Friday, May 13, 2011

The Author's Guide to Psychopaths-Behavior



It's been a while since the last psychopathy post, so let's review some facts.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder.  It is characterized by very predictable personality traits that can be  measured by a trained professional.  Psychopaths are born, not made, though environmental factors shape how the disorder is expressed.  Psychopaths are perennially popular characters in all sorts of fiction, but authors often incorporate common myths about psychopaths.

Today, we're looking at psychopathic behavior.  Let me make something very clear.  Finding these characteristics in yourself or others does not a psychopath make, young Padawan.  It is incredibly tempting to want to diagnose those around you as a psychopath, probably because everyone has some of these qualities to some degree.  The psychopath has most or all of these characteristics to such an extent that it has to be seen to be believed.

Think of it this way.  One of the characteristics of a psychopath is the inability to control impulses.  Before you panic and think, "My son Johnny never thinks before he does something!  MY GOD, HE'S GOING TO KILL US IN OUR BEDS!"  Most kids have impulse control issues, but they do things like texting when the teacher's back is turned.  They like to see what they can get away with, but there are firm limits in a normal kid's mind.  Normal kids know that things like stealing something extremely valuable, destroying property, or stabbing another with a switchblade are never ok, even if an adult isn't looking.  Nothing is off-limits to a psychopath.  They push limits much farther than normal kids would even fathom.

Remember, psychopaths aren't necessarily violent.  Many are white-collar criminals.  Also, they can be male or female.  For ease of writing, I alternately use the male and female pronouns below.

Dr. Robert Hare and the PCL-R***

Dr. Robert Hare is one of the world's leading experts on psychopathy.  He has studied them nearly all of his career as a psychologist.  If the subject interests you, check out his website.  He developed the test to determine if a subject indeed has psychopathy, which is called the PCL-R.  

Factor 1:  Personality
  • Glib and Superficial Charm:  Psychopaths can charm their way past even the most wary person's defenses, but they can't sustain it for very long.
  • Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth:  They have completely unrealistic notions about their own talents and abilities.  For example, a psychopath could truly believe he has the ability to become a neurosurgeon, even if he can't read and hated science.  Not only can he become a neurosurgeon, but he could be the world's leading neurosurgeon by his second week in practice.
  • Pathological Lying:  They lie even when it wouldn't hurt them to tell the truth.  If you catch them in a lie, they just change their story and go on without even blushing.  They frequently contradict themselves, often within a sentence.
  • Cunning and Manipulative:  They are exceptionally gifted at finding what a prospective victim's buttons are, and then skillfully push those buttons.  A lot.  They can turn others into putty in their hands.
  • Lack of Remorse or Guilt:  If a psychopath's actions destroys or kills another, it doesn't affect them whatsoever.  If you haven't already, watch the video I added to a previous post.  It shows functional MRI's of a psychopath's brain, and shows biologically how they deal with information that should make them feel empathy.
  • Shallow Emotions:  Genuine emotions are egocentric and short-lived.  They become very good at faking emotion.  Some observers of psychopaths still report that they seem off.  They know the words, but not the music.  This is also why treatment makes psychopaths worse.  Traditional psychotherapy teaches them how normal people react, and how to elicit sympathy from others.
  • A Callous Lack of Empathy:  It doesn't matter to them who they hurt.  They could steal their own grandmother's life savings, but it doesn't mean diddly to them.  They abandon, injure, sell, or murder their own children by the dozen.
  • Inability to Accept Responsibility for One's Own Behavior:  When they fail, it is someone else's fault.  We all know people who like to blame others.  Psychopaths take it to a new level.  It pervades every part of their lives.  A psychopath will use the most convoluted, nonsensical logic to justify his or her actions.  If a psychopath kills another, he blames the victim for being in the way while he was angry.

    Factor 2:  Case History
    • Prone to Boredom:  Psychopaths have exceedingly short attention spans and are often misdiagnosed as having ADD/ADHD as children.  (Again, don't panic if your child has one of these disorders.  Psychopathy is very rare.)  This is also why psychopaths usually don't do well in school and frequently never finish college.  Ted Bundy managed to make it all the way through law school, but he was the exception, not the rule.
    • Parasitic Lifestyle:  Psychopaths take mooching and thieving to a whole new level.  Why earn what one can take?
    • Poor Behavior Controls:  I think this is probably the number one trait writers get wrong.  We like to create these nefariously scary psychopathic geniuses, but the truth of the matter is that psychopaths aren't so good at thinking before they do something.  If they have a plan at all, they often don't follow it.  (See Impulsivity.)
    • Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals:  Not only can he be President by age 24 based on his devilish good looks, but he'll probably be able to make a cool million by age 16.  Long-term goals are ridiculously unrealistic.
    • Impulsivity:  Psychopaths rarely think before they do.  They do what will gain them the most pleasure in the shortest amount of time.
    • Irresponsibility:  Their irresponsibility pervades every area of their lives.  They don't pay bills.  They don't get jobs.  They abandon their children.  
    • Juvenile Delinquency:  Psychopaths are in trouble from the moment they are able to move.  They push boundaries as hard as they can and are in trouble with the law faster than you can say, "Juvenile detention."
    • Early Behavior Problems:  Parents of psychopaths see their behavior problems from a very early age.  They're often misdiagnosed with other behavioral problems.
    • Revocation of Early Release:  Psychopaths can't stay out of trouble for very long, but I should note that psychopathic behaviors fall off sharply after age 40.  There are several theories as to why.  They If they do manage to stay out of trouble, it's probably because they've gotten better at hiding their actions.  Another mode of thought is that they, like everyone else, slow down in their old age.

      Characteristics Not Correlated to Either Factor
      • Promiscuous Sexual Behavior:  Psychopaths will do it however and with whomever they can get it.  Notice that deviant sexual interests, like pedophilia or necrophilia are not part of psychopathy, but a psychopath can certainly have an additional paraphilia disorder.
      • Many Short-Term Marital Relationships:  If a psychopath bothers to marry at all, he or she tends to revolve through the marriage/divorce cycle rather rapidly.
      • Criminal Versatility:  Psychopaths are very creative and versatile in their crimes.  They tend to have very long rap sheets from early ages that involve all sorts of interesting ways to break laws.

        How Do We Apply the Science?

        In the final post for "The Author's Guide to Psychopaths," we'll discuss good and bad examples of fictitious psychopaths.  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

        (***This information can be found here, and the other source I am using is Without Conscience, by Dr. Robert Hare.)

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