Psychologists estimate that around one per cent of the world’s population are psychopaths. Statistically, you are bound to have met one at some point in your life. I think I met my first one last year.
I was visiting a friend in Otago. It was the first time I had ever stayed at someone’s flat in another city. He was the first one back at his flat; his flatmates, all med students, were supposed to come back at some point, he just didn’t know when. It seemed like your basic uni accommodation—five rooms, two stories, enough space for everyone to go about their business without being disturbed. Out the back of the flat, there was a narrow division next to the washing line, where someone had set up a small shooting range. White plastic pellets littered the ground, and a ventilated target still hung on the fence some distance away. When I asked concernedly what they were, my friend shrugged and said, “Oh, those are Jemaine’s. He does shooting in his spare time.”
Jemaine arrived at the flat about two days later while my friend was out. We introduced ourselves, we talked about our majors and how I knew his flatmate. He made some crude homophobic joke about what we had been getting up to while he was gone. So much for first impressions. Then the inevitable awkward pause. But I decided if I was going to a guest under my friend’s roof that I’d better be civil. I asked an icebreaker that I had recently learnt from reddit to keep the conversation going.
“You get given a giraffe by someone, and they tell you have to look after it, but you cannot let anyone know that you have it, even the people you live with. You have to keep it an absolute secret, and you just have to keep it at your house until such time as someone comes to collect it. How do you hide the giraffe?”
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When I have asked this to most people in the past, most people stop and pause to consider the logistics of their house, their yard, how they would look after and feed the gangly, obvious animal. But after about a second, Jemaine answered.
“I’d just cut up the giraffe and hide the chunks.”
Maybe he was just being clever (I never specified that the giraffe had to be alive, after all), but the immediacy and the confidence with which he answered left me a little cold. He spent the rest of the day up in his room with a friend, showing off and assembling their pellet guns, some of which looked remarkably similar to actual firearms.
I later learned that he wanted to specialise in surgery. At least he would be taking bullets out of people instead of putting bullets into them.
Down the Hare Hole
As a culture, we are fascinated by human evil. Nineteenth century French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel spoke of manie sans delire, or insanity without delusions. Today, shows like Hannibal and Criminal Minds construct stories where we get to safely gaze into the world of how a ruthless killer thinks and acts. Psychopathy, to the average person’s mind, can mean any number of things, from a psychotic individual to a corporate Wolf of Wall Street to a cultured cannibal. Researchers today still heavily debate the term and what precisely we refer to when we think of the word “psychopath”. The leading expert, at least in criminal cases, is Robert Hare, a psychologist and the deviser of the “Hare Test”.
In the 60s, Hare worked as the prison psychologist in the maximum-security British Columbia Penitentiary. After a psychopathic prisoner cut the brake line in his car while it was in the prison auto shop, Hare decided to find out what exactly made these people tick. If he could find the defect that made psychopaths the cold, unsympathetic creatures they are, maybe he could find a way to detect them.
Hare began to conduct a series of trials on both psychopathic and non-psychopathic volunteers in the prison. In one of his trials, Hare would strap a prisoner up and told them he would count backwards from ten, and that when he hit one they would receive a powerful electric shock. Hare measured the brain response and heart rates of his subjects throughout the trial, and found that during the countdown before the shock the non-psychopaths would panic, their heart and perspiration rates peaking as they preparing themselves for the painful jolt to come. The psychopaths didn’t break a sweat, and didn’t even remember the electric shock as being painful. There was a clear disconnect between what they felt and how they felt about it.
Even more shocking (at least more than any other electricity pun I could make) was the response to his findings. Hare sent his findings to Science magazine. The magazine sent them back unpublished, along with a letter saying that his results “couldn’t have come from real people”.
What Hare had found in his trials was a missing link in psychopaths’ responses—a defect in the amygdala, the portion of the brain responsible for processing emotions like fear and stress. After electro-shock was banned in the early 1970s, Hare had to come up with less extreme methods of rooting out psychopaths, and so he devised the Checklist.
