Experts bet you encounter a psychopath more often than you think
I know what some people are thinking: I’m never going to deal with psychopaths. This is just more sensational clickbait junk.
Wrong. The experts are betting you probably encounter a psychopath every day. In fact, a lot of what you think you know about psychopaths is very wrong.
Yes, psychopaths are more likely to be in jail than most people — but the majority of them aren’t. There’s a whole class of people who don’t have a conscience or feel empathy, and in all likelihood you deal with at least one all the time.
And they probably make your life miserable. They’re “subclinical psychopaths.” With biology, you either have tuberculosis or you don’t. Black and white. There’s no “kinda.” In psychology there’s a lot of “kinda.” People with subclinical psychological disorders are like this. Not bad enough to go to prison, but plenty bad enough to make your life awful.
The Machiavellian manipulators at work who do all kinds of nasty — but without leaving fingerprints. The bad boyfriends and girlfriends who drive you crazy — sometimes quite deliberately.
But nobody in HR tells you you might be working with some really awful people, let alone how to survive next to them. Corporations say things like, “We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here.”
That’s from Enron’s 1998 Annual Report, by the way.
Alright, we got some learnin’ to do. Let’s find out from research and experts what the real deal is with psychopaths, and what you can do to protect yourself from these very toxic people…
What Is A Psychopath?
Psychopath. Sociopath. For our purposes they’re the same. And don’t get them confused with “psychotic.” Psychotic means you’re seeing elves and unicorns. Psychopaths see the world quite clearly.
Perhaps too clearly. As Ronald Schouten, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School explains, they don’t let pesky things like conscience or empathy get in the way. Because they don’t possess either of them.
From Almost a Psychopath:
Psychopathy is a psychological condition in which the individual shows a profound lack of empathy for the feelings of others, a willingness to engage in immoral and antisocial behavior for short-term gains, and extreme egocentricity.
No, they don’t all have cold, dead eyes and wear a hockey mask. Many are witty and quite articulate. They’re narcissistic and impulsive. And because they lack empathy they see other people as objects to be used.
Just because they don’t feel empathy doesn’t mean they don’t understand it. And many get quite good at faking it. All the better to manipulate you to get what they want.
Neuroscience research shows the emotional centers of their brains don’t respond the way yours do.
In several functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain imaging studies, Hare and his associates found that emotional words and unpleasant pictures did not produce in psychopaths the increases in the activity of brain (limbic) regions normally associated with the processing of emotional material.
But it’s worse than that. As Ronald Schouten reports, when neuroscientists did a PET scan of psychopaths after giving them amphetamines, the nucleus accumbens section of their grey matter produced four times as much dopamine.
Translation: rewarding stuff is far, far more rewarding to them. So you consider doing something mean and your conscience slams the brakes. But psychopaths’ brake line has been cut. And stuff they want is four times as rewarding to them. So someone also put a brick on their accelerator.
Some people might think: I have done bad things. And I find some things really rewarding. Oh my god! I’m worried that I’m a psychopath!
If you’re worried that you’re a psychopath, you’re not a psychopath — because psychopaths don’t worry.
From The Psychopath Test:
…suffering from anxiety is the neurological opposite of being a psychopath when it comes to amygdala function.
So how do we make these people better? We don’t. In fact, treatment makes them worse. Teaching them about empathy doesn’t make them more empathetic. It just teaches them how to fake it better. They see treatment as “finishing school.”
Violent psychopaths given counseling were 20% more likely to re-offend.
From The Psychopath Test:
…two researchers in the early 1990s had undertaken a detailed study of the long-term recidivism rates of psychopaths who had been through Elliott’s program and been let out into society. Its publication would surely have been an extraordinary moment for Elliott and Gary and the Capsule. In regular circumstances, 60 percent of criminal psychopaths released into the outside world go on to re-offend. What percentage of their psychopaths had? As it turned out: 80 percent.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, but this sounds extreme. And it is. You probably don’t know any full blown psychopaths, impulsively going after whatever they want with no conscience to reign them in…
But you probably do know a “subclinical” psychopath or two…
So what happens when you dial down the psychopathy a bit, turn off the impulsiveness and add in a little conscientiousness so they can graduate law school or business school?
