The Aliens Among Us

by Bob Seitz

March 18, 2006


This article is intended to alert you (assuming you’re not already alerted) to the ubiquity and horrific characteristics of psychopaths, both for your personal protection and for an appreciation of what psychopaths might be doing in the world around us.  The study of psychopaths has lagged behind that of other psychological disorders, and the insights are only now being widely publicized. Special attention to this topic might be warranted right now because, apparently, it’s become politically incorrect to label a recidivist a psychopath. The idea that someone might be congenitally incapable of feeling emotion may run counter to what some psychologists and sociologists still would like to believe about the malleability of the human psyche. (In the early 50’s, we were taught that even schizophrenia, paranoia, and manic-depressive psychoses could be cured by psychoanalysis.) 

Of course, psychopaths aren’t the only interpersonal train wrecks that can await us in the world. Being emotionally entangled with an addict (including a compulsive gambler or someone who can’t control their spending) must be a comparably horrid experience. You would never know what you would find when you came home. Then there are the philanderers and the mentally ill…
      A few months ago, I read a review in our local paper of the book, "The Sociopath Next Door- How to Recognize and Defeat the Ruthless in Everyday Life", authored by Harvard psychologist, Dr. Martha Stout. According to her, one person in every 25 is a psychopath. Dr. Robert Hare, author of "Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us", places the number of "hard-core" psychopaths at 1 in a 100, but it's still a startlingly large number. Think of what this means:  3,000,000 full-blown psychopaths in the United States, over 1,000,000 of whom “top out” at the 2.5-s level on Dr. Hare’s Psychopathic Scale! It means that every time you drive down the road or visit a crowded shopping center, you’re going to be rubbing elbows with a few psychopaths. That’s scary! No wonder we can't arrive at a peaceful, happy society when we have a minority among us who are wolves in sheep’s clothing, living unnoticed among us except for those unlucky enough to experience their dark sides.

Only One in Thirty Thousand Psychopaths Is a Serial Killer

Dr. Hare says that only about 1 in 30,000 psychopaths becomes a serial killer, although all of them have the potential to kill without qualms (think Scott Peterson). Nor are they easy to detect. For example, “Ted Bundy, perhaps the most visible and widely known serial killer the U. S. has ever produced, honed his skills during the time he spent as a peer counselor on a crisis hotline” (from “Without Conscience”).

When Bundy had had a fight with his girl friend, he would go riding with another woman, stop at a gas station, go inside, shoot whoever happened to be present, come back and casually drive off, with his young companion unaware that anything improper had transpired.

Celebrity Psychopaths

Equally shocking is a list of celebrity psychopaths: Leona Helmsley, "the queen of mean", Bernard Ebbers, the founder of Worldcom, Andrew Fastow, Enron's convicted CFO, and a host of other leaders of crooked corporations (Jeff Skilling and Kenneth Lay in the case of Enron?). (Kenneth Lay’s $92-million Seattle-area home was recently displayed on the Home-and-Garden channel.) Other psychopathic leaders might have included Genghis Khan, Adolph Hitler, Hermann Goering, Josef Stalin, Attila the Hun, Nero, and Caligula. Dr. Hare cites Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Bill Gates as narcissists (borderline psychopaths) who are kept under control by their "handlers". They're very insensitive to other people's feelings. They differ from the true psychopath in that they identify with a cause (a projection of themselves), and may justify aggressive means to attain their self-justified ends. By contrast, the true psychopath is a parasite, concerned only about him/herself  (like Hitler saying, “After me, comes the flood.”)

Are Any of Our Current Leaders Psychopaths?

What’s so unsettling about this for me is the questions it raises about our current corporate, political, and other organizational leadership. Are any of the men currently running the United States psychopaths? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but it seems to me to be of cardinal significance. What about our corporate leadership in an age in which our principal lobbyists are global corporations?
How to Identify a Psychopath

Dr. Hare describes psychopathy as “…a chronically unstable and aimless lifestyle, marked by casual and flagrant violations of social norms and expectations.”

 “Psychopaths[1] exhibit a cluster of distinctive personality traits, the most significant of which is an utter lack of conscience. They also have huge egos, short tempers, and an appetite for excitement -- a dangerous mix. In a typical prison population, about 20 percent of the inmates satisfy the Hare definition of a psychopath, but they are responsible for over half of all violent crime.”

