By | March 6, 2009 203 Comments

Psychopathy, empathy and moral agency: Lessons from autism

If there is one thing that gets me argumentative it is statements like this one that appeared in a recent research paper: “non-incarcerated psychopaths have an arguably equal potential to illuminate our understanding of the emotional difficulties, such as lack of empathy and lack of conscience, which underlie psychopathy and which lead to offending behaviour.” (emphasis mine)

Now I agree that we can learn from non-incarcerated psychopaths, I wrote recently about a well designed study where sociologists conducted interviews of some. But I cannot believe that statements like the one above make it through editorial review for another reason. Researchers in psychology have spent the last 50 years and untold millions of dollars uncovering the cause of behavior. There is no mystery, we know what causes behavior!

Behavior is caused by rewards and stopped by punishment. Actually rewards cause behavior a lot better than punishment stops it in most people. That is because the brain reward system is functionally stronger than the brain punishment system for most, and especially for sociopaths/psychopaths. The rewards that cause behavior do so because they increase dopamine activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system.

Offending behavior exists and persists because it is rewarding and that reward affects the activity of the mesolimbic dopamine system. To put it bluntly, nothing but desiring/liking to offend leads to offending behavior. To say otherwise is to negate all the work that has been done in this area. The evidence is so strong that genes involved in dopamine metabolism and that system have been identified as candidate genes in the familial transmission of “offending behavior”.

I will repeat, a lack of empathy does not cause offending behavior, neither does a lack of conscience. These two may cause a person to show restraint if he is tempted to aggress against another, but it is the aggressive impulse that causes aggression. So a person with empathy and conscience can still offend if he has the inclination to do so. Furthermore, there is evidence that repeated offending erodes away empathy and conscience.

There is another source of evidence that calls into question the hypothesis that lack of empathy causes the sociopath’s behavior. That source of evidence is people with autism and autism spectrum disorders.

I recently found two very impressive discussions comparing moral agency in autism and psychopathy. The first is, Autism, Empathy and Moral Agency, a paper published in The Philosophical Quarterly (52:340, 2002) written by Dr. Jeannette Kennett, Deputy Director and Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, The Australian National University. Since I didn’t know to search Philosophical Quarterly for papers on psychopathy, I didn’t find that paper until I read “Moral Psychology, Volume 3, The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders and Development” MIT Press, 2008. Dr. Kennett also has two chapters in that book. But Chapter 5, Varieties of Moral Agency: Lessons from Autism, is a discussion of Dr. Kennette’s paper by Dr. Victoria McGeer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. There is a back and forth discussion of the issues raised, with several noted professors also participating.

Both sources begin their discussions by saying that moral agency has two parts two it, a thinking part and a feeling part. They trace these concepts back to philosophers Kant and Hume. Dr. Kennett concludes that Kant is right and that reason is the most important aspect of moral agency. Dr. McGeer points to emotions being important even for people with autism. I am going to summarize the arguments, then give you my own opinion.

Now like sociopathy, autism is a spectrum. A large percentage of people with autism are mentally retarded, so this discussion involves those autistic individuals who are not mentally retarded. I should point out that many sociopaths also have poor intellectual functioning. These sociopaths tend to live in prison.

Dr. Kenneth quotes the following description of autism,

The most general description of social impairment in autism is lack of empathy. Autistic people are noted for their indifference to other people’s distress, their inability to offer comfort, even to receive comfort themselves. What empathy requires is the ability to know what another person thinks or feels despite that is different from one’s own mental state at the time. In empathy one shares emotional reactions to another person’s different state of mind. Empathy presupposes amongst other things a recognition of different mental states. It also presupposes that one goes beyond the recognition of difference to adopt the other person’s frame of mind with all the consequences of emotional reactions. Even able autistic people seem to have great difficulty achieving empathy in this sense.

Autistic people also experience an “aloneness,” yet this aloneness does not bother them. They are indifferent to the presence of other people and do not require affection. One autistic adult is quoted as saying, “I really didn’t know there were other people until I was seven years old. I then suddenly realized that there were people. But not like you do, I still have to remind myself that there are people. I could never have a friend. I really don’t know what to do with other people really.”

High functioning autistic people recognize that they are very different from other people and report feeling “like aliens.”

Dr.Kenneth correctly concludes, “Both psychopaths and autistic people experience outsider status, deficiencies in social understanding and social responsiveness… Both have a tendency to treat other people as tools or instruments, (they have) a lack of strong emotional connectedness to others and impaired capacity for friendship.” She says clinicians and researchers link these impairments in both psychopathy and autism to impaired empathy. But autistic people are in fact worse off in this respect than psychopaths. Psychopaths at least can interact socially with ease and behave in a charming way.

