How can we distinguish between psychopaths and healthy people? Can you give us the portrait of a true psychopath? Which of their faculties have problems?
Laura: The simplest, clearest and truest portrait of the psychopath is given in the titles of three seminal works on the subject: Without Conscience by Robert Hare, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley, and Snakes in Suits by Hare and Paul Babiak. A psychopath is exactly that: conscienceless. The most important thing to remember is that this is hidden from view behind a mask of normality that is often so convincing that even experts are deceived and, as a result, they become the Snakes in Suits that control our world. That’s the short answer.
Henry: Popular culture sees psychopaths as characters such as Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs, that is, as serial killers. However, while a certain number of psychopaths are criminals and have had run-ins with the law and some are, in fact, serial killers, there are a great number of them that never fall afoul of the law. These are the smarter ones, and they are the ones that are the most dangerous because they have found ways of working the system to their advantage.
There are a number of traits that we find in psychopaths: An obvious trait is the complete lack of conscience. They lack any sense of remorse or empathy with others. They can be extremely charming and are experts at using talk to charm and hypnotize their prey. They are also irresponsible. Nothing is ever their fault; someone else or the world at large is always to blame for all of their ‘problems’ or their mistakes. Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door, identifies what she calls the pity ploy. Psychopaths use pity to manipulate. They convince you to give them one more chance, and to not tell anyone about what they have done. So another trait – and a very important one – is their ability to control the flow of information.
They are also incapable of deep emotions. In fact, when Hare, a Canadian psychologist who spent his career studying psychopathy, did brain scans on psychopaths while showing them two sets of words, one set of neutral words with no emotional associations and a second set with emotionally charged words, while different areas of the brain lit up in the non-psychopathic control group, in the psychopaths, both sets were processed in the same area of the brain, the area that deals with language. They did not have an immediate emotional reaction.