Callous, deceitful, reckless, guiltless . . . The psychopath understands the wishes and concerns of others; he simply does not care . . . The psychopath believes that rules and morals are for other, weaker people who obey because they fear punishment . . . No matter how bright, and a psychopath is often very bright, he rarely maintains a regular job . . . he may have an ingratiating manner and superficial charm, be persuasive, poised . . . Lying, evasiveness, feigned forgetfulness, vague and inconsistent answers about his past . . . Callous, deceitful, reckless, guiltless . . . The psychopath understands the wishes and concerns of others; he simply does not care . . . “
                                                                                -- Dr. David B. Adams


Characteristics of Psychopaths

Glib and articulate. Jekyll and Hyde.

Impulsive to the point of recklessness

Lying, deceiving and manipulating.

High need for excitement Lives on the edge.

Grandiose. Unafraid of punishment.

Violently reactive to slights, frustrations

No conscience. Never feels guilty.

Lack of responsibility. Parasitic lifestyle.

Totally self-centered. No empathy.

Episodic relationships

Shallow emotions.

Early and adult behavioral problems


“We condemn and shun the bank robber but ask the embezzler to help us invest our money or join our tennis club.

“Psychopaths tend to see any social interchange as a ‘feeding opportunity’, a contest, or a test of wills in which there can be only one winner.”

Psychopaths are basically fearless. When asked why they enjoy deceiving people, one woman said, “Money grows on trees.  They say it doesn’t but it does. I don’t want to do it, but it’s just so easy.” Another psychopath responded to the question with, ‘You want the truth? Just for the fun of it.”

Psychopaths will come up with sad stories about their sad childhoods that are sometimes true and are sometimes cut from the whole cloth.

As one woman in a psychopath support group describes it,

“The ‘Jekyll/Hyde’ Psychopath comes on strong, sweeps us off our feet. He targets us by falsely mirroring our values, interests, goals, philosophies, tastes and habits. He fakes integrity, honesty and sincerity. He plays the role of the victim. We take pity on him. He wants to marry us quickly. This control freak wants us dependent on him. He portrays false integrity, appears helpful, comforting, generous in his 'idealization' of us phase. It never lasts as Jekyll turns into Hyde. His victims are objectified and disposable. He convincingly mimics human emotions. His lack of conscience is shocking, incomprehensible and emotionally painful to us. We remember his odd reaction to situations. We end the relationship and salvage what we can, or we are quickly discarded as he cultivates a "new perfect partner". He will very much enjoy double-dipping attention he gets by cheating. He will have numerous relationships. He may drop verbal clues about his true character early in the relationship, but we fail to grasp its meaning. Eventually the unmasked psychopath emerges and we remember that early warning. His targets suffer emotional and financial devastation and our emotional recovery is lengthy.
Defense Strategy: Abandon all efforts to help or cure him. His true identity is exposed and the false character he portrayed is gone forever. Accept the reality. Seek therapy. Join a support group to know you are not alone. Ignore and don't react to his hurtful words. Don't take the bait when he blames or lies. They fool even trained professionals. Do not be gullible, vulnerable or naive. Prepare for a nasty divorce. Accept no abuse. Learn about mental diseases and disorders

Can Psychopaths Be Rehabilitated?

The current research picture is that psychotherapy doesn't dent the psychopath because he/she has an inborn neurological deficit. Psychopaths have no consciences. The machinery simply isn’t there. MRI brain scans reveal that the limbic (emotional) region of the normal brain lights up when we are shown highly disturbing images. In the psychopath’s brain, the limbic system isn’t activated but the language centers are.  Psychopaths are blind to emotion the way the truly colorblind are blind to emotion.

For example, “Earl”, who scored at the top of Dr. Hare’s Psychopathy Scale at the 2.5-s level, stabbed his kindergarten teacher with scissors, and at 10, was procuring for young girls, including his sister—was psychopathic in his earliest childhood.

