A Peek Inside the Mindset of Terror

Ever since the terror attacks in Boston, I’ve been inundated with emails and other requests to address the matter in some fashion on this blog.  Most of those inquiring were eager to understand just what kind character disturbance allows people to engage in such heinous acts as a mass killing or terror attack.  Questions like:  “What goes on in someone’s mind that enables them to justify such savagery?;  Are all people who do such things psychopaths?;  Are they necessarily mentally ill or somehow not in their right mind?. were the most common.    While I’m certainly not an expert on terrorism per se, I’m very familiar with the kinds of troublesome beliefs, distorted thinking, and unhealthy attitudes that inevitably increase the risk that someone will behave in a socially irresponsible manner.  So, I’m going to take a stab at making some sense of the senseless tragedy in Boston, and I’ll try to do so without making things unnecessarily complicated.

Let me preface my remarks by reiterating an important psychological principle – a principle at the very heart of what has become a sort of revolution in psychological perspectives on human behavior:  the Cognitive-Behavioral Paradigm.  The fundamental principle this paradigm promotes is that how we think about things and how we act are inextricably intertwined (for more about the central tenets of the cognitive-behavioral perspective see:  A Matter of Perspective.  Our core beliefs, attitudes, and ways of perceiving the realities around us heavily influence the actions we take.  Similarly, how we act, the consequences that ensue from those actions, and most especially, the meanings and interpretations we ascribe to both of the aforementioned heavily impact the beliefs and attitudes we form and hold.  That’s why, when it comes to intervening with someone whose mindset and behavior patterns bespeak serious defects in their character, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (and a highly specialized type of CBT at that) is the treatment of choice (for more on this see:  Therapy and the Face of Real Change and Therapy and the Face of Real Change – Part 2).

One of the major points I make in my most recent book, The Judas Syndrome, is that no matter what religious beliefs and values a person outwardly professes, the most reliable indicator of the beliefs they truly and most deeply hold in their hearts is the behavior they display.   When someone believes something very sincerely and strongly, they necessarily behave in ways that are in accordance with that belief.  And when the belief itself is disturbingly aberrant or dangerous, you can fairly well bet that aberrant or dangerous behavior is lurking around the corner.

Now let’s take a look at the Boston tragedy and the character of those responsible for it.   And I’ll do my best to make the incomprehensible as understandable as possible.   Most everyone wants to feel and be special, important, and powerful (Alfred Adler was one of the first of the classical psychology theoreticians to actively promote this notion).  Some among us harbor this desire much more intensely than most.   In fact, there are some who strive to dominate the rest of us.  And this desire does not appear to be something that’s purely learned.  True, culture can really encourage and reinforce the tendency.  But it’s instinctual to a great degree, a part of our evolutionary heritage (and historically, much more common in the male of our species).  And in prehistoric times, ruthless, fearless “alpha” characters were probably instrumental in ensuring the survival of humankind.  Even in early historical times, such folks were likely the key to the well-being and prosperity of various “tribes.” But in modern, civilized times, only those characters whose desire for power and status is of moderate intensity and who are also amenable to channeling that desire into socially acceptable outlets and mutually beneficial enterprises have a real place in society.

I’ve been an observer and student of human aggression for many years.  And because of the increase in recent years of mass shootings and acts of terror, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the kinds of folks who commit such acts.  Some appear to me to be classic dominance-seekers and predators, pure and simple – fearless, conscience-less warriors who simply don’t mind preying on those whom they view as inferior and therefore “expendable.”   Others are wounded, depressed, and extremely angry individuals, who for one reason or another feel socially disenfranchised and want those whom they perceive to be the source of their pain or who are simply enjoying the life they wish they had, suffer.  Still others are ruthless power-seekers whose sole purpose is to dominate but who use the “cover story” of a professed allegiance to some higher cause to cloak their true nature and intent.  They might proclaim devotion to a particular religious philosophy and attempt to justify their acts of barbarism as a necessary evil in the noble fight for a greater or holy cause, but they are really charlatans who simply want to rule over others and would meet with resistance from those whom they wish to subjugate if their true character and motives were known.  Then there are those who truly believe in some radical and dangerous philosophy.  Some of these folks have been brainwashed and “converted” by expert controller-manipulator types and some are dominator wannabes who ease the sting of their abject failure and “loser” status in life by finding fault and blame with some external target.  Such folks naturally gravitate toward hate philosophies that focus all the attention upon unbelievers, heathen, and “infidels,” casting them as fair targets for punishment because of their purported unworthiness and inherent disfavor with the divine.  Buying into such philosophies gives these otherwise “losers” a quick, easy, and cheap way to gain some sense of personal dignity and superiority over others.  And if in fact they actually happen to be a member of a group that has been oppressed in some way, such philosophies are even more attractive to them.  I believe the older brother in the Boston terror attack falls into this category.  Messages like:  “You’re so much better than the infidels responsible for your pain and the pain of your oppressed brothers;  By the will of God you shall at least be the master of your wife and children – at home you shall be king even if by the standards of the infidels you’re an abysmal failure” (for what it’s worth, according to some reports it appears this particular individual, despite talent and promise, had been subsisting on welfare until his wife, who worked up to 80 hours a week and shouldered most of the other burdens brought in just enough money to make them ineligible for continued benefits);  Oh, and by the way, you don’t have to bear one bit of responsibility for feeling like a villain or a tyrant when you take out your anger and frustration on others because after all, you’re only carrying out the will of the almighty and they’re non-believing, guilty scum who deserve punishment anyway,” are sweet music to their ears, and they readily embrace the attractive (albeit dangerous) philosophies that promulgate these messages.

