Monday, May 07, 2012

Psychopathy - A Cautious Look

I was reminded the other day how common the term 'psychopath' is in our collective vocabulary. And also how little the average person is likely to know about what the term actually means. Frequency of use does not necessarily equate with accuracy of thought or perception.

The occasion was a relaxed evening in front of the widescreen TV. The DVD in the player was Season 3 of Barney Miller, the police comedy that aired in the mid- to late-seventies, and even into the early eighties. Season 3 is from about 1977. The episode was The Werewolf. Some readers might remember the series and its various characters: Captain Barney Miller, Detective Sergeant Philip K. Fish, Detective Third Grade Stan 'Wojo' (you spell it the way it sounds) Wojciehowicz, Detective Sergeants Ron Harris and Nick Yemana. Detective Sergeant Arthur Dietrich became a regular the following season.

Setting: Twelfth Precinct Squad Room. Nighttime.

The telephone rings.

Fish: 12th Precinct, Fish.What was that? Don't get excited! What's your name and address? (Writes on pad.) Barney!
Barney: What's up?
Fish: A fellow yelling, 'Stop me before I kill!' (Passes the phone to Barney.) Married, probably.
Barney: Hello! Hello? (Turns to Fish.) He hung up.
Fish: His name's Kopechne. (Hands Barney the piece of paper.)  This is the address he gave me.
Barney: A cooperative psychopath! Harris. Wojo. Check into this, but be careful.

Be careful indeed. Psychopaths are not necessarily cooperative, whatever Barney might think. Unless it suits them to be cooperative, in which case they will be. That's a part of their nature. They will typically do whatever is needed to further their agenda. Which might include violence, or not.

But to get back to the episode. The 'psychopath' on this occasion was no psychopath at all. He was an average citizen, Stefan Kopechne, a chap of Rumanian extraction, born - so he claims - on a night with a full moon. He believes he is a werewolf, and he frets whenever the full moon comes around. If you are familiar with lycanthropy, you will know that the werewolf comes out on a night with a full moon. Kopechne is arrested and jailed, and as the midnight hour approaches, the 'change' begins. It doesn't, not really; it's all in Kopechne's mind. And it's great fun. For the record, Kopechne is played by Kenneth Tigar, and brilliantly. Tigar was, and is, a character actor with umpteen-plus-five TV roles to his credit; the 'five' being the number of times he appeared on Barney Miller in different roles. If you are interested, you can watch the best part of the Werewolf episode here:

All comedy aside, though, I think 'psychopath' is one of the more - most? - misunderstood concepts in both crime fiction and crime fact. The typical Hollywood image - as I have seen and remember it - is of the individual, almost always male, who has an uncontrollable urge to kill and maim, and to take pleasure in doing so. Think Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) at his homicidal worst (or best), disembowelling a police officer, or eating a census taker's liver with 'some fava beans and a nice Chianti'.

I first encountered the term psychopath in 1958 in a second-year psychology course at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I don't recall the actual text we were using, but some of the description has stayed with me for more than a half-century, probably because the textbook description was so at odds with the depictions of psychopaths I subsequently viewed on-screen, or read in crime fiction.

Later, after I had moved from Newfoundland, first to Toronto (1961), and later to Ottawa (1969), I found myself in the company of two individuals who, I am 99.9% certain, were actual psychopaths. Both were male, both were young - in their thirties - but neither was violent, at least not at any time when I was in their company. One was, though, a criminal who eventually did time in the Kingston Penitentiary - popularly known as 'Kingston Pen' or simply 'KP' - near Lake Ontario.


Both men, needless to say, were interesting characters. Both were highly intelligent (a common characteristic) and in their individual ways, quite successful in their lives. One of them was especially charming, and with a great capacity for what is usually called 'brown nosing', or more politely, 'buttering up'. In other words, manipulative. He was also a consummate actor. The other was likeable, with a good sense of humour, but he wasn't what I would call charming. I did like him, though. As I got to know them both better over time, I decided that neither could really be trusted to do anything that was not in their own interest.