Dr. Hare is currently exploring the question of whether psychopaths can be changed in ways that will make them more socially productive.  As they grow older, they tend to become less predatory, and less inclined to seek thrills. Whether that’s because of declining levels of testosterone or whether it’s an outgrowth of experience, it might offer an opportunity for the adaptation of psychopaths. This could be very important in a world in which people live a lot longer than they do today. (Of course, the danger with this would seem to be the same as the danger of trusting “tame” lions.)

There is a possibility that a psychopath’s urge to control is a compensation for his/her perception of the inability to feel emotions the way others can. (Note that the psychopath is generally quite pleased with his/her freedom from normal emotions and ability to manipulate others, and regards “normals” as weaklings and suckers.)

Psychopaths exhibit a constellation of characteristics that have led to Dr. Hare's 20-Item Psychopathy Checklist-Revised  (PCL-R)[2]. We normals would score below 10 (e. g., 4 or 5); psychopaths as high as 40.  Anything above 30 represents a full-blown psychopath. The average score among all North American prison inmates is 23.3.

The questions below are an eight-question subset drawn from Dr. Hare’s twenty-question PCL-R that pertains specifically to psychopaths in the workplace.

Robert Hare’s Eight-Question Screening Quiz for Psychopaths in the Workplace:  2 points for “yes”, 1 point for “maybe” or “sometimes”, 0 points for “never”

1.       Is he glib and superficially charming?  Is he a likable personality and a terrific talker? A flatterer? Entertaining and persuasive but maybe a bit too smooth and slick? Insincere?

2.       Does he have a grandiose sense of self-worth?  Is he arrogant? Does he feel he’s above the rules that apply to “little people”? Does he downplay his legal, financial, or personal problems, say they’re just emporary, or blame them on others?

3.       Is he a pathological liar?  Does he lie habitually even though he can easily be found out? When he’s exposed, does he still act unconcerned because he thinks he can weasel out of it? Is he proud for his knack for deceit?

4.       Is he a con artist or master manipulator?  Does he use his skill at lying to cheat or manipulate other people other people in his quest for money, power, status, and sex? Does he “use” people brilliantly?

5.       When he harms other people, does he exhibit a lack of remorse or guilt?  Is he concerned only about himself rather than the wreckage he inflicts on others or upon society? Does he say he feels bad even though he doesn’t?

6.       Does he have a shallow affect?  Is he cold and detached, even when someone near him dies, suffers, or falls seriously ill? Does he sometimes “put on” emotions?

7.       Is he callous and lacking in empathy? Is he profoundly selfish? Does he cruelly mock others? Is he emotionally of verbally abusive toward employees, “friends”, and family members?

8.       Does he fail to accept responsibility for his own actions? Does he blame others for what he’s donw? Does he refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even when the hard evidence is stacked against him?


If your boss scores:
1-4:  Be frustrated

5-7:  Be cautious

8-12:  Be afraid

13-16:  Be very afraid

Psychopaths in the Workplace

Blue-collar psychopaths populate our prisons, where as high as 20% of the inmates and 50% of those who are incarcerated for violent crimes are psychopaths. Blue-collar psychopaths tend to ping-pong between prison and the outside world. White-collar psychopaths people our financial world where scams are easy pickings. Psychopaths are psychopathic liars. If caught in the act, they will often respond by accusing their accusers. (Sound like D. C.?)

They’ve Got What It Takes

“It is not difficult to see why psychopaths are so attracted to white-collar crime.

“First, lots of juicy opportunities present themselves.”

“Second, psychopaths… are fast-talking, charming, self-assured, at ease in social situations, cool under pressure, unfazed by the possibility of being found out and totally ruthless. And even when exposed, they can carry on as if nothing had happened, often leaving their accusers bewildered and uncertain about their own positions.”

“Finally, white collar crime is lucrative, the chances of getting caught are minimal, and the penalties are often trivial. Think of the insider traders, junk-bond kings, and S&L sharks whose financial depredations were so spectacularly rewarding—even when they were caught.”

We’re vulnerable to psychopaths because we don’t think—and don’t want to think—the way psychopaths think. We don’t want every social interaction to be a stealthy assault, or an opportunity for someone to psych us out so they can manipulate us. It’s like driving down the road: we trust—as we must—other drivers to do what they’re supposed to do, and in an overwhelming preponderance of interactions, they do what they’re supposed to do. Consequently, when someone blind-sides us from the side or the rear, or comes over a hill on our side of the road, we’re unprepared for it.

