By | May 31, 2013 15 Comments

Critiquing expert views, part 2: Psychology Today blogger on psychopaths who care

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles critiquing what mental health bloggers are saying about sociopaths/psychopaths. Here is the first article: “CNN blogger on Ariel Castro.”

The headline in a recent blog article on the Psychology Today website stopped me in my tracks:

Despite popular opinion, psychopaths can show they care

This article was written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., who is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Here is the first paragraph, with my comments in parentheses:

The quintessential psychopath shows callous disregard for others, a complete lack of empathy (although they are great at pretending to show empathy when it suits them), a glibness and superficial charm, and an impulsive and antisocial lifestyle (true). We would never, given this set of qualities, expect such individuals to make decisions that would benefit anyone but themselves (unless they are engaged in manipulation). Their lack of empathy should make it nearly impossible for them to understand how other people are feeling (true). Yet, when you think about it, the ability of psychopaths to con and smooth talk their way into situations that allow them to take advantage of people requires some pretty sensitive people-reading skills (true). Perhaps behaving in psychopathic ways isn’t a matter of lack of ability to empathize, but is instead due to lack of proper incentive (huh?). If that’s the case, it should be possible to put the psychopath’s people-reading skills to good use (OMG are you kidding me?).

Then Whitbourne spends the bulk of her article describing research conducted by Nathan Arbuckle and William Cunningham. The researchers recruited college students to play a game in that involved gambling for points—there is no mention of whether real money was used. They told the research subjects they were earning points “for their team.” The hypotheses was that students who scored high in psychopathy on a self-report scale would make bets in order to benefit “their team.” The hypotheses was proven correct.

My reaction: Who cares? This research was incredibly artificial and had no connection to the real world. I don’t think it proves anything about how psychopaths actually behave.

Whitbourne, however, interpreted this experiment, to mean there was hope for psychopaths. She wrote:

If you, or someone you care about, shows the everyday psychopathy tendencies of callousness, lack of regard for ethical concerns, selfishness, recklessness, and impulsivity, consider invoking the idea of a team identity. If such a slight manipulation can change the behavior in an artificial situation of a lab, what might this lead to if used in real life? It’s possible that we don’t have to give up on the person with psychopathic tendencies and assume that he or she will never be able to show empathy or selflessness.

This statement is ludicrous.

Everything psychopaths do is to further their own agenda. They are quite capable of showing what appears to be empathy or selflessness if they perceive that they will benefit in some way. In fact, they often appear to “care” for others when they are in the process of ingratiating themselves. Later, once psychopaths have convinced their targets to trust them, the manipulation and exploitation begins.

This article highlights a widespread misunderstanding about psychopaths. Many mental health professionals and psychology researchers define psychopathy by what is missing empathy. But I agree with Dr. Liane Leedom, who believes that the real core of this disorder is defined by what is present an overactive drive for dominance. Psychopaths do what they do because they want power and control. A subsidiary of their desire for power and control is that they want to win.

So in my opinion, the real reason why the students in the experiment behaved in a way to benefit their “team” had nothing to do with empathy or helping others. It had to do with winning.

 Critiquing expert views part 3: Psychology Today blogger on understanding the sociopath.


Comment on this article

Please Login to comment
Notify of

I think I’m going to have to agree with you on this Donna. People never stop wanting there to be good in them or a good use for them.


This article really resonated with me…On a professional as well as personal level. I have often said that when I go to work the most important tool I use is ME… that said, I have had a steep learning curve these past 3 years. In my work with couples I can often see the power dynamic and struggles playing out in my office. What I have been blinded to is that there are individuals who lie brazenly and thus manipulate with flawless impression management. The lack of empathy can be easy to spot and recognize… the drive for power and dominance can be cloaked by impression management. Live and learn.
On a personal level, I can see that played out perfectly… We both wanted to win. The difference is that he exploited me, and then discarded because he felt that he had “made it”. THAT was when I began to see the difference between our motives. Like I said…live and learn.


I can definitely see why you key in on the dominance drive. My experiences would line right up with that. Dr Stout discussed the dominant, aggressive characteristics but seemed to always emphasize the lack or absence of a conscience as the definitive characteristic. With narcissists she said the empathy was missing. Donna how much divergence in ideologies do you feel there is ? I don’t mean minor refinements, I mean major stuff like you pointed out (very well by the way. Thank you ). Do most concur with a few on the fringes ? Either way I’m glad I found Lovefraud. The ring of truth resonates here. Imara can you explain impression management ? Is it planting the perception ( lying ) and maintaining the act, staying in character ( continuing to lie )?


Impression management is the careful projection of how you want to be seen by others. I first came across it while reading the work of George Simon. For example my ex was very vested in being seen as the good, mild mannered, soft spoken guy. The reality was that he was lying cheating and stealing the whole time he was pretending to be the good guy!!! The dynamic as it refers to cluster Bs is about the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Hope that helps!!


Wow! I just read this insipid article and the comments to Psychology Today (and added my own). What is it with the professional community and psychopathy? Many of them seem to have a NEED to normalize the disorder, and calm everybody down. See? psychopaths can play gambling games and look empathetic? Nothing to be afraid of, or alarmed about.

I know one moderately sociopathic individual who is a caregiver for the mentally ill, and runs a non-profit to raise funds for the poor. He ranted, stalked, and lovebombed me for nearly two years. I say he was moderately spathic because he finally did respond to threats that I would take all his emails, unwanted gifts and solicitations, and voicemails to the police. Then he was gone in a hot flash, and I have heard nothing for over a year.

In fact I believe most of the men I got entangled with, who I would consider psychopathic, were likely moderately, and not severely disordered (meaning they would not have scored a 30 on the Hare test). And they were all extremely abusive: sexually, emotionally, and some in terms of ‘battering’. The abuse was generally in the form of DEEP manipulations and constant swings between idolization and devaluation, ultimately leading to total discarding. They lied, lied, lied, about everything.

