How Psychopaths Remain Invisible

The word “psychopath” gets thrown around a lot, but in psychiatry it has a specific meaning. Psychopaths are aggressively narcissistic and impulsive and feel a relentless urge for sensation-seeking. They lack empathy and compulsively manipulate others through bullying or deceit. They believe that they are exempt from the rules and show a marked predilection for lying, even when it is not advantageous for them.

Earlier this year Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ronald Schouten published a book, Almost a Psychopath, in which he and co-author Jim Silver describe the ways that people can exhibit quite a few of the symptoms of psychopathy without satisfying the full diagnostic criteria. Such people can be highly deceptive, manipulative, callous, and self-serving, and yet manage to maintain a façade on normality. One of Schouten’s goals in writing the book is to point out how such a person’s colleagues, friends and partners might not suspect for years that they have a profound psychological disturbance.

This, for me, is perhaps the most disturbing thing about psychopathy: its invisibility. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that a number of people have crossed my paths who at first seemed delightful and charming, but who wound up leaving a trail of wreckage—people who I now recognize were clearly psychopaths, or at least “almost psychopaths,” as Schouten styles them. Once burned, twice shy, you would hope; but no, having been tormented by one or two, I still managed to subsequently fall into others’ charming clutches.

I shouldn’t feel too bad about failing to recognize potential psychopaths, Schouten says. Indeed, when I asked him, the psychopath expert, if he often runs into such people frequently at cocktail parties or business meetings, he told me that, as far as he knew, he hadn’t run into any, at least that he was able to recognize as such. Even for experts like himself, the psychopath’s veneer of normality is too seamless to detect.

As I write in my recent article on Gizmodo, when I first met tech guru John McAfee I was utterly charmed. He seemed to be living his life with a clarity and moral courage that I found exhilarating. The first article I wrote about him was effusive, and when I traveled to Belize to meet up with him for a second article, I looked forward to spending time with someone who I felt to be both intellectually and physically adventurous. On this second trip, however, I began to notice a troubling pattern. McAfee spent a lot of his time bragging about the hoaxes he’d pulled off, gleefully styling himself as a “bullshit artist.” Sometimes he lied for fun—like when he told a reporter that his tattoo was a Maori design he’d gotten in New Zealand, a country he’s never actually been to. Sometimes he lied strategically, like the Facebook posting he put up about how he’d just bought a house in Honduras. At the time, he was facing a raft of lawsuits. “The judge in one case couldn’t understand why I would put incorrect information about myself on the web,” he told me. “I said, ‘I thought that if somebody wanted to serve me papers, it would be much more enjoyable for everyone involved if they tried to serve those papers to me in Honduras.’”

After I wrote an unflattering article about him, a number of people from McAfee’s past reached out to me and told me even more troubling stories. I became convinced that McAfee was not merely a disingenuous person but a true psychopath.

Schouten says that we should not be surprised to find psychopaths among the ranks of successful entrepreneurs like McAfee. Indeed, he emphasizes that psychopathic traits can be positively helpful. “Psychopathy could confer a competitive advantage, at least over the short term,” he says. “Grandiosity and over-the-top self-confidence, as well as skill at conning and manipulating, can go a long way toward convincing investors of one’s vision.”

And success only intensifies a psychopath’s worst traits. One 2009 study from the Kellogg School of Management found that psychologically normal subjects primed to feel powerful were worse at imagining other people’s perspective and less perceptive in assessing facial emotions.

Such a profound disorder, however, is not ultimately compatible with long terms success. Eventually, Schouten says, a psychopath’s personal and professional relationships begin to shred due to accumulated toxicity.

“Downward drift” is a term that psychologists use for the tendency of some mentally ill to slip ever further down the socioeconomic ladder. It’s usually applied to schizophrenics, but it seems apt in McAfee’s case. Each time I returned to write an article about him I found that his prospects had worsened. He was retreating further from the world I knew, into refuges that seemed ever shakier.

Years of destructive behavior had created such a wake of ill-feeling that at last his veneer of innocence was eroding away. At last he had lost the psychopath’s most valuable asset: his invisibility.

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