The man sits at the table in the well-fitted attire of success—charming, witty, and instantly likeable. He is a confident, animated speaker, but he seems to be struggling with this particular point.
“It’s like… at my first job,” he continues, “I was stealing maybe a thousand bucks a month from that place. And this kid, he was new, he got wise. And he was going to turn me in, but before he got the chance I went to the manager and pinned the whole thing on him.” Now he is grinning widely. “Kid lost his job, the cops got involved, I don’t know what happened to him. And I guess something like that is supposed to make me feel bad, right? It’s supposed to hurt, right? But instead, it’s like there’s nothing.” He smiles apologetically and shakes his head. “Nothing.”
His name is Frank, and he is a psychopath.
In the public imagination, a "psychopath" is a violent serial killer or an over-the-top movie villain, as one sometimes might suspect Frank to be. He is highly impulsive and has a callous disregard for the well-being of others that can be disquieting. But he is just as likely to be a next-door neighbor, a doctor, or an actor on TV—essentially no different from anyone else who holds these roles, except that Frank lacks the nagging little voice which so profoundly influences most of our lives. Frank has no conscience. And as much as we would like to think that people like him are a rare aberration, safely locked away, the truth is that they are more common than most would ever guess.
The word psychopathy dates back in an early form to the 19th century, but as a modern term it’s primarily used in reference to the work of Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. Hare’s PCL-R tool (Psychopathy Checklist - Revised) was developed to test for a wide range of socially deviant behaviors and personality traits, the most important being the absence of any sense of conscience, remorse, or guilt. The result of this combination is a destructive, self-serving, and often dangerous individual sometimes called “the born criminal."
The psychopath's world is a strikingly skewed one in which the normal laws of human emotion and interaction do not apply—yet it serves as reality for a sizable portion of humanity. Spanning all cultures and eras, roughly one man in every 100 is born a clinical psychopath, as well as one woman in every 300. They are so common that every person reading this sentence almost certainly knows one personally; indeed, a significant number of readers are likely psychopaths themselves.
Many potential psychopaths might not even realize they have the condition, nor has there traditionally been any easy way for others to recognize them. The leading scientific test is Hare's PCL-R, but to be valid it must be performed by a qualified professional under controlled conditions. For those who can't be bothered with such expensive frills, we present the PCL-DI: an alternative, PCL-inspired test guaranteed to appear scientific.
The concept of the psychopath is only the latest and most refined in a long string of attempts to account for a certain pattern of conduct. In the 19th century, psychiatric clinicians began to notice patients in their care who fit no known diagnosis, but who nevertheless displayed strange and disturbing behaviors. They were impulsive and self-destructive. They had no regard for the feelings and welfare of others. They lied pathologically, and when caught, they shrugged it off with a smirk and moved on to the next lie. It was a puzzle—because while there was clearly something unusual about these patients, they showed none of the psychotic symptoms or defects in reason thought necessary for mental illness at the time. Indeed, apart from a tendency to follow foolish and irresponsible impulses that sometimes got them into trouble, they were coldly rational—more rational, perhaps, than the average citizen. Their condition therefore came to be referred to as manie sans délire (“insanity without delirium”), a term which later evolved into moral insanity once the central role of a “defective conscience” came to be appreciated. By the 20th century, these individuals would be called sociopaths or said to suffer from antisocial personality disorder, two terms that are still used interchangeably with psychopathy in some circles, while in others are considered distinct but related conditions.
The psychopath does not merely repress feelings of anxiety and guilt or fail to experience them appropriately; instead, he or she lacks a fundamental understanding of what these things are. When asked a question such as “What does remorse feel like?” for instance, the typical psychopath will become irritated, deflect the question, or attempt to change the subject. The following response from a psychopathic rapist, asked why he didn’t empathize with his victims, shows just how distanced such a person can be from normal human emotion:
Despite this emotional deficiency, most psychopaths learn to mimic the appearance of normal emotion well enough to fit into ordinary society, not unlike the way that the hearing impaired or illiterate learn to use other cues to compensate for their disabilities. As Hare describes it, psychopaths “know the words but not the music.” One might imagine that such a false and superficial front would be easily penetrated, but such is rarely the case, probably because of the assumption we all tend to make that others think and feel essentially the same way as ourselves. Differences in culture, gender, personality, and social status all create empathy gaps that can seem almost unfathomable, but none of these is as fundamental a divide as the one that exists between an individual with a conscience and one without. The psychopath's psychology is so profoundly alien to most people that we are unable to comprehend their motives, or recognize one when we see one. Naturally, the industrious psychopath will find this to his advantage.