At the same time, it’s important to know that psychopaths aren’t that uncommon, and that they’re well-camouflaged predators.

Martha Stout’s Six Rules for Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths

1.     Suspect flattery.

2.       Take labels with a grain of salt.

3.       Always question authority when it conflicts with your own sense of right and wrong.

4.       Never agree to help a psychopath conceal his or her suspicious activities at work.

5.       If you are afraid of your boss, never confuse this feeling with respect.

6.       Realistically assess the damage to your life.

Maco Stewart once remarked on the Fire List that he had been shocked to discover that there is real, deliberate evil in the world. One of my first thoughts upon reading about the prevalence and characteristics of psychopaths was that their existence might explain why this is so. I wondered about the survival value of psychopathy, and mentioned this to Fred Britton. Fred pointed out that psychopaths make prolific lovers, but lousy husbands and fathers. Consequently, they leave a wake of children and fractured families behind them. From an evolutionary standpoint, this qualifies as success.

Robert Hare mentions that screening efforts are now made in Europe to keep psychopaths out of corporate management suites, but that in the United States, investors are still taken in by corporate psychopaths who, they think, will turn the company around. In the end, these psychopaths loot their companies and swindle from their stockholders.  Immediately following the scandals, there was a flurry of reform activity. By now, the Bush administration has allegedly replaced the reform-minded head of the SEC with a more accommodative chief, and, I believe, has set the stage for the next round of scandals. Watch where you put your money! (About half the mutual funds in which I had invested during the nineties cheated their shareholders, including me, and have since been sold to new corporate entities.)

Our administrative assistant at Georgia Tech told about a minister in her small town in western Alabama. The town’s minister gave outstanding sermons, and on Sunday mornings, people flocked in from miles around to hear him preach. One Sunday, the FBI attended one of his sermons and took him away in handcuffs. He had been operating a stolen-car ring on Sunday mornings.

The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.

For me, Robert Hare's book spotlighted the whole question of personality inheritance, and of the Gaussian distributions of personality traits. And of course, we need a spectrum of personality traits. The problem may lie in a lack of day-to-day awareness on the part of wishful-thinking people like myself that bad guys are out there. We're not going to eliminate them and maybe we shouldn't, but maybe it will help to be more aware of them.

We are so vulnerable to scams because we try hard to do right, and it’s inconceivable to us that some go out of their way mistreat others.

              I recently read about a mathematician who, influenced by Isaac Asimov’s fetching concept of “psychohistory”, has tried to develop and apply this concept to the stock market. “Psychohistory”, for those who are unfamiliar with Asimov’s “Foundation” series of scifi novels, is a mathematical formulation of sociology that allows Dr. Hari Seldon, “with the highest IQ in history”, to predict the imminent fall of the first Galactic Empire, and to engineer the rise of a second galactic imperium a thousand years hence.  Psychohistory” can only work statistically on large masses of people, and its manipulations must be kept secret from those who are being manipulated, or the manipulated will start manipulating back.  The stock market works like this. As soon as word of a successful moneymaking strategy gets out, it becomes so widely used that it no longer works.  This raises the question: what kind of progress has political science made in becoming a science? To what extent is political control a science these days instead of an art? It can only work as long as the majority of the population (including ourselves) is unaware that it’s happening. We, the public, tend to think in terms of emotions and issues, whereas politicians don’t ask what to do but how to do it. . When our revered leaders say that Saddam Hussein is a terrible man (which I take as true) and that he’s harboring terrorists who want to kill our wives and daughters, we snap to quivering attention like the easily-manipulated ground-apes that we are, and are ready to go off and kill or be killed., while our revered leaders conduct business-as-usual in a safe place. To give an example, in 1898, on the eve of the Spanish-American war, William Randolph Hearst wired his homesick correspondent in Cuba, Frederick Remington, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.” And he was as good as his word, fomenting the Spanish-American war that led to the extermination of between 200,000 (our official number) and 2,000,000 Filipinos Mike Hess may have insight into this.


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