The Hare test, or the Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL-R), is used by clinicians and researchers to identify personality traits commonly associated with psychopathy in their patients. The actual checklist itself is more of a textbook than a test, and completing it from cover to cover takes around three hours in total, usually conducted as a face-to-face interview. The “test” portion itself is 20 items, divided into two sections measuring factors of personality and behaviour. Participants are asked to rank their accuracy to questions on these factors from 0 to 2, 0 meaning “does not apply”, 1 meaning “applies somewhat” and 2 “definitely applies”. Factor 1 items measure how participants view themselves and conduct themselves around other people, looking for anything that suggests an unhealthy ego (psychopaths are incredibly full of themselves) or characteristic lack of empathy. Factor 1 statements include “In important ways, I am superior to most people” and “I rarely connect emotionally with others”. Factor 2 items determine a participant’s capacity to commit and rationalise criminal acts, in relation to statements like “I need to take risks to feel alive” and “I am not or would not be proud of getting away with crimes”.
The main criticism of the Hare test is that it is heavily focused on Factor 2 traits, which firmly bases the test on a very socially constructed notion that all psychopaths are likely to be violent criminals. In the book The Psychopath Test, journalist Jon Ronson asked Hare about the assumptions we have about psychopaths. Hare comments that if he had had the knowledge back in the 60s that he had now, he would have conducted his research in the Stock Exchange as well as prisons.
So with this all in mind, and for the purposes of journalism, I decided to undertake the most amateur of amateur studies to see if a psychopath turned up somewhere in Victoria’s esteemed halls. Mimicking Bob Hare and his checklist, I interviewed a series of people from different majors, asking them a series of questions about their personality and behaviour, while also quizzing them on what their idea of a psychopath was. The online Hare test that I gave my volunteers (which you can find at vistriai.com/psychopathtest) is 39 questions long instead of 20. In addition, as my editor was quick to remind me, this was for fun and I am not remotely qualified to conduct any psychology investigation of any kind.
On the PCL-R, the threshold for being labeled a psychopath is 25 in the UK and 30 in the USA (I wonder if there’s something in the Constitution for that). On the online test, after you submit your results, the online test gives you a number from 1 to 40 and places your results on a bell curve. The curve is positively skewed, which for you non-statisticians means that the peak leans to the left, toward the lower numbers. This means that the people who score highly for psychopathic traits are bigger outliers than those who scored high for empathetic or non-psychopathic traits. The peak of the curve, where the highest percentage of people scored, sits somewhere around 14-16.
My completely scientifically valid sample size consisted of five students. Noelle was a design graduate. Marshall was in his third year of law. Lorraine was doing her Honours in biomedicine and wanted to be a doctor. Tanya was a psych student who wanted to work in the Department of Corrections, a potential Robert Hare in the making. And lastly, Jasmine, a musician with an interest in maths and physics.
Every volunteer who took the online Hare test scored either 11 or 12, a score on the lower end of the bell curve, below the average. The only exception was Marshall, who scored 7, the lowest score and the one outlier. Marshall and Jasmine were both relieved to be on the lower end of the bell curve.
The real Psychopath Checklist isn’t available online, and Robert Hare has stated that the actual test is only to be used by clinicians. (So I “definitely apply” for having problems with authority, I suppose.) If a real Checklist were offered online and made available to everyone, chances are it would lose any semblance of clinical reliability.
When I asked my volunteers who the first person, real or fictional, they thought of when they hear the word psychopath, they tended to give stereotypical examples. The Simpsons, having an archetype for just about every personality, was a touchstone for both Noelle and Jasmine—the former offered the “obsessive” Sideshow Bob and the latter said Professor Frink, because he’s a “crazy scientist”, conflating psychopathy with psychosis. Marshall said Hannibal Lecter, while Lorraine offered the “evil” Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Tanya, the only psychology student, gave the infamous Ted Bundy, whom she had studied extensively and dubbed “her favourite serial killer”.