Some psychologists go so far as to label the psychopath “a different kind of human” altogether. Psychopathy has an environmental component like nearly all aspects of personal psychology, but its source is rooted firmly in biology. This has caused some researchers to suspect that the condition isn’t a “disorder” at all, but an adaptive trait. In a civilization made up primarily of law-abiding citizenry, the theory goes, an evolutionary niche opens up for a minority who would exploit the trusting masses.
This hypothesis is supported by the apparent success many psychopaths find within society. The majority of these individuals are not violent criminals; indeed, those that turn to crime are generally considered “unsuccessful psychopaths” due to their failure to blend into society. Those who do succeed can do so spectacularly. For instance, while it may sound like a cynical joke, it’s a fact that psychopaths have a clear advantage in fields such as law, business, and politics. They have higher IQs on average than the general population. They take risks and aren’t fazed by failures. They know how to charm and manipulate. They’re ruthless. It could even be argued that the criteria used by corporations to find effective managers actually select specifically for psychopathic traits: characteristics such as charisma, self-centeredness, confidence, and dominance are highly correlated with the psychopathic personality, yet also highly sought after in potential leaders. It was not until recent years—in the wake of some well-publicized scandals involving corporate psychopaths—that many corporations started to reconsider these promotion policies. After all, psychopaths are interested only in their own gain, and trouble is inevitable when their interests begin to conflict with those of the company. This was the case at Enron, and again at WorldCom—and Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, besides doctoring the books and losing his company millions of dollars, would allegedly leave his wife at home without access to food or money for days at a time.
The thought of these people wearing suits and working a 9-5 job conflicts with most people’s image of psychopaths gleaned from films like The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs. But it shouldn’t be surprising. A lack of empathy does not necessarily imply a desire to do harm—that comes from sadism and tendencies toward violence, traits which have only a small correlation with psychopathy. When all three come together in one individual, of course, the result is catastrophic. Ted Bundy and Paul Bernardo are extreme examples of such a combination.
If psychopaths often appear where we don’t expect them, neither does the clinical term always apply where we think it might. Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering is thought to have met the diagnostic criteria, but Hitler's own behavior was frequently inconsistent with that of a psychopath. Columbine killer Eric Harris fit the description, but his accomplice Dylan Klebold did not. In total, only about 20% of a typical prison population qualifies as psychopathic (half of the violent offenders), and the difference from the general population is readily apparent to those who know them well. Even the most hardened of normal offenders can find their psychopathic cellmates unnerving.
The same discovery awaits most anyone who becomes close to such an individual. In romantic relationships, a psychopath may be charming and affectionate just long enough to establish intimacy with a partner, and then suddenly become abusive, unfaithful, and manipulative. The bewildered partner might turn to friends and family with their story, only to be met with disbelief—how could the warm, outgoing individual everyone has come to know possibly be guilty of these acts? All too often, the abused partner blames the situation on themselves, and comes out of the relationship emotionally destroyed.
But from a comfortable distance, the impression given off by a psychopath is often highly positive. The same absence of inhibitions and honesty that makes psychopaths so dangerous also gives them unusual powers of charisma through self-confidence and fabricated flattery. The aforementioned Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap was a legend in business circles—“a corporate god,” some called him—precisely for his ruthless, results-oriented business style and in-your-face, furniture-hurling personality. In social circles, psychopaths are often the most popular friends among members of both sexes. And strikingly, in entertainment media such as films and books, it’s not just the villains who tend to have psychopathic personalities—it’s the heroes, too.
One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of this kind of protagonist. James Bond, the promiscuous, daring secret agent who can ski down a mountainside while being chased by armed attackers without breaking a sweat, is a textbook case. Frank Abagnale Jr., the charming con-man on whom the recent book and film Catch Me if You Can were based, is another highly likely candidate. And nearly every character played by action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone—the ones who vow revenge on an enemy and rampage about while coolly spouting one-liners—would qualify for a diagnosis.
The reasons we look up to these conscience impaired people are unclear.
The psychopaths, for their part, will never know things any other way. Most experts agree that the condition is permanent and completely untreatable. It’s been theorized that their situation is the result of a kind of inherited learning disorder: without dread or anxiety to deter them, psychopaths are unable to make the associations between behavior and punishment that make up the building blocks of a normal conscience. That being the case, it is questionable whether a description such as “evil”—which is not uncommon in both the popular and scientific literature—can really be applied to individuals incapable of understanding what it means.
But to those who cross their paths, this may be small comfort.