Thursday, 3 January 2013

Mad? Bad? Or Charismatic Leaders and Bad Boys? (and Girls!)

When studying psychology, it's rather tempting to apply your newly-acquired knowledge to any and all around you, and mentally diagnose, in a very unprofessional way, any aberrant behaviour you come across. Of course this applies to ourselves also (I'm neurotic with just a dash of OCD, according to my own peculiar and non-professional mental DSM), but what about when the matters you are attempting to understand apply directly to your own life? Is there a danger of applying our unqualified opinion to a person in real life and doing more harm than  good?

Recently a very good friend of mine became romantically entangled with a man. As the months went by, the more I heard about him, the more worried I became. Being a survivor of emotionally abusive relationships myself, I felt helpless when seeing my friend emotionally abused by this man.

My usual approach when it comes to supporting anyone else is just to listen and be there for emotional support, offer the same support that I needed during my own difficulties. I've learned that throwing unsolicited advice around isn't the most helpful approach, and is often motivated more by our own desire to give the "right" answer than as support for the person we're trying to help. They likely know as much about their options as you do, and far more about themselves and what they want to do, whether you agree with their choice or not.

That being said, I also feel that part of the duty of being a friend is giving an honest opinion. We've all had friends who will tell you only what they think you want to hear, and while that feels pretty good, it doesn't help when you want an honest opinion. Another friend of mine is wonderfully kind and will do anything for anyone, but is also a very plain speaker. If you look like hell in a new dress, she'll tell you so. Then pick out a better one for you. She was an unfailing support when I was stumbling from bad relationship to worse relationship, but also baldly stated some harsh truths I needed to hear. While her statements sometimes stung, I also highly valued her honesty, and I resolved early on to always adopt the same approach when it comes to interpersonal relationships (rather different from professional ones).

It's a fine line to tread, will vary on a case by case basis, and I am far from finding the right blend of direct and honest opinion sharing and non-judgmental support, but, as with all things, I stumble through just trying to give my best at the time based on my current knowledge, with the disclaimer that my opinions are just that: opinions, and only one of many possible viewpoints.

Back to the first friend involved with an emotionally abusive man - the reason this particular example bought this issue up for me was the genuine fear that this man might well be a psychopath. Seeing a friend being hurt in a relationship is hard enough, but with the ever growing anecdotal evidence against him, I became convinced, and remain convinced, that he displays patterns of behaviour consistent with the Dark Triad, traits that indicate a serious personality disorder: the triad consisting of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Superficially charming and adept with language, yet also over a period of many months, admitted to enjoying playing mind-games, wanting total and utter loyalty and vulnerability from her but not wanting to give her the same, and demanding that she keep his loyalty and his alone, asking her to deceive everyone else in her life while being loyal only to him. Those things alone are cause for concern from anyone, displaying a level of control and selfishness that screams of an abusive partner and distinctly unhealthy patterns of relating, but there were other, even more sinister clues. His behaviour was consistent with his beliefs, demonstrating a willingness to lie to whomever he needed to, a violent temper, a keen desire to present a favourable image of himself above all other desires, unreliable and impulsive, and highly manipulative (self-reported as well as demonstrated in behaviour), and perhaps most crucially, an absolute absence of remorse or empathy.  

What to do under those circumstances? All I could do was to warn her that while I certainly am not qualified to make a diagnosis, that his behaviour was most definitely not acceptable, regardless, and that continuing to be involved with him might even be dangerous? Fortunately, she is no longer involved with him, but this brush with a suspected pathology that has so much Hollywood myth and legend surrounding it has raised more academic questions for me, now that my friends well-being is no longer under threat.

The word psychopath has us picturing serial killers in movies, or Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Psychopath = killer. We may refer to someone as a psychopath as a linguistic short-hand for someone who behaves in a very anti-social way, while also not really imagining that they are indeed psychopathic.While there is good reason for us to leap straight to those images since those killers do indeed exist, and are often diagnosed as psychopaths, current thought is that psychopathology is more common than we imagine, and certainly doesn't mean that all psychopaths are killers. In fact, there are theories that psychopathology has been a successful mating strategy, which would go some way to explaining why the rate of psychopathology in the general population may be as many as 1 in 100 people, and that the superficial charm and skillful manipulation employed by psychopaths makes many of them successful businessmen.

1% of the population. That sounds like a relatively small figure, but when you consider how many people you interact with on a regular basis over the course of your lifetime, it seems that all of us will have dealt with one at some time or another. Consider how many people you pass as you walk along a busy street; the statistics suggest that at least a couple of them will be psychopaths.

