What Psychopaths Can do that Everyone Else Can’t

Psychopathic (alt: sociopathic) personalities are capable of the most senseless, remorseless, use and abuse of others.   But what is it about them that makes such seemingly heartless behavior possible?  In a follow up to last week’s primer on the topic of psychopathy (see: What is a Psychopath?), we’ll take a serious stab at answering  this most perplexing question.  In the process, you’re likely to learn some highly disturbing things about what makes psychopaths the dangerous persons they are.

At the core of the psychopath’s ability to wantonly injure others without remorse is their impaired capacity for empathy.  In some cases, because of the unique way their brains are “wired,” they simply lack any ability to feel emotionally connected to other human beings in the manner in which most of us can.   There are cases where psychopaths actually appear to have the capacity to feel, and to have a  seemingly normal capacity for affection for others.  But in these rare cases, they also appear to have an ability most of us don’t:  the capacity to “compartmentalize” (i.e., wall-off or completely disconnect) at will any emotional connection to their actions, which enables them to engage in the most heinous acts without pangs of guilt, regret, or remorse.   Most of us can’t simply turn off our human sensitivities.  While we might utilize certain “defense mechanism” to assuage a certain amount of guilt when we commit a minor transgression, we can’t simply divorce ourselves of all emotion and caring.  But some psychopaths can.  So, psychopaths essentially come in two varieties:  those who have no empathy, care, or conscience in the first place, or those who can simply turn off as easy as a light switch any emotion that might hold them back from doing an unspeakable thing.

Like many of you, I was quite interested in Casey Anthony trial and its outcome.  After all, a sweet and innocent life was not only ended far too early, but also discarded in a bag much like a piece of garbage.   This tragedy is revolting in so many ways for anyone with normal human sensitivity.   But I was not among those who wanted to string up the jury for acquitting the child’s accused murderer.  In fact, these conscientious and noble folks did just as they’re supposed to do:  weigh the evidence, not allow themselves to be swayed by the horrible nature of the circumstances surrounding the crime, make the state prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of precisely what they assert, and acquit if the state doesn’t meet their burden.   And the purpose of this article is not to find fault with our admittedly imperfect justice system or to criticize the wisdom of the prosecution’s handling of the case.   Rather, the purpose of this article is to possibly shed some light on the elephant in the room that nobody’s really been talking much about:  why so many people are outraged at the end result of the tragedy and trial.

Outrage is the rightful and distinctly human response when it is learned that the mother of a child she knows is dead is out getting tattooed, partying, and living “la bella vita” like nothing ever happened.  Any normal, rational person wants to know how someone – anyone – can do that.  And although we were given various explanations:  “She never looked for the child or acted worried because she already knew the child was dead” or “As a result of years of sexual abuse, she learned to lie,” nothing really explains the emotion that would be congruent in any normal mother with any normal sense of bonding to a child being so absent as it apparently was in this case.   And even the explanations offered by some of the armchair theorizing professionals (e.g., “She was in deep denial, a typical defense of someone with serious psychological wounding in her past”) prove without much foundation once you look a little closer at the facts.   The poor jury in this horrendous case never got any sensible explanation (with the possible exception of some of the weak yet remotely plausible few offered by the defense about the atypical reactions some people can have to trauma) for what is still so incomprehensible.   Worse yet, they would have found it hard, if not impossible to buy the harshest but most plausible explanation when all the facts are considered: There are persons on this planet that are very, very different from most human beings.  Although they often have high awareness about the human condition and can “mimic” normal emotions and behavior, they are devoid of the kinds of feelings and kind of conscience with which most of us are familiar.  The either have no emotional connection to the rest of us, or they have an uncanny ability to switch off any human-like concern when they want to do something obnoxiously self-serving that might easily inflict huge damage on someone else.  Sometimes they can be so malignantly narcissistic that they truly see themselves as superior to us hapless chaps who have scruples, and at other times they can be almost insanely predatory in their victimization of those whom because they view as inferior, they also perceive as rightful prey.  Even more insidiously, they can even have feelings for their own flesh and blood but still be able to completely detach themselves from those feelings when they’ve decided that that innocent life they once nourished has become too much of a burden.   But accepting such a notion can shake almost anyone to their foundation.  It’s so hard to believe, we’re tempted to believe almost anything else.

In recent years, some popular books such a Without Conscience and The Sociopath Next Door have raised public awareness about psychopathy.   But well before then, In Sheep’s Clothing made the point – emphasized later in Character Disturbance – that a continuum exists of the most seriously disturbed characters among us and that none of the traditional assumptions about what make these folks the way they are holds much merit anymore.   In addition, in Character Disturbance, I argue that even more insidious than the lack of conscience and empathy that characterizes most psychopaths, is the ability of some to compartmentalize emotion.  It’s how some of these deeply disturbed characters are able to seem so normal when they first hook up with folks in relationships.  They look like they can feel, hurt, and empathize just like anyone else.  What a shock it is (sometimes a deadly one) when it becomes apparent how easily they can switch off any caring and how capable they are of unspeakable deeds.