Now I’m going to take a very big risk and probably offend some people.  But because what we believe in our hearts is so crucial to how we act toward one another, we must be willing to embrace the reality that what we believe matters, and sometimes, matters a lot. And for that reason we must accept the fact that not all beliefs and belief systems are of equal character.  Few women these days would question whether the once widely-held belief (still commonly held in some cultures and belief systems) that women are naturally inferior to men and should be subject to men’s rule is not only outdated but probably responsible for many acts of abuse and historical denial of rights.  And very few would question whether an organization or entity that teaches that certain races are inherently inferior and therefore not entitled to the same rights and privileges of others necessarily promotes a toxic and abhorrent belief system.  But how many folks are willing to accept the notion that certain systems of religious belief are inherently problematic for the well-being of society because of some of the tenets they hold and promote?  Not many.  Most of us want to believe not only in the basic goodness of man but also in the essential equality of the many spiritual pathways humankind has developed over the centuries.  But when it comes down to it, the reality is pretty indisputable:  certain ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationship to a higher power, and our relationship to others and the world around us are counterproductive, inherently flawed, and sometimes, downright dangerous.  And when some of most problematic tenets of these systems of belief are given extreme interpretations and then fiercely promoted or forcefully imposed on others, you inevitably invite social disaster.

Whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, for some time we have been in an ideological war that we didn’t initiate.  And the philosophy driving this war is taking firmer root in country after country – even in some socio-cultural pockets within our own country.  In some places, the philosophy was held in check for a time by ruthless dictators just as intent on maintaining a degree of secularism in their country as they were intent on holding on to power and control.   But in the advent of the collapse of dictatorial regimes, the philosophy and the zealots promoting it have become the new dominating tyrants.  And some of the rhetoric coming from the radical preachers of this philosophy is chillingly analogous to the deranged thinking that enabled Hitler’s henchman to use “inferior” classes of individuals as guinea pigs in hideous medical experiments and to feel justified in sadistically abusing and exterminating others.  Unless we wake up in time and confront the issue head-on, the grand ideals that every human being has innate worth, inalienable rights, and deserves the opportunity to live free from domination or oppression will give way to the notion that the only persons worthy to survive and prosper are those who believe as the would be theocratic dominators decree.

The dangerous philosophies floating around these days will continue to spread and take firmer root unless they are properly recognized, confronted and directly challenged.  I say this because I know all too well the cost of not acknowledging or dealing with dysfunctional ways of thinking.  When I was beginning my work with disturbed characters, I’d heard all the excuses from my colleagues:  “They’re never going to change; They’re impossible to treat; Nothing works; Why waste your time?; Just stay away from them.”   True, character disturbance is hard to deal with.  But I realized that the much bigger part of the problem was that most of us simply refused to recognize its true nature and fewer of us knew how to or had the courage to confront it appropriately.  Then slowly but surely I began labeling and calling out the problem characters I was working with on their dysfunctional ways of thinking and their irresponsible behavior patterns.  I quit trying to see the “unconscious fears and insecurities underneath,” quit trying to help them sort out their emotions, and quit trying to get them to “see” what I was always taught was unconscious to them.  Instead, I confronted their behaviors and challenged their ways of thinking thinking about things head-on, made sure they were reinforced when they took small steps in a different direction, and made sure there were consequences when they failed to do so.   And to my great surprise and edification, something happened that I’d never witnessed before:  change!  The same can be true for the problem we face now with a whole host of nefarious characters who would shoot at us, blow us up, or otherwise do us harm.  We need to accept the fact that there are those among us who neither think straight about themselves and the world around them or act in a sufficiently pro-social manner so as not to pose a risk to the rest of us.  And we need to do a much better job at sizing them up (i.e. judging their character) and, most especially, calling them out on their dysfunctional attitudes, thinking and behavior (this is the main reason I wrote my second book, Character Disturbance).

