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.

39 thoughts on “How Psychopaths Remain Invisible”

  1. It seems that with the right information you were able to extract a diagnosis. Perhaps with our connections, experts could get together and create a test – a few subtle but well designed questions that bring out the attributes that would allow the observer to detect the condition. I’m thinking something that could be used in a casual conversation more than a clinical one.

    Waddaya think?

  2. That’s a very interesting idea. What you’re proposing is similar in essence, really, to the job facing interrogators when they’re trying to figure out if someone’s lying, because psychopaths and “almost” psychopaths make for some of the most effective liars. You’re trying to detect the truth about someone who has spent their entire lives honing their skills of deception.

  3. It’s not invisible at all – it’s invisible if you’re naive; or insensitive to subtle signals; or have a tendency to hero-worship.

    Start off assuming that *anyone* who is exceptionally confident and charming, with a good reality distortion field, is more likely than not to be on the “almost psychopath” spectrum.

    For example, you can ‘count in’ Gen. Patreaus – look at the signs – “ambitious”, “self-promoting”, “famous” for “mentoring” and “networking”. Count in acting and feeling invulnerable to consequences(seriously, do you think there aren’t 50 people in his office that don’t know about the affair?).

    It’s not that hard, and if you look around you, you’ll see a few.

  4. Interesting idea! McAfee’s life is a pretty crazy roller coaster ride, to be sure… doesn’t seem like it’s headed for a happy ending.

  5. Very well written and researched articles Jeff.
    I am quite sure, your senses perceived the right smell: psychopathy and drug abuse, a terrible mixture and sign of deep trouble. Paranoia is a first sign, teaming up with mobsters a second. I followed your reports on McAfee and its chilling to read the conclusions.

  6. @ “John Commenter” – I don’t think so. Having an affair is merely human, not “psychopathy”.

  7. Are there successful treatments for “almost” psychopaths?

    It sounds like persons with these characteristics have the potential to do great good and great harm. How do we harness the greatness and treat or mitigate the self destructive tendencies? Or are we just to step aside and watch the train wreck?

  8. Are the posts moderated ? Didn’t see my message appear.

    Trying one more time:

    In your article you wrote:

    “Just before posting for the last time on April 1, 2011 (a date that for McAfee may well have been freighted with intentional significance)”

    You misinterpreted the date.

    It’s JANUARY 4 2011

    Just look at the posts who follows.

    And the whole thread has been closed on March. So that post can be hardly from April.

  9. I was coaxed, rather reluctantly, into attending a free “Spiritual Yoga Intensive” generously given by John McAfee, almost 10 yrs. ago,,,,
    I was immediately turned off by the guru in white sitting on high on his pillow altar/platform and extolling his thang….
    It rang so transparently false to me, that after a few hrs. I excused myself and left my friends for the rest of that day and the next to soak in his bogus diatribe. He creeped me out and his shtick felt like a total ego trip. i am not at all surprised today to read about what he has been up to in all these yrs., along with a current murder charge…Wow, beware false prophets for their karma eventually outs them. We shall see more and more of this arising in this telling time of transparency!

  10. Wow. I somehow doubt I’m the only person reading this who has experienced some “downward drift” – or even nothing but – who is now left wondering if he has some dangerous mental illness. Aside from the obvious narcissism of such a thought, I hope that the simple act of wondering if your very existence is harming your loved ones disqualifies one from a psychopathic or near-psychopathic diagnosis, or if that is just one more layer of self-delusion.

  11. Intriguing chap, this McAfee. And Wise, you are one hell of a good writer! Couldn´t help but saw a terrific movie through my third eye while reading your articles about this McAfee.

  12. Hello,

    My name is Adrian Craddock. I work for Monocle 24 in London. I was wondering if you might be available for an interview on this. My email is


  13. McAfee’s story (at least his Belize experience) sounds a bit like that guy George Jung whom the movie “Blow” was based upon.

    It seems McAfee simultaneously has the egomania of someone who feels as though they should be followed, and the self destructive behavior of someone who hates themselves. Very reckless behavior.

    It sounds like this guy is not only a psychopath, but manic depressive and most likely on some hard core drugs. It seems he feels death proof.

