Blue Line

Psychopaths are a rare breed

January 22, 2016  By Dorothy Cotton

1222 words – MR

Psychopaths are a rare breed

I was chatting recently with a police officer who had just apprehended a 25 year old man with an impressive criminal record. He was what we refer to as a “versatile” criminal – meaning up to all sorts of bad behavior as opposed to being a specialist.

The young man had spent more time in jail than on the street and clearly had plenty of problems – both personally and for society. The officer referred to him in passing as a “psychopath” and also made reference to “all those other psychopaths” in prison. There’s no doubt this guy had done a lot of bad stuff, as have most other people in prison, but are they psychopaths?


Oddly enough, the designation is not actually an acknowledged diagnosis in the field of psychiatry. It was years ago but got replaced by things like “antisocial personality disorder.” Some people like the term sociopath better. I occasionally get asked what these different terms mean and am usually forced to respond that, er, I haven’t a clue.

Neither psychopath nor sociopath is listed in the DSM 5, the psychiatric bible and supreme source of wisdom for psychiatric diagnoses. Antisocial personality disorder is – but generally there’s not a lot of agreement about any of the personality disorder diagnoses. Many people are antisocial without being psychopathic. I’m going to guess that you’re not terribly interested in the finer aspects of psychiatric diagnosis but may be interested in hearing about the current wisdom in regard to the term psychopath.

The current usage is most commonly associated with psychologist Dr. Robert Hare (a Canadian, I might add) who based his many years of research on the work of American psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley and his seminal book . The book’s title reveals one key element of psychopaths, which is that they do not appear to be overtly “crazy.” They present like normal people generally and do not have psychoses or other obvious psychiatric symptoms. In fact, part of the reason they are so successful is that they do NOT look like someone who might make you a little apprehensive.

Dr. Hare talks about several different clusters of symptoms which fall into the categories of interpersonal, affective, lifestyle and antisocial characteristics.

In the interpersonal realm, psychopaths can generally charm the scales off a snake. They are glib, eternally full of themselves, quite happy – and able – to manipulate people, always up for a good con and may be particularly adept at telling tall tales.

In terms of affect, a key characteristic is lack of remorse or guilt. It’s not that the psychopath can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, they just don’t care! They lack empathy for victims and prefers to blame other people rather than taking responsibility.

Psychopaths may not feel the same emotions as the rest of us but are often very good at faking it. They have often learned how to LOOK like they care or are concerned. That’s part of their charm, and partly how they get away with manipulating people.

The lifestyle of the psychopath is typically full of risk-taking activity. They may be impulsive, happy to mooch off other people, irresponsible and lacking in goals. (On the other hand, some psychopaths are quite goal directed. They may aspire to run large companies or countries, and may be VERY interested in acquiring large sums of money through whatever means available.)

These characteristics often lead to a lifestyle characterized by ignoring rules and breaking laws, and both illegal and unethical behaviour, often starting in childhood.

So yeah, a lot of these folks end up in the criminal justice system. Estimates say that maybe 25 per cent of people in prisons might be psychopaths (which means 75 per cent are not). There are many reasons people commit crimes and end up in prison, but most people in trouble with the law are not psychopaths and certainly not all psychopaths are in jail.

It has been hypothesized that some psychopaths end up quite successful in other lines of work, like business, politics and entertainment in particular. (Psychopaths are also often attracted to careers in policing and other aspects of law enforcement – one of the reasons we do pre-employment psychological assessments. Alas, I dare say we do not catch them all.)

One can’t help but wonder about some of the Wall Street banker and finance people who happily made out like bandits when the rest of the world was going down the tubes in and around 2008 – or political leaders who happily do away with large numbers of people, largely because they can.

If you think about many of the people you deal with in your daily work (no, not your boss), it is easy to see that most are not psychopaths. Most obviously, many lack any kind of social skills and are certainly not charming. Typically psychopaths (whether a criminal, banker or both) – need to be able to persuade people to follow their lead and convince them they are looking after their best interests.

The typical psychopath also rarely feels any regret or remorse for what they have done. I have worked with many criminals, and the vast majority DO appreciate that they have caused their victims distress. They may try to justify or explain it away – but it isn’t like they don’t know or really care. A really large number of our clientele only commit crimes when they are under the influence of substances. Psychopaths do not need drugs to loosen inhibitions; they are not inhibited at the best of times!

Of course figuring out who is a psychopath and who is not can get a little tricky because many of us have some of the traits, to a greater or lesser extent. We all engage in “impression management” – trying to make people think that we are better than we are. Sometimes we really DON’T feel bad about having done something bad because we feel the other person deserved it. Where do you draw the line?

One interesting example of psychopathic characteristics in a law enforcement-type person is found in Robert Philip Hanssen. You may recall that he was an FBI agent convicted of selling secrets to the Russians over a couple of decades.

You can read an interesting analysis of his personality with a view to psychopathy at – or Google the paper by J. Scott Sandford.

It’s a fascinating read. I was most struck by the comment that a large part of Hanssen’s motivation was that he was bored at work. There is a whole lot more to it, of course – far beyond what I can summarize here – but the take home message is that psychopaths are a rare breed (thankfully). While we may see them amongst our customers, most people we encounter in the criminal justice system are not psychopaths.

On the other hand, a few of the people we work with, elect to public office or trust our finances to (think “Ponzi scheme”) may fit the bill. If the latter notion intrigues you, check out Hare’s book Again, the title says it all.

I might also suggest you see the movie “Wolf of Wall Street” but frankly that movie made my flesh crawl. Blech…

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