Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Robert Hare: Expert on the Psychopath

The Psychopath Defined

The work of Hare and his associates clarified a set of diagnostic criteria that offers a practical approach to both the assessment and treatment of psychopathy. The PCL-R items are grouped around two basic factors, affective/interpersonal features and socially deviant lifestyle (both of which have been divided further into four facets, two each for the two factors). Refocusing the idea of antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy is characterized by such traits as

  • lack of remorse or empathy
  • shallow emotions
  • manipulativeness
  • lying
  • egocentricity
  • glibness
  • low frustration tolerance
  • episodic relationships
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • persistent violation of social norms

It remained to translate the academic and professional work into a form that ordinary people could understand, so in 1993, Hare published Without Conscience. His purpose was to warn people about those predators who walked among them, and to provide a way for those with shattered lives as the result of an encounter with a psychopath to deal with it. He believes that, for their own protection, it's crucial that people learn to identify a psychopath who may be very close to them.

Too many people hold the idea that psychopaths are essentially killers or convicts. The general public hasn't been educated to see beyond the social stereotypes to understand that psychopaths can be entrepreneurs, politicians, CEOs and other successful individuals who may never see the inside of a prison and who don't commit violent crimes. However, they do often commit violations of another sort: They exploit people and leave them depleted and much the worse for the encounter. They prove to be treacherous employees, conniving businessmen, or immoral officials who use their position to victimize people and enrich themselves.

Hare says that we know little about these individuals in terms of systematic study about how the disorder manifests in the public at large. Nevertheless, there are indications that the personality structure and propensity for unethical treatment of others is common to both criminal and noncriminal psychopaths.

What's missing in psychopaths are the qualities that people depend on for living in social harmony. In this book, Hare estimated (conservatively) that there were more than two million psychopaths in North America. "Psychopathy," he insisted, "touches virtually every one of us."

Yet while not all killers are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are killers, Hare does describe cases of conscienceless killers who appeared to show no human feeling for their victims. Among them, Hare listed:

John Wayne Gacy, mugshot

John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young men and buried most of them in the crawl space beneath his house

Ted Bundy, who murdered more than two dozen young women in the 1970s, going into several different states to claim his victims

Joe Hunt, mugshot

Joe Hunt, who conned a gang of young men into a bogus money-making scheme that escalated into murder

Clifford Olson, who manipulated the Canadian government to pay him a substantial amount to show officials where he had buried his murder victims

Diane Downs, who shot her two children to attract a man who didn't want them, and then claimed that she was the victim

The type of violence in which they engage is qualitatively different from that of non-psychopathic offenders in that it is likely to be more predatory, motivated by identifiable goals, and carried out in a calculated manner without an emotional context. They tend not to commit crimes of passion, such as during a domestic dispute or extreme arousal. Some theorists believe that psychopaths may be motivated by weak emotions breaking through weaker restraints. They may simply be reacting, showing off or exerting control as a means of proving themselves. For the most part, their crimes are cold-blooded, and they felt excited by them rather than guilty. In those who are serial killers, there appears to be a strong tendency toward sadism.

The point is, these offenders find victims easily because they were glib, charming, manipulative, and predatory, while their victims are generally nave. Psychopaths would realize less success if their targeted victims were savvier.

But what can people really do? Can this objectionable behavior be eradicated, or is there something biologically amiss with psychopaths that may give them an enduring place among us?

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