She correctly questions, “If empathy is crucial to the development and exercise of moral agency, then why is the autistic person not worse off, morally speaking, than the psychopath?” She points out that in spite of the lack of empathy which is at the core of the disorder, “Many autistic people display moral concerns, moral feeling and a sense of duty or conscience.”

That autistic people are not antisocial is evidenced by the observation that few come to the attention of police. I did a Google news search using the terms autistic and arrest. Although there were many arrests of people for abusing those with autism, all of the arrests of autistics for aggression were for aggression that stemmed from self-defense. For example, a 10 year old boy with autism was arrested for assaulting staff at his treatment facility. The boy assaulted staff members because he was afraid and they tried to prevent his escape.

Drs. Kenneth and McGeer basically agree on the source of moral agency in those with autism, and what they say is fascinating with respect to sociopaths. The source of moral agency in autism is a preference for order and organization. Autistic people have reported that their sense of morality comes from a desire to see their world as orderly and organized. Dr. Kenneth states that this need for order gives rise to an extraordinary rationality in high functioning people with autism. She says that since morality is organized and logical that those with autism easily pick up moral principles.

I also did a search on morality in autism and can attest to several studies demonstrating normal levels of moral reasoning in autistic children who are not mentally retarded.

Drs. Kennett and McGeer also agree on the issue of the lack of moral agency shown by sociopaths/psychopaths. They both say that this group just plain doesn’t care about morality or regard moral principles as important. This is where psychopaths and autistics differ. Autistics identify with and value moral principles. Dr. Kennett states, “It is not the psychopath’s lack of empathy, which (on its own at any rate) explains his moral indifference. It is more specifically his lack of concern, or more likely lack of capacity to understand what he is doing, to consider the reasons available to him and to act in accordance with them.”

The point of disagreement of the two experts involves the relative role of emotion and reason in autistic people’s moral agency and valuation of morality. Dr. Kennett says that the autistic person is like Dr. Spock of Star Treck, and views life in purely logical terms. Since morality is logical and rational, autistics embrace it. Dr. McGeer disagrees, she states that the autistic need for order leads to an emotional connection to order and rationality. She feels that emotion does play a role in the moral lives of autistics, since she sees them as emotionally as well as rationally invested in maintaining order.

What about sociopaths/psychopaths and the need for order/organization? This disorder truly involves disorder. Psychopaths/sociopaths thrive on chaos and seem to have a dislike for order. Everywhere they go they are a source of extreme entropy as they take order and turn it into disorder. Both Drs. link the lack of appreciation for order to a lack of thoughtfulness in sociopaths/psychopaths. Sociopaths are both disordered and not fully rational or logical.

Dr. McGeer States:

This failure of reason may seem surprising. After all, our image of the psychopath is of a person who is rather good at serving his own interests without concern for the damage he does to others; hence of someone who is rather good at thinking and acting in instrumentally rational ways”¦As Dr. Carl Elliot observes, “While the psychopath seems pathologically egocentric, he is nothing like an enlightened egoist. His life is frequently distinguished by failed opportunities, wasted chances and behavior which is astonishingly self-destructive. This poor judgment seems to stem not so much from the psychopath’s inadequate conception of how to reach his ends, but from an inadequate conception of what his ends are.”

I agree with Dr. McGeer in that I believe that the emotionality associated with the need for order leads to the rationality of autistic people. The brain punishment system is relatively intact in autistics as compared to sociopaths and when an autistic person senses danger instead of being disconnected from the source of anxiety/fear, the autistic person engages thoughtfully to avoid danger (punishment).

The brain punishment/anxiety system of sociopaths is both hypofunctional and hyperfunctional in that they experience anxiety but fail to engage their thinking brains in the presence of danger. The high functioning autistic is well practiced at using his thinking brain to avoid anxiety. The psychopath rarely uses the thinking brain he has- to do anything other than get into trouble and hurt other people.

There are interesting parallels between the autistic’s use of reason to manage anxiety and normal development. It turns out that anxiety and fearfulness in the first two years of life actually predicts the development of conscience. The brain punishment system seems to be more plugged in to the rational brain in kids who are dispositionally more anxious. These kids also have a more highly developed sense of empathy later on.

I am thankful to Drs. Kenneth and McGeer for their seminal contributions to our understanding of sociopathy/psychopathy. I encourage the scholars among you to purchase their book from Amazon. However, I think they both missed a further unifying explanation for why autistics are moral and psychopaths/sociopaths are not.

That explanation involves the brain reward system, which is fundamentally different in autistics and sociopaths. Autistics do not experience social reward, maybe not even in the sexual sense. They are indifferent to relationships. The main reward autistics live for must be the love of thinking because that is all they have. I don’t see that too many are obese, so I don’t think they even turn to food for their source of pleasure. Instead their inner worlds are rich with thoughts and reason. They busy themselves with their own thoughts. Most like who they are, enjoy life and wouldn’t choose a different life if they could.