You get a psychopath who blends in at work just fine. And they chase their rewards, ignore morality and are quite good at covering their tracks.
Robert Hare, the criminal psychologist who developed the test used to evaluate psychopaths explains:
…many psychopaths never go to prison or any other facility. They appear to function reasonably well— as lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, academics, mercenaries, police officers, cult leaders, military personnel, businesspeople, writers, artists, entertainers, and so forth— without breaking the law, or at least without being caught and convicted. These individuals are every bit as egocentric, callous, and manipulative as the average criminal psychopath; however, their intelligence, family background, social skills, and circumstances permit them to construct a facade of normalcy and to get what they want with relative impunity.
And how many people like this are running around? Now full-blown psychopaths are about 1% of the population. So that’s 3 million in the US alone. But subclinical psychopaths? Schouten says they’re more like 5-15%.
From Almost a Psychopath:
Studies that examined the prevalence of subclinical psychopathy in student populations in the United States and Sweden showed rates in the range of 5 to 15 percent… 5 to 15 percent of the population means that for every twenty people, up to three of them may fall within the almost psychopath range.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
So subclinical psychopaths aren’t chopping people up with an axe. But they are ruthlessly going after what they want without any concern for those around them. How do they do it? If they’re breaking hearts and infesting corporations, how do they not get caught?
How Do Psychopaths Get What They Want?
Hare says that whether subclinical psychopaths are screwing up your love life or your workplace, they usually follow a three step process:
- They assess the utility, weaknesses and defenses of those around them,
- They manipulate others to bond with them and get what they want,
- They abandon their targets and move on… Or, in a corporate environment, often move up.
First, they assess the value of individuals to their needs, and identify their psychological strengths and weaknesses. Second, they manipulate the individuals (now potential victims) by feeding them carefully crafted messages, while constantly using feedback from them to build and maintain control. Not only is this an effective approach to take with most people, it also allows psychopaths to talk their way around and out of any difficulty quickly and effectively if confronted or challenged. Third, they leave the drained and bewildered victims when they are bored or otherwise through with them.
If they invade your personal life, they turn on that artificial empathy and charm. They listen to hear what you think of yourself and reinforce that. The message? I like who you are. Then they pretend they share similar qualities. Message? I am just like you.
It’s not much different at the office. They get to know everyone and use that fake empathy to make a good first impression and quickly figure out who has the power.
Once they join the company, psychopaths try to meet as many people in the company as they can, spreading positive first impressions and collecting as much information as possible. While meeting and greeting organization members, they study their coworkers’ organizational roles and almost instinctively assess their short-and long-range utility or value. A person’s value is based on where he or she fits into the organizational hierarchy (sometimes referred to as position power), technical abilities (expert power), access to information (knowledge power), and whether he or she controls staff, money, and other assets (resource power).
Turns out it’s quite easy for them. Their thrill seeking nature is mistaken for prized employee qualities like “high energy” and being “action oriented.” And their lack of feelings? Oh, in the business world we call that “ability to make tough decisions.” Or someone who is “cool under fire.” You know… the stuff leaders are made of.
And then they go to work making sure they look good, their rivals look bad and that all the evidence is well hidden.
Specifically, their game plans involved manipulating communication networks to enhance their own reputation, to disparage others, and to create conflicts and rivalries among organization members, thereby keeping them from sharing information that might uncover the deceit. They also spread disinformation in the interest of protecting their scam and furthering their own careers. Being exceedingly clever and secretive, they were able to cloak their association with the disinformation, leading others to believe that they were innocent of manipulation.
If they’ve invaded your personal life, they use that bonding to start getting what they want from you. In the workplace they quickly distinguish between “pawns” and “patrons.”
Pawns are the co-workers and subordinates they manipulate like chess pieces. Patrons are upper management who they get close to for help climbing the corporate ladder.