I listed a series of Factor 1 traits to see how my subjects thought it could apply to what they wanted to do then they graduated. These included a lack of remorse or guilt, a need for stimulation (psychopaths bore easily), being cunning or manipulative, low anxiety or stress, a lack of affect (not being fazed by anything or having a glib response to ordinarily shocking things) and finally, a lack of long-term planning, something which psychopaths have an inability to do, at least with regards to making and achieving realistic goals.
Given that all my subjects were around university age, everyone had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted to do when they graduated and how they were going to go about it. But some psychopathic traits held a certain appeal, especially when applied to certain occupations. Unsurprisingly, the one trait everyone wanted to have was a lack of anxiety or low stress. The reception to the benefits of a lack of affect or a lack of guilt was more mixed; Jasmine believed that as a musician, lacking in affect meant that you couldn’t put your emotions in your music. Lorraine believed being a doctor meant that you had to manage your emotions, finding the right balance between empathising with people and their illness but not crying yourself to sleep at night.
Manipulativeness or cunning was rated very low by everyone, but Marshall did make the point that as a lawyer, you would need to be “clever” but not necessarily manipulative.
“[Being cunning] would be quite useful because you’re trying to think of clever ways to interpret the law, maybe a certain meaning of this word that could get your client off rather than have him convicted. I think it would be pretty useful to any lawyer really.”
I always thought of lawyers as swaying a jury through emotion (I blame Boston Legal and its frequent soapboxing of cases), something that a psychopath would be adept at doing.
“My view of the law is that they’re there to help people,” says Marshall. “When their problem is based in something wrong [breaking the law], they’re not so much there to manipulate people [clients or juries] as to take the information they have and try to fit it into a legal context.”
I also included the giraffe question, just for kicks. Thankfully, everyone wanted to keep the giraffe alive. But I wasn’t immediately convinced.
What my subjects didn’t know was that I wasn’t just recording their answers, but how exactly they answered. The Hare Checklist is not strictly ticking boxes; its intention is to see whether certain turns of phrase, but by the way they speak, what turns of phrase they use, how they carry themselves.
The additional questions I asked were to hear people’s honest opinion of how they conducted themselves, like whether they deliberately managed the way they appeared to people or describing the last time they worked with a team of people on a set task, in order to determine how they typically spoke of others when performance or reputation was on the line. Psychopaths tend to see people less as people and more as tools or pawns. If their reputation or grandiose sense of self is on the line, a psychopath will resort to anything to readdress that balance, including theft or murder, and will feel no remorse for the outcome. They would try to make it their victim’s fault that they got killed, that their way of the world is the way of the world.
With my subjects, nothing really stood out. Everyone agreed that they present themselves differently to strangers than they would people they knew out of politeness or nervousness. No ruses or charades were exposed here, though Marshall considered that if he did think too hard about conducting himself around people, then he probably would. Which to me sounded like an honest, anxious totally non-psychopathic appraisal (so breathe easy, dude).
Psychopaths are clinically unable to experience the same range or depth of emotions as non-psychopaths. This leaves them a distinct lack of empathy or ability to relate to people, and influences a lot of their characteristic behaviours and personality traits: the lack of affect, the ability to manipulate, a distinct lack of remorse over their actions. However, it does gift them with the uncanny ability to be unafraid or unstressed during events that have the ordinary person jumping in fright. Depending on your perspective, that could make a cold-blooded killer or a highly-functioning surgeon or a ruthless businessman.