So, to me, the fact that they could take care of mentally ill clients, or win awards for public speaking, or give money to a charity….well that just doesn’t balance out, or lessen their horrible effect in the world. It doesn’t make them valuable or salvageable. It simply makes them less visible and more apt to fool the next unwitting target.



Thanks Imara, it definitely helps. I was not familiar with the expression. My pseudo-wife is masterful at this. She seems like a method actor who refuses to break character. She plays a warm, kind, teacher of the Gospel who somehow soldiers on while enduring a cold, jealous, mentally unbalanced husband. Oh how she loves him ( cue string section ) if only he would listen. So many have tried to talk to him ( many dozens, for years ) everyone else can see what an amazing woman she is. So sad. So compelling. I think this is why some struggle with the cognitive dissonance more so and for longer . When everyone else is telling you you’re wrong, even when you’ve seen behind the mask, when they continue to polish their persona and perform even if you are the only one there, it challenges you. It’s an ongoing assault on your psyche, on your reality. Thanks again Donna and Imara.


4light, You hit the nail on the head!! That cognitive dissonance can drive you mad!!! One of the big lessons I have learnt is that listening to our instincts is the most important gift we can give ourselves. If you know something about yourself don’t double guess…listen to and act on your gut. At the end of the day you have to be your own best advocate. Hugs to you!!


Thanks Imara. You have no idea what your insights and support along with many others here means to me personally. Even when you know you are right, living alone on an island sucks. It’s nice to feel a part of a community where wisdom is applied with such compassion. Funny how a site with a name like Lovefraud can be so nurturing. If I told people how much I look forward to relaxing in the evening by getting on my psychopath website …. You have to admit it’s pretty hilarious. I’ll take those hugs !


ooh that IS funny!!
I’m off to feed my trekkie self…my daughter said it was very well done. Movies are my escape, and my ticket off my island!!


Do these professionals EVER use their notes of real people whove experienced first hand the destruction and gut wrenching spiritual pain that we have to work on for as long as it takes to heal? its very simple, they dont change PERIOD! Mine hasnt, nor has ANYONE else’s that I read about on this site and others. Basically, the pros have been swindled by the Psychopath tnemselves, and its proven by whats wriitten.
The only time you get an apology from a psychopath, is if they think it will allow them to continue to have control or remain in your life. If not, he/she is GONE forever leaving whole families, bills, sick children, or WHATEVER!! This is the victims punishment for taking a stand against the manipulation. Game over!!


Though his book, Malignant Love, is about narcissism, Sam Vaknin writes that the lack of empathy is one thing; that a narcissist knows what’s right and wrong and regardless, chooses to do whatever benefits him or her. If one employs Whitbourne’s strategy, one might consider that the spath’s highly-honed predatory skills will pick up on being manipulated into a team effort incentive (which I agree with other noters is about the spath winning).

Once the spath picks up on the non-spath’s strategy, the spath can raise the hoops higher and outmatch the non-spath, exposing the non-spath’s strategy and likely turning it against the non-spath. While I doubt Whitbourne meant to do so, she seems to be condoning pleasing the spath under the guise of team effort. We don’t have to “give up” on the spath? She seems to believe we can change the nature of a scorpion not to sting if there’s a team incentive.

I agree with Donna: the spath is interested in a self-promoting wins. I wonder if Whitbourne’s test subjects remarked “Our team won,” or “My team won?” Or…”I won.”

We know psaths can SHOW they care, but still, they do NOT care in the way that caring = empathy. In fact, their ability to SHOW they care is one of their most dangerous, seductive and predatory characteristics.


Exactly Swimming! If looking like they are on the team gets them a win, they certainly will entertain being a ‘team’ member to garner, if not a personal win, being on the winning ‘side’.

They are NEVER looking out for someone else’s well-being unless they are getting something that they want (a good ‘cover’, $, sex, rent, etc…)

As for pleasing the spath. Please them or anger them, you lose.



LMAO! Sociopaths ‘betting’ for the ‘benefit of the team’? Yes, of course they wage bets on behalf of others. Because when they win, then they manipulate the other team members, leaving them penniless, swindled and broken. What’s not to LOVE to a sociopath about that game????


This comment made at Psychology Today RE the blog article cited, resonates with me:

“Dr. Hare (an expert on psychopathy who developed a widely-used diagnostic tool called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) has described psychopaths as “intra-species predators”; he goes on to say that a true psychopath relates to other human beings pretty much the same way that a cat relates to a mouse.

Cats are not evil, they are simply predators that are inherently deadly to the mouse’s self-interest.

That conceptualization works for me.

But I can understand and agree that if sometimes a psychopath *appears* to be doing a positive, compassionate thing for a fellow human being, its only because the psychopath has determined that doing so is in the psychopath’s own best interest.

The psychopath could just as easily (and with NO twinges of guilt or conscience) do or say something shockingly negative or even deadly to a fellow human being if the psychopath determines that harming or killing another (and getting away with it) would be in their own best interest.Ӭ

Dr. Hare has written that a psychopath can just as easily shake your hand as shoot you between the eyes *and with as little concern*, to illustrate this point more succinctly.

So, bottom line: there are no psychopathic heroes who risk their own lives to save another out of pure altruism; not for their country, or their family, or their friends, and not for a stranger. The concept of self-sacrifice *for no reward, no ego-gratifying adulation, no personal gain* is as alien a concept to a true psychopath as the idea of breathing water.

A cat would not sacrifice itself to save a mouse.”

Lovefraud is being upgraded. Comments and forum posts are temporarily disabled. Dismiss

Send this to a friend