Your Life Is This Dark Room and Only I Have the Key: A Closer Look into the Mind of the Psychopath

psycopathThey are fascinating, impressive, and charming. They are articulate and exude confidence.

They act and talk like an iconic actor. They can read your body language in an instant.

They are controlling and manipulative.

You can sense the danger, and yet you still feel a great sense of excitement and fear.

But this is not a movie.

This is your life.

And no, you cannot change them.

Who are these people?

Sociopaths, and people with personality disorders, tend to be highly manipulative and deceptive. As a co-worker, they are unethical and willing to use you for their own personal gain, even it means ruining your reputation. Contrary to perception, many of them are not physically violent, but often times are manipulative con-artists with extensive criminal records. They are also master liars, highly successful and use sophisticated methods to achieve their high ambitions.

Psychopaths exist in every culture, profession, class and race. Some are gang leaders, sadists, murderers, and rapists. Others excel in high profile fields, especially in law, business, and even politics. One example of a high profile psychopath is Jeffrey Skilling, the former president of Enron.

Jeffrey sold shares of his company’s stock while already having inside information of Enron’s impending bankruptcy. He knew many families would  lose their lifetime savings, their jobs, and their homes. But that did not stop him from misleading investors and his employees. In his view, he was far more important than the wellbeing of others. Not once did Mr Skilling express genuine remorse or guilt for his crimes in court.

Sociopath or psychopath?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” describe the same condition known as “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. These are individuals who feel no emotional connection to others and have little regard for the wellbeing of people.

We know they are manipulative, but just how good are they?

Psychopaths are known to have charmed even the most well trained professionals, many of them with training in mental health and psychology. Robert Hare, a leading expert on the psychopathic mind, described a case where a prison psychologist planned to marry a male inmate  after his release from prison. Dr Hare then gave her a copy of his book “Without Conscience”. Despite the gesture, she still planned to marry the inmate.

Early in the dating game

Psychopaths target people they see as vulnerable. Think of a tiger stalking his prey. They always go for the old, the sick or the weak. Psychopathic individuals also know that Individuals who suffer from low self-esteem or lack confidence are far more likely to be attracted to people who fit the “bad guy” look than those who don’t.

If you are in the dating game, or you are looking to make new friends, these warning signs can help you avoid being their next victim.

Top warning signs

  • Smooth talker – He is cool and collected. He says the right things and he is full of confidence.
  • The hero – When he talks about past problems, he is always the good guy and the one who had to overcome challenges (if he does report any). This might seem ‘ok’ at first, but you will notice that he will almost never admit to any wrongdoing (Big red flag. The average person will admit to some mistakes in their lives).
  • The charmer – Be careful with excessive flattery and charm. They can read you very well and know what you want to hear. Remember, they are known to be masters at this. The minute you think you can handle them, they have you. Again, they are known to successfully trick even high profile professionals such as psychiatrists and therapists.
  • Excessively opinionated – After the second or third date, you might notice that she or he describes things in black or white. There is no shade of gray. Either you are on their side, or your not (when describing others). These people are also arrogant and feel that ordinary individuals, who don’t follow their lifestyle, are beneath them.
  • Grandiose self-appraisal – Beware of excessive self-admiration. These people have a grandiose ego and truly feel that because they think they are better, society rules don’t apply to them.

Please note that none of these signs alone mean that a person is a sociopath. Someone who is overly attentive might be just that. However, keep your guard up if someone you meet shows most or all of these signs consistently.

Later in the dating game

  • Things just don’t add up –  You dig deeper into his or her personal life. You ask questions but she quickly changes the conversation or lies about the silliest things.
  • Frequent stalking – He mentions past events from your life that you’ve never told him about. You feel that he is reading your emails or trying to learn about your past without your knowledge. Before you know it, he shows up uninvited when you have company, tracks your whereabouts and continually questions your phone calls and text messages. This step happens gradually and often catches you off guard. Remember, psychopaths are masters of deceit.
  • Controls everything –  Psychopaths enjoy feeling powerful and always want to be in control. They want to control the conversations, the way you look, feel, live and how often you talk to your family and friends. They want to know where you are at every minute and what you are doing.

In a full relationship

  • Deviant requests  –  Sociopaths crave excitement and are thrill-seekers, and they often enjoy challenging boundaries and personal beliefs with the goal to demean their partners. For example, if you are of a particular religious denomination, they will find a way to engage you in behaviors (e.g., sexual promiscuity) that betray your principals to dehumanize you.Their infidelity becomes more open and obvious. Over time, the sociopath will condition you to accept ongoing perverse requests as normative and to be expected.
  • Humiliation  –  Your partner will criticize and humiliate you constantly with the intent to break down your self-esteem. Every now and then they will praise you for something, and then shoot you down with another insult. Again, these people enjoy feeling complete power over the feelings of another person.
  • Isolation  – Not only do psychopaths want to know what you are doing at every minute, they will eventually try to isolate you from your support system. Before long you will need their permission to call your parents or friends. Your life is now at their mercy, and the way they see it, it now belongs to them. You feel as if your life is now your room and they have the key.
  • Financial ruin  –  The abuser will try to take over your finances. The goal is to make you as dependent as possible, so if you decide to leave, you are left without any money or friends for help. In time, you might find yourself in financial ruin as the abuser has cleaned out your bank account, and maxed out on your credit cards.

Analyzing the words of psychopaths

Researchers at Cornell University conducted a study on 14 convicted psychopathic murderers and 38 murderers who were diagnosed as non-psychopathic. Each participant was asked to describe their crimes in detail.