We’ve heard that acquaintances of the older brother (Tamerlan) who masterminded the Boston Marathon bombings couldn’t help but notice the change taking place in the Tsarnaev household as its members became more religiously fanatic and began entertaining troublesome, erroneous and somewhat paranoid beliefs about their adopted country and its inhabitants.  We’ve also heard that some of these beliefs were promoted by various entities on the internet and by a mysterious character by the name of “Misha.”  But finding certain beliefs and ways of believing attractive and then fully embracing and adopting them, especially those that would justify the kinds of actions the Tsarnaev brothers eventually took, unavoidably speaks to their already existing character.  So I can’t help wonder what might have happened if early on someone had dared to confront Tamerlan:  “The way to get ahead and feel good about yourself is to educate yourself, work hard, treat others as you would be treated yourself, and show some respect for the opportunities afforded you in this great land;  Stop blaming others and buying into conspiracy nonsense;  It’s not the evil others’ fault you’re not doing well, it’s  you!;  And if you don’t get it together, and don’t straighten out your thinking about things I’m putting you on my watch list; And if you keep spouting this conspiratorial nonsense and hate speech (Tamerlan had told several others that he believed the U.S. had staged the 9-11 attacks as a pretext for mass killing innocent Muslims), I’m going to report you to authorities;  We’re a country here, struggling like everyone else to survive and prosper, and if you’re not actively part of the solution, you’re inevitably part of the problem.”  As far as I know, no one dared say anything of the sort to the man who masterminded the death of 4, the maiming of 200 innocent others, and by some reports planned, along with his brother, to repeat a similar crime in Times Square.  Most of the folks that witnessed his decent into radicalism, simply and slowly parted company with him.  And while they all simply left him alone with his wacky and dangerous ways of thinking, he was making plans to kill.

46 thoughts on “A Peek Inside the Mindset of Terror

  1. Warfare is a vicious circle that one can be dragged into. Terror, turmoil, fear, imminent menace in the environment lead us to not view others as humans and is a rather unfair environment of effigies and negative stereotypes in plural-esque culture.

    I believe that educating folks on contexts of warfare and terrorism and the cause-effects of it is a step in understanding the psychology of those inclined to do these acts of antagonism at a macro-level.

    The question here is: how can we control this vicious circle pragmatically?

    1. I think it is to encourage folks not only to be more perceptive about dangerous thinking, but also who can be helped and what can be done about it.

      The difference is in recognizing whether someone is the kind of person to listen to reason.

      If someone is so steadfast they can’t be swayed around, then reporting to the auhorities and warning others would be the way to go.

      If, however, there is a reasonable chance that someone can be reasoned back into the right path, social exclusion or exodus can actually worsen things. The rejection like that can actually convince someone that they were right to begin with to ever consider acts of terror. In those cases, getting cut off socially can increase emotional pain. This pain further reinforces attractiveness of twisted philosophies, overpowering objections of conscience.

      In those cases, the answer would be to talk like Dr Simon demonstrates in the last paragraph of this article. The answer would be not social exclusion, but firm pointing of a finger to a right direction, gentle warning of dire consequences if a wrong path is followed and making sure an individual sees value in following the right path.

  2. Thank you for tackling the most difficult of issues that we face as a society.

    I must say, I just can’t imagine confronting a sociopath that way. Where did you get the courage? I agree with you, though, it must be done. They can wreak havoc whether or not they are confronted. I don’t think I have any Boston bombers in my life, but there are some in my life with aberrant thinking for sure… Again, this gets back to working on ourselves. To come from such a place of judgement and authority, we’d better have our own ducks in a row:) Thank you for this courageous post!

    1. Yes, we must try. And fortunately, most of the twisted thinkers out there are disturbed characters for sure but not full-blown sociopaths or psychopaths (they’re actually only about one percent of the population, despite all the media hype about them these days). Besides, as the old saying goes, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

  3. I am not on the wagon regarding beliefs causing behaviors. That’s always seemed an invitation to persecute people for thoughts, instead of deeds, and I can’t ever remember it leading to good things. On the contrary.

