The Psychopaths Among Us

“I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?”  Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test.

Jim Hayman:  While I suppose it wasn’t exactly holiday appropriate reading, this year I entertained myself between Christmas and New Year’s Eve with a book called The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by a British writer named Jon Ronson. Ronson’s most famous previous book The Men Who Stare at Goats (which I haven’t read) was made into a major movie starring George Clooney (which I haven’t seen.)  

Those of us who write suspense thrillers are inherently interested in the characteristics of the breed I’ll call Psychopathis Americanus. They are often the most interesting characters in our books.  The villains.  The cold-blooded killers who murder the innocent and the vulnerable, often in horrible ways, without feeling even a trace of conscience or remorse.

Among the most celebrated fictional psychopaths of recent years are Michael Connelly’s The Poet and Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon (who, according to Amazon’s blurb for the book, “slips into (women’s) homes at night and walks silently into bedrooms where (they) lie sleeping, unaware of the horrors they soon will endure.”)  Of course, neither The Poet nor The Surgeon for all their sadistic, murderous ways can match the stomach churning antics of the most famous fictional monster of them all, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lechter.  The killers in my books The Cutting and The Chill of Night, while pretty nasty, don’t even come close to Lechter’s cannibalism for sheer imaginative evil.

I picked up The Psychopath Test because I wanted to learn more about real life psychopaths to see if knowledge of the condition would help me create more believable villains. The book turned out to be easy reading and, oddly, given the subject matter, quite a lot of fun.  Among the things I learned was that psychopaths are far more numerous than most of us imagine.

According to Dr. Robert Hare, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and generally considered the leading expert on the subject, approximately 1% of any given population (or a little more than three million people in the US alone) show clear psychopathic tendencies.  Naturally, these people make up a large percentage of the prison population. But they are not just serial killers and other criminals. They are also well-represented among our political and military leadership, CEO’s of major corporations and leaders on Wall Street, not to mention well known figures in the arts.

Professor Hare provides a checklist of twenty items which is described in the book as “the gold standard for diagnosing psychopaths.” To qualify as a psychopath one doesn’t need to exhibit all the tendencies, just a fairly high percentage of them.  Here’s the list.  As you go through it ask yourself what faces and personalities pop into your mind in this presidential election year. If you’re like me, I think you’ll find some of the images pretty scary.

Item 1: Glibness/superficial charm

Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth

Item 3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom

Item 4: Pathological lying

Item 5: Conning/manipulative

Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt

Item 7: Shallow affect

Item 8: Callous/lack of empathy

Item 9: Parasitic lifestyle

Item 10: Poor behavioral controls

Item 11: Promiscuous sexual behavior

Item 12: Early behavior problems

Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals.

Item 14: Impulsivity

Item 15: Irresponsibility

Item 16: Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Item 17: Many short-term marital relationships

Item 18: Juvenile delinquency

Item 19: Revocation of conditional release

Item 20: Criminal versatility

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5 Responses to The Psychopaths Among Us

  1. Barb Ross says:

    I also recommend The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. Her thesis is that there are more of them than you think and, it’s easy to have one turn your life upside down, because basically Americans take people at face value, and it takes awhile to observe and more importantly accept that someone is chronically lying to you. She concentrates not just on criminal activities, but people who wreak havoc in their neighborhoods, lie with devastating consequences to the vulnerable and tear apart their families.

    I have to say, after reading the book, I’m convinced I’ve known a few.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Jim…the majority of these characteristics fit the killer, Russ Gorman, in my book about the murder of Amy St. Laurent, Finding Amy.

    I see that Robert Hare is co-author on a book about psychopaths in the workplace called Snakes in Suits, and with a title that irresistible, I’ve just ordered a copy.

    I sometimes think that our readers would be horrified if they could see some of the books I have spread around when I’m writing. Not by Shakespeare and the Bible, of course, or Yeats’ poetry, but criminalistics and Practical Homicide Investigation have some seriously ugly photos.


  3. Gerry Boyle says:

    Very interesting. I wonder if the literature talks about these characteristics developing due to childhood trauma. Can they develop over time? Can a mildly disturbed person become psychopathic or do you have to be formed that way? I know some people who have many of those characteristics but stop short of violence. Will they always?

  4. Vicki Doudera says:

    Fascinating, Jim — sorry I’m just catching up on blog reading today!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Most of the psychopaths I know — and I believe I know more than one ought to be stuck with knowing — had parents who used harsh forms of discipline. I was slow to believe that a cause but in the case I know most detail about that is about the only thing there is to explain it.

    I also would recommend “The Psychopath Next Door.”

    Every last one — and I do mean everyone — currently running for the U.S. presidency in either party — all the Republicans and one incumbent Republican in Democratic dress — in my opinion are full blown & dangerous.

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