Monday, 16 April 2012

Psychopaths are very sane

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.

So said Dostoevsky, but he was mistaken. The psychopaths I have known were not happy, but not unhappy. Their emotions are very shallow.

The Norwegian mass-murderer who killed so many young people (I prefer not to name him and help him have the fame he craves) was not mad. A madman could not have killed so many people so efficiently. He seems to me, though I am not a psychologist, a psychopath and psychopaths are saner than normal people. 

I published an article on this subject in 2005 in Vivid, which I republish here: 

The Psychopath in the Office

The word ‘psychopath’ instills a pleasurable ripple of fear into anyone who saw a conscienceless killer in a Hollywood film such as Basic Instinct or The Silence of the Lambs.  But psychopaths exist outside the movies. Only a fairly small minority are violent criminals, more are confidence tricksters but most are not criminals at all. Many hold positions of power (think of Saddam Hussein or Slobodan ). Psychopaths are also known as sociopaths and the syndrome is also named Anti-Social Behaviour Disorder. The Victorians used the term ‘moral insanity’ but in fact psychopaths are exceptionally sane. They simply have no consciences and no empathy. Every reader of this article has knowingly or otherwise met some. Long-term their goal is always to accumulate power or money by any means available and to damage and abuse those over whom their power extends.

 ‘Industrial psychopaths’ is the term recently coined by psychologist Paul Babiak, author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work,  for psychopaths who hold good jobs. They can be priests, academics, charity workers, actors or media stars, HR managers or accountants but very frequently  they are found in professions that enable them to have power over others: in particular, the medical and legal professions (they are especially attracted to becoming judges and prosecutors), the police and armed services and, most irresistible of all to psychopaths, in politics.How do you recognise a psychopath in a social or business setting? You probably wouldn’t. They are pathological liars, masters of dissimulation and excel at interviews, the perfect theatres for their talents. In the West‘s increasingly atomised and competitive world, where ambitious go-getters are valued and efficiency sometimes prized above moral scruples, the psychopath’s qualities resemble those of the successful business leader. In developing economies where power structures are fluid and standards of business and political ethics are hazy psychopaths thrive. Present-day Romania is a perfect breeding ground for the species.

The psychopath thrives in situations of rapid change. The industrial psychopath identifies and ingratiates himself with the people whom he identifies as easily manipulated and those with power who can help him reach the top. According to Professor Babiak, 'During the manipulation stage, the psychopath spreads disinformation to enhance his image and disparage others. He is adept at creating conflict between those who might pool negative information about him. This is followed by a confrontation stage in which he abandons the pawns who are no longer useful to him and takes steps to neutralise detractors. Finally, the most successful psychopath enters an ascension phase during which he abandons his patrons - those who have helped his rise to power.' In the Romanian expression “treading on dead bodies to the top”. 

No-one knows what are the causes of the condition although research suggests that the psychopath’s brain functions abnormally and that a lobe may be missing. There is no cure. No-one can be given a conscience transplant.

Professor Robert Hare, Professor of Psychology at Vancouver University, is the world’s  leading authority on psychopaths. He estimates that about 1% of the population are psychopaths. Hare says they are "amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a quick and clever comeback, and can tell unlikely but convincing stories...They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likeable and charming. To some people, however, they seem too slick and smooth, too  insincere and superficial. Astute observers often get the impression that psychopaths are play-acting, mechanically ‘reading their lines.’  Psychopaths are always highly intelligent (a parallel can be drawn with autists) and often possess photographic memories but their knowledge tends to be wide but superficial. They can be superb linguists and readily assimilate the latest jargon expressions as they emerge. Lacking normal human feelings, they are actors who learn how to behave by mimicking those around them. They may therefore come across as affected, insincere or false. Hare says they have a "narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the centre of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.” They can seem very  charismatic but are rarely popular with those who work or interact with them closely. A few perceptive people sense at once that they are evil.

The psychopath will always prefer what he can gain by trickery, dishonesty or force majeure to the fruits of honest toil, which bores him. He  is usually lazy and unfocused where routine work is concerned  although at networking or marketing he can be a workaholic. As a boss he will steal his subordinates’ ideas, pick on victims to bully and very often sexually harass staff but also use manipulative skills to retain subordinates’ loyalty (Adolf Hitler remembering his secretaries’ birthdays).  In business psychopaths will take pride in using every dishonest subterfuge from bribes to blackmail to acquire mandates or retainers, happily getting away with  substandard work as a result. They are exceptionally astute at reading others and are adept at gleaning  information about those around them to feed their sense of power and enable them to exploit others. If they judge it safe to do so, they will delight in hurting those whom they can injure (I know of one HR Manager who framed a series of staff members with no ulterior object beyond the fun of sabotaging their careers). Psychopaths inhabit a Hobbesian universe where power is the only value and love of power means love of mischief.

