Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Playing the System: The Martin Appel Case

The Nature of a Psychopath

People generally believe that all psychopaths are criminals, even killers, but the truth is, many operate within the law, getting away with smaller social violations. They move into large systems like corporations or politics to manipulate their way through the ranks — and can succeed quite well. Often they're superficially likable and affable, moving into any social circle with ease, because they know how to engage and manipulate others. We can't appeal to their conscience to try to stop them or get them to change, because they just don't care. They can't be made to care. They just take what they want and move on to another resource.

Often they seek the excitement of getting something at another person's expense. Sometimes they even indulge in cruelty, so they turn the screws more than they need to. Many are openly parasitic. Why they're this way we don't yet know, but research indicates that psychopaths process information differently than other people do, especially emotional information. They appear to have an undercharged and hyper-reactive autonomic nervous system, which means they're motivated to do things that will excite them and they will feed off the energy of the game. They may know how to act like normal people, but that's just a cover to permit them to operate more easily.

Dr. Robert Hare
Dr. Robert Hare

The work of Dr. Robert Hare and his associates established a set of twenty diagnostic criteria that offers a practical approach to both the assessment and treatment of psychopathy. On the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R, items are grouped around two basic factors, affective/interpersonal features and a socially deviant lifestyle. Psychopathy is characterized by such traits as a lack of remorse or empathy, deception, manipulativeness, egocentricity, and the persistent violation of social norms. In 1993, Hare published Without Conscience to warn people about those predators who walked among them and to provide a way to recover from the shattered lives psychopaths leave in their wake.

Cover: Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, Courtesy of Dr. Robert Hare
Cover: Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, Courtesy of Dr. Robert Hare

Psychopaths exploit people and leave them depleted and much the worse for the encounter. What's missing in these offenders are the qualities that people depend on for living in social harmony. Hare estimated that there were more than two million psychopaths in North America. "Psychopathy," he insisted, "touches virtually every one of us." When they do become criminals, they're more diverse, cold-blooded, and violent than other criminals and tend to enjoy torture. Their victims are expendable, and the "game" becomes deadlier and more perverse.

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