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How Psychopaths Work | Stuff You Should Know Podcast (Transcript)

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How Psychopaths Work | Stuff You Should Know Podcast (Transcript)

Length: 51 mins

Welcome to Stuff You Should Know, from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey and welcome to the podcast. I’m Josh Clark, there’s Charles W. Chuck Bryant, there’s Jerry and we’re here to manipulate you into learning something new.

Charles W. Chuck Bryant: You’re trying to use your least psychopathic voice that you have?

JC: Yeah, but it’s having the opposite effect I’m, I’m trying for, isn’t it?

CB: [Chuckles] you’re not fooling anyone.

JC: Well, you just made a powerful enemy.

[Laughs]

CB: How you doing?

JC: I’m good. I’m feeling quite, quite good. I like this one, this is, this one’s gonna have it all. You know what I mean?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Psychology, disputed psychology.

CB: Yes.

JC: Uh, prison, murder.

CB: Yeah, a little serial killer action.

JC: Yeah, we can’t not mention at least Hollywood.

CB: The DSM.

JC: Uh, contra-, contradictions in terms; all sorts of stuff.

CB: The Bible, China.

JC: Yeah. Wait, how does… Oh yeah, okay.

CB: [Chuckles]

JC: I forgot about those parts. So we’re talking psychopathy?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Which, I mean, people say, “What’s the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?” We’ll get to that. “By psychopath, don’t you mean psychotic?” We’ll get to that too.

CB: Keep your pants on, psychopath.

JC: Just buckle in.

CB: Yeah.

JC: And if you think you know everything there is to know about psychopaths, well, you may be surprised. There’s a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of misconceptions out there about psychopaths, about exactly what constitutes a psychopath or what they act like or how easy they are to recognize. Um, and it turns out, this article actually points out, that a lot of the people who tend to lead other people sometimes have psychopathic qualities. Like, for example, obviously, you would call Hitler a psychopath.

CB: Sure.

JC: I think just about everybody would, right? But I guess, from studying them posthumously and remotely, um, guys like Teddy Roosevelt, JFK. I’m sure, basically, every president that’s ever been president of the United States exhibits some psychopathic qualities, right? And some, because some actually can be considered useful in the right context, right? Like immunity to stress or fearlessness or the ability to influence others. These are pretty handy things to have if you’re a politician. But just because you are, you, your, your reaction to stress is far lower than the average person or, you know, you have an ability to charm other people into doing what you want, it doesn’t automatically make you a psychopath. And the reason why it doesn’t automatically make you a psychopathic is because there is a spectrum of psychopathy and there’s a threshold where, below the threshold, you may have some of these qualities or traits of psychopathy but you’re not a psychopath. At that threshold or above, though, you would be considered a psychopath and if that is the case, if you are a full-blown psychopath, you have a very specific set of characteristics that very much separate you from the average person in some extraordinarily scary ways if…

CB: Potentially.

JC: If… Yes.

CB: Yeah.

JC: If psychopaths, um, exist in this form at all. There’s a lot of debate about that as well.

CB: Yeah. So, uh, if you think, if you have 100 friends, uh, science estimates that one of those people is a psychopath.

JC: Yeah, I saw that figure too.

CB: So 1% of the general population, so as many as 3 million psychopaths in the United States, States, and about 70 million worldwide, and only, I think, what is it, about 25% of those are in the prison population.

JC: So… Okay, people, people, uh, the majority of prisoners aren’t psychopaths?

CB: Correct.

JC: And the majority of psychopaths aren’t in prison?

JC: Right, which means they’re all walking among us.

JC: Yeah. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t in prison because they haven’t been caught yet. There’s a lot of what are known as high functioning psychopaths that are full, full-on psychopaths, but they just don’t exhibit the kind of traits that would get you locked up in prison. Instead, they exhibit, um, what we would call white collar crimes.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Which aren’t prosecuted in the United States.

CB: They’re hedge fund managers. [Chuckles]

JC: Basically.

