The Bite talks to psychotherapist and author Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T
Is your “friendly neighbourhood psychopath” someone to be concerned about? And, who or what exactly is a “psychopath?”
In this interview, we discuss these topics with renowned psychotherapist Steve Becker, LCSW CH.T. Steve has “written the book” on psychopathy, having authored The Inner World of the Psychopath: A Definitive Primer on the Psychopathic Personality (2015).
Q: Is there a useful difference between the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath?”
SB: I make no distinction between these terms, although some do, I think confusingly and needlessly. I think it’s unfortunate they coexist, implying different disorders, when they denote the exact same personality and mentality — individuals with a capacity for (and a history of) exploiting others’ vulnerability with callous disregard for the harmfulness they knowingly cause.
I prefer the term psychopath; it’s been around much longer, and many distinguished clinicians have dedicated their lives to studying and understanding it.
Q: It seems many people imagine that all psychopaths are serial killers or very obviously criminal in some way. But in reality, how widespread is psychopathy?
SB: Serial killers are rare, and psychopaths aren’t. So it’s obvious that, while serial killers are psychopathic as a given, the vast majority of psychopaths will not be serial killers, or even killers. It’s also true that, while psychopaths are responsible statistically for a disproportionate amount of violent crime, still most violent crime is not perpetrated by psychopaths. In other words, a great many non-psychopaths perpetrate violent crime, and a great many psychopaths do not perpetrate violent crime.
There seems to be pretty responsible estimates that highly psychopathic personalities probably reflect somewhere between 15-25% of a maximum security prison population, whereas roughly 1% of the general population would be considered significantly psychopathic. This means a couple things—first, that even in a maximum security prison, upwards of 75% of the population will not be assessed as highly psychopathic, although the 15-25% that will be is a much higher incidence than we’d find in the general population. But it’s also important not to see the 1% as so small. This means that roughly one in a hundred people with whom we cross paths is quite probably significantly psychopathic. We cross paths over the decades with many thousands of people. One in a hundred is a pretty concerning number.
How “widespread” is psychopathy? It depends how we define “widespread.” I believe there are many even in the clinical world who sensationalize psychopathy, leaving us worried that everyone with whom we interact is a likely candidate to be a psychopath. Some irresponsibly exaggerate the probable number of truly psychopathic people surrounding us. Still, even a 1% figure tells us that it’s inevitable that, periodically, we are crossing paths in our lives with psychopaths. We hope not to be harmed by them, but we will be crossing paths with them.
Steve Becker has specialized in the narcissistic spectrum personality disorders for more than twenty years.
In May, 2015, he published his book, The Inner World of the Psychopath: A Definitive Primer on the Psychopathic Personality.
Steve also posts videos on his YouTube channel.
Q: Do psychopaths ever target people who they are not in intimate or family relationships with? You sometimes hear the term “friendly neighbourhood psychopath,” sometimes jokingly to describe nasty people — but is there any validity to that?
SB: Psychopaths often target non-family, people they’re not intimately involved with, and flat-out strangers. Of course, they may exploit those they know, but yes—they are capable of targeting, exploiting, of violating anyone at all when exercising their “gratification agenda.” I think it’s quite hyperbolic, as a best-selling author encourages, to overly worry that your “next door neighbor” is a psychopath.
At the same time, it’s quite likely there are psychopathic individuals in your neighborhood, and if you’re unlucky enough, you could be living next to one. But the chances are far better that someone else got unlucky on that score. But still, it’s likely that there are psychopaths in most neighborhoods with any substantial population.
It’s important to note that psychopaths, including “neighborhood psychopaths,” will not present in necessarily uniform ways. Better disguised, better masked psychopaths may be, or seem, very friendly when they’re not selectively targeting and exploiting someone psychopathically. Other psychopaths may not appear so friendly—so psychopaths, even those in a given neighborhood, will have different personalities and temperaments, some presenting with personas that instantly, blatantly raise red flags, others assimilating as more socially skilled, engaging and non-menacing.
Q: What should people watch out for; is it possible for people to watch for certain clues or characteristics to know if there’s a psychopath in their midst?
SB: A slick psychopath isn’t easy to bust. And let’s bear in mind that, in general, it’s not so hard to be an effective schemer, if that’s one’s goal. But let’s also remember that what makes someone psychopathic isn’t his or her capacity to exploit people effectively, which really isn’t so unique a skill; rather, it’s his or her capacity to exploit others callously, with chilling indifference to the harm his or her exploitation causes.
Having said this, I’d suggest it’s wise to beware of several things, in general. I’m talking now about cases of better masked, slicker psychopaths, not psychopaths in more visibly agitated, visibly alarming states whom we’ll know we need to distance ourselves, or run from, with no indecision.
In interpersonal encounters, be suspicious of highly charming, charismatic personalities, particularly if they’re trying to sell or convince you of something. Smooth-talking (or glib) psychopaths can be very seductively manipulative. So, if you feel yourself being captivated by someone, by someone’s charisma and persuasiveness, or captivated as they’re trying to persuade you of something, that’s a red flag. The cliché, “What seems too good to be true, often is,” applies to psychopaths. Psychopaths, even the “neighborhood psychopath,” may strive to seem as though they’re God-sent into your life. But the seemingly “perfect” anything—new friend, boyfriend, and yes, new neighbor—warrants a careful reconsideration.