Leave the Capsule if you dare
Like any major personality disorder, psychopathy can’t be “cured”, but that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried to cure it. Elliot Barker, a Canadian psychologist working in the 60s, idealistically believed that psychopathy was less of a permanent condition and more of an ailment. He thought psychopathy or any sort of madness was something that could be burnt out of the body given enough time and attention, like a cold. He believed the best way to achieve this was in Nude Psychotherapy, a therapeutic practice in which people stripped naked and talked about their feelings towards one another in a controlled environment. Unsurprisingly, it gained popularity with celebrities in the 60s. After obtaining a pool of criminals to test and a hospital facility in Ontario, Barker did the same thing with psychopaths. He placed them in a garish green room called the Total Encounter Capsule, with no distractions or contact from the outside world. Food and water was provided through straws in the walls and laced with LSD to encourage the therapeutic process. This went on for years, with psychopathic criminals spending several intense fortnight long sessions in the Capsule.
In the end, it was an experiment gone horribly wrong. When a pair of researchers in the 90s studied whether the Capsule inmates had gone on to reoffend, they found that their likelihood of reoffending had increased from sixty per cent to eighty per cent. The treatment hadn’t made them better people, it had made them better psychopaths.
For instance, two different inmates were caught weeks after their release having each raped and killed a young boy. One former Capsule inmate went on to try and join the Israeli army and was turned down. (“See?” said one of the original researchers, “They have standards!”) He joined the Rhodesian army instead and was gunned down by supporters of Robert Mugabe. The takeaway was that the clarity the LSD and isolation these psychopaths experienced only went on to make them worse. The researchers concluded that if a psychopath were to become more empathetic, they would only get better at manipulating others’ feelings rather than understanding their own.
In The Psychopath Test, Hare explains how strange it is to hear a psychopath comment on their lack of empathy. When they see a person crying or scared or suffering, they tend not to be moved so much as fascinated, like they’re watching an animal at the zoo. Knowing that they are likely to be ostracised or placed under scrutiny if they don’t play along and feel empathy alongside their peers, psychopaths study people and mimic their behaviour to blend in.
We think of psychopaths as only being criminals, but they can be found just about anywhere, if you know where to look. Research has shown that they tend to gravitate toward certain professions. In fact, a lot of the traits we typically associate with psychopaths tend to be incredibly useful in certain professions.
When I told Lorraine my story about the potential giraffe-murdering surgeon, she didn’t seem all that surprised.
“A lot of my friends who take medicine have that sort of sick personality,” she said, “which is why sometimes I’m like ‘Oh, should I be studying medicine?’ Because that is not my humour.”
To me, developing a dark sense of humour in a job that emotionally taxing seemed like a healthy response.
“Do you mean in the way that they find it funny, or is it like a release valve for when they have to deal with shitty situations?” I asked.
“No, they find it funny,” she said. “They like to bounce off each other with just this kind of sick humour, like about rape and violence and all that kind of stuff.
“Seriously!” she continued. “It’s like a breed of people. I think a lot of surgeons have that mentality.”
When I asked my subjects which major they thought had the most psychopaths in it, two thought science because of their narcissism and generally “being full of themselves”, and two thought psychology due to its focus on analysing people and picking them apart. I too had wondered, while I researched this article, in which realm of study the psychopaths sought asylum.
As luck would have it, a study done at Victoria University had set out to do just that, only with qualifications and a wider sample pool and all that jazz. Commerce turned out to be the major with the highest concentration of people with psychopathic traits, followed closely by law. Science and arts had the lowest amount, with science having slightly more psychopathic individuals than arts.
In The Psychopath Test, Ronson wonders if the psychopaths in the stock market could possibly be as bad as the psychopaths in the prisons. Hare shrugged in response.
“Serial killers ruin families. Corporate and political psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”
Psychopaths rise to the positions of power: politics, economics, even positions over life and death, if my encounter with prospective surgeons proved anything. It’s become such a potential problem, especially in the wake of Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, “the Wolf of Wall Street”, that the Victoria study ends on the note that commerce papers should aim to encourage ethical business practice in order to discourage the potential psychopaths in the herd. It gives a whole new meaning to “the one per cent”.
On that cheerful note, I offer this one Salient piece of reassurance: if you think you are a psychopath, if you are scared or anxious that you are, then that probably means you are not one.
*some of the names in this article have been changed.