CB: Well, it is funny because, I mean I do make that joke, but they said that they think as many as perhaps 10% of, like, people in the finance industry could be psychopaths.

JC: Yeah, there is a study that found that, for sure. Yeah, and, and, but that makes a pretty good point. Like, there’s some, in the right contexts…

CB: Yeah.

JC: Uh, being a psychopath can actually be useful to you.

CB: All right. Well, let’s go back to Aristotle.

JC: Okay.

CB: Like most things.

JC: He’s the, he’s the, the tissue that binds this with the Cricket Farming episode.

CB: Correct!

JC: Yeah.

CB: Interestingly. So, I know, in cricket farming, we talked about his pillow talk.

JC: [Chuckles]

CB: Being great. Uh, back in those days, when he was pillow talking, he had a student named, uh, Theophrastus?

JC: Nice.

CB: And Theophrastus was a, a 4th century BCE philosopher and they, they’d talked about psychopaths, they called them “Unscrupulous” at the time, but what they were talking about was what we would now refer to as psychopaths. And everything from the Chinese, to Biblical stories, to mythology in Greece and Rome, to Shakespeare, like, it’s just rife through history, literary history, of people writing about what we would now call a psychopath.

JC: Yeah. And it’s not just the west either. I mean, like, we call them psychopaths here. Apparently the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria call them, uh, aranakan. The Yukip Eskimos call them kunlangeta. Um, they, they seem to be around, like you said, 1% of the global population. So they’re not, like, culturally bound, it’s not culturally bound condition.

CB: Right.

JC: But it does seem contextual in that psychopaths are contrary to society.

CB: Yeah.

JC: They don’t follow the social norms that keep everybody else in line, that typically arise out of things like empathy and feeling bad for other people and seeing other people as their own sentient, um, selves.

CB: Yeah and not, not just, uh, bags of meat to be manipulated.

JC: Yeah, to your own ends.

CB: Yeah.

JC: So psychopaths make appearances throughout history, throughout literature. Um, you mentioned the Bible, so, um, Kane is widely referred to as a early psychopath.

CB: The first psychopath. [Chuckles]

JC: Maybe so. At least in the, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, right?

CB: Yeah.

JC: But if we, if we fast forward to 18th century France, like, the beginnings, the modern beginnings of our Western, at least, conception of psychopaths, were found in the hands of a French physician named Phillipe Pinel.

CB: Yeah. He was, uh, one of the first… Professional, medical professionals to talk about this. And he referred to them as maniaque sans delire.

JC: Nice!

CB: Uh, insanity without delirium.

JC: Right.

CB: Um, they’ve gone by other names since then, uh, and descriptions from moral derangement, moral insanity, rational madness.

JC: Right. And that actually describes, like, a type of insanity where you’re, like, morally and even maybe behaviorally deranged, but you’re not cognitively impaired and your, your sense of, your touch with reality is, your grip on reality is totally normal as well.

CB: Yeah, like, kind of the whole point is, they are walking among us and, by all accounts, they’re usually very a charming kind of “normal” seeming individuals.

JC: But predatory.

CB: [Chuckles] Yeah. Uh, then finally, in 1888, uh, there was a German psychiatrist named JLA Koch and he said, I have the term, it is psychopastiche, means suffering soul, and that’s where the actual word, finally, psychopathy was born.

JC: Right. And then, I think into the 30s or beginning in the 30s, sociopathy took over and replaced psychopathy for a couple reasons. One, um, from about the 30s to the 70s, there was this idea that psychopaths should be called sociopaths because it was, um, nurture rather than nature that accounted for their anti-social behavior. Um, that it was, say, a bad mother, cold father, or absent father, something like that.

CB: Yeah.

JC: That, that, that was the basis of sociopathic behavior. The other reason that sociopathy became widely used was because people were getting it confused with psychosis.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Psychopathy and psychosis. They’re not at all the same thing. Psychosis means, it’s an umbrella term for, um, a loss of a grip on reality, delusions, basically, right?