Psychopaths are brazen liars. Keep your radar out for this. When you confront psychopaths on their lying, they may react in a couple different ways—with outrage and sometimes aggression to have been confronted (expressing their underlying belief that they should be immune from accountability) or, conversely, with eerie, composed denial even when presented with irrefutable evidence of their guilt.
Glib psychopaths can also be notorious prevaricators, capable of talking through and around you, and the issue at hand. So watch out for prevaricators. Psychopaths are serial liars, so keep this axiom in mind—“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” When you see evidence of lying as a pattern, particularly without true remorse, shame, and with an attitude of non-accountability, this can signal the presence of psychopathy.
Psychopaths are often audacious personalities. When someone evokes your incredulity with his or her audacity—with attitudes and/or behaviors that evoke “OMG” reactions, step back with some caution. This could signal a “psychopathic audacity,” which is a thrill-seeking, often antisocial audacity.
Many psychopaths, particularly more calculating, less impulsive ones, have scheming tendencies. If you sense a scheming element in someone with whom you’re dealing, no less someone who boasts of his or her schemes (or scheming exploits), this can suggest psychopathy. Sometimes psychopaths may want to rope you into their schemes with seductive-sounding promises. Beware.
“Better disguised, better masked psychopaths may be, or seem, very friendly when they’re not selectively targeting and exploiting someone psychopathically.”
Slick psychopaths can be highly, intoxicatingly seductive, and leave you feeling as if you’re the only person who exists. They can shower you with seductive attention and promises as a means of grooming you to relax your vulnerability, as a set-up to exploit it. So again, beware of “hard to resist” charm, charisma and seductively powerful personalities, especially where there’s an agenda, even a subtle one, to sell (or persuade of) anything at all.
Psychopaths can be highly unreliable and, ultimately, disloyal. When someone in your life abdicates a commitment or loyalty with blitheness and dismissiveness, and leaves you feeling like you’re overreacting or expecting too much (when what you’re expecting is reliability and a basis to trust), this is an ominous sign to back off and check your inclination to be overly credulous and forgiving.
Q: What drives psychopathic behaviour in the community; what does the psychopath get out of it?
SB: Psychopaths are transgressors—they are rule-breakers, limit testers and boundary violators who, in their pathological sense of entitlement and grandiosity, feel that nothing and no one should obstruct the gratifications they’re determined to enjoy.
Whatever obstructs their “gratification agenda” evokes their underlying outrage, if not rage. If you have what psychopaths want, you are a “resource” to be exploited, so long as you don’t prove difficult supplying them with it.
But as soon as you prove difficult, you go from “resource” to “obstruction;” from resource to “nuisance.” Previously a resource, now you are an obstruction, a nuisance…to be rendered, one way or another, exploitable.
What psychopaths gain, then, from their exploitative capacities accompanied by deficient guilt, remorse and empathy—what drives their inclination/orientation to “selectively target” victims of their exploitation is their greedy thirst for gratification that is preeminent for them, superseding others’ welfare and dignity.
Q: Do people not recognizing the signs of psychopathy allow psychopaths to extend their victimization of others; do you think better public awareness would be helpful to people?
SB: Because psychopaths are so transgressive in their contempt of boundaries and limits; because they are oriented to “getting over” on others, and systems, it makes sense that the less we’re aware of them (and how they think and operate), the freer they will be to transgress. In contrast, the more aware we are of psychopaths and their machinations, the more challenging we make it for them to exploit.
In this sense, as is almost always the case, knowledge is power. More knowledge of psychopaths and “psychopathic mentalities” renders us comparatively less vulnerable to their predatory agendas. The more public awareness, which is exactly what I’m dedicated to advancing, the better.
Q: Do you feel that the political arena provides additional opportunities for psychopaths to victimize others?
SB: There’s an alarming level of psychopathic behavior, and almost assuredly a disproportionate representation of psychopathic personality, in the realm of politics. I’ve blogged on this subject, and did a long radio interview on “political psychopathy” several years ago.
Let’s be straightforward, here—putting aside politics, last November 8th, America elected to the presidency a man who, over the entirety of his campaign run and since, has flaunted, virtually taunted, at the very highest levels, every single personality trait we know, in combination, to be associated with psychopathic personality.
Traits like manipulativeness, emotional shallowness, glibness, remorseleness, unconscionableness, impulsivity, grandiosity, callousness, deficient empathy, pathological lying, proneness to “anti-social” forms of stimulation-seeking when bored.
I would add “shamelessness” to this stew of traits. Is it not an exercise in willful denial to pretend that our current president doesn’t embody, indeed self-celebrate, all of these traits in an ongoing, constantly audacious manner?
But regarding the political arena, in general—it is one in which politicians often, not always (but often) tell audiences with very different interests what they want to hear; manipulatively honing their messages and policy positions to retain current constituents, while striving to “groom” (recruit) new ones; making promises they’re well aware they won’t, or can’t, keep.
Machiavellian opportunism in politics is rampant— how many politicians, at every level, eschew their true convictions (if they even have any) in favor of retaining the power of their offices?
Many, not all, politicians indisputably are driven by a shallow, opportunistic, manipulative, greedy motive—to hold positions of power, from enjoyment of wielding that power even at the cost of their integrity.
I’m not saying that all politicians are, in fact, driven by these motives. That would be unfair and impugning of those politicians with noble intentions.
But the “arena” of politics is very much one of “gamesmanship,” making it a rife, welcoming “haven” for psychopathic-oriented personalities (and psychopathic expressions and displays) on a continual basis.