The sociopath on the other hand, is completely dependent on social reward. The sociopath cannot tolerate aloneness because he has no entertaining thought-life to fall back on. The problem with the social reward system in sociopaths is that the only social reward they experience is dominance. All of their antisocial behavior is motivated by their dominance drive. When they lie, cheat or steal it is about gaining short term interpersonal dominance over some poor unsuspecting person. Autistics can’t lie and are as indifferent to dominance reward as they are to affection reward.

Dr. Keltner and associates at UC Berkeley are engaged in important research on the effects on people of obtaining social power. It turns out that when many people get power reward they change. Self-esteem increases, empathy is suspended, and they become uninhibited and less rational. They also think more about sex and tend to use more foul language. Their moral agency is diminished.

I believe that this response to power reward is the point of connection between sociopaths and the rest of us. Sociopaths are constantly in a state of power intoxication, or are in search of their next power fix. The rest of us can manage the power reward better, but the behavior of our politicians suggests that power intoxication doesn’t only make sociopaths less rational.

I could use your help on two things this week. First, I want your opinion on the term moral agency. I have been looking for a single term that would describe the moral deficits of sociopaths. Up until now I have used the term low “moral reasoning ability” because I couldn’t find another better term. Do you think people will better connect with/comprehend the term low “moral agency” or poor “moral reasoning ability”? Actually moral agency is more precise and technically more correct, but will people get it?

The second question I have concerns successful psychopaths. When I read the autism papers, it occurred to me that successful psychopaths do one of two things that unsuccessful ones don’t do. They either have a better appreciation for order or organization, or they find someone to organize and order their lives for them. If you know a successful psychopath, can you comment on how he/she is successful in spite of the chaos he/she tends to cause?

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Terrific article. A good, thought-provoking analysis.

In regard to your questions – when you first referred to “moral agency” in this article, I didn’t know what it was. I don’t think the term can be used without explanation. With “moral reasoning ability,” I can figure out what you’re talking about.

And a successful psychopath – how would you define that?

Elizabeth Conley

” Do you think people will better connect with/comprehend the term low “moral agency” or poor “moral reasoning ability”? Actually moral agency is more precise and technically more correct, but will people get it?”

The downside of “moral agency” is that the vast majority of people will have no clue what it means. The up side of that is that you get to define it for them.

As long as you consistently provide a concise definition to people the first few times they encounter the term, it should work out very well.

“If you know a successful psychopath, can you comment on how he/she is successful in spite of the chaos he/she tends to cause?”


He was an Administrative Officer in the U.S. Marines.

1. An administrative officer always has the direct services of an experiences senior staff non commissioned officer. He also has a staff of 3 or more other well trained clerks. Because of these circumstances, the performance of his primary duties was not a challenge.

2. He had an excellent understanding of human weakness. In any military unit, there are inconvenient people and circumstances. It is very helpful to the Commanding Officer to have subordinates who will do unethical things to make these people and problems disappear without the CO or the unit looking bad. This made the P an asset.

3. The P enjoyed human degradation. He loved to tell depraved stories of perversity and cruelty. This played to the worst aspects of many people’s natures, and made him socially popular in key circles.

4. The military affords officer’s a great deal of power over the lives of their subordinates. Subordinates who complain are usually destroyed, but professionally and personally. This is because it makes the entire chain of command look bad when there is a documentable case of abuse. It is in the best interests of everyone but the victim for the victim to be labeled as crazy and/or dishonest. That’s the way complaints almost always play out. He was very, very safe from his victims.

5. He was in a unique position to know things his peers and seniors did not want known. If he ever went down, he wasn’t going down alone. They knew that.

6. I would guess that the P’s IQ was about 110. Many of his victims and dupes were significantly smarter, but not nearly as cunning.

Elizabeth Conley

P.S. The P physicallyabused his son and emotionally abused his wife and daughters, boasted of committing a vehicular hit and run, and practiced every perverse cruelty conceivable against subordinates. In spite of all that, he charmed almost everyone he met. He could find the dark side of anyone and persuade them to degrade themselves in short order. He’s the most profoundly evil person I’ve ever known, bar none. I’m no mental health professional, but if he’s not a succesful P then he’s satan’s right hand man.


I want to get in early on this thread, because I have a number of problems with this article. As well as with the research behind it. As usual in a lot of this research, the conclusions reflect the questions asked, but there is little effort to understand the internal reality of either autistics or sociopaths. The question of “why are they like this?” ends at a fairly superficial level. There is little interest in the possibility that the symptoms of both conditions are actually responses to circumstances.

