09 September 2011

Weekend Reading: Psychopaths Among Us, the Madness Rises Again, and the Necessity of Law

"A lot of white-collar criminals are psychopaths," says Bob Hare. "But they flourish because the characteristics that define the disorder are actually valued. When they get caught, what happens? A slap on the wrist, a six-month ban from trading, and don't give us the $100 million back. I've always looked at white-collar crime as being as bad or worse than some of the physically violent crimes that are committed."

I might have found the remarks about the Vancouver stock exchange a little more shocking and less credible than in my idealistic youth, except later in life I had the unfortunate experience of working more closely with a few of the resident sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists there. I am still processing some of the things that I learned in that experience, and some others I had afterwards in the higher echelons of the corporate world, and national politics.

It can take a little while to catch on, because they can seem so normal, so charming. Good people think most people are rational and basically honest, just like them.

But they wrong, there are very sick people out there, but they do not seem sick, and do not ask for help. They do not want help, or rules, or anything else that gets in their way.  Their sickness does not always manifest itself sexually, but can be expressed in other means of domination and acquisition.  There is a high correlation with substance abuse, especially stimulants, and other obsessively risky behaviours, including chronic lying and flouting social conventions.  There is a negative correlation with depression.

Some can be particularly good at bending the rules to shape the system to help fulfill their need to feed on whatever their diet demands. They are naturally drawn to positions of power, frequently faking their credentials and results, and are often verbally acute, willing to say and do almost anything to get their way. If they come from wealth they may be able to buy their way into positions of power and protection and manage their environments very effectively, except their family relationships and children would rarely be described as normal. Psychopathy breeds a multitude of other disorders.

And they seem to be gaining traction, getting better, and finding kindred spirits in the growing partnership between corporations and the government.

"Three decades of these studies, by Hare and others, has confirmed that psychopaths' brains work differently from ours, especially when processing emotion and language. Hare once illustrated this for Nicole Kidman, who had invited him to Hollywood to help her prepare for a role as a psychopath in Malice. How, she wondered, could she show the audience there was something fundamentally wrong with her character?

"I said, 'Here's a scene that you can use,' " Hare says. " 'You're walking down a street and there's an accident. A car has hit a child in the crosswalk. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child's lying on the ground and there's blood running all over the place. You get a little blood on your shoes and you look down and say, "Oh shit."

You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you're not repelled or horrified. You're just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you're really fascinated by the mother, who's emoting, crying out, doing all these different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother.' " He then pauses and says, "That's the psychopath: somebody who doesn't understand what's going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened...

Psychopathy may prove to be as important a construct in this century as IQ was in the last (and just as susceptible to abuse), because, thanks to Hare, we now understand that the great majority of psychopaths are not violent criminals and never will be. Hundreds of thousands of psychopaths live and work and prey among us. Your boss, your boyfriend, your mother could be what Hare calls a "subclinical" psychopath, someone who leaves a path of destruction and pain without a single pang of conscience. Even more worrisome is the fact that, at this stage, no one -- not even Bob Hare -- is quite sure what to do about it...

The most startling finding to emerge from Hare's work is that the popular image of the psychopath as a remorseless, smiling killer -- Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, John Wayne Gacy -- while not wrong, is incomplete. Yes, almost all serial killers, and most of Canada's dangerous offenders, are psychopaths, but violent criminals are just a tiny fraction of the psychopaths around us. Hare estimates that 1 percent of the population -- 300,000 people in Canada -- are psychopaths.

He calls them "subclinical" psychopaths. They're the charming predators who, unable to form real emotional bonds, find and use vulnerable women for sex and money (and inevitably abandon them). They're the con men like Christophe Rocancourt, and they're the stockbrokers and promoters who caused Forbes magazine to call the Vancouver Stock Exchange (now part of the Canadian Venture Exchange) the scam capital of the world.

(Hare has said that if he couldn't study psychopaths in prisons, the Vancouver Stock Exchange would have been his second choice.) A significant proportion of persistent wife beaters, and people who have unprotected sex despite carrying the AIDS virus, are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be found in legislatures, hospitals, and used-car lots. They're your neighbour, your boss, and your blind date. Because they have no conscience, they're natural predators. If you didn't have a conscience, you'd be one too.

Psychopaths love chaos and hate rules, so they're comfortable in the fast-moving modern corporation. Dr. Paul Babiak, an industrial-organizational psychologist based near New York City, is in the process of writing a book with Bob Hare called When Psychopaths Go to Work: Cons, Bullies and the Puppetmaster. The subtitle refers to the three broad classes of psychopaths Babiak has encountered in the workplace.

"The con man works one-on-one," says Babiak. "They'll go after a woman, marry her, take her money, then move on and marry someone else. The puppet master would manipulate somebody to get at someone else. This type is more powerful because they're hidden." Babiak says psychopaths have three motivations: thrill-seeking, the pathological desire to win, and the inclination to hurt people. "They'll jump on any opportunity that allows them to do those things," he says. "If something better comes along, they'll drop you and move on."