CB: Right.

JC: And psychosis can be brought on by any number of things like from dementia, um, to lack of sleep, to schizophrenia. So psychosis is a condition where your grip on reality is tenuous at best. Psychopaths are full, their grip on reality is 100%, totally fine. It’s just, again, it goes back to this idea that it’s a moral derangement. They have no morals, they have no scruples, they have no conscience in another way that it’s usually put.

CB: Yeah.

JC: But they’re, they’re, they’re not delusional at all; their grip on reality is totally fine.

CB: Yeah, like, in, in a psychopathic brain, there is literally a physical abnormality in the brain.

JC: Right, right. And that’s a huge, huge new development too…

CB: Oh, yeah.

JC: Chuck. And as a result, sociopathy is quickly losing favor as an interchangeable term for psychopathy.

CB: Yeah, I mean the terms over the years have… Were mostly interchangeable. Uh, in 1980, the DSM, which we’ve talked about a lot, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, um, I think they called it, they said, “No more sociopathy, let’s call it Antisocial Personality Disorder, ASPD.” Um, and, you know, the terminology is important because you shouldn’t just use two different things interchangeably to mean the same thing.

JC: Right. No, it’s true. And, with, um, psychiatrists and psychologists who study psychopathy in particular, especially a guy named Robert Hare, who is continuing on the work of a guy named Hervey Cleckley, who did his work, Chuck, in Augusta, Georgia.

CB: Yeah, I saw that.

JC: Um, said, “No, no, no.” like, “you can’t just say psychopaths are just part of an anti-social personality disorder.”

CB: Yeah.

JC: Which is what the DSM does, right? Um, and the, the reason why is because they’ve, what they’ve concluded is that there are basically two aspects, two, two different facets is what they call them, to being a psychopath. There is Primary Psychopathy and Secondary Psychopathy, or Factor 1 and Factor 2 psychopathy, right?

CB: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna ask you. So Hervey, great name, by the way, Hervey Cleckley. He’s the guy from Augusta and he’s the one who wrote a book called The Mask of Sanity, um, which is sort of the foundation of, of modern psychopathic research. But he was the one that came up with Factor 1 and 2 and is that, basically, just what we now call primary and secondary?

JC: He came up with these, the first descriptors that are still kind of in, in use today, where, um, things like, um, that they, they lack social responsibility but they’re usually highly intelligent, um, they’re very irresponsible, they don’t, um, they, they have a winner take all, um, attitude.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Um, he, he spelled out, like, 16 character traits. Um, and he was basically the father of psychopathy. It was Hare who came up with the two factors, or more to the point, they emerged from his psychopathy checklist that he developed back in, I think, the late 70s or early 80s.

CB: Right.

JC: So with Factor 1, Chuck, that relates to, like, interpersonal, uh, behavior. So the idea that psychopaths are very charming, um, but that they also lack remorse.

CB: Right.

JC: This is all, this, this is all considered Factor 1 or Primary Psychopathy. And I actually think that this is where, um, you know, psychopathy is rooted; it’s a, it’s… The, the, seeing other people as means to an end and using people in that sense without any regard for the other person’s feelings or the consequences it has on their life and then genuinely lacking remorse. These, these are classic traits of psychopathy, right?

CB: Yeah.

JC: But that’s just one facet of it. There’s another facet, Factor 2, which is the, the behavioral aspects of psychopathy. And Factor 2 relates to things like impulsivity, uh, sexual promiscuity, uh, parasitic lifestyle.

CB: Yeah.

JC: And so if psychopathy is a spectrum that we all potentially could be on the psychopath spectrum, but we would, most of us, fall below that threshold, then Factor 1 and Factor 2 are then a spectrum within a spectrum.

CB: Yeah.

JC: to where, uh, on one side, you have high functioning psychopaths like CEOs, say. And then, on the other side, you have very low functioning, Factor 2, psychopaths like a truck stop serial killer, right?