And your own bias in the analysis comes out with statements like “The psychopath rarely uses the thinking brain he has- to do anything other than get into trouble and hurt other people.” Which may reflect your feelings about your own experience, but is a broad generalization that is not consistent with the facts that sociopaths, especially intelligent ones, are high-functioning in many ways and have to be to mask their internal life in order to be accepted among feeling people.

I have a son who has been diagnosed with Aspergers and it has caused me to do a great deal of research on the experiences of parents of autistic children, as well as the writings of people with Aspergers and autism. This research looks into symptoms, but not causes of social alienation. And it doesn’t even begin to try.

Likewise most research on sociopaths examines their behaviors and thinking, but does not even start to examine their inner life. What is going on with them, and why are they like that? Not in terms of their current operating strategies, but what would cause those operating strategies.

I realize that I’m in the minority here, but I believe that their fundamental underlying problem is a failure of trust. I believe it is the underlying problem in RAD and other bonding disorders. And I believe that every symptom that we see with them can ultimately be explained by that. Beyond that, the failure of trust and the resulting bonding disorders orients them in a chaotic universe with nothing to depend on, including no ability to lean on and learn the security benefits of social structure — whether those structures are communities, one-on-one bonding, belief in God or even respect for their own need for personal integrity. They live in a survival-level reality without rules except to survive, and they live in a pain-based reality that keeps them reeling toward addictive fixes.

The social problem involved with these people — beyond the obvious damage they create in their no-holds-barred tactics for survival and pursuing addictive fixes — is that they cannot learn past this failure of trust. The failure of trust closes the door to the acceptance of risk associated with social learning. In particular, they reject any strategy that involves learning to trust.

While this plays out in the symptoms, creation of social damage, and unfixability of these people, the implications from my perspective are someone different than yours. It think it’s pointless to demonize them, except as a temporary state in our own healing and getting real about what’s going on, and more important to consider prevention — both of social damage and the causes of this failure of trust.

I understand that there are genetic considerations. And there may be genetic circumstances that just stack the deck too high for some individuals to avoided being triggered into permanent failure of trust. But I don’t think that is the situation with most of the garden-variety sociopaths who are creating havoc in the lives of feeling people. I think their capacity to be sociopaths was triggered by circumstance.

I think that study of these circumstances, the sensitivity of proto-sociopathic types, and the possible family and social strategies for addressing the growing problem of this type of damage and response is ultimately the the most useful area of research and action. It would also be nice if we could find a therapeutic approach to reconnect them with their social capacity, but if that is ever going to be likely (and it is not now), the answers are more likely to come from these paths of study than finding a dozen more reasons to confirm what we already know about their symptomology and its social effects.

You asked about the meaning of moral agency. Agency is power or capacity or ability to act. Moral agency is the power to link action with internal moral structure. Everyone has moral agency. The question is: what is the nature of their moral structure?

For all of us, our moral structure is a balance between what we would like to be possible and what our experience tells us is likely to present obstacles. That is we would like to be in a world that reflects our original state of total support in the womb. Where everything is there for us, and we can depend on that, and our relationship to what is around us is mutually benevolent and loving. The separation or interruption of that “Garden of Eden” ideal is based on what we have learned about what keeps us from it.

So depending on our level of trust in the ultimate benevolence of the outside world, we are open to shared consciousness, common standards and rules, life navigation based on good expectations, and feelings that we are okay as we are. If we are very damaged, or have a lot of unresolved trauma, our moral structure includes that information. And what is “right” becoming increasing based on what is necessary to survive in a dangerous and nonsupportive world.

In other words, the sociopath has morals. They are just not the morals of some one who is more socially integrated. They are the morals of the person who has learned that the structures of community were not designed for him.

And in this I agree with your viewpoint on positive and negative reinforcement. But what we are dealing with here is the result of negative reinforcement at a very deep level. A creation of a belief system based on a social dissonance that is so damaging and so profound that it has transformed despair into rigid distrust of anything but itself, and even that is warped, because its definition of self has blocked the normal human need for bonding and social dependency.

So the sociopath’s moral structure is that s/he has the right to survive and to care for himself or herself in this vaccuum. This is part of a normal human moral structure, but it is made pathological by the lack of the balancing piece of the normal human moral structure — that virtually every “great good” of life derives from connection.

The difference between autistic people and sociopaths (or people with that spectrum of emotional disorder) is that the autistic drama is fundamentally a need to adjust to internal conditions, not external. What I’ve gathered from reading and from my experience with my son is that autistic people have intense sensory sensitivities and related anxiety issues that require them to invest a lot of attention in managing their internal “weather.” A need for order, high-focus and various types of disassociation are typical responses.

