02.10.2020 |

Episode #5 of the course Psychology of evil by Dr. Daniel McGrath


In the previous two lectures, we discussed Machiavellianism and narcissism. Today, we are going to cover the third and most dangerous trait in the Dark Triad, psychopathy.

“A martini. Shaken, not stirred”. The favorite cocktail of the most famous secret agent of all, Agent 007 James Bond. Ian Flemming’s character of Bond is handsome, charming, fearless, and courageous. Yet, he is also cunning, callous, manipulative, promiscuous, and is a sensation-seeker. Bond’s personality makeup is ideal for the role of an MI6 agent. Throughout the books and movies, he takes full advantage of his license to kill. Bond has no issues with dispatching villains and shows little remorse, guilt, or sympathy after doing so. For Bond, this is all just another day at the office. Taking all of these characteristics into account, Bond displays clinical levels of psychopathy.

Like the other Dark Triad traits, psychopathy can be measured on a dimensional scale from low to high. However, the prototypical image of the psychopath that most people think of is someone who meets the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Further to this, a psychopath is considered to be a special subtype of APD. Fortunately, very few people are true psychopaths, roughly 1 out of 100 men in the population. That said, about 25% of men in prisons are estimated to be psychopaths.

Our knowledge of psychopathy has grown substantially over the past 30 years, in large part due to the work of Dr. Robert Hare, an Emeritus Professor at the University of British Columbia. More than anyone else, Dr. Hare is credited for conceptualizing and measuring psychopathy. He created the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, which measures 20 traits associated with psychopathy. Examples of these include pathological lying, lack of remorse, superficial charm, and impulsivity, among many others. Furthermore, more recent neuroimaging studies suggest that the anatomy of the psychopath’s brain is functionally different than that of non-psychopaths.

Researchers have subsequently identified four categories of features that are at the core of psychopathy:

1. Interpersonal traits (manipulating, fake charm, deceiving others, inflated self-worth).

2. Emotional traits (shallowness, no empathy for others).

3. Anti-social behavior (criminal acts, delinquency in childhood).

4. General personality traits (impulsivity, sensation-seeking).

Combined, these characteristics embody the personality profile of a person who is a danger to themselves and others.

How do psychopaths treat other people? First, it should be noted that psychopaths are often quite harmful to themselves, given their highly impulsive nature. For example, it’s not uncommon for a psychopath to commit a criminal act on the spur of the moment and then get arrested. That said, psychopaths are certainly dangerous to the rest of us. Psychopaths are incapable of feeling empathy for other people. They don’t experience those pangs of guilt or anxiety that everyone else does. Using their charm, they will gain the trust of someone and then exploit them. Typically, they will look for people who they think lack confidence and are willing to share information about themselves. Psychopaths can be exceptionally cruel and violent to their victims. In fact, the large majority of psychopaths in prison are violent or sexual offenders. However, other psychopaths are the “white-collar” variety, referred to as “sharks in suits”. These individuals use their cunning and social skills to commit non-violent crimes such as fraud or embezzlement.

Yet, it is also the case that most psychopaths do not end up in prison. In fact, many psychopaths are incredibly adept at using their skillset to gain positions of power. Psychologist Kevin Dutton has extensively studied the pros of being a psychopath. He argues that their lack of empathy, fearlessness, and grandiose confidence can actually lead to greater success in certain professions such as business, law, and politics. In fact, an inordinate number of CEOs meet the criteria for psychopathy, possibly as high as 20%. These psychopaths tend to be less impulsive than their criminal counterparts, a factor crucial to their success.

How can you protect yourself from psychopaths? As with Machiavellianism and narcissism, the best strategy is to stay as far away as you can. This is even more critical with psychopaths given their propensity for violence and toxic behavior. If this isn’t feasible, you need to take steps to protect yourself. Keep yourself at a distance emotionally, be highly skeptical of what they tell you, keep notes of your interactions with them, and tell others that you trust about your exchanges with them. This is especially pertinent in the workplace. Dealing with a psychopath can be draining; it’s important to take care of your own emotional needs.

Tomorrow we will discuss sadism, a recent addition to the Dark Triad, which some have suggested should now be considered the Dark Tetrad. See you then!


Recommended book

Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us by Robert Hare


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