Not all psychopaths are killers

Generally speaking, I’m a creature of habit. And generally speaking, I tend to listen to Saturday Live on Radio 4. I find eavesdropping on conversations with the Reverend Richard Coles a massive weekend treat. Just a few weeks ago, he was having such a chat with Jon Ronson. Ronson – if you’ve never come across him – is a gifted journalist with an insightful observational style who, among many accomplishments, recently wrote a book on psychopaths. It was his experience of psychopaths and psychopathic behaviour that they were talking about.

He was using phrases such as ‘lack of guilt’, ‘ lack of empathy’and ‘victimisation of others’ as he added colour to the research he’d undertaken while writing the book. He’d interviewed both a prisoner in Broadmoor and chief executive of a business – making the point that psychopaths aren’t all cold blooded killers.

The interview struck a note because the personality traits Ronson described reminded me of people I’ve come across in life. People who were scarily charming on the one hand – and frighteningly removed from their actions on the other. I think we all know that being successful in any organisation is about getting things done, with impossible deadlines and even more impossible goals. Which is why difficult decisions that involve human beings can go unchecked.

The take home message for me was a personal note to remember that the drive to achieve can sometimes mean we focus on following the proper process. As difficult as decisions are, we shouldn’t forget that people have emotions and don’t conveniently or easily slot into processes.

A timely reminder in these tough times.


4 thoughts on “Not all psychopaths are killers

  1. There was an Horizon episode which detailed work into this area last year:

    One of the most interesting points was that the scientist doing the research ended up being classed as a ‘psychopath’ using his own findings. He has however lived a perfectly ‘normal’ life but when he was asked basic questions about morality and empathy it was obvious he had these traits but due to his early nurture he had been able to see past this.

    There were also some shocking statistics which proved that a small (but significant) percentage of corporate management are psychopathic and use these traits to further their prospects even though their work performance is pretty diabolical.

  2. I have spent twenty years trying to understand the behaviour of my ex-husband. Jon Ronson’s insightful book has finally shed light on the person I was married to. Charming, charismatic and manipulative, he was (is) also a pathological liar with a complete absence of empathy. On the Hare Test, he rates very highly. To all outward appearances, he is a high-functioning, extremely successful man. It is not (necessarily) true (as in the comment above) that the work performances of (high functioning, non-violent) psychopaths are ‘pretty diabolical’ – on the contrary, they can be extremely successful (while ruthless) at work; it is in their personal lives that the word ‘diabolical’ becomes appropriate. In order to have successful human relationships, you need to be able to read emotion (to a certain extent); to have empathy. One of the key features of the psychopath is a clinical absence of empathy (and with that, an absence of remorse, guilt etc). It is impossible to have successful personal relationships if you cannot empathise with others’ feelings (it is exactly this absence of empathy that makes psychopaths so effective at work – they are capable of making quite brutal decisions that others would recoil from). My ex-husband is a loner. He was married before me, but (I later discovered) left his wife abruptly, brutally and without explanation. He repeated this behaviour in a string of relationships before marrying me (he seduced me with his charm). Almost as soon as we were married ‘the mask fell’ and the charm disappeared, revealing an angry, dislocated personality. He left me without warning when our baby was less than three months old. He later left the woman he left me for and married again. For nine years during his current marriage he conducted an affair, and while the marriage now falters on, they lead separate lives. Through all this turmoil in his private life my ex-husband has maintained a very high level of success professionally, starting his own business (interestingly specialising in change and communication, two areas he has no personal skills in). He sold his company to an American giant for several million and now lives in considerable splendour. Outwardly he has all the trappings of success; inwardly it is a hollow, barren landscape. Our daughter is now 20 and at university. After years of trying to forge a relationship with her father, and constantly being knocked back/disappointed, she has reached the point where she feels the only way she can preserve her own emotional safety/happiness is to distance herself from him entirely. Unfortunately, I suspect many (most?) psychopaths will end their lives alone, estranged from their families. I always hoped my ex-husband would change and ‘see the light’, but – despite extensive psychiatric counselling over the years – this has not happened – if anything his psychopathic behaviour has grown more acute as the years go by. As my daughter said the other day, ‘he is particularly unstable at the moment’. Despite causing extreme pain and damage in many people’s lives both professionally and personally, my ex-husband always sees himself as the victim. The only emotion he really knows and understands is self-pity. The fact is, although they are able to draw people to them through their charm, and sometimes an appearance of vulnerability, the only thing anyone should do if they encounter a psychopath is to distance themselves immediately and finally, for their own good.

  3. PS: I wasn’t surprised to learn the high figure of psychopaths in the boardroom. For the psychopath, negotiating the terrain of human relationships is terrifying – they recognise that at some level they see/feel things differently from others, but don’t know how to be the same as everyone else. Desperately wanting to ‘fit in’, many of them adopt chameleon behaviour, giving every appearance of leading ‘normal’ personal lives, and going through the motions of being a husband/father by doing things they observe other husbands/fathers do yet feeling (inside) that they are simply acting a part (as they are). Many of them will at some point burst out of this pressure-cooker existence. The way they deal with the enormous strain of this in the meantime is by ‘losing’ themselves in their job/career, devoting ferocious energy to it, travelling extensively, putting in very long hours, even writing books/papers in their spare time – anything to put off having to go home and play a role they feel deeply uncomfortable with. Their route to the top can be dizzyingly swift due their utter commitment, ruthless dedication and ability to persuade.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, Margaret – you shed real insight into what for many is an abstract concept, but is actually far more prevalent than we realise.

      Your comments help others to understand this and I appreciate you dropping by. All the best.

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