CB: Right.

JC: Who’s getting sloppy. Um, and then in between, you would have, you know, a mixture. But, uh, you can kind of lean more toward the Factor 1 psychopathy, you could lean more toward the Factor 2 psychopathy. But the Factor 2 psychopathy relates almost exclusively to the DSM’s antisocial personality disorder criteria. And so therefore, the DSM is ignoring Factor 1 psychopathy. And so therefore, really, the only way you can be diagnosed as a psychopath is through the Hare Psychopath Checklist. Um, so there’s almost, like, this competing field that’s going up against the DSM.

CB: Yeah.

JC: As far as the study of psychopaths is concerned. You, you take the rest of the episode.

CB: [Laughs] all right, well, let’s take a break so I can memorize all this stuff and we’ll come back and talk a little bit about demographics and that Hare test right after this.

CB: All right, so we’re back with talks about demographics. Um, studying psychopathy and psychopaths is tricky, to say the least, because, uh, this is, there is no, um, you can’t… Well, we’ll talk later a little bit about the brain, but there is no, you know, you can’t hook someone up to a machine that will spit out a diagnosis of psychopath. Uh, so you’re gonna have to get someone who self-reports this stuff, which you’re not gonna see a lot, because no one usually likes to think of themselves that way.

JC: Yeah.

CB: But, uh, most of the data they have right now is gathered from psychiatric examinations of criminals.

JC: Yeah, so there’s really, like, a, a sheltered view of psychopaths. We have just a limited snapshot.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Of the, of the full spectrum of psychopathy because, yeah, if you’re a psychopath, you’re not gonna go in to look for help; you think you’re better than everybody else. So the very traits that make you a psychopath would make you feel like you need the opposite.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Of, of psychiatric help.

CB: Yeah. Like, “What are you saying? I’m, I’m winning in life.”

JC: Exactly!

[Laughs]

CB: Uh, so as far as age goes, when they analyzed some of the results of some of these examinations, uh, prisoners, they did show that it seems like psychopathic traits might decrease some as you get older. They don’t know why, um, but it is, there’s a lot of, um, controversy about whether or not you can diagnose a kid as a psychopath. Uh, sometimes you might see some traits that a child expresses that you might associate with psychopathy, but legally, technically, you can’t diagnose a child as a psychopath. And just because you might have some psychopathic tendencies as a kid doesn’t mean you’re gonna grow up to be that way as well.

JC: No, but they do have, as part of that anti-social personality disorder spectrum, um, they have diagnoses for kids like Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Which seems to be, basically, like a Factor 2 psychopath diagnosis for children.

CB: Right.

JC: Um, but, yeah.

CB: I think they just don’t like to use that word for kids.

JC: No, no, and like… You should be very careful with labeling…

CB: Yeah.

JC: Clinically labeling somebody a psychopath just because of the, the, um, the stigma associated with it.

CB: Yeah, like, can you imagine sitting parents down and saying, “Well, um, Francis is a psychopath.”

JC: [Chuckles] Right.

CB: Like, “Your 6-year-old is a psychopath.”

JC: Yeah.

CB: Not good.

JC: No. They’ve, there’s probably a company who specializes in that, because nobody else wants to do it.

CB: Oh, like Up in the Air, people would pay to come in and fire people?

JC: Right, exactly.

CB: Yeah. I would… If it was George Clooney, that’d be a different deal.

JC: Right. “Your child’s a psychopath.”

CB: [Laughs]

JC: “Here’s some literature on that.”

CB: And some…

JC: “I’m George Clooney.”

CB: And some fine tequila.

JC: [Chuckles] Right. Is it fine?

CB: Yeah, it’s good but, man, he sold that thing for $1 billion.

JC: No.

CB: Can you believe that?

JC: No. No.

CB: Like, George Clooney rolling in dough.

JC: Yeah.

CB: Like, rolling in handsome.