The female psychopath (there are thought to be roughly two male psychopaths for every one female psychopath) is exactly as pitiless as her male counterpart but will use the advantages open to her as a woman to help her career path. If attractive she will exploits her looks, sleep her way to promotion or with clients to make deals happen, while at the same time she may be ready to concoct false charges that she herself is the victim of sexual harassment rather than the perpetrator. If appropriate she will cultivate the image of a devoted wife or mother as a useful cover.

Industrial psychopaths of either sex can be very effective at PR, at sales and marketing and their management techniques can be effective in the short or medium term but in the long term their business enterprises are likely to founder, their companies fail, their partners part ways from them or their employees vote with their feet. Psychopathy causes enormous damage in all our lives. We have seen in recent years the consequences when a succession of fraudulent businesses have collapsed. Who will psychoanalyse Enron or Worldcom, Bancorex or FNI?

So what should we look for as pointers to alert us against this dangerous breed of people when for example conducting interviews? The tell-tale signs include contradictory lies, oleaginous flattery, haughty body language, the penetrating and prolonged ‘psychopathic stare’ with which they fix their victims, poor spelling, an excessive interest in status and material things, their love of belittling others, boasting particularly about their lack of scruples and all sorts of unusual ways of talking, dressing or behaving, designed to draw attention to themselves.

Hare and Babiak have joined forces to create a new diagnostic tool, the “B-scan”  intended to help businesses keep psychopath- is a series of questions asked of referees rather than candidates, looking for sixteen key qualities including: insincere, arrogant, insensitive, remorseless, shallow, impatient, , unfocused, parasitic, dramatic, unethical and bullying.

How many do you know?

For more by me on the subject of psychopaths, please click on 

Vampires do exist
The wisdom of psychopaths and monks
Psychopaths are motivated by envy
Sir Jimmy Savile, psychopath 


  1. MRI's set up to check for psychopathy are much quicker and more accurate than other tests. The B-scan could be harmful. If one rated the psychopath negatively, and the psychopath found out, he/she may retaliate. MRI's straight across the board (for all) so that there is no discrimination.

  2. Very interesting, very astute article.

  3. An extremely interesting look at the question. Personally, I am somewhat concerned about the line "one cannot have a conscience transplant" - such a positive statement regarding whether one has a conscience or not seems to confirm the Calvinist belief in the Elect - or at least that there are certain people born already damned. If our society encourages psychopathy and contributes to an increase in their numbers, this leads us to a very troubling conclusion regarding the ability of each succeeding generation to attain God's Grace.

    I wonder, therefore, if it is really true that psychopathy has no cure - after all, if it is merely a scientific name for being immoral, this seems to suggest that "cure" is not the correct word, and scientific vocabulary is insufficient to describe this phenomenon.

  4. "No-one knows what are the causes of the condition although research suggests that the psychopath’s brain functions abnormally and that a lobe may be missing. There is no cure. No-one can be given a conscience transplant."

    This suggests something very disturbing for any Christian outside the Calvinist milieu of belief in absolute predestination. If one can be born without a conscience, and can subsequently not develop one, can such a person attain God's Grace? Or must we assume such a person to be damned from birth?

    If we are not to subscribe to Calvinist belief in the Elect, which certainly seems to contradict many other teachings about God and the free choice of will, we must conclude that the scientific explanation of this phenomenon simply is not sufficient to meet the challenge.

  5. Reading your article, I remembered the classification of employees, performed by a co-founder and president of Axess Worldwide, Eric C.Sinoway and which can be found on the HBR blog:

    I was wondering whether or not the typology of employees. well described by you, can be included in the "zombies" or "vampires" lists..

  6. Unless we're talking about Vancouver, Washington, there is no such place as "Vancouver University". Professor Robert Hare teaches at the University of British Columbia, which happens to be in Vancouver.

  7. That aside, this raises an interesting theological question: does God create people destined for hell? The Statesman article, obviously written by someone with no interest in the religious question, gives the case in strictly medicalised terms. Psychopathy is a radical absence of conscience, attributable to having a malformed brain, for which there is no cure.

    Interesting that the Victorians called it "moral insanity", since that was the period of transition in the West between having a religious outlook and anthropology to a strictly atheistic one.

    Perhaps it is thought "there is no cure" for this moral absence because the cure cannot be effected by the usual methods of modern psychology, that generally ignores moral issues and theological realities. Perhaps there is a cure that the anti-religious sciences are not qualified or inclined to explore.

    1. Psychopaths do not have to do wrong but they find being good boring - love is the reason we are good and psychopaths are incapable of it, except in their curious way towards their children, parents. And yet they can have close friends who are confidants and admirers.

  8. Here is how a Taoist scholar from the 12th century describes 'evil-doers':

    It's basically a description of psychopaths.

  9. Yes there is no cure because the etiology and treatment is not necessary medical. I keep thinking of Einstein's quote: "you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that leads to the problem", so the absence of grace leads to specific brains that cannot understand grace? News on psychopaths: