How to Tell if You're Dealing With a Psychopath

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Clinical psychologist Efrat Harel-Haiman.
Clinical psychologist Efrat Harel-Haiman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

You specialize in treating people suffering from psychopathy, and frequently lecture on the subject. Why did you choose this field?

I did my internship in the closed unit at the Ayalon Prison. I worked there with a number of psychopaths. There’s no doubt that many of them are indeed charming, but their aggression and manipulativeness are marked. At the prison, most of what I did was personal evaluations, so as to understand if they were intentionally exhibiting greater disturbances than they had, so that they would assessed as insane and thus avoid punishment. It was my first encounter with this phenomenon, but the impulse to become involved in this actually came from the real world – from the experiences of patients, my own personal encounters and those of people around me.

The proportion of psychopaths in the general population is high: One or two out of every 100 people is a psychopath.

Yes. Contrary to what we may think, the “bad guys” in this story aren’t necessarily behind bars. Most walk among us, functioning, even succeeding, and mostly giving the impression of being nice and charming people. When I began working in the field, and read professional literature, I came to understand just how little awareness there is of it in Israel, even among therapists. This is mostly because we tend to look at psychopathology as something related to criminology. From my perspective, however, it’s a requisite lesson for humanity: People need to know that it exists, so as to protect themselves. Two out of 100, yes, but how many victims are there of those two out of 100? People have to be less naïve, and understand that not everyone who smiles at them wishes them well.

But given that psychopaths don’t walk around poking matches into people’s eyes, or threatening to wash down their livers with a glass of Chianti – how are we supposed to identify them?

That’s precisely the point. It’s very difficult to identify them. [Brain researcher and psychiatrist] Yoram Yovell calls them the antisocial “commandos.” You can’t see it on them. In my lectures, I try to get people to think about where such people can be found in their immediate vicinity. At work. Among their friends. In their family. Even with romantic partners, it’s possible to miss it. There are people who are in long-term relationships with psychopaths, and they don’t even know it.

Perhaps we should pause for a moment to explain what a psychopath is.

It’s actually a personality sub-disorder that is sometimes included in the framework of antisocial personality disorders and has congenital characteristics. As opposed to, for instance, sociopathy, which is related to a defective environment. A psychopathic personality cannot feel guilt, shame, regret, empathy or compassion. Psychopaths are manipulative, exploitative, apathetic to the feelings of others and have no conscience. They are preoccupied with gratifying personal needs and their impulses are coldhearted. Psychopaths are liable to commit truly horrifying acts, but because most of them are endowed with above-average intelligence, they may well succeed in evading punishment. We need to understand that we are dealing with very smart, very sophisticated people. Their senses are extremely sharp, and their social intelligence is very highly developed.

'Most psychopaths walk among us, functioning, even succeeding, and mostly giving the impression of being nice people.'

They understand a situation, and understand how to act in it, but do so coldly and calculatedly, not in an emotional or genuine way.

They will do anything to serve their own interests. From their perspective, satisfying their desires and urges is of the highest value. This is the singularly most important thing. What is good for them – that’s what is important. Period.

And everyone around them is a tool for pursuing that goal.

Everyone. Including their children.

They have no empathy and no compassion, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make expressions of empathy and compassion.

Correct, otherwise it would be much easier for us to identify it. We are certain that we know how to identify a good or bad person according to how he relates to us, how he laughs at our jokes, how he looks us in the eye, shows concern for us. But a psychopath has a talent for faking expressions of caring and intimacy. People who aren’t psychopaths aren’t capable of imagining that it’s possible to fake this at all. This is precisely the story of psychopathic illusion.

You said that one can spend an entire life with a psychopath without knowing it. But one certainly must be able to sense something. How can it be otherwise?

Look, once a psychopath feels that his victim is in his hands, his mask begins to crack. He relies on the fact that we are already deeply deluded, that we won’t be able to give up dependence on someone who we think is a good person, who loves us and cares for us. Again, this isn’t limited to people in romantic relationships. It can be a boss, a good friend, even a parent. Psychopaths are really masters of illusion. They understand and know where the weaknesses are in our personal perceptions, in our awareness, in our emotions – and that’s where they enter.

Like mind readers?

Not “like.” They are mind readers.

What is really scary is that they although they have a defective worldview and sense of reality, they know very well how to distinguish between good and evil. They just don’t care.

It’s very scary, and also something that regular people have a hard time grasping and understanding. They know what a conscience is, they know what is right and what isn’t, but they feel it has nothing to do with them. It’s something that applies to others, to simple people. Their actions are meant to confirm that they have special privileges. That they are different. That they are more, sometimes above the law.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

There are also many approaches regarding what motivates them.

Those with a Freudian approach will say that it’s the pleasure principle. That they want to satisfy impulses, like a day-old baby who wants only to eat and sleep and feel good, and only when he matures realizes that there are other people in the world, who also have needs. A psychopath is motivated by the feeling that he is in control. Erich Fromm, in his book “The Heart of Man,” discusses the desire of psychopaths to prove that they are above the law. Psychopaths cannot bear the fact that they are limited by virtue of being human, that they need to consider others, that they need to obey laws. What’s really interesting is that, though they know what is moral and honest, because they don’t have any empathy for the other – it’s just not a consideration for them.

It seems as if these are character traits that are common among many leaders in different eras. Especially the present.

Indeed. In order to reach the top, they must have characteristics that have an echo of psychopathy. And to be manipulative and domineering and ambitious, and to have sharp elbows and not care about many things, in order for them to promote whatever they want – and there’s no need to name names. I personally really feel that psychopaths control the world.

Do you think this is a consequence of your work with psychopaths?

Perhaps. Look, the need for so much control – think what it means to want to rule a country – and the ability to cope successfully with all the filth along the way, this is more characteristic of psychopaths than ordinary people. There are of course those rare outstanding leaders, like, for instance, Menachem Begin, who care enough about the people that they are willing to do this, but as noted, they are unusual. By the way, there is a very interesting study that determines that there are seven traits shared by psychopaths and the wealthy of the world.

What are they?

Among others, ambition, competitiveness, theory of mind [the understanding that others have feelings and beliefs of their own] – they are experts at this.

This connects to something else, I think. To the way emotions impair function. Let’s say that the brain is like a processor, which can run many programs at the same time. With most people, there’s a lot of white noise, such as fears and obsessions, that can saps the processor’s power. When you are free of all of that, you are basically like a new laptop, right out of the box. All the time.

And you can spend all your time just planning ahead.

Yes. You are very scary and have developed a frightening way of speaking when you talk about this.

Because it is really very scary. How many times do we take an exam and can’t function because of nervousness? They don’t have this. Their minds are always free to plan and remember and be precise. They are always planning, they know what they want. And because of this vacuum – because they really don’t have white noise – they also get bored easily. They need very powerful stimuli and are always seeking them. It can be to lie. Or to break a law. Or to seduce more and more women. Their stimuli are not emotional, but arousing.

‘You won’t believe me’

People hurt by such relationships come to your clinic. Can you identify patterns?

There are many things that repeat themselves. Many times the conversation begins with: “If I tell you what happened to me, you won’t believe me.” But I actually do believe. The extent of deceit and fraud, and of the exploitation of goodness and compassion and trust, simply cannot be grasped.

Clinical psychologist Efrat Harel-Haiman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The thought of a psychopathic partner, who raises children with you, about whom nothing raises suspicions, is disturbing.

There are all sorts of nuances. And it also varies from psychopath to psychopath. The focus might be money, sex, drugs, the desire to isolate you from the world and control you, or physical exploitation. There are many shades, and it’s really difficult to understand and identify.

But nevertheless?

It’s complicated, because there are many destructive relationships one can have with partners who aren’t psychopaths. With them, specifically, there are all sorts of alarms that may go off. For instance, in a relationship, we are supposed to feel protected and secure. The feeling that we are on a roller coaster isn’t supposed to be part of a regular relationship; if someone feels this way, they need to ask themselves why. Many psychopaths tend to give their partner something to cling to. To wait for. Actually, they have a grip on the hope and trust of the partner and using it against him. They are constantly pushing the limits of their victim, until the victim reaches a point where they no longer recognize themselves. In long-term relationships with psychopaths one’s self completely dissolves. Many times, the body actually knows before we do.

Meaning what?

The body actually bypasses the awareness the psychopath works so hard to impair. If someone in a relationship feels empty, fatigued, loses weight, has diarrhea, drinks more, smokes more, uses drugs – this can be a sign. Psychopaths of course encourage these behaviors, because they want to weaken their victims, distance them from the truth. Other times, things come up in dreams. Again, it’s a mechanism to bypass awareness.

And in daily life, there are no signs?

One needs to pay attention to gaps. How does the person act toward you at different times, at home and outside? How does he relate to other people? Let’s assume, he is all charm with you, but humiliates a waitress. How does he talk to other people? Does he treat them nicely? A psychopath has a hard time doing that. How competitive is he? How competitive is he with you? As noted, these people are very clever with words, they know how to win. Many victims tell me: “It would’ve been better if he’d hit me.”

I can understand that.

Right. Then one could touch it, see it, understand it – and there wouldn’t be room for the delusion that’s so hard to deal with.

What other patterns can you identify?

Often, it begins with [the offer of] close friendship, with no interest in a romantic relationship. It’s a bit like the way people join cults. Cult leaders are psychopaths, and when they draw victims in they do so through temptation. It begins like something innocent. They present themselves like they’re on your side, as if you have a strong, shared pact between you. Many times they seem like saviors. Imagine that people really don’t respect you at work, and suddenly the boss comes over and sees you as you are, and gives you a promotion. Or you are lonely and hungry for love, and suddenly someone comes up and tells you he is madly in love with you. They know how to adapt themselves and become whom you want them to be.

I can’t believe that it’s impossible to sense this.