JC: $1 billion tequila, that’s…

CB: Rolling in charm, and he sold his Tequila company for $1 billion.

JC: Yeah. He’s, he’s a psychopath.

CB: I feel like we’ve talked about that before. Have we? Is that possible?

JC: No, we talked about him being smug.

CB: Oh, you did, Sir. Not me.

JC: Right. Oh you said, “Oh, I know. He’s so smug.”

CB: [Chuckles] No, I didn’t. I want to date him.

[Laughs]

CB: Uh, so when it comes to race, um, it gets even more controversial because there have been analyses that tried to link higher rates of the disorder to, uh, Native American com-, communities.

JC: Yeah.

CB: African-American people. And most psychiatrists have come out and said, “You know what? This is really not taking into account socioeconomic factors, and it’s pretty racist.”

JC: Yeah. There was this guy named Richard Lynn, who wrote, uh, back in the early 2000s, a, a journal article about that and tried to basically say that the order of, um, psychopathy, as far as prevalence is concerned, is highest in Blacks and Native Americans and then followed by Hispanics, and then Whites and then East Asians. And he said that it had everything to do with evolution and he totally left out the fact that Hispanics are actually just 500 years or so removed from Caucasian Spanish people.

CB: Right.

JC: And that, um, East Asians are the, um, are tied genetically to Native Americans over the last, like, 10,000 years or so. So people just had fun kind of trashing this guy’s ideas.

CB: And he was, like, “You might also want to read my manifesto on eugenics.”

JC: Right, exactly.

CB: [Laughs] Uh, one thing is clear though, when it comes to gender, um, there are definitely more psychopathic men than women.

JC: This is up in the air, dude.

CB: We could say that, right?

JC: Yeah, yeah, all the numbers bear it out. Like, this guy is, the guy who… The people who say, “No, it has to do with race,” seem to be total crackpots.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Um, but the people who say that there is a difference in gender, they’re backed up by numbers for sure. Um, studies show that, that women definitely have lower occurrences of psychopathy, but it has been pointed out that perhaps what women psychopaths, their behavior, their behavior manifests itself differently…

CB: Right.

JC: Than male psychopaths, and that the psychopathy criteria is geared more toward males and is missing female psychopaths.

CB: Oh, okay.

JC: So, for example, like, um, you know, you think of a psychopath, you think of, like, a high functioning one, say, like, a CEO or a Patrick Bateman type or something, right?

CB: Yeah.

JC: That’s, like, a classic psychopath. But what if, what if there are just as many women psychopaths but they’re, like, Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest or something like that, you know? Like, just their, their, the way that they behave as a psychopath manifests itself differently than how men do. That’s, it’s a theory; it’s not necessarily true, but that’s what some people say.

CB: Well, and the, the waters are so muddy with how men and women think of each other in their roles in society that it’s bound to play a part here and how that gets all mixed up, you know?

JC: Right. Yeah, that’s true.

CB: Uh, well and then, you know, there are, like, the Aileen Wuornoses of the world as well. Like, the, I know there aren’t many female serial killers, but there have been some for sure.

JC: Sure.

CB: But there’s definitely not, I mean when you look at the list of serial killers you hear, you see way more Ted Bundy’s and, and, who was the guy? Uh, BTK?

JC: Yeah. Dennis Rader.

CB: Yeah. There are more of those dudes out there than Aileen Wuornoses for sure.

JC: Sure. That’s, I mean that is, as far as the numbers suggest, yes, that’s true. But I think it’s extremely interesting that, like, we’re, we’ve got the blinders on and are just looking at one set of behaviors for psychopaths and are totally missing an entire population out there.

CB: Yeah.

JC: That are women psychopaths. That’s just fascinating to me.

CB: So should we talk about the psychopathy checklist?

JC: Yeah, we kind of have to.

CB: Yeah, I mean we mentioned a little bit of it on through, uh, Hervey, Hervey Cleckley. That’s got to be my new hotel name.