My personal interest in the dynamics of abusive relationships gives me a desire to understand psychopathology that goes beyond the intrigue that many of us feel when confronted with Hollywood ideas about serial killers. The danger psychopaths and sociopaths pose goes far beyond a primal fear of serial killers, because while the odds of being targeted by a serial killer are extremely low, the odds of becoming entangled in a relationship that is either physically and/or emotionally abusive are considerably higher. That psychopaths engage in manipulation without remorse while being extremely good at deception and superficial charm makes their victims even more vulnerable to exploitation.

But in general, how aware are we of the prevalence of psychopathology? Are we on guard against these types of behaviours and do we raise our children to be aware of the warning signs? Do we take the idea of these types of personality disorders seriously, or do we see them as Hollywood monsters, a very rare breed that we would spot if we ever encountered one in real life? Can psychopaths ever be treated? What do we really know about psychopathology when we separate out the reality from Hollywood scenes and our own mental pictures of what the word psychopath means?

I still believe that the man my friend became involved with had a serious personality disorder, consistent with the Dark Triad. Whether psychopathic, sociopathic, or neither of them, his behaviour is none the less unhealthy and dangerous to the emotional health of those he manipulates, if nothing else. I'm also confident that in my history of extremely unhealthy romantic relationships, at least one of the men I myself dated was a psychopath. It took me a long time to recover from the aftermath of that relationship, and I strongly suspect that other people with a history of engaging in emotionally unhealthy relationships will have a higher likelihood of having had a close encounter with a psychopath. However, this is very unscientific speculation on my part, and I have so far not been able to find much relevant research to support my hypothesis. In fact, despite the fact that rates of psychopaths are high in the criminal population and the fact that it's such a fascinating area of study and popular culture, there are more questions than answers in the literature.

Dr. Robert Hare is perhaps the leading expert on psychopathy, having devised the psychopathy checklist and written several books on the subject, he also has some rather alarming warnings to give based on his research. 

I do not wish to scaremonger. That's my last intention, and I do not think that sensationalism is either helpful or necessary. But I do believe that more research on the nature of these particularly dangerous personality disorders is needed, and that as a society we need to converse more about the realities of psychopathy, rather than dismiss the odd case of a serial killer as a rare and unfathomable mystery. There is much I could add about genes, nature vs. nurture and fMRI scans of individuals with a diagnosis of psychopathology, and it's fascinating stuff that I'm happy to supply links to should anyone want them, but since this is pretty long as it is, so I shall leave it at that, and say that I'd love to hear from anyone who believes that they have encountered a psychopath in their own lives or comes across any research that relates to unhealthy patterns of relationships and personality disorders.


  1. I am inclined to think that it runs beyond that 1% ... because none of these things a binary either/or states.

    "A psychopath" or "an autist" or "a depressive" is not someone who has a condition, but someone in whom the manifestations of that condition have become sufficiently noticeable to trigger a diagnosis.

    I am aware of sociopathic and autistic aspects within my own personality, but they are below the threshold which would lead to my being described as sociopathic or autistic ... because such aspects, at my levels, are sufficiently widespread to be within the range perceived "normal". I am not aware of any psychopathic aspects in myself (though others may be) but I am aware that, at certain high stress times in my life, they were present to what I now regard as an alarming degree.

    That 1%, I confidently suspect, reflects the arbitrary statistical decision rule selected by researchers. I would expect it to rise and fall to a considerable extent according to circumstances. I would also expect it to be much higher if, instead of selecting a manifestation level which attracts diagnosis (for which read: inconveniences society at large), we looked at one which distorts interpersonal relations.

  2. Very interesting subject, Jazz. It brings up the whole question of applying the word "pathology" to mental states. The controversy that surrounds the new edition of the DSM (V, I think) reflects this. I see a lot of children who have been diagnosed with ADHD and ADD. The first thing I tell the parents is that the word "disorder" at the end (i.e. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a misnomer. Their child doesn't have a disease. True, in some cases, your fMRI might show differences in brain functioning between the two (this would be a good job for Felix to sort out; what exactly those differences mean), but the bottom line is that these children are just one end of a spectrum of behavior and ability to concentrate. It probably had some evolutionary benefit back when we were running around on the savannahs. I refuse to see these children as disordered.

    More importantly, what is society going to do with all these labels? Agreed, we would like to identify the true psychopath, i.e. the one who will do grievous harm to others, but will we catch many others in our net in the process? Even ourselves?