The causes of this are neuro-electrical and brain chemical issues, not trauma-related personality disorder. My personal belief is that a lot of it is a complex issue related bacterial and fungal overgrowth related to diet and use of antibiotics. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues of established neural pathways for coping, as there are with other types of trauma response, but a great deal of progress has been made with diet-related strategies as well as direct work on the neural pathways through neuro-feedback.

To get back to moral agency in terms of autistics, their moral structure or belief system about what is good reflects what they have learned about what is good for them. Their battle is not with an uncaring world, but with an overactive sensory response and their need to manage their persistent and well-established reactive anxiety. They have no need to be predatory in the sense that sociopaths are. But they do have a deep need to create order that relieves their symptoms.

I hope this makes sense. I do appreciate your work in attempting to make sense of all of this. But I deeply wish there was less effort placed on demonizing sociopaths and more at understanding the temperamental types that are at risk and developing programs to support their maintenance of some level of trust before they are triggered to give it up permanently. I am not suggesting enabling, but providing loving supportive mechanisms to integrate them successfully into communal social structures.

I believe this is possible, especially if the formative years can be navigated successfully, and I believe their temperament is also the temperament of great people, of heroes and leaders and high achievers. That one issue — the belief in the reality of trust — makes the difference between preserved and lost potential, both personally and in the context of society as a whole.



I have read a bit on “neuro-diversity’ and been intrigued by the differences and seeming similaries between psychopaths and autistics. Here’s a comment from someone with Asperger’s :

Especially since my highly manipulative psychopath claimed to have Asperger’s. Uh, he was too much of a womanizer to qualify. But I give credit for use Asberger’s as cover- I mean he has no empthy and was/is interested in only himself.

I want to write more on this topic- add it to my list-but I am struck by the fact moral agency is really free will. And that I don’t really believ everyone operates just for rewards and to avoid punishment, if that were the case we’d have no martyr’s , no self-sacrifice.

For myself, when I feel I am going int he right direction- doing good- it’s as if I am whole. I am working with in the egood, natural order.

To add to my point RE; rewards/punsihment- they are relative.

For a psycho hurting someone is a good.
For a normal person, causing someone pain is never a good – so the normal person has different higher drive.

Ox Drover

Dear Liane,

Great article.

Although MORAL AGENCY may be more correct, I think “most people” would not get it, and MORAL REASONING ABILITY is I think clear enough that ANYONE could “get it.” I think that CLEAR is always better than using a word that has to be defined in its context to the majority of people who will read it in that context.

Successful psychopaths: First, I’m not sure what a “successful” psychopath is, but if it means money and/or social status then BERNIE MADOFF would be a “successful” psychopath.

My own sperm donor was “successful” in that he finally made a pot of oney (was on the Forbes 400 list one year) and so was “successful” in his own eyes and got people to listen to him because he was “successful” (READ: Filthy Rich)

My own opinion is that Bill Clinton was a “successful” psychopath, and a fairly good president as politicians go (and in general I dont have a high opinion of politicians) The Gov of Illinois was a “successful” psychopath if being Governor of a state is successful, dittoo the ex gov of NY, and the Senator of Alaska who was convicted etc.

All these men have become “successful” in terms of money, position, and power. What makes them more “successful” than my P-son who was basically a criminal and convict by age 17? Maybe more impulse control, less rebellion as a teenager, more cunning and rebelled but didnt’ get caught like my son did.

My son scores in the 99th percentile in IQ, but I think he is perpetually STUCK in the “rebellious 15 year old” stage, only now his parents are the guards at the prison, and his continual game is to “out wit” his “parents.” His “reward” is a successful con on the guards, and he succeeds frequently enough to keep him playing the game. The odds are high risk and he loses often enough that it keeps his risk level high, so he gets plenty of adrenaline, win or lose. Typical adolescent, loving that risky behavior and the high they get from it. Only catch is, he will be 38 years old in a few days.

I’m not sure WHICH KIND of psychopath does more damage to society, the “successful” one with money and power, or the criminal one like my son.

Elizabeth Conley

Kathleen Hawk,

“I believe that their fundamental underlying problem is a failure of trust. ”

I’m willing to keep an open mind here. This is one of the incidents that makes me inclined to be open minded about the nature vs nurture question:

The P used to like to boast about torturing and starving his elder sister’s cat to death after she went to college. In order to accomplish this, he had to abuse the animal over a period of time, and right under the nose of his parents. How was this possible? What kind of people were they?

What I know about the P and the S makes the nurture theory just as probable as the nature theory. I’ve got nurture deficit information about each of their formative years. Information, I might add, which I tend to find believable. While both men lied easily, some of the nurture deficit information either passes rigorous logical cross checks or is independently provided/verified.