    It says in the OT “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” This was used as a justification by those who wanted to torture and burn heretics. People wanting to do bad deeds find their rationale by latching onto suitable beliefs…

    1. You raise some good issues here, Vera, but I invite you to take a much closer and deeper look at what’s being said here about the relationship between true core beliefs, patterns of thinking, attitudes, and behavior. And expect more articles to come on the subject.

  4. I was always suspicious about the generally accepted statistic that 4% of our population is psychopathic (or sociopathic or narcissistic).
    If, in fact, a national probability survey had ever been done (which I doubt because is never referred to), it was done decades ago (before our understanding, definition, & tests were formulated). Since I have become more conscious and aware of these disorders . I find (in MY sample of acquaintances)that the incidence is MUCH higher . . . I would say MOST, (yes MOST) men have no conscience (the linchpin of psychopathy), and perhaps 1/3 of the women have no conscience. Yes, some can come across as very kind and caring, and even do nice things once in a while. What defines them is their inappropriate (covert & overt) aggression, lack of conscience, and inability to love. Perhaps someone would actually do a study. My sample may be biased as I live in NY.
    For sure, we’re all aware that business and politics is rife with personality disordered (narcissists, covert aggressives, psychopaths, sociopaths) people. We’re also aware that a religion (or ideology) is also rife with aggressive, conscienceless people.
    We don’t say a person is NOT a murderer because he didn’t kill the hundreds of people he could have killed. We say he “IS a murderer” when he killed even 1 of the hundreds of people he knew. He is defined by the person he killed, not by the people he left alive (and could have killed).

    1. Your suspicion about the percentage of psychopaths is understandable. But true full-blown psychopathy is a very distinct and rare condition. That said, the entire basis of my work and the whole point of my book Character Disturbance is that there is a vast spectrum of character impairment – very analogous to what we’ve finally come to realize about autistic spectrum disorders. And people can have varying and serious deficits in empathy capacity and conscience without truly qualifying as psychopaths. That doesn’t for a minute mean that there are a LOT more seriously character-deficient individuals out there capable of much irresponsible social behavior (which is again the main point of my work). And it certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be wary of these impaired characters just because they don’t strictly meet the criteria for psychopathy. As the title of my book insists, character pathology is definitely the phenomenon of our age. And there are a lot of factors responsible for that outside of the unusual brain wiring and incapacity for empathy and conscience found in psychopaths. The only good news in this is that the other factors are at least addressable and modifiable.

  5. It’s easy to say “full blown” psychopathy is a very distinct and rare condition. Would we say Madoff was a full blown psychopath? I would! There are many others like him in finance (he is not a anomaly). What about politicians that lie, send our troops to be murdered, create false flag operations, just so they can further their career? What about Islamic jihadists? Would you say they are full blown psychopaths? There are Millions! Wife abusers (physical and/or emotional)? Full blown! Bullyiers? For sure it is a continuum, but as I see it . . there are many on that continuum that are “full blown” (and it seems to be growing) IMHO. Until we do a real study, (with the information we have) we just don’t know. I submit that in my personal sample of over a hundred acquaintances, more than 1/3 are “full blown” psychopaths/narcissists/sociopaths. They have no conscience, they are charming, they commit their evil with impunity (hurting whomever will give them what they want without a second thought to the impact on their victims, as long as can get away with it), they are consummate liars (gas-lighting as readily they breathe), they are smart (haven’t been caught “yet”), and they are power hungry and arrogant, and feign kindness to a few chosen people, to give them the air of normalcy. They don’t go around killing people, that’s too obvious . . They just murder people souls. IMHO they are “full blown”.

    1. No, Sarah, it’s not “easy” to say. There are lots of bad people out there and of different types. I wrote the book because I know full well that character disturbances of one sort or another are at epidemic levels. But words have to mean things, especially clinical terms, and psychopathy is a clinical term with very specific criteria. No one, especially me, who’s spent my whole professional career studying and dealing with nefarious types, is trying to downplay the severity of the various character disturbances out there, or the devastating impact character disordered people have on others. But there has to be accuracy in labeling and defining. For years, we’ve been witnessing the horrible results of the lack of honest and accurate labeling with psychiatrists handing out “bipolar”, ADHD, and other popular diagnoses like popcorn, while a fair percentage of the folks carrying those labels probably more accurately have a character disorder.