How can you tell if your boss is a psychopath? It's not easy, says Babiak. "They have traits similar to ideal leaders. You would expect an ideal leader to be narcissistic, self-centred, dominant, very assertive, maybe to the point of being aggressive. Those things can easily be mistaken for the aggression and bullying that a psychopath would demonstrate. The ability to get people to follow you is a leadership trait, but being charismatic to the point of manipulating people is a psychopathic trait. They can sometimes be confused."

Once inside a company, psychopaths can be hard to excise. Babiak tells of a salesperson and psychopath -- call him John -- who was performing badly but not suffering for it. John was managing his boss -- flattering him, taking him out for drinks, flying to his side when he was in trouble. In return, his boss covered for him by hiding John's poor performance. The arrangement lasted until John's boss was moved. When his replacement called John to task for his abysmal sales numbers, John was a step ahead.

He'd already gone to the company president with a set of facts he used to argue that his new boss, and not he, should be fired. But he made a crucial mistake. "It was actually stolen data," Babiak says. "The only way [John] could have obtained it would be for him to have gone into a file into which no one was supposed to go. That seemed to be enough, and he was fired rather than the boss. Even so, in the end, he walked out with a company car, a bag of money, and a good reference."

"A lot of white-collar criminals are psychopaths," says Bob Hare. "But they flourish because the characteristics that define the disorder are actually valued. When they get caught, what happens? A slap on the wrist, a six-month ban from trading, and don't give us the $100 million back. I've always looked at white-collar crime as being as bad or worse than some of the physically violent crimes that are committed."

The best way to protect the workplace is not to hire psychopaths in the first place. That means training interviewers so they're less likely to be manipulated and conned. It means checking resumés for lies and distortions, and it means following up references.

Paul Babiak says he's "not comfortable" with one researcher's estimate that one in ten executives is a psychopath, but he has noticed that they are attracted to positions of power. When he describes employees such as John to other executives, they know exactly whom he's talking about. "I was talking to a group of human-resources executives yesterday," says Babiak, "and every one of them said, you know, I think I've got somebody like that."

By now, you're probably thinking the same thing. The number of psychopaths in society is about the same as the number of schizophrenics, but unlike schizophrenics, psychopaths aren't loners. That means most of us have met or will meet one. Hare gets dozens of letters and e-mail messages every month from people who say they recognize someone they know while reading Without Conscience. They go on to describe a brother, a sister, a husband. " 'Please help my seventeen-year-old son. . . .' " Hare reads aloud from one such missive. "It's a heart-rending letter, but what can I do? I'm not a clinician. I have hundreds of these things, and some of them are thirty or forty pages long."

Hare's book opened my eyes, too. Reading it, I realized that I might have known a psychopath, Jonathan, at the computer company where I worked in London, England, over twenty years ago. He was charming and confident, and from the moment he arrived he was on excellent terms with the executive inner circle. Jonathan had big plans and promised me that I was a big part of them. One night when I was alone in the office, Jonathan appeared, accompanied by what anyone should have recognized as two prostitutes. "These are two high-ranking staff from the Ministry of Defence," he said without missing a beat. "We're going over the details of a contract, which I'm afraid is classified top secret. You'll have to leave the building." His voice and eyes were absolutely persuasive and I complied. A few weeks later Jonathan was arrested. He had embezzled tens of thousands of pounds from the small firm, used the company as a mailing address for a marijuana importing business he was running on the side, and robbed the apartment of the company's owner, who was letting him stay there temporarily.

Like everyone who has been suckered by a psychopath -- and Bob Hare includes himself and many of his graduate students (who have been trained to spot them) in that list -- I'm ashamed that I fell for Jonathan. But he was brilliant, charismatic, and audacious. He radiated money and power (though in fact he had neither), while his real self -- manipulative, lying, parasitic, and irresponsible -- was just far enough under his surface to be invisible. Or was it? Maybe I didn't know how to look, or maybe I didn't really want to.

I saw his name in the news again recently. "A con man tricked top sports car makers Lotus into lending him a £70,000 model . . . then stole it and drove 6,000 miles across Europe, a court heard," the story began.

Knowing Jonathan is probably a psychopath makes me feel better. It's an explanation.

But away from the workplace, back in the world of the criminally violent psychopath, Hare's checklist has become broadly known, so broadly known, in fact, that it is now a constant source of concern for him. "People are misusing it, and they're misusing it in really strange ways," Hare says. "There are lots of clinicians who don't even have a manual. All they've seen is an article with the twenty items -- promiscuity, impulsiveness, and so forth -- listed."

