As I mentioned in my post of last week, psychopathy (alt: sociopathy) has received a lot of attention in recent years. That’s primarily because of the dedication of the eminent researcher Dr. Robert Hare. And Hare was among the first to identify the critical factor at work in psychopathy: the callous, senseless, remorseless use and abuse of others rooted in severe empathy deficits. Although some psychopaths, do lead socially parasitic lifestyles and engage in criminal activity and other antisocial behaviors, Hare emphasizes that being antisocial is not what makes someone a psychopath. There are many hooligans who are not psychopathic. Psychopaths are distinguished from other problem characters because their extreme lack of empathy causes them to act with complete indifference and without conscience. That’s what makes them capable of some of the most cold-hearted actions toward others. And, because they can project an air of charm and civility, they can appear otherwise quite normal, they might even be, as Martha Stout points out, the person “next door.”
One of the things that I stress in my book Character Disturbance, is that psychopaths possess a uniquely malignant form of narcissism. They not only have little empathy for others, but also see themselves as superior to typical human beings. They actually consider themselves a superior form of life compared to other humans, which in their mind creates a justification for preying on those they regard as inferior. It’s their highly malignant narcissism that makes them capable of the callous, senseless, remorseless, use and abuse of others that defines their core character trait. Recently, a police investigation in Utah uncovered a plot involving two teens that demonstrates this point all to chillingly well:
An 18-year old and a 16-year old boy were arrested on suspicion of plotting a Columbine-style massacre at a school. And no, these boys were not misfits who had borne the scars of taunting, ostracization, or abuse,which should dispel another false notion about what must underlie such behaviors. The 18-year old could not help bragging to police that he was intrigued by the Columbine event simply because of its magnitude, and for some time had been contemplating how he could put his “superior mind” to the task of creating an even more calamitous event and getting away with it. So, he spent hours studying the crime, all the “mistakes” made by the perpetrator, and the response of the law enforcement community. He even visited the town and the site several times. He couldn’t believe what “fools” almost everyone had been and was determined to demonstrate that a superior intellect such as his could wipe out many more lives, leave an indelible mark on the community, and ensure his name would be immortalized. In addition, he would not only get away with the crime but would have many years to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. The police investigators were taken aback by the candor and calm demeanor the young man displayed when bragging about his plan. They were also struck by his apparent confidence, despite the fact that plan had obvious holes in it. This demonstrates that the grandiosity inherent in malignant narcissism rarely has any factual justification. As Stanton Samenow has often put it, such personalities are “legends in their own minds.”
As tragic as it is, sometimes people are attracted to the confidence and charm that psychopathic personalities project. This causes them to ignore their internal danger sensors. And by the time they come to their senses, they’ve already been worked over by these pathologically haughty and unfeeling characters. Make no mistake, no one is more dangerous than a person who sets him or herself above others to the point that he or she feels entitled to prey on those viewed as inferior.
One of the main things I tried to accomplish with Character Disturbance, was to give folks a framework for understanding the broad spectrum of character disturbance, and to distinguish how some personality types, including those as pathological as psychopaths and sociopaths, fit within this framework and compare to other problem characters. Knowledge is power. And the more we understand about the kinds of problem characters we’re likely to encounter, the less likely we are to be taken in or victimized by them. It’s my hope that Character Disturbance will do for heightening awareness of the disturbing phenomenon of our age what In Sheep’s Clothing did for helping folks understand and deal with manipulation.