      There are many reasons we apply labels inaccurately. Doctors do it to justify their interventions, for the purpose of getting insurance to pay, and to give themselves an out when the real diagnosis is not politically expedient. And sometimes even lay persons do it when the reprehensible nature of someone’s behavior leads us to want to “punish” them with the worst label we can think of.

      I choose my words carefully and I do my homework on the facts in the interest of the readers who are doing their best to understand the whacked-out world in which we presently live. And as you know, I’m not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom when I have ample clinical experience that argues against it.

      Jim Jones was a psychopath. But not all of the people he brainwashed – even those few that actually killed others before they killed themselves – were psychopaths also. People can do and be convinced to do (even some jihadists) some very terrible things without being souless or devoid of a human heart. I know it sounds implausible, but it’s unfortunately quite true. So, the reality is that the problem of character dysfunction – in addition to be a lot more prevalent than some think – is a lot more complex than just everyone who does the heinous being a psychopath.

  6. It’s time we had a study (based on a national probability sample), using the information, tests, and criteria we now have for evaluation of character disordered people. Since there doesn’t seem to be any monetary incentive at this point in time, the prospects for this study are dismal.
    I’m confident if a drug company ever comes up with a supposed “cure” for psychopathy (i.e., lack of conscience) . . . Suddenly there’ll be a g’zillion studies (signed by psychiatrists that didn’t read them) in which we’ll all be labeled psychopaths, in dire NEED their new miracle drug.

  7. They’ll test the drug for X weeks . . before any side effects can manifest . . And declare it safe! My Cynicism is based on reality.

  8. Hi Dr. Simon: Thank you for a most informative post. I agree with most of your comments. However, the intimation that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the severely character disturbed person that he was, would ever take to heart a message that he was the cause of his own misfortune, is too much to ask. He would have never listened to a rational point of view – in fact, probably being a master of projection, he would have been well able to victimize his confronters – they are the problem, not him. He would have no respect for authority figures, so I am left wondering, who in his world would have had the capacity to make a life-changing impact on him? Who wants to take on that responsibility? Who would feel a calling to take on religious based fanatacism? Outsiders departed from his company; afraid, not wanting to become involved in his disorted thinking. Unfortunately, as his social circle shrinks, leaving on only passive, dependent, easily manipulated indivuals, his deluded and distorted musings increase to sociopathic proportions. No checks or balances. Terrorist websites on the internet radicalize him. Not hard to understand the escalation of his hatred.

  9. Dr. Simon…..I can’t understand why the CA, DC, Psychopath, Sociopath (aka Spath) issue isn’t getting more air time!! Actually, Dr. Phill’s new book talks about it for sure but his version is lame and candy coated in humor.This is no laughing matter! I guess there are some other shows like that who have approached the subject but….we need YOU to go on these shows!! Knowledge is power and i have a dream!! A dream that the country, especially women who could get entangled with one of these monsters, are so educated on the topic that the Spath’s happy hunting grounds shrink beyond recognition!School programs, colleges, etc… Let’s start a movement!
    Actually, it’s easy for me to talk lightly in this department because i’m realitivly sure that the Spath I’m dealing with just wants to play with me….kind of like a cat plays with a mouse only it’s heartbreaking, humiliating mental and emotional torture to the mouse (me)…..BUT…..there are some very dangerous versions of the same type that do things like poison their wives and girlfriends. Spaths do NOT want to be exposed, especially in public.
    Sorry…..just a little rant there!

    1. Agree. Folks need to be educated about disturbances of character, from how disturbed characters develop to how they victimize others.

      We also need to avoid the pitfall Sarah mentioned: That everyone could suddenly be labeled as a psychopath.

      Since Dr Simon has talked about the importance of correct frameworks, we should find frameworks that include both character disturbance and healthier ways of developing as a human being.

      1. Can’t stress enough about the importance of the frameworks, so thanks for mentioning it. Of the over 5,000 testimonial letters, emails, etc. I’ve received in recent years, by far the single biggest game-changer folks report to me is using the frameworks I offer in my writing to see their lives, the character-deficient people in their lives, and the behavior those folks display, in a new light. Once the proverbial light bulb goes off, everything seems to change and there’s no going back. Very edifying to say the least.

    2. I appreciate the rant! Sometimes I can hardly sit back myself. But there are circumstances that I haven’t widely publicized that have led to me curtailing my public profile, doing workshops, and making TV appearances over the past several years. But circumstances have also been changing for me in the past several months and it’s likely I’ll have some announcements about appearances and workshops (for a limited-run) in the very near future. Stay tuned!