What I know about the N is more problematic. He was adopted, and his adopted mother spoiled him outrageously. If there was a nurture deficit, it was well and truly disguised. On the other hand, narcissism has been credited to catering parenting styles as well as abusive ones. What to conclude in his case? I dunno. When we point to faulty nurture, some counter by pointing to genetics. In the case of the N, that issue is somewhat blurred.

I suspect two people I know may be Borderlines. It’s hard to say. There’s serious long term inability to bond, plus a lot of personal and professional chaos. Both of them were “favorite” children of otherwise neglectful parents. In other words, they were spoiled rotten while their siblings were neglected. What’s to be gleaned from that? Again, I dunno! I’m not a mental health expert. I do wonder if there’s an aspect of failure to trust there. After all, both show signs of understanding that their favored status was patently unfair and irrational. As children, it seems they also considered the status tenuous, and the parents capricious.

Interesting questions.

As for the Autism, I come at that one from a different angle than you do. Diagnosing Autism has become a fad in public education. As a parent of a hearing impaired child, I’m more than a bit fed up. Here the nature vs nurture question takes on a more sinister quality. If a child is treated as if they do not have empathy, s/he develops a deficit in the ability to appreciate and use empathy. Not only that, but people discounting the child’s emotional life behave cruelly. It is absolutely possible for people who project autistic characteristics onto a child to do severe harm.

Real Autism is a serious problem. A projection of Autism on a healthy child is emotional abuse. For this reason I pray Autism loses its fad status and joins the list of possible diagnoses, rather than the default label.


One of the issues with saying that the central problem with sociopaths is a “lack of trust,” or, for that matter, a “lack of conscience,” is that it doesn’t answer the question, “why do they harm people?” What gives them the motivation to purposely, aggressively, inflict harm on others? Why don’t they just shrivel up in the corner?

Dr. Leedom addresses these type of questions in her upcoming book, Driven to Do Evil. I will admit to being at an advantage here, because I’ve read the first draft. It is truly an important work, which will answer a lot of the questions that frequently get posed on Lovefraud.


I think that part of the problem is the amount of subjectivity involved in this whole area of research. I personally think that the term sociopath or psychopath is very much overused by most people. The majority of people in prison are not psychopathic yet there are folks who would call any action that is anti-social or hurtful “psychopathic”. Hsving worked in the prison system I can say that psychopaths are hugely different than your everday anti-social criminal yet trying to explain it is difficult. I will also admit to a bias I have in being slightly skeptical of researchers who have not experienced numerous psychopathic individuals in person.

As for a successful psychopath I would ask what the definition of success is first. I know Kevin Trudea is one I would use as a great example of someone who may fit and even though he continues to get into trouble and knows he is conning folks he still keeps going and making millions off people.

Liane and Donna,

I’m going to respond to some of your statements below. But I want to say first that the results of one theory over another in terms of the psychopath’s or sociopath’s behavior are not meaningful. What is meaningful to me is understanding the underlying causes and doing something about it from a social and family perspective.

Liane wrote:

“I see the key to treatment as understanding the rewarding effects of social dominance. I believe that reward accounts for the compulsive nature of their antisocial behavior.”

In my view, social dominance is rewarding to them for two reasons. One, it is the only means they have of interpreting the benefits of interaction, because they don’t experience empathetic bonding and the potential to share a building experience. They only know how to “build” alone, and the only meaning they see in interaction is contribution to their objectives.

Second, their psyches are split, due to the complete suppression of trust, and all the related capacities of empathy, bonding, loving, and the skills and rewards that evolve out of those capabilities. Their “functional” identities (what they use to survive) do not include the aspects of communal interaction that provide enjoyment and the wealth of opportunities for personal growth and achievement that the rest of us take for granted. This is painful. In simply the matter of identity, they have no ground except self-reference in a personality with no capacity for love and no reference for emotional security.

If there was ever a fertile field for addiction, it is this. And there is absolutely no relief here, except the most fleeting confirmation that they are “real” by the triumphs of dominance and achievement. They can’t even learn for sure that they are real from these triumphs, because they automatically discredit either the sources or the triumph as untrustworthy. But in a social world that is clearly the consensus world, it is their single option for survival, because they are irretrievably blocked from options that require empathy and trust.

Negative reinforcement, in my view, is just another means to reinforce their inability to trust, unless it occurs in within a larger strategy to force them to trust to survive. There are anecdotal stories of sociopaths who have been critically injured who are forced to experiment with trust in order to survive in a medical environment. There is also Stephen M. Johnson’s work, detailed in “Humanizing the Narcissistic Affect,” which suggests that narcissists at least can be treated by facilitation of trust experiments, if they are sufficiently motivated to do so.