    Put all the labels on it you like, but this guy is still a major a-hole who looks to be headed for either prison or hell in the near future. Have fun wherever you end up John, cause you’ll be there for a long time.

    BTW: Whenever McAfee pops up and tells me it has detected viruses and needs to fix them, I tell it no and close the program. My PC still works fine. I always get the creeps when that program pops on.

  14. Hi Jeff,

    Totally fascinating story about McAfee. I followed the bluelight thread a few months ago, so when you mentioned a connection to Stuffmonger, it made me think about some of the claims in the thread. I revisited many of the forum details and pulled together a sort of timeline based on your interviews – all because I was curious to know if the “Tan” he speaks of is a hoax or not.

    Since you’ve actually met the guy, what do you think?

  15. Jeff,

    For years I worked on a variety of issues hoping to improve the world. From each angle, I kept arriving back at the same conclusion – that there was something pathological involved that led to huge resistance to change. It all clicked into place when I learned more about psychopathy and how it works in systems. This led me to the even broader field of ponerology, which I highly recommend people investigate.

    The invisibility of psychopathy – both on the individual level and as a condition – is one of our biggest problems, I believe. We educate the public widely about the dangers of everything from smoking to energy drinks. Yet, we don’t educate them about psychopathy or related disorders. I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence or by design. But I’m glad to see that it seems to be starting to change. In the last couple years I’ve seen more discussion in public circles about psychopathy than ever before.

    I don’t know enough about McAfee to know if that is an example. It could be or he could have some other disorder. I’ve heard he’s very paranoid and perhaps he lies due to paranoia and isn’t a psychopathy. I don’t know.

    The more important issue is the overall one of pathological people having powerful positions.

  16. Jeff,

    I believe that the invisibility of psychopathy – both on the individual level and as a condition – is one of our biggest problems. We educate the public so much about the dangers of everything from smoking to energy drinks. Yet, we don’t educate them about psychopathy or related conditions. But I’m glad to see that it seems to be starting to change. In the last couple years I’ve seen more discussion in public circles about psychopathy than ever before.

    I don’t know enough about McAfee to know if that is an example. It could be or he could have some other disorder. I’ve heard he’s very paranoid and perhaps he lies due to paranoia and isn’t a psychopathy. I don’t know.

    The more important issue is the overall one of pathological people having powerful positions.

  17. Wow! I never did like that software & have just gotten out of a relationship with a psychopath… he ticks all the boxes & he even has a similar tattoo to John’s from N.Z! Maybe he is one of his heroes. To anyone who is wondering about the Paranoia…I witnessed this in this perp & I think it is just brought on by them worrying that they are being exposed and in fact it could even be part of the act to further manipulate!

  18. You nail it!!!
    I have read some of J.M. blogs and interviews, seems like he gets pleasure deceiving people.
    He truly believes the word rotates around him, he doesn’t seem to realize, the reason he got sympathisers, is because many people felt sorry for him.
    Also a highly manipulative person.
    I hope he eventually gets help, his personality and also drifting to the wrong people have landed him into big time truble, but he really have enjoy it.

  19. I want to make sure I can post prior to posting here. I have a rather lengthy subject I want to post is that possible?

  20. The book is a look at psychopaths in political power. Political Ponerology is a study of the founders and supporters of oppressive political regimes. Lobaczewski’s approach analyzes the common factors that lead to the propagation of man’s inhumanity to man. Morality and humanism cannot long withstand the predations of this evil. Knowledge of its nature—and its insidious effect on both individuals and groups—is the only antidote.

  21. I have only just come to read about the psychopathic behaviour after being completely in love with my partner for five years. At times I think I am going crazy but have read this post and also the responses from people who have been in similar situations. I would like to speak to Jeff Weiss and gather further information. There is the narcissitic, then the sociopath but from reading this article, psychopath most fits the description. I have police involved, fitted cctv and changed my locks. Did not have contact after 5 years of living literally with just this person each and every hour outside of being outside of work. And now feel quite afraid. I am not sure if the psychopathy relates to drugs or whether it is hereditary (he claims to have no mental disorders in the family). He is twice divorced. I still feel a great amount of love for him and cry almost everyday. He wants me back but I can’t risk it. Please contact me

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.