When I was married to James Montgomery, who I believe is a psychopath, we once attended a local trade show together. We ran into a woman whom I didn’t know at all and James barely knew. After about one minute of conversation, James started offering to help her with some project that she was working on.
“What did you do that for?” I asked James after we continued on our way.
“Offer to help that woman. You hardly know her.”
“Do you know who she’s married to?” James asked. It was a man that he believed could possibly be useful to his plans.
Psychopaths are always on the lookout for people they might be able to manipulate. A study published last year by Canadian researchers seems to indicate they have an enhanced ability to spot and remember potential targets.
The study was called A pawn by any other name? Social information processing as a function of psychopathic traits. It was conducted by Kevin Wilson and Sabrina Demetrioff, of Dalhousie University, and Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia-Okanagan.
The researchers created a series of fictional characters using photographs of men and women with expressions conveying that they were happy or sad. They assigned biographical traits to the characters indicating that some were successful and some were not, along with other details such as “likes skydiving.”
Forty-four male undergraduate students participated in the study. They were first given a personality test to determine their level of psychopathic traits. Then they were shown the photos and biographical information about the fictional characters. Afterwards, they were asked to recall the characters.
The researchers anticipated that the study participants with high psychopathic traits would best remember useful or vulnerable individuals—the happy, successful male was probably most useful, and the unhappy, unsuccessful female was probably most vulnerable.
Study results indicated that they were partially correct. “Participants with high levels of psychopathic traits demonstrated enhanced recognition for the unhappy, unsuccessful female character; arguably the most vulnerable individual presented in our study,” they wrote. “In fact, the high-psychopathy participants demonstrated near-perfect recognition for this character.”
The researchers called this “predatory memory.”
“Psychopathic traits, even in the absence of overt criminality, are associated with a cognitive style that is predatory in nature,” the researchers concluded. “In extreme cases, this may allow individuals with clinically diagnosable levels of psychopathy to spot vulnerable individuals for future exploitation.”
Remember—the study subjects were not criminals in jail, they were college students. The conclusion we can draw is that people with psychopathic traits are out in the world, spotting potential victims and filing the information away for future use. It’s frightening.