Liane wrote:

“Remember that psychopaths do not pursue their own interests. They pursue short-sighted gratification of their drives for dominance and sex.”

I disagree. They do pursue their own interests. But their perception of their own interests is limited by what they can imagine as “good,” given their failure of trust and resulting split psyche. Dominance and sex (and other sensory enjoyments) are what they have left, along with a few other things that might be combinations of the two, like an aesthetic pursuit of excellence in their own terms.

Their idea of what is good is also influenced by two other things. One is the addictive need for relief from the pain of this split. The other is a secondary result of these issues, which is the impulsiveness. I believe that their baseline reality is a combination of desperation, despair and anger. Anything that looks like relief — that is anything that looks like gratification, fun, a chance to confirm that they exist, an chance to exercise their capabilities, a chance for validation of what narrow identity they have — is virtually a shot a redemption.

There is one other factor here as well, which is their understanding of their difference and that it is unacceptable or evil or, in more basic terms, reasonable cause of banishment from the tribe. I believe this failure of trust is already a kind of despairing acceptance of marginalization for no understood reason, but that doesn’t mean that no residual need for acceptance exists, even though it is blocked and buried. The shadow side of any character tends to be noisy.

So all this impulsive, short-sighted and typically self-sabotaging behavior (in our terms) may be a logical attempt (in their terms) to undo this inexplicable bad that left them so different and so crippled. Or it may be acting out of their resentment, envy, etc. for the situation in which they’re fundable coping mechanism left them. Both of which roughly fits into the parameters of addictive behavior.

The matter of oxytocin deficit is, to my mind, as likely to be a result than a cause in these cases. Oxytocin is counteracted by testosterone, but it is also blocked by anxiety or tension.

Donna, you wrote:

“One of the issues with saying that the central problem with sociopaths is a “lack of trust,” or, for that matter, a “lack of conscience,” is that it doesn’t answer the question, “why do they harm people?” What gives them the motivation to purposely, aggressively, inflict harm on others? Why don’t they just shrivel up in the corner?”

I think the answer to this is probably where genetic temperament comes in. Though I think that further research with children of “dark triad” people is necessary for more clarification and identification of the specific traits.

I mentioned in my earlier post that these people also have the temperaments of heroes, leaders and high achievers. I’ve had close relationships with four sociopaths in my life. And as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I have a family trait on my father’s side that has turned out a number of sociopaths and addicts.

What I can see and what seems consistent with the descriptions of their behaviors are these characterists:

1. High energy levels and ability to respond to the requirements of crisis
2. High ability to focus, plan and execute
3. Strong survival instincts
4. High emotionality (even though it is self-referenced)
5. High and subtle sensory awareness (the N/S characteristic in Myers-Briggs), which could be termed hyper-vigilance
6. High pain tolerance and willingness to lose small in order to win big (as long as they’re not being impulsive)
7. High persistance

What all this adds up to, for me, is something the surviving people in my family have come to call high-voltage wiring. These are people who are designed to survive and achieve under the most extreme circumstances.

I don’t know how much of this is developed secondarily as a result of one or two primary characteristics playing out in extreme circumstances. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that high energy and high survival instinct are the two primaries. And that the rest of them are developed in circumstances that would cause less hardy individuals to die or fall into a state of despair that would be more depressive or catatonic.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to find out that their definition of what is unbearable enough to trigger that switch into no trust/empathy is relatively high. That they can survive a lot, before they make the switch.

So that is my answer to why they don’t just curl up and die. They’re not the type. They’re the type to survive, no matter what.

Your other question about why they purposefully harm people is probably answered by what I wrote in response to Liane’s comments. I’ve written here before that I believe that sociopath’s live in a state of feeling “ripped off.” Or that it is a underlying component of their pathology. I think that what we see (from our position as victims) as deliberate harm is more like a wounded bull in a china shop. And wounded is the operative word here. They are acting out, and if we are in front of them when they’re acting out, we are victimized.

But it’s not personal in the sense that we were chosen. We’re chosen by proximity, opportunity, and the state of their need. As well as by our own ability to identify the risk and take steps to get out of the way or otherwise neutralize it, before the damage is passed on to us.

I want to add her that I have one relationship with someone who doesn’t fit this model. Or had. It was a long time ago, and that person was in prison for a long time. He was probably the type of psychopath that is the worst-case scenario, but when I knew him he was still developing.

It was in Spain, in a small village where he was part of the village social scene, and most of the locals kept their distance. He was not only a psychological type but a physical type, and at the time a popular theory was the double-Y chromosome. He fit the type — physically powerful, aggressive, dominating, calculating, etc.