You can sense it only after you’ve woken up. You know the Ames room illusion [named for an optical illusion using a room that distorts the real size of things]. When you look at it, you understand that something is not right, but don’t know what it is. But when they show you the trick, you can no longer see it in the same way.

Visitors get their photos taken in the Ames Room at the Museum of Illusions in Dubai, UAE, September 30, 2018.Credit: \ SATISH KUMAR/ REUTERS

And how do they relate to your immediate environment? They are very aware of threats – let’s say, you have a good friend who picks up on them, who isn’t crazy about them.

Then either you don’t see them anymore, or the opposite: He totally charms them. These people have a radar. As opposed to sociopaths, who are more violent and who isolate you aggressively – in these cases it’s done through very subtle work. They bring you to a point where you choose to disconnect from your environment.

Making victims squirm

Can the excitement come from causing pain to my victim?

Yes, but that’s already a matter of sadism. Not all psychopaths are sadistic.

Not just physical pain. I’m wondering about emotional pain. Say I’m a psychopath and I have a partner, and I want to sleep with his best friend.

It depends on what the interest is. But triangles are something they really like. It’s one of their favorite ways to hurt people. He won’t necessarily go all the way and have sex with this same friend, but he’ll be happy to see his victim squirm. Let’s say you have an issue with weight, he’ll constantly tell you how skinny your friend is, how great she looks. They also love to be the cause of friction between two other people or to create jealousy between them, as it really pumps up the feeling of control.

An entire life without feeling guilt or shame or regret or anxiety– that, specifically, really arouses jealousy.

They also don’t feel fear, although they are cautious. When they recognize a threat, they are out of there. It’s actually conditions like OCD that can coexist with psychopathy. Other complementary conditions can be drug addictions, especially involving stimulants like cocaine and speed, or alcoholism or sex addiction. It’s all related to satisfying impulses. Hedonism. Much of this is also characteristic of narcissism, but I think what really distinguishes psychopaths is evil.

We won’t of course go into the philosophical debate about evil and its sources, but you know, we all have evil in us, in certain conditions, as has been proved by history and by some famous psychological experiments. Everyone can be cruel.

Look, many times what makes us display evil is our interests. Think about, for instance, the way we kill a mosquito that disturbs our sleep. When we kill it we feel a certain pleasure. That’s the psychopathology in us. Why is this pleasurable? Because we managed to control and kill. Fromm says that killing something is the ultimate way of controlling it.

'A psychopath leads you to all sorts of things that you wouldn’t have otherwise done, to all sorts of sexual or illegal acts.'

But that isn’t the same thing, because the mosquito has hurt me, or tried to hurt me.

For a psychopath, if you don’t give him what he wants, you are harming him.

And if I give him what he wants?

Then he cultivates you. In any case, he doesn’t really want you. That doesn’t interest him.

By the way, we have talked all this time about male psychopaths, but it’s clear that there are female psychopaths. Does this discussion apply to them?

Yes. It’s the same thing. But men tend more toward physical violence. Women are also more successful at camouflaging psychopathology, because they aren’t suspected of it. And of course, they have an easier time seducing others.

And what about the “morning after”? What do you observe in male and female survivors of such relationships?

Mostly symptoms of complex or progressive post-trauma, the kind one sees among people who have been freed from captivity or people who’ve suffered long-term abuse as children. Recovery can take years. Sometimes, it’s impossible to recover. Imagine how damaging it is to the soul, when you understand that you can’t trust your own judgment, that you don’t really know how to distinguish between good and bad. The self shatters. Many times, the psychopath leads you to all sorts of things that you wouldn’t have otherwise done, to all sorts of sexual acts or illegal acts – things you wouldn’t have considered doing.

And then there’s a heavy burden of shame and guilt.

Yes, and questions about my morality. In fact, you need to rebuild your entire identity from the ground up. All of this accumulates and seeps into your soul. You understand more things, and then more things – and you beat yourself up. How could you not have seen? How is it possible not to see?

Are there people who seek therapy for this?

There is literature that argues that it is actually the people who are most loyal, innocent, inclusive and social, as it were, that are the [psychopath’s] target audience. Many times one sees a connection between prior relationships or abuse or narcissistic control, or parents who lack empathy. A predisposition that waits for exploitative relationships. But not always. Psychopaths themselves know how to find someone in need of a relationship, someone who knows how to give.

There are people who really broadcast vulnerability, indicate that they are easy prey. But on the other hand, as a psychopath, I would especially be drawn to the beautiful, strong, healthy woman.

There isn’t always a contradiction here. It also depends greatly on the type of psychopath. There are those men who really need a bigger challenge, and they will go after stronger women. There are those who need several women. These patterns get more sophisticated. Let’s say that they start out with naïve young, 19-year-old women, and later on it changes. There could be an intensification of the evil, a change in what they need to excite them.

And there are no exceptions? There can’t be a single person in his life, whom he loves, whom he cares for?

No. That would be like asking whether someone in a wheelchair will someday stand up.