      1. Ok, then you need a front man/woman! lol Pick me, pick me!! You could start a school and train us to go out on crusade! LOLOL!! The Simon Says Anti Spath Crusade! The SSASC ! I can only imagine how risky that would be….YIKES!!
        Joking aside, It really would be wonderful to shrink the supply line for these character disturbed monsters. Your doing a fine job so far Dr. Simon

  10. For some years, in the UK in particular, there have been interventions that have been successful in dealing with violent extremism. We have been involved with this for smoe years and are conducting a 3-year European research project at the moment summing up the ‘best practice’ and creating a toolkit to help other countries implement it.
    You’re right, Dr Simon, that there is no one single psychological profile or set of motivations. Breivik clearly seems like a ‘full blown psychopath’, but that does not seem to apply to the ‘Shoe Bomber’ or the ‘Underpants Bomber’. Interventions can’t be identical either.
    The straightforward confrontation you describe here – while great for Character Disturbances – is not that likely to be effective as a method taken by itself. That doesn’t mean that nothing can work. Nor that family/friend interventions aren’t a useful starting point. But it can be a very complex ‘therapy’ and each individual is unique.
    While beliefs and behaviour are certainly intertwined, my own view after some years’ of involvement in this is that it is too simplistic to see beliefs as causing behaviour. Most of those who are vulnerable and at risk are attracted to groups and individuals not because they cognitively hold certain beliefs — but because they are vulnerable for other reasons; most often unmet emotional and psychological needs.
    There are those who are attracted by largely intellectual arguments – but we are learning that they are far less likely to act on violence. They are the armchair radicals, the intellectual wannabe revolutionaries, the ‘fabulists’ (or to use plain language, bullshitters) and far less often have the characteristics that will make them strap on a suicide vest and actually go through with an act of self-and-other-violence.
    This is not to excuse violence of any kind. But as small a proportion arrive at violent takfiri beliefs based on purely cognitive theological arguments as join ‘New Religious Movements’ (what you might think of as ‘cults’) for purely intellectual reasons. Much more, recruitment has to do with ‘grooming’, whose psychological features inviolent religious extremism are not fundamentally different from grooming abuse victims (or grooming people who have been abused in childhood)or gang members.
    Nevertheless most of the most effective interventions for religious extremism that we are acquainted with do use theological argumentation to deconstruct the beliefs that are perversions of Islam. But the MOST effective do this while quietly meeting the unmet emotional and psychological and social needs. One of the best de-radicalisers I know said to me that he hadn’t dealt with a single individual that he was winning back who didn’t have ‘father issues’… That holds true for the demographic he was working with – others even in the UK differ – but it paints a vivid picture. Far less than people think is really driven by cognitive religious beliefs. They are the spurious legitimation.
    As for you musing ‘what would have happened if early on…’ and that is what the UK has been working on. I have spoken to agencies in DC and they were hesitant. A new strategy has since been brought in to the US on ‘CVE’ (countering violent extremism) based on lessons learned in the UK. But I have been wondering what will happen to it now. After a terrible incident the general public is much less willing to accept interventions that look ‘positive’ and constructive and want more punitive and aggressive action. Something to do with high emotional arousal in the limbic system, methinks!

    1. Sorry for the over-long post and even worse to add another to clarify something. But just in case anyone is interested; basically I just want to make clear that within those violent circles you will have the same spectrum of psychopath-CD-neurotic victim as we all experience in more ordinary contexts. Some of the people who actually carry out certain kinds of attacks (perhaps the younger brother in the Boston attack?)are not character-disturbed but in a sense the opposite – they are the vulnerable and susceptible, far too willing to do with the CD (‘position, position, position!’) won’t — absorb someone else’s norms and authority. That’s how they get manipulated into doing the unthinkable. Not because they reject society’s norms and everyone else’s; but because their own reasons for vulnerability have made them FAR TOO willing to uncritically subject themselves to the power and authority of another.