JC: [Chuckles]

CB: Um, Hervey Cleckley’s work. And then, Hare is the man who was responsible for the modern, um, the modern checklist and test that people still give other people.

JC: Yeah.

CB: And it’s pretty simple. Um…

JC: Well, it’s, it’s not simple.

CB: Well…

JC: It’s extensive for sure.

CB: Yeah, simple in that there are 20 characteristics and, when you take the test, you either give yourself a 2, if you have one of these characteristics, or a 1 if you may or may not, and then at the end, you do a little math, and if, is it 30 and above out of 40, you qualify as a psychopath?

JC: Yeah, I saw it depends on what country you’re in.

CB: [Laughs]

JC: Um, mysteriously. But, um, somewhere, like, between 26 and 30. Over that, you are probably, you’re probably a psychopath or you are, you, you qualify as a psychopath, yes.

CB: So here are those 20 characteristics. Uh, and you can either just listen to these or you can have fun thinking about your own self and doing a little math along the way.

JC: [Chuckles] That’s so true.

CB: [Chuckles] I did math on mine earlier and I’m like, “All right, I’m not a psychopath.”

JC: And you can also, if it doesn’t apply, uh, that you score 0 on any of the questions.

CB: Yeah, correct.

JC: Right.

CB: Uh, so we start with glibness and superficiality. And I think these aren’t things, like, you know, everybody can be a little superficial every now and then. I think these are personality traits that you own.

JC: Right.

CB: Wouldn’t you say?

JC: Yeah.

CB: All right, so glibness and superficiality is one, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, an emotional shallowness. You wanna take the rest?

JC: Yeah, Callousness and lack of empathy.

CB: Big one.

JC: Parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral controls.

CB: Sure.

JC: Sexual promiscuity, early behavior problems, lack of realistic long term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility. You take the rest.

CB: Failure to accept that responsibility, multiple marriages, that just seems unfair.

JC: [Chuckles]

CB: Juvenile delinquency and relocation of conditional release, which is, like, recidivism or violating your parole.

JC: Yeah, and committing a variety of crimes.

CB: Yeah. So some of those, you are, like, “Ooh, I can be callous and, I don’t, I can be impulsive and don’t have realistic long term goals.” Like, don’t sweat it. Just do the math. Like, a 30 out of 40 is a pretty… That means you’re scoring on, on a lot of these.

JC: Right, but so this, these are the 20 characteristics that the checklist is getting at. The checklist is actually hundreds of questions long.

CB: Right.

JC: And takes between 2 and 5 hours to administer and can only be administered by a highly trained psychologist, right?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Who’s trained in administering the tests.

CB: Or a cheap website.

JC: So… [Chuckles] Right. So it’s not, like, the psychologists, like, “Did you have early behavior problems?” “Uh, maybe.” “So that’s a one.”

CB: Right.

JC: There’s dozens of questions for each of those things, right?

CB: Yeah, yeah.

JC: And so, when you, when you put the score together for all of them, if you score over a 30, um, you’re a psychopath as far as psychology, the field of psychologies is concerned.

CB: Yeah. And you, you know, hopefully you’re a functioning psychopath who, um, is getting along in the world, uh, but it can also manifest itself as Ted Bundy.

JC: So let’s say you are a psychopath and you’re not getting along in the world. Um, one of the, one of the characteristics of psychopaths is something called externalization, where you blame others or everything else but yourself for your own problems.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Um, but if you are a psychopath and you’re more… So if you’re not getting along very well in the world, you’re probably more, like, a Factor 2 psychopath.

CB: Yeah.

JC: If you are getting along well in the world, you got a nice job or whatever, a family all that, you’ve got your “mask of sanity” as Cleckley put it, um, you’d be more, like, a Factor 1 psychopath. Um, you’re probably an, an intelligent human being.

CB: Yeah.

JC: And even if you’re incarcerated, if you, there’s probably a pretty good chance that yo