In the film based on the famous book by Truman Capote, there is a scene in which one of the intruders into a family’s home recognizes that one of his elderly, frail, intended victims is cold and shivering.  He kindly escorts the woman to her favorite rocking chair, puts a shawl around her shoulders, and then blows her away “In Cold Blood.”  I guess you could say that in some way he felt for the woman.  But he felt nothing at all when he needed to be as cold as steel.  If you don’t get anything else about these heartless predators, please understand this point.  It literally could save your life.

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22 thoughts on “What Psychopaths Can do that Everyone Else Can’t

  1. I’m actually surprised that you made this assessment. When my mom died, I was out partying and living the good life and such. After a couple months, it suddenly hit me out of nowhere and it wasn’t until then that I broke down. From what I’ve read, this is a normal reaction to the death of a loved one, the first stage of grief being denial.

    So I couldn’t understand why everyone was criticizing Anthony for what appears to be a standard reaction to the death of a loved one. Maybe it wasn’t just denial and she really was without empathy. But I can’t understand why one would just assume that when her behaviour reflects such a normal, well-known defense mechanism.

    1. Thanks for your comment, which raises good points about the power (and benefits!) of denial as an unconscious protective mechanism against great pain. And I have discussed it at length in both of my books (as well as one in press). Actually, I make no firm assessment in this post about the case referenced, although once you study all the facts (which many haven’t) the notion that the kind of psychological response of the kind you’re talking about here was the operational factor in this case becomes next to impossible. My main point about the article, however, is how much less painful it is to believe that something like you proposed must be at work, as opposed to the other very distinct, yet horrifying possibility.

  2. Psychopathy and sociopathy aren’t the same thing at all.
    I posses the empathy switch, luckily it defaults to on most of the time, but in stressful or painful times I subconsciously trigger it to become detached. This is actually incredibly useful such as coping during a crisis and staying focused no matter what. I can sometimes also manually trigger it. This once lead me to give all my money away with no care for the consequences, and I then had to survive on a packet of soup a day for a month. 😛 Thankfully that gave me some perspective and a big drive to only use this trigger when absolutely necessary, because my control of it is shoddy at best. I don’t feel ashamed for being this way, it has made me a better person in the long run.

    1. Unfortunately term usage in this area is replete with misunderstanding and misuse. Psychopathy is definitely not the same thing as antisociality. Sociopathy refers to the pathological social parasitism often associated with an impaired capacity for empathy, guilt, and remorse, whereas psychopathy refers to the deranged mental processes often associated with the same deficits. Unfortunately psychopathy and sociopathy have traded places as the dominant term to describe the phenomenon for over 100 years, hence most of the confusion. But also, unfortunately, the terms sociopathy and antisociality are frequently used as if they were synonymous, which they aren’t, which only further muddies the water. And I think when you’re insisting that psychopathy is not sociopathy you might also be equating sociopathy with antisociality. You’ll find a more detailed explanation of all the terms and what they really mean in my book Character Disturbance.

    2. we can all detach, if the brain struggles with shock or your life is in danger. You are hyper vigilant in order save yourself,mpreserve your life, your child or dignity. I was detached during a near fatal car crash and with grief.
      psychopaths are not equipped with morals,they have impulse control issues, enjoy creating the hyper vigilant responses without reason.
      They actively seek situations to watch others fright and fight for the thrill of it.
      I guess normal people detach from emotions to survive in a crisis, psychopaths create the crisis to enjoy reactions.

    3. I believe In the theory that in the human population there are sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. psychopaths must make the choice themselves to be good. unfortunately society casts us out for the ones of us who chose the dark over the light or simply just for personal gains. I made the choice young when i discovered my ability to detach myself. I was only in one fight and bullied the bullies in hopes to help their victims get relief. i believe the world is in such turmoil because we’ve let the wolves obtain power. If we where to look more into educating phycopaths instead of labeling them ass possible mass murderers from birth maybe id have more sheep dogs with me, instead of run off anytime i offer assistance.

  3. I am unsure as to what I am. Though after reading this some questions appear to be answered. I am easily capable of turning off any care I have in the world. Whether its someone close to me pr a total stranger. I see someone suffering and morally I know its wrong. Emotionally I either don’t care, pretend to care, or am irritated that they were weak or stupid enough to end up in that situation. I’ve been having to pretend I care for years. Finally I have some answers that fill in the blanks. So my good doctor, what would you say I am?