I have to leave the descriptions at that. I will only add that the 'charming' fellow never broke any laws that I am aware of, and he had a successful professional career. The one who did break the law in fact committed a serious offence, but one without direct violence to anyone. He was originally sentenced to seven years in the federal prison. He was, by all accounts, a model prisoner, and he used his time behind bars wisely and well. The last I heard of him, he was resettled in his original community, and doing very well in business and in his personal life. I am not surprised by that. He broke the law to make more money, and to advance his lifestyle. I am not aware that he ever broke the law again.

The behaviour that I observed is, so I have gathered from my reading, fairly typical for many psychopaths, although not for all. A psychopath is not necessarily criminal in his/her behaviour, but may be. If they do become criminals, they might become very proficient at it. And also very dangerous. They might become sociopaths, and they might become monsters. There is a wide range of behaviours. I have often read, for example, that not all psychopaths become serial killers, but that it is likely that all serial killers are psychopaths.

Dr. Robert D. Hare is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, here in Canada. He is an expert on psychopathy, having extensively researched the condition, and extensively written on the subject. Perhaps his best-known book is Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. He has also written, with Paul Babiak, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. He is the author of the Psychopathy Checklist.

As quoted on Wikipedia, Dr. Hare summarizes the 'psychopathy syndrome' as a cluster of related symptoms in two broad categories.

The Emotional/Interpersonal aspect includes the following:

Glib and superficial;
Egocentric and grandiose;
Lack of remorse or guilt;
Lack of empathy;
Deceitful and manipulative;
Shallow emotions.

The Social Deviance aspect includes:

Poor behaviour controls;
Need for excitement;
Lack of responsibility;
Early behaviour problems;
Adult antisocial behaviour.

Further: "What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony." Hare also notes that some psychopaths can blend in, undetected, in a variety of surroundings, including corporate environments. (One thinks here of the brutal chaos of the 2008 world financial meltdown, and of the corporate individuals and groups that brought it about.) Hare has described psychopaths as "intraspecies predators".

The ability to "blend in" fits well with my own limited, and admittedly quite unscientific, observations in the two examples described above.

There is another aspect of psychopathy that I have read about, and in the context of which I once (several years ago) attended a presentation at a meeting of our local (Ottawa) group of mystery writers. The suggestion was made that some, perhaps many, of the characteristics of psychopaths can be found in politicians, and most especially in those - the most aggressive and ambitious individuals - who rise to lead governments. It's an interesting concept, often speculated about - you only have to Google the subject to find references - but it is an hypothesis that has not, so far as I know, been proven. With some obvious exceptions, of course: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are often cited as examples of psychopathic personalties who headed governments that were responsible for near-unspeakable violence, and the deaths of millions.



Charlotte Hinger said...

Thomas, this was a fascinating post. It's scary to think of the number of persons running for office who fit right into that profile.

K.B. Gibson said...

Great topic, Thomas. I've always equated "psychopath" with "sociopath." Are they?

As a writer who once worked in a psychiatric hospital long ago (and still would like to find a way to work it into a novel), I remember that it was the sociopaths that were really the patients to watch out for because they weren't crazy, they were just mean. Wired differently with limited capacity for remorse, guilt, etc.

Today, I think we use either term for anyone who thinks or acts differently. Yes, very overused terms. Where's the fun in everyone being alike?

Rick Blechta said...

Tom – excellent post and very thought-provoking. Many thanks!

To the previous commenter: Although Barbara Fradkin is much better equipped to explain this than I, psychopaths and sociopaths are completely different, although the trail of destruction they leave behind can be very similar.

Thomas Rendell Curran said...

A reply:

I am not sure that sociopaths and psychopaths are "completely different" as Rick suggests. I may be wrong, but I have always thought that a sociopath was a psychopath who "went to the dark side". As I noted, and others have also, a psychopath might never break the law; a sociopath by definition does break the law. I think that both, however, experience no remorse from whatever of their actions injure others.



Thomas Rendell Curran said...

A reply:

I am not sure that sociopaths and psychopaths are "completely different" as Rick suggests. I may be wrong, but I have always thought that a sociopath was a psychopath who "went to the dark side". As I noted, and others have also, a psychopath might never break the law; a sociopath by definition does break the law. I think that both, however, experience no remorse from whatever of their actions injure others.



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