      One project we work with is rehabilitating/educating/giving therapy in Pakistan to boys abducted/recruited by the Taliban and made to carry out violent attacks. Abuse is rampant, including [homosexual] sexual abuse (so, nothing to do with the official tenets of Islam, eh?!)These boys may come back with deeply distorted religious belief systems that are unrecognisable and abhorrent to the brave Muslim psychotherapists and religious scholars trying to rehabilitate them. But that doesn’t mean that the religious beliefs OR character dysfunction is what has ’caused’ these boys to commit the acts of violence they have. For some, the beliefs are a ’cause’ of behaviour – for others, a tool of manipulation – for others, the rationalisation and legitimation of a political agenda which isn’t sacred enough to have the same suasive power – for others, an excuse to justify the gratification of emotional rewards being showered on them by the manipulators.
      We oversimplify to our peril if we see ‘one’ profile, or for that matter ‘one’ transnational threat. It’s more diverse and complex, on the individual but also on the group and national level.

    2. Thanks so much for such a well thought out and equally well said comment, G.

      Indeed, there are so many reasons folks succumb to violent inclinations. Some are already naturally inclined and just love the slightest excuse to go to war and dominate, whereas it’ a different and much more complicated picture for others, as you well state.

      And I suspect there will be more research in the coming years about how to best reach folks. I once thought that sometimes, much of what I was saying was simply falling on deaf ears. But I eventually learned that while a person might not at the moment be “ready” to hear and embrace what we’d like them to, they often in fact do hear, and it’s surprising how many I’ve encountered over the years who years after my first encounters with them remembered every word and were thoughtful enough after they became ready to change to let me know and sometimes even to thank me. It reinforced for me the importance of simply doing and saying the right things for their own sake. We can’t control the outcomes. But we sure can do something.

      1. ‘We can’t control the outcomes but we can do the right things for their own sake.’ Now something is scratching at my memory; some wise man saying something about the fastest route to depression is to put your energy into what you cannot control … was it one George Simon or Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita?! (=Do the right thing and detach yourself from the result.)

        Grounds for hope, nevertheless, for you brave souls working away without being able to guarantee the outcome –
        outcomes on the Pakistan project (so far) = 100% success rate in those rehabilitated. And these are boys who lived in extreme poverty BEFORE their ordeal; and then subjected to all manner of abuse and ‘brainwashing’ and made to kill.

    3. I know from my personal experience that emotional arousal and payoff reinforces thinking. I’m sure that goes for anyone from the most soft-hearted of us to the those of us with the most rotten of hearts. For example, if someone finds satisfaction in thinking they have the right to others hell, they can’t change their thinking just like that.

  11. A person with “power over” a psychopath usually has a different experience of a psychopath than his victims (whom he controls). Psychopaths (narcissists etc) tend to “kiss-UP” and “abuse-DOWN”.The people the psychopath can control (victims) get to see his true colors. i.e., Smart character disordered people hide their disorder from those that are more powerful. IMHO this is why there is a disparity
    between the estimates of the incidence of psychopathy. Ann Rule (and his teachers) thought Bundy was a great guy. . .his victims saw the truth.

    1. They not only hide their true selves, but they also do it and win over the powerful by stroking their egos. I’ve had this experience many times with them and became pretty revolted by the flattery, knowing what was behind it. It literally made me sick.

    2. Sarah, that’s a good one!! “kiss-up and abuse-down”. My experience is that in my relationsh-t, He started by kissing up, wore me down with crazy making which turned me weak, confused, needy, exhausted and then despised me for what he had created, enter the discard phase….kind of. The semi discard phase…..

      I ended up buying the ebook, Women WHo Love Psychopaths and it has been enlightening. I don’t want to take anything away from Dr. Simon’s work and books, etc…but this is really a “must read” for romantic entanglements with disturbed people.

      1. I am reading The Verbally Abusive Relationship (Evans), and there is a lot of useful stuff too. I wish she did not say “denial” when she means “lies.” A few other bloopers. But quite good overall.

      2. Puddle . . the more you read the better. Read both Dr. Simons books, these articles on the web, and watch his videos on YouTube. They’re eye openers!

        1. Sarah, Vera, I have read both of Dr. Simons books and he is my hero!! I always say that we should clone him!! LOL I read The Verbally Abusive Relationship and it is child’s play comparatively speaking to Women Who Love Psychopaths. No offense and thanks for the suggestion though!
          This book is one ah ha moment after the next for me and it aint pretty OMG! I am so destroyed by this relationship I can’t even believe it and my resources for recovery are limited where i live. I will say this…..the aftermath of this has been made doublely worse because therapists themselves don’t seem to get the dynamics at play. The one therapist made me feel even worse by saying to me ” I would NEVER let a man speak to me like that” and more.
          anyhow, the ebook was inexpensive enough so I went with that and WOW!