    1. I’m sure you are normal but maybe just not very emotional and also impatient when it comes to people wasting your time.

  4. The sudden disconnet of all what’s humanity. I can’t really tell when it comes over me; its a sudden rush of cool blood in my vein, from there on out i make new memories, whatever happenes is played only within my head, its not a part of my action. I could just feel everything – not much there – fall away. As a child, i though everybody could be capable of such a cold blood. I can’t do things and feel them. I am not real, i act “normal”, i just pick a character, and i play the role. I don’t really know who I am.

    1. I’m the same way. In addition I can flip the switch in my mind to shut down my feelings. I was young when I mentally understood empathy and slowly step by step learned to grow it. I wasn’t shown it at home so it was difficult. I was 17 when I found a mother figure that changed my life. I live my life in the service of others. I joke that I only use my powers for good! If someone I care about is being threatened or I have to be the leader in a situation where a clear focused mind is a must I will shut it all down but otherwise I am glad I can feel. I still have a piece of me that feels empty and I think it always will because of how my brain works…

  5. Well, I realised a while ago that I have this so called emotional switch.
    I’m very capable of hurting people, remorselessly. Even the ones that I hold the closest. I’m just unwilling, because even if they do something wrong, it’s not actually their fault. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s nature and nurture. I’d rather correct them. But if it becomes threatening to me, believe me, I wouldn’t even think twice about ending a life.
    I sometimes find myself toying with people simply because I’m bored, so I have to consciously stop doing that. I’m supremely efficient at reading people accurately and often use it to help the ones who deserve help, and hurt the ones who don’t. But I just know nobody should have this power, for who am I to decide who deserves what.
    Is there some way to completely remove this switch? Well, I do realise this is very handy and useful…but sometimes just doesn’t seem natural.
    P.S I’m 19 years old and am pursuing various graduate degrees at once. Absolutely love to read. More to the point here; I had an abusive mother and this switch developed as a defence mechanism, probably. Also, I’m an ENTP(don’t completely agree with MBTI but it’s somewhat correct). Studied a lot of psychology as a hobby, trying to understand myself. I’m pretty darn smart, if you believe IQ is any indicator, usually hit around and over 150 on legitimate tests. All these feelings that you may(hopefully not) view as regret or guilt or something are just logical conclusions and nothing else. I’m just curious as to if this switch can be removed if I ever wished to feel ‘normal’. It’s nice to have options.

    1. Undergraduate*
      And we are not bad, like you are portraying us. Some of us make a choice to be good.
      Even the non-psychopathic can be pretty horrible with all their passionate feelings about the right Gods, thinking they know what’s best for others etc etc. The only thing is if psychopaths, like myself, choose to be horrible, we’d end up doing infinitely more damage.
      It’s a choice, as much as anything can be called a choice in a non-deterministic or deterministic sense.

  6. Hi, my name’s Stephen and I’m a teenager I just discovered somethings about me lately. I made a research about psychopathy and sociopathy and I’m afraid I’m either a psychopath or a sociopath and I’m sort of in between like I’m a psychopathic sociopath,
    I remember the differences of psychopathy and sociopathy but I clearly noticed of my self that both of it’s facts and truth seems to be appearing on me. I move normally like the other people when I’m not having a conversation with them but when it happens that someone talks to me I talk normal but afterwards I sort of showing myself being weird and strange like that, whenever I’m weird and strange I always talk and laugh really vexing and imitates that scares everyone. A lot of people already told my parents about it but my parents just ignored them. Whenever I imagine myself that someone’s about to hurt me, kill me I laugh and rampage with self defense.

    Please help me understand I know there’s still a part of me that is normal and by the time I know it’ll fade away. I need your help.

    1. Stephen,
      I think it is important that you have observed and recognized these traits in yourself. If you are willing, which I think you are, find a good therapist and work with them on these feelings you are having.

      The very first step in change is to recognize and admit one has a problem. If you feel inclined and think we can help I would encourage you to comment further. More than anything I suggest you find a good therapist and share your concerns. I hope you find your real self.