Maybe someone does catch on to their schemes. But did the whistleblower spend time making sure upper management likes and trusts them? Because the psychopath did. Guess who senior management trusts?
We believe that a breakdown begins to occur when the psychopath’s web of deceit and manipulation becomes unwieldy and too many people have had glimpses of their dark side. Eventually, someone tries to do something about it. A former pawn might challenge or confront the individual, and perhaps even try to bring the situation to the attention of higher-ups. Unfortunately, by this time the psychopath is well positioned through the influence networks already established with others in the power hierarchy. The tables are turned because the credibility of the complaining employee has already been “managed” and undermined.
(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
Now is not the time to stop reading. As Yoda said, “If you end your training now – if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil.”
So if psychopaths are so good at covering their tracks, how do we spot them?
How To Identify A Psychopath
Now don’t go falling into the trap of playing amateur psychoanalyst, calling everyone who has ever been mean to you a psychopath. But, that said, this is an area where the research says you actually might be able to “trust your gut.”
Studies show psychopaths really do make some people feel queasy. Why? The researchers suspect it might be an evolutionary response to an “intraspecies predator.”
In a recent study, researchers J. Reid Meloy and M. J. Meloy studied the reactions of mental health and criminal justice professionals concerning their “physical reactions” while interviewing psychopathic offenders or patients. The reactions were varied and included sensations and feelings that were gastrointestinal (queasy stomach, feeling of illness), muscular (shaky feeling, weakness), cardiovascular (pounding heart), pulmonary (shortness of breath.) The authors suggested that their findings could be interpreted as suggestive evidence of a primitive, autonomic, and fearful response to a predator. They described the psychopath as an intraspecies predator.
(Sad part is that psychopaths have a “Spidey-sense” too. Research shows they actually can tell which people are vulnerable targets, just by looking at them.)
Beyond that, be skeptical of people who aggressively turn on the charm. If someone is going out of their way to flatter you, ask yourself “Why?”
And you know that old saying about not trusting people who are nice to you but mean to waiters at a restaurant? Turns out it’s true. Psychopaths and narcissists are extremely status conscious with a strong tendency to “kiss up and kick down.”
From Without Conscience:
Referring to psychologist Harry Levinson’s work on healthy and unhealthy narcissism in managers, Hogan noted that unhealthy narcissists have an almost grandiose sense of certainty and a disdain for subordinates. “They are particularly good at ingratiating themselves with their seniors but brutalize their juniors,” he is quoted as saying.
(To learn a Navy SEAL’s secrets to grit and resilience, click here.)
Alright, so you’re pretty sure this new person in your life or that new co-worker at the office is manipulative and playing puppet-master. How do the experts recommend you deal with them?
Oh, if only it were that easy… All the resources I looked at had the same primary suggestion: just get the heck away from them. If it’s your personal life, that’s do-able. At the office, that may not be an option.
Companies can avoid hiring subclinical psychopaths in the first place by using multiple rounds of structured interviews. Flexible interviewing procedures allow charming predators too much room to use their powers of influence. And check references. Psychopaths lie on resumes. A lot.
But if you have to deal with them as an individual, and you can’t get away, don’t play their games. They’re better at this than you are. They’ve done it before.
Harvard psychologist Martha Stout says you might think you’re being a hero but you’re actually charging into an ambush.
From The Sociopath Next Door:
Do not join the game. Intrigue is a sociopath’s tool. Resist the temptation to compete with a seductive sociopath, to outsmart him, psychoanalyze, or even banter with him. In addition to reducing yourself to his level, you would be distracting yourself from what is really important, which is to protect yourself.
When you take a job, take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you. You can’t change them. If it doesn’t fit who you are, it’s not going to work.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
But what’s the attitude most people get wrong when dealing with a possible psychopath?
2) Accept That Some People Are Just Bad News
You might believe all people have good in them. Or that every person can be fixed. Or that they’d be better if…
That’s not going to fly here. Sorry.
From The Sociopath Next Door:
The first rule involves the bitter pill of accepting that some people literally have no conscience… Do not try to redeem the unredeemable.
