end of the spectrum.
Where do they come from?
Everywhere – like all psychopaths. They’re found in all races, cultures, and socioeconomic classes. They have all levels of intelligence, from below average to genius. They come from single parent, two parent, and foster homes. Many psychopaths marry and have children. It starts inside an individual and is nurtured by the environment. Variables like intelligence, opportunity, and getting a good start in life will enable a psychopath to better achieve a more functional life. In contrast, low intelligence, child abuse, sexual abuse, and trauma will make it more difficult.
Are there a lot of psychopaths?
Not really. Estimates vary. One of the problems is in the definition. TV tells us that serial killers and mass murderers are usually psychopaths. What about the others who aren’t violent? Dr. Kevin Dutton, a leading researcher and author in the field, explains, “When psychologists talk about psychopaths, what we refer to are people with a distinct set of personality characteristics including ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, a charismatic personality, and lack of conscience and empathy.” An individual can be high on some traits; low on others. Some researchers say that 1-2% of the population is psychopaths; others feel it’s closer to 4-5%. Although the numbers are statistically low, when you consider a population in the hundreds of millions, it’s likely that everyone has a psychopath in his or her life.
How do psychopaths hide in plain sight?
Easy. They find us. Dr. Robert Hare, author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, writes, “Everybody has met these people, been deceived and manipulated by them, and forced to live with or repair the damage they have wrought.” Psychopaths seek self-gratification by manipulating and charming others. The “worst” psychopaths are the murdering type, but according to the latest research, it all depends on where an individual lies on the spectrum. A “killer boss” might run his company with the ruthlessness of a psychopath and go home to treat his family with affection and empathy. Our culture idolizes “Rambo – like” people in business, law, politics, and other careers, making it an advantage to have certain psychopathic traits! That’s why we work with them, make love with them, live next to them, and go to parties with them.
Doesn’t someone without a conscience stand out?
Having a conscience defines our species. Dr. Martha Stout writes in The Sociopath Next Door, “Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free [like a psychopath] is nearly effortless.” People don’t recognize psychopaths because the idea of no or limited empathy, emotions, guilt, or regret is beyond a normal imagination – especially when you’re dealing with a friend, family member, co-worker, neighbor, or lover.
Is it good or bad to have a conscience?
Look at it this way. Close your eyes and think of your favorite restaurant – the one with a large plate glass window in the front. Now imagine picking up a rock and tossing it into the window, shattering the glass, and sending shards in all directions – perhaps injuring your favorite waiter or waitress, or hurting innocent diners.
How did you feel? Did your heart speed up a bit, or did you feel guilty? Did you frown and think, I could never do that? Was the scene in your head so distasteful that you couldn’t wait to get it out? That’s your conscience talking. It’s so automatic that we can even experience it when doing nothing but imagining a behavior.
Now picture a psychopath. He or she wouldn’t be at all disturbed about the images. In fact, a psychopath might even think it’s a good idea – or a good way to have some fun. Take the same individual with psychopathic traits and put him in the White House. Would you rather have an indecisive President who worries about what everyone thinks or someone who takes in the facts and makes fearless decisions? If you’ve invested a lot of money in a company, would you rather have a ruthless CEO who will make money and guarantee your investment or one reluctant to take action?
Consider two well-known, non-violent men who scored high on the psychopathic spectrum.
Bernie Madoff didn’t care about who he hurt when he built his multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, one of the largest financial frauds in history. Madoff said it was “amazing” that he was never caught. His investors believed in him – trusted his claims and turned over huge sums of money never questioning his sincerity. After being brought down, tried, and sent to prison for 150 years, Steve Fishman reported in New York Magazine, “Bernie walked around prison confident . . . [acting] like he beat the world. And to most inmates he had.”
Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most beloved leaders, was determined, by researchers to have the most psychopathic traits of all U.S. Presidents. He was known as a commander of the Rough Riders – the first U.S. Volunteer Cavalry – along with an exuberant personality, wide range of interests, stellar achievements, and powerful leadership. Roosevelt won the presidency in a landslide, created the National Park system (and consequently conserved over 230 million acres of federally protected land), helped build the Panama Canal . . . the list goes on, still positively affecting our lives a century later.