In court, assessments of the same person done by defence and prosecution "experts" have varied by as much as twenty points. Such drastic differences are almost certainly the result of bias or incompetence, since research on the PCL-R itself has shown it has high "inter-rater reliability" (consistent results when a subject is assessed by more than one qualified assessor). In one court case, it was used to label a thirteen-year-old a psychopath, even though the PCL-R test is only meant to be used to rate adults with criminal histories. The test should be administered only by mental-health professionals (like all such psychological instruments, it is only for sale to those with credentials), but a social worker once used the PCL-R in testimony in a death-penalty case -- not because she was qualified but because she thought it was "interesting."

It shouldn't be used in death-penalty cases at all, Hare says, but U.S. Federal District Courts have ruled it admissible because it meets scientific standards.

"Bob and others like myself are saying it doesn't meet the ethical standards," says Dr. Henry Richards, a psychopathy researcher at the University of Washington. "A psychological instrument and diagnosis should not be a determinant of whether someone gets the death sentence. That's more of an ethical and political decision."

And into the ethical and political realm -- the realm of extrapolation, of speculation, of opinion -- Hare will not step. He's been asked to be a guest on Oprah (twice), 60 Minutes, and Larry King Live. Oprah wanted him alongside a psychopath and his victim. "I said, 'This is a circus,' " Hare says. "I couldn't do that." 60 Minutes also wanted to "make it sexy" by throwing real live psychopaths into the mix. Larry King Live phoned him at home while O. J. Simpson was rolling down the freeway in his white Bronco. Hare says no every time (while his publisher gently weeps).

Even in his particular area, Hare is unfailingly circumspect. Asked if he thinks there will ever be a cure for psychopathy -- a drug, an operation -- Hare steps back and examines the question. "The psychopath will say 'A cure for what?' I don't feel comfortable calling it a disease. Much of their behaviour, even the neurobiological patterns we observe, could be because they're using different strategies to get around the world. These strategies don't have to involve faulty wiring, just different wiring."

Are these people qualitatively different from us? "I would think yes," says Hare. "Do they form a discrete taxon or category? I would say probably -- the evidence is suggesting that. But does this mean that's because they have a broken motor? I don't know. It could be a natural variation." True saints, completely selfless individuals, are rare and unnatural too, he points out, but we don't talk about their being diseased..."

Robert Hercz, Psychopaths Among Us

"Our hypothesis was that psychopathic traits are also linked to dysfunction in dopamine reward circuitry," Buckholtz said. "Consistent with what we thought, we found people with high levels of psychopathic traits had almost four times the amount of dopamine released in response to amphetamine."

In the second portion of the experiment, the research subjects were told they would receive a monetary reward for completing a simple task. Their brains were scanned with fMRI while they were performing the task. The researchers found in those individuals with elevated psychopathic traits the dopamine reward area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, was much more active while they were anticipating the monetary reward than in the other volunteers.

"It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they're after," Buckholtz said. Added Zald, "It's not just that they don't appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns."

Psychopaths' Brains Wired to Seek Rewards No Matter the Consequences

I am reasonably convinced that the relativistic 1970s spawned the 'greed is good' meme of the 1990's, and provided a Petri dish for the development of abnormalities by encouraging even latent tendencies to antisocial behaviour. What was once frowned upon is now encouraged and rewarded.

People can rationalize almost anything for even a considerable time, for years, and ignore all the consequences of their actions and inactions. And when someone finally forces them to look at what they have done, and shows it to them unavoidably, describing it in uncompromising words, they are shocked, defiant, in denial, then appalled, and finally ashamed. One does not become a monster overnight, but in stages.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And so I remind you of this, and not to start seeing a psycho under every tree, or in the rudeness of immature, undersocialized dickweeds   And of course there are always the garden variety sociopaths and narcissists who seem to fill out the most empty of corporate suits, and thrive behind the anonymity of their organizations.

Performance tells, and in particular the means to the ends are important. Some people are ruthless because they can be, in the relative imbalance of power, and you have something they want. These are often sociopaths.

But other people are utterly ruthless because they don't feel or think the way you do, and would just as soon destroy you and your family for a dime or a dollar, if they are so inclined. They can look you in the eye, and lie, and keep lying even past the point of discovery, and never bat an eye.  

And if finally discovered they just move on and recreate themselves elsewhere. They are not good, but they are also not conventionally evil in the way we might think of it; they are empty, and they seek to fill themselves with whatever and whomever they can obtain.

And they can be very pleasant about it, telling you what you wish to hear, until the moment comes and you are under their power.

"A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all."

Writer George Orwell confessed he found something “deeply appealing” about Adolf Hitler. Where Martha Dodd was struck by Hitler’s “weak, soft face,” Orwell discerned “a pathetic dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs.” All this is a reminder that psychopaths have been known to possess engaging qualities, and that Hitler was no less repellent for not sporting fangs.

Marchand, Such Polite Fascists

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches forth again to be revealed?

WILLIAM ROPER So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

THOMAS MORE Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

WILLIAM ROPER I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

THOMAS MORE Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.