You can’t change them. What you can do is get to know how they work and get to know yourself better. Know where your vulnerabilities lie. Because psychopaths are experts at figuring them out. Address your weaknesses before they exploit them.
As one psychopath put it, “I love do-gooders because they do me such good.”
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Often a subclinical psychopath is telling so many lies it can be hard to see straight. How do you keep your head clear?
3) Pay Attention To Actions, Not Words
This is another one all the sources agreed on. Don’t listen to the excuses, rationalizations or outright lies. Don’t listen to what they say they will do. Pay attention to what they do do.
Harvard’s Martha Stout recommends using the “Rule of Threes” to tell honest mistakes from manipulative behavior.
From The Sociopath Next Door:
One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you’re dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior.
(To learn what psychopaths can teach you about being a happier person, click here.)
Okay, you’re on to them. But they’re a vindictive bunch. How do you protect yourself from retaliation at work?
4) Build Your Reputation And Relationships
The psychopaths at work are always recruiting unsuspecting “patrons” in upper management to unknowingly provide cover for them when rumors about their shady behavior start to circulate.
And they’ll also be leveraging these relationships to spread disinformation and lies about anyone who gets in their way or poses a threat. And that might include you.
So make sure to build your own relationships and keep a reputation as a hard worker. Be above reproach. Don’t be a complainer. That way when you do complain — senior people listen.
To protect yourself, make sure you invest energy in managing your own reputation, build open and honest relationships with peers and your boss, work up to your abilities, and follow applicable policies and procedures.
And if you’re dealing with a possible psychopath in your personal life, relationships are just as important. Friends can often be more objective than you can. When multiple confidantes say “He/She is no good” you might want to listen.
(To learn the eight steps to getting the perfect mentor for you, click here.)
Alright, you’ve tried everything but you still need to work with them. What’s the best way to do that?
5) Win-Win Agreements
Psychopaths are aggressive personalities. They want to win. If you can make it so it’s easier and more enticing for them to work with you than to try to subvert you, you might be able to keep their ruthlessness in check.
When you bargain with any aggressive personality, try to propose as many win-win scenarios as you can. Doing this is extremely important and requires creativity and a particular mind set. But in my experience, it’s perhaps the single most effective personal empowerment tool because it puts to constructive use the aggressive personality’s determination to win.
(To learn FBI hostage negotiation techniques that will get you what you want, click here.)
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn the most important thing you need to remember for the long term so a psychopath doesn’t really screw up your life…
Here’s how to deal with a psychopath:
- Don’t. 1) Run. 2) Are you sure you can’t run?
- Accept that some people are just bad news: A tiger is not a good house pet. And you will not change that fact.
- Pay attention to actions, not words: No excuses. No BS. Use the “Rule of Threes.”
- Build your reputation and relationships: You need a good defense and good advice.
- Win-win agreements: Make it easier to go through you than to destroy you.
When in the middle of a deathmatch with a ruthless monster of a human being, being cynical is like having ESP. A jaded perspective can keep you one step ahead of them. But in the long term it can be toxic.
Don’t give up on all people just because you dealt with a really bad one.
Mother Nature has a sense of humor. On one hand you have psychopaths, who have zero empathy. On the other hand, there are people with Williams Syndrome. They have too much empathy. They trust everyone. They love everyone:
…kids and adults with Williams love people, and they are literally pathologically trusting. They have no social fear. Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem in their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. There appears to be a disregulation in one of the chemicals (oxytocin) that signals when to trust and when to distrust. This means that it is essentially biologically impossible for kids like Isabelle to distrust.
Some people are too good, some too bad. And most of us are somewhere in the middle. Don’t let a bad experience with one person ruin the party.
From The Sociopath Next Door:
Do not allow someone without conscience, or even a string of such people, to convince you that humanity is a failure. Most human beings do possess conscience. Most human beings are able to love.
To have a happy life and a productive career, you may need to give up on particular people.
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on people.
Join over 275,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.