  12. Really appreciate your writing Dr. Simon! I am glad you went out the limb to question toxic and abhorrent belief systems. We can not be so foolish as to assume that all belief systems are equal or even good for the world. I saw on the comment list a mention of ‘frameworks’-where do I read about using frameworks to deal with manipulative people? I just finished reading In Sheeps Clothing and am going to start Character Disturbance next.

    1. I echo Dr Simon here, obviously, even though my words aren’t exactly his and take on a bit different a tone. There is a traditional framework of neurosis, which assumes underlying fears, hang-ups, insecurities, anxieties and feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem. However, that framework is inadequate when it comes to dealing with disturbed characters, who are driven solely or primarily by desire for dominance and determination to get what they want while showing middle finger to personal responsibility. Hopefully this manages to clarify what I meant when talking about frameworks.

    2. Of course, like Dr Simon has said time and time again, the framework of neurosis does have its use as well. In my earlier post I pondered if these two frameworks, the one of neurotic vulnerabilities and the one of distorted thinking and irresponsible behavior patterns, could integrate into one larger framework. This framework, I figure, could enable anyone, be they a counsellor or a layperson, to be ready to stop both deficient moral integrity and problems that are more emotionally self-distressing in nature.

      Then again, I’m no psychologist or other professional. That’s my pondering I hope someone gets something useful out of.

      1. So J, by “frameworks” you are meaning the framework of neurosis vs the framework of CD’s and CA’s and Spaths in general? Maybe I should stop using that word here?? LOL
        I guess I’m just not clear or certain about “”frameworks”” . Im not connecting with the word for some reason.

  13. Dr Simon, I requested this a while back and you requested me to remind you. If you aren’t too busy, can you make an article about paranoia?

  14. There is a error in paragraph eight with “waist” being used instead of waste. Great article by the way.

  15. While I am aware this comment may go unnoticed due to how long ago this article was posted, I feel it is a good place to pose this question: Do what extent do you separate your own religious beliefs from your work in the field of pyschology? I noticed that in this article the word “beliefs” and the word “philosophies” are sometimes used interchangeably. I have only recently discovered your blog and am loathe to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ but I am cautious around those who might be treating their own religious beliefs as being immune from criticism, and perhaps less dangerous than other religious beliefs. I think there is a difference between ‘beliefs’ and ‘philosophies’. The articles on this blog and the radio shows “Character Matters” that I have explored so far are really very good, and I think a lot of people can benefit from them. But while you conclude the article with “And while they all simply left him alone with his wacky and dangerous ways of thinking, he was making plans to kill” I cannot help but wonder, where have you drawn the line between “dangerous beliefs” and the beliefs of your own church which perhaps you might deem as being not only harmless, but beneficial to those who follow your blog. I do not mean this as an attack, as I am very interested and for the most part, in agreement with what you write. But I think it can be dangerous to believe that one’s own church is a pillar of strength to society while another’s is the cause of its very destruction. Church is mentioned from time to time in your radio shows, and I could not help but wonder about this.

    1. In my opinion it is great question. But directed toward author.

      Anyway, I will chime in… as usual short rambling answer 😉
      This website primarily deals with social well-being of everyone. Not in sense of specific culture, or specific social system, but broad sense of humanity, basic rights of everyone, and higher principles of equality & fairness.
      In that context, a specific religion does not matter, and should not be highlighted thus. What matters is a person’s belief about himself, others, just about everyone on this planet. One can draw his beliefs from a specific religion, and as long as they are generally acceptable to everyone based on higher principles, it is acceptable. But, one should be communicating in higher language of morals, right/wrongs etc.

      I agree with assertion that religion is set of beliefs, social rules. Now, social rules are specific to a time period, they should be changing as world changes. If one look at any religion from morality, right/wrong perspective, then all religions are probably same. However, if one look at any religion from social rules, then all religions are outdated. And, some of those social rules are absolute disaster in today’s world. Using religion as guidelines, filtered with today’s reality, is fine. But, following a particular religious text absolutely (or worse twisted interpretation) is a serious problem of current time.

  16. Harvey,

    You could cut and paste this in to the current discussion, I think? It’s a topic that is always relevant or can be angled in a manner that makes it relevant to the topic??

  17. By ‘current discussion’ do you mean the discussion under the post titled “A Primer on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” dated 3rd April 2015? Is this what you mean by current discussion? Thank you.

  18. Yep Harvey,

    That’s what I mean. If you could possibly just read through the thread and make it somehow relevant to what is being discussed…or give a heads up ‘change of subject’, your post won’t come across as a non-sequitar.

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