Know any psychopaths?!

You might have met more than you might realise.

Psychopaths or sociopaths, as they are also known, can be very difficult to recognise, although I think that’s for the following reason: most of us have the wrong understanding of what psychopathy actually means.

Psychopathy is, in my opinion, usually associated with people who commit murder and violence. While it might be true that many psychopaths can commit murder (for reasons explained below), it is no way the case that all psychopaths do commit murder. In fact, many people exhibiting psychopathic behaviours live non-violent lives, as they have learnt to control their thoughts and behaviours.

What, then, are the two dominant character traits of psychopaths? They are: fearless in all circumstances and self-centred, again, in all circumstances. (Skeem et al, in 2011 carried out the research.)

Before I continue, I want to emphasise that all of us show the following traits. The difference is that we show them on occasion. There is a monumental difference between on occasion and in all circumstances. The former is context-specific; the latter isn’t.

Let’s look at each one in more detail.

1. Fearlessness in all circumstances

Fearlessness in all circumstances might, actually, be regarded as an advantage. How many of us could actually say, hand-on-heart, that in the face of any event in front us, we weren’t sometimes anxious or scared? System 1 (your autonomic system dominated by the amygdala) has the role of keeping you safe. Unfortunately, perceived danger and actual danger are not understood by the amygdala so the body responds in the same way: with fear. Psychopaths, however, seem to have an abnormal amygdala-orbital frontal cortex connection and so such people have no fear at all.

Having no fear in all circumstances might not be such a good idea though since a ‘healthy fear’ (there really is danger here) helps to keep us safe. After all, would you enter a lions’ den at feeding time with nothing more than a chair and whip? No, neither would I. Perhaps that might explain why we often admire those who show no fear. Think high trapeze artists operating with no wire for a good example. Therefore, it might be wise – and we’re likely to live longer too – to say that it’s better to have a ‘healthy fear’ rather than no fear at all.

Many people, however, do show ‘no fear in all circumstances’. These people are not necessarily psychopaths. Mad!, but not necessarily psychopaths. It’s when it’s in combination with the second trait that psychopathy is said to exist.

2. Self-centredness in all circumstances

Lack of self-control is the hallmark of self-centredness. They want it and they want it now and nothing – and no one – is going to prevent them getting it.

Contrary to many people’s thinking that psychopaths have high emotion, they show a very low emotional state and a very high level of control. They lack self-control and will go ahead and get what they want and have no regard to the wake their actions cause to those around them. Remember, in every circumstance and not occasionally. That’s the reason psychopaths in the work place will cause such hurt feelings. Simply put, they permanently lack empathy and therefore show a state of fearlessness. The feelings of others is irrelevant when they pursue what they want. They will get what they want too using charm if need’s be. Their ‘eyes are on the prize’; not the people around them.

Psychopaths don’t take personal responsibility for their actions and so don’t learn from them. The same outcomes will repeatedly occur since they will blame others for what has happened. Again, I want to reiterate that not taking responsibility – in its own right – does not mean you or your boss or partner is a psychopath. It is self-centredness in all circumstances and fearlessness in all circumstances that are traits of psychopathy.

What to do
Tricky. If you feel that you’re a psychopath then be assured that you’re not. You’re feeling, after all and empathy is not a trait of psychopaths! However, if you generally believe that your boss or partner exhibits fearlessness and self-centredness in all circumstances then getting them to realise that this is the case is extremely hard.

All one can do is to, as assertive as possible (since that is in a low emotional state), state how you feel and how the actions of your partner or boss is not helpful. Saying something like,

“I was hurt by what happened. I felt that the [whatever it is] was inappropriate and I want you to stop doing it. I want us to find a way forward. Thank you for hearing me.”

may go some way to managing the situation. Notice the lack of the accusatory use of the word, “You”. It focuses on the use of “I” and you have every right to express how you feel. Remember though, no one or no event makes you feel like you do. It doesn’t excuse it; it doesn’t blame it, however.

We need to be honest though. A lack of empathy in the other person and an unwillingness to accept responsibility, makes this considerably harder to be heard.

Finally, returning to why most psychopaths don’t commit murder, it’s understandable why people connect a total lack of empathy and constant fearlessness exhibited by psychopaths with murder. As the psychology mantra goes: correlation doesn’t mean causation. Or, as I like to put it: Just because… Just because there’s a lack of fearlessness and empathy in all circumstances doesn’t mean murder is the natural outcome. For some, that is the outcome; for many it isn’t. Many psychopaths have learnt to control their behavioural state. Volitional effort to control or change one’s mind is possible for everyone. For some, that takes an enormous amount of effort since the neurological circuitry to control the natural response (as explained earlier) is abnormal. Many, many psychopaths (this might explain why the term sociopath is also used, as it is less emotionally charged) have learnt to do this. And for that, they deserve much credit.

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