December 2, 2008

Psychopaths Are Charming?

Reader feedback appreciated.

I recently wrote about an article on the neuroimaging of psychopaths in The New Yorker, and something else just occurred to me.

It struck me that in almost every lay description of a psychopath, the word "charming" is inevitably used.  (In The New Yorker piece, it appears four times.) There is an almost mandatory reference to how seductive, or affable, or personable, or-- charming-- the psychopath is, that always follows the initial description of their criminality or evil.  Something along the lines of, "if you're not on guard, if you're just talking to them, you can't help but be sucked in."  As The New Yorker describes,

The psychopath talks "entertainingly," Cleckley explained, and is "brilliant and charming," but nonetheless "carries disaster lightly in each hand."
What's surprising about this description (to me) is how wrong it is.  Quick example: on Google "psychopathy AND charming" gets 80k hits; on Pubmed it gets zero.  In fact, to make the broadest generalization possible-- humor me for a minute-- it applies mostly to women.  Men,  in the presence of a psychopath, are not charmed, they're infuriated.  You don't want to hear their crap, you want to stab them in the eye.  It's unusual to find a man who is fascinated enough by psychopaths, serial killers, and the like, to record every Discovery Channel special on them; and the few that do are the type you figure to be a wedgie away from going Zodiac at the frat house.  But there are plenty of young women are completely fascinated by them, watch all the TV shows, read the articles, etc. 

Since I have no data on the male perspective on a psychopath's charm (or lack of it) I'll speak for myself, and I'm curious to know if it resonates with other people: psychopaths are an endless stream of words. They talk, they talk around, they talk around and around the actual point; they don't open up with "I need something from you" but drown you in endless, pointless but seemingly earnest talk about other things that somehow, in their mind, apply to the current problem.  In a word, it is all bullshit.  You know it's bullshit, but civility, or insecurity, force you to sit there and listen.  It wears you down (which is the point), so that after all the "and my brother then..." and "but she told me that..." "He told me it would be okay if..." he finally asks you for "this really big favor" you are more inclined to give in.   When I do an eval for a criminal trial, getting the truth out of one of these guys is painful to the point of euthanasia.  They don't even lie directly to you, they overwhelm you with distractions, red herrings, sleight of hand, you ask, "what time did you get to the house?" and for the next twenty minutes, you never hear the words "time" or house" come out of their mouth.

None of that is charming, or engaging, or even slightly interesting to me.

Yet-- and by example here's one woman quoted in the article--

"He had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him," she told me. "He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful thing," [said Carla] Harenski, who is thirty...
Here's an example from Robert Hare himself:

One of my raters described an interview she did with a prisoner: "I sat down and took out my clipboard," she said, "and the first thing this guy told me was what beautiful eyes I had. He managed to work quite a few compliments on my appearance into the interview, so by the time I wrapped things up, I was feeling unusually... well, pretty. I'm a wary person, especially on the job, and can usually spot a phony. When I got back outside, I couldn't believe I'd fallen for a line like that."

I can see the easy explanation: these women are more easily manipulated, especially because the charm carries a sexual connotation.  There's a power differential-- some of the fear is processed sexually, etc. Summary: the women don't see what's really in the psychopath.

But that doesn't seem right; these women aren't stupid; they've been around, and even on some level they must know the guy is bad news.  So what if these women who are charmed see something in psychopaths everyone else doesn't?  Are they detecting something good, or at least attractive, that I for one can't see?

Here's an example: psychopaths don't have empathy, but more specifically they don't understand other people's emotions.  As the article points out, they interpret emotions linguistically, not emotionally.  They know the word <sadness>, and the other words that explain or go with <sadness>, but they don't feel it.   Perhaps emotional inability is made up for by a better linguisitic processing ability, such that they know/intuit better than most what to say to women, while non-psychopaths find themselves acutely aware of their emotions,  but are unable to express them (e.g. are shy.)

Maybe women who are charmed by such men see them less as people and more as stories?  Do women who find psychopaths charming also read more novels?  Do these women have a common interest in certain types of books or movies?  Etc.

Maybe I ormen can't sense the "charming" because men are immediately on the defensive because they sense a rival, or alpha male, etc?

This can be flipped around: we know psychopaths are manipulative, but it would be very interesting to find out how easily manipulated they are.  Under what circumstances?  Is it easier to trick them with money, numbers, logic, pictures?  Do they fall for magic, optical illusions?  Is it easier for a woman to seduce them, to manipulate them?  Are they an easier mark for a con man?

How do you con a con man?

Addendum 12/8/08: a clarification on this post.