The study found that:

Psychopaths used twice as many words that related to basic needs, such as food, money or sex. They also used more justification words (e.g., because, so that) to imply that the crime was necessary to obtain the desired goal. The non-psychopathic group used more words that related to social needs, such as religion, spirituality, and family.

Sociopaths were also more likely to use the past tense to describe crimes than the non-psychopathic group. Researchers believe that they do this as a way to detach themselves from their crimes.

In this study, the psychopathic group used more sentence fillers, such as “ums” and “uhs”, suggesting they tried harder to make an impression and put forth more mental effort.

However, the researchers of the study strongly caution that these results only apply to the murderers that were interviewed.

If you are in danger

If you are in a physically abusive relationship, please remember that there is help for you. Do not hesitate to call the Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Remember that psychopaths are highly manipulative, and they may monitor the calls you make and the websites you visit.

If you think this is happening to you, use a friend’s cell phone or your work phone to call for help. Use a computer at the local library during a lunch break or at a friend’s house.

 

REFERENCES

American Psychiatric Association. Personality Disorders. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. 1994. Available at: http://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/content.aspx?bookid=22&sectionid=1892638. Accessed September, 15, 2012.

Carver, J.M. Personality Disorders: The Controllers, Abusers, Manipulators and Users in Relationships. Available at: http://drjoecarver.com/3/miscellaneous2.htm. Accessed September, 16, 2012.

Ferguson, CJ. Genetic Contributions to Antisocial Personality and Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review from an Evolutionary Perspective.The Journal of Social Psychology. 2010. Available at: http://www.tamiu.edu/~cferguson/evmeta.pdf. Accessed September, 16, 2012.

Hare RD, Babiak P. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Guilford Press; 1999: 87.

Steele, Bill. The words of psychopaths reveal their predatory nature. Chronicle Online. Available at: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Oct11/psychopathWords.html. Accessed September, 16, 2012.

Zap, J. Foxes and Reptiles: Psychopathy and the Financial Meltdown. Reality Sandwich. Available at: http://www.realitysandwich.com/psychopathy_financial_meltdown. Accessed September 16, 2012.

Author: Alejandro Adrian LeMon, Ph.D., LMHC

A little about me... I'm a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida and the founder of Psychology One. I am also a former college instructor of sociology and I have worked at several not-for-profit agencies & EAP organizations. I currently live with my fiancee and our three cats.

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15 Comments

  1. have to be careful these days. i read that these people also have abnormal brain function compared to the majority of the population so should they be held as accountable for crimes as the rest of us? great article!

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  2. There is a big paradox while studying the psychopath behavior. “Maybe they see the world as is as and all the rest people are abnormal”

    Thats really mind blowing fact when you think about it from other angle

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    Post a Reply
  4. Great article! As I was reading it, I began to think I people I have met in my life that fit the description of psychopath. I just can’t fathom someone being that way. I guess it’s hard to if you are not a psychopath. I guess my question would be: Is there treatment that works for this disorder? Can a psychopath become “normal”?

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    • Thanks for the feedback Stephen! the problem with these people is that they never seek therapy unless it is to fulfill a legal obligation or to manipulate the system. So even if there was a great approach to change them, they would first need to genuinely want to change (but that is almost never the case, unfortunately).

      However, there have been a few isolated cases where they have been genuinely interested in wanting to know more about the nature of their disorder (See the Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski interview).

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      • Wow, this is a serious disorder. I guess it makes sense, though. Since a psychopath only thinks and cares about him(her)self, then they wouldn’t genuinely seek out therapy to change. I guess I didn’t really realize how extreme this disorder is.

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        • Exactly! When they do attend therapy they are often the stellar patient. They say the right things and seem to make tremendous progress, but it’s all a front to get you to do something for them (e.g., letter to the judge, etc).

          Bring me a schizophrenic anyday.

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  5. I swear I should have been a psychologist. I don’t know why I’m so interested in this subject, but I have been for many years. My interest is in the criminal side of it. I’ve read books about serial killers, but those books don’t really delve into the psychological side of it. They don’t tell me why they do what they do. Serial killers are psychopaths, are they not? Many people call them crazy and leave it that. To me, though, it seems like it is dismissive to call them crazy. Most psychopaths know that what they are doing is wrong. Calling them crazy is saying that they aren’t responsible for their actions. Would that be a fair assessment? And do you know of any good books that discuss the psychology of it all? The books I’ve read just tell what the killers did. Please tell me I’m not crazy for being interested in this subject. A lot of people I know think I’m weird for being so interested.

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    • Stephen, you hit it right on the nail! yes, they are not crazy. They are often very smart and fully aware of what they are doing. Serial killers are psychopaths. They are the extremely violent type.

      I recommend you read about the case of Phineas Gage. Normal person with normal emotions who developed sociopathic tendencies after a brain injury. Fascinating story.

      I recommend the book “Almost a Psychopath” by Ronald Schouten, MD, JD. http://www.health.harvard.edu/books/almost-a-psychopath

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      • Thank you for the info. I often tell people that the ‘psycho’ in psychopath doesn’t mean crazy. They just have a twisted way of thinking. The minute you dismiss them as crazy, you let your guard down, allowing the psychopath to use their cunning and charm to reel you in. And you are right, most are extremely intelligent. I always use the case of Ted Bundy. He was highly educated, extremely intelligent and very charming. I think that most people mistaken a psychopath’s actions, especially if they are extremely violent, as craziness. I don’t think I have ever actually ‘talked’ to a true psychopath, but I probably wouldn’t know if I did. Again, thank you for the information. I’ll read that book.

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