  7. Not every psychopath wants to abuse children, family members, and pets nor do we all want to blow people’s heads off for no reason. I spent my teenage years experimenting with manipulation and I’m good at it. I’ve never physically assaulted someone without reason. I’ve never mentally broken someone without reason (which I prefer). I’m an intellectual psychopath, I find contentment in studies and the pursuit of knowledge. I’ve maintained relationships before and while, no, I didn’t feel anything, I’ve always been an exemplary partner. And despite my asexuality and odd aversion to sex (I wouldn’t do such a thing unless it was necessary), many of my former partners still pine for my affections (I broke it off with every man I’ve ever been with). I used to form platonic relationships because I have a strong interest in how normal people work. I was only a child when I knew I wasn’t normal so I’d befriend others to see how normal people behaved and acted. Hell, for a school presentation, I did a detailed plan on how I’d achieve my future career (it was what did we want to be when we grew up). I wanted to be the dictator of Africa (and still do). The reactions were interesting and I found the fear in my teachers’ eyes amusing as I laid out my strict law code.
    Regardless, I’m not your “average psychopath.” Just as no person is the same, the same goes for those under the label of psychopath. I’m not the spawn of Satan (though I think that’d be interesting was it true), I’m just a person with no heart. I don’t need help or confinement. And while I plan on becoming a doctor (a surgeon, no less, oh no, hide the pointy things from the psychopath), I have no intention of performing my job poorly. Some psychopaths like to form cults and kill people, I like to be good at things, everything. And I hate being poor. I was going to become a psychiatrist but I figured it’d be too Hannibal Lector.

  8. I am a stranger and you do not know me. I’ve always been isolated I used to beat my sister’s dog every day when I was 7 with a broomstick cuz I loved it’s reaction. I would also set Neighborhood Cats on fire because of the sound was funny. even through all of that I think I still had a little bit of human in me. But I wasn’t raised with love I was raised by narcissists who were only out for themselves. I can literally feel my soul dying Through the Ages. No it’s a soothing calm in my body but I’m so bored all the time… I have mouse traps in my house. I catch mice that I light on fire or drowned in the pool. In my head I am a dark demon. I am beautiful in all my ways.. the only thing I feel is irritation when others try to put themselves above me. It makes me want to squash the souls they have which I lack. The only thing I find funny is how many people strive to be this way. If I put an dog in front of you and tell you to slit his throat you ,won’t do s*** because you’re not real psychopaths. You’re so pathetic in all your ways. In the meantime my whole family thinks I’m a saint. I can’t possibly do anything wrong because I’m too stupid

  9. When you make terms for people, you compartmentalize them and they become zoo animals. Hardly how you want to treat your fellow man, if understanding him ia what you had in mind.
    The earliest I remember was my parents saying there was something wrong with me, and I might be able to deal with it when I grew up. They made it sound like I was handicapped.
    I have no emotional connection, at all. So I had my work cut out for me because people were really nice to me so I tried to figure out how can I live among them safely? Managed that by adulthood. I can understand good and evil, even interpersonal relations, but I understand from the standpoint of logical thought, not emotions.
    Being someone like me is not as fun as u think it is. For every little thing most people know automatically, I had to logically work them out.
    It is not that I can’t feel emotions, it’s a question of why would you feel emotions when you can use them as tools?
    One time, when I was still a kid, I asked myself what the difference was between me and other people. Although I am very intelligent, I concluded there was little difference anatomically, but a lot of mental difference.
    A teacher read a proverb that said, “to erre is to human”. I thought to myself, “If that is the case, maybe I’d rather not be human.

    At the end of this whole thing, I think it is a mistake to call people psychopaths. Emotions and thoughts are not understood. Neither are motivations. You could apply the law, use the knowledge available to deal with criminals, provided you are unreasonable about crime, you will never need to worry about these definitions. They are of no help to you ans act to create witch hunts. Do what creates results. Don’t play funny games with people’s lives so you can feel relevant in the world.

    1. mike,

      You may not feel emotion too strongly, but you should have logically figured it out that what you don’t like other to do to you, others may not like you doing that to them. That alone covers lot of ground of emphatic behaviour without actually having much empathy.

      There is a philosophy of stoicism. That encourages reason, and discourages reason.

  10. Psychopathy and sociopathy, as described, do not in reality exist. The level of emotion exhibited by people is not your business and engaging in witchhunts based on false studies on emotional attitudes is illogical, moronic and destructive of society in general. You sow the seeds of distrust that will serve to destroy western society, which is no doubt the goal of psychology and psychiatry.

    Merciless use of data in investigations in crime and interpersonal relations will lessen potential damage from unscrupulous persons, who are in the main normal people with narcisstic tendencies anyway, but can also be non-neurotypical.

    You can not take findings from a criminal population & apply that to a non-criminal population & call it good sense.
    At the same time, you seek to give moral authority to weaklings and victims by reason of weakness, stupidity and emotionality & naïvete. Too much of that floating around. People must take responsibility for their own lives. You can’t baby adults.

    Instead of looking for the bogeyman,protect yourself from the unscrupulous person, it can be a normal person or a non-neurotypical. It is relatively easy to override your conscience to justify criminal actions by embracing bigoted or racist attitudes. Such mechanism woukd result in lessened empathy for certain people resulting in so-called psychopathic behavior.
    If you keep up with “psychopath-sociopath” study, you are essentially promoting misunderstanding, by not getting to the root of the problem; non reliance on observable data and full application of investigative and scientific technology that already exists.

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