He was my gardener, handyman and go-to person when I lived there, and he guided me through the necessary things when my husband died. Later I discovered he had stolen many of my possessions. Ultimately, he attempted to force himself on me sexually, and I closed him out of my life. There were subsequent scary moments, and I got the police involved. But before things could get worse for me, he raped another woman, and was incarcerated.

I knew something about his background, which offered no explanations. But more than that, I saw a kind of implacability in him that went well beyond what I’ve seen in other people who match the sociopathic list of character traits. I get the feeling that he was another type, a more extreme type that does not fit into my model.

I also readily admit that my model, while it fits everything I know to date (except this man in Spain), is only my model. I keep reading, keep trying to refine it. But the model is definitely colored by two things. One is that I believe there are human tragedies involved here, not choices to be like this. And second, I believe that the increase in both sociopaths and autistic disorder are symptomatic of cultural issues that demand attention.

I thank you both for your generosity in these discussions. And as I said before, I am grateful for your work.




Personally, I don’t care for the term “moral agency.” When I first read the term I was perplexed, wasn’t sure what it meant, figured it out by the context. I prefer “moral reasoning ability” although, I agree, it’s not precise. I myself think psychopaths are able to reason morally. That they go to great lengths to deceive, imo, demonstrates their reasoning abilities are quite intact: they realize what they are doing is “wrong,” or at least will be perceived so by others. Difference with them, though, is they don’t care. They don’t care how they hurt others, they probably even like that they do. So it’s back to “moral agency,” but what the heck is that? I myself dislike academic-type jargon (but not being an academic myself, perhaps my opinion is not very valid) that obscures meaning, which much of academic jargon seems intended to do. That said, I don’t have a better suggestion. Moral indifference? Immorality? Hmm. I don’t think it’s lack of reasoning though; I think it’s lack of caring.

As far as successful psychopaths go, my ex is an extremely successful psychopath (except for the fact I am now onto him, which only happened because of several wild flukes). In his case he definitely relies on others to organize and order his life. On his own I’m sure he would flounder. When he moved in with me he came with all his belongings in a jumble in the back of his truck and his personal records thrown into a box (at least that) but in no order whatsoever, never having been weeded through or sorted out.

For the 18 years we were together I handled all of life’s little details. I actually felt that because of his (cough cough) other marvelous qualities, the trade-off was worth it. So what if I paid all the bills, took care of appointments, made sure our taxes were done. He was so sweet and loving, so caring and giving, so devoted and affectionate; to me that more than made up for his shortcomings. What I didn’t realize, because the bamboozle was so complete, was that all of that good stuff was a complete sham, part of the operation, intended only to keep me ignorant, unsuspecting, and serving his needs.

I asked him once, a year ago, when he was into confession mode (brought about by the fact that by that time I knew enough to expose him to his new honey and threatened to do so if he did not come clean), why he ever wanted to be with me if he knew he would never be faithful. He said he thought I could provide a good home for him and his son. “So you used me!” I said, and he said, “I guess you could say so.”

Yeah, I organized his life. I provided a nice base of operations for him. A nice launching pad. I made it nice and I made it easy (although I do not blame myself for this) because I was so trusting.


If there were ever a category of people who should be demonized I would say it is sociopaths. I also think the primary focus should be on providing loving support for the victims of sociopaths. Sociopaths themselves would probably only take advantage of such “loving support.” As far as I can tell there is ample evidence, amassed over decades, that sociopathy is an untreatable disorder and that sociopaths themselves will only use efforts intended to “help” them to better exploit others.

As far as trust issues, I cannot speak broadly of all sociopaths, but I will say that with my ex, lack of trust was not his problem. No way. Although there is huge dysfunction in his family of origin, much of which I have learned about recently, he did not stumble in the “trust vs mistrust” (if I have the terminology right) phase of development. In fact, near as I can tell, he was quite a well-adjusted, genuinely loving, cooperative child until his teen years.

And trust as an adult? He absolutely trusted me. Still does. He has a remarkable ability to assess others, which is probably common to successful psychopaths, to know who they can team up with, who they can victimize, who they can trust, and who would be useless (in their terms of course).

Ox Drover

I think sometimes we are like the blind men examining an elephant, it is difficult to get the WHOLE and COMPLETE PICTURE by examining a PART of it. None of us can see the whole spectrum of psychopathy…we each “see” our individual piece. We can “study” other’s conceptions and views, but getting the entire picture of something so complex and with so many variations, so many variables as to cause etc. but I for one don’t feel like, even as many Ps as I have interacted with, have even scratched the surface of the disorder.

I can to an independent conclusion that there is a genetic basis of temperment in animals and in humans just by observation. Then I read more about that and confirmed my conclusion.

I also “figured” that there had to be a common thread with us (victims) as well, and I think it may have been answered in the research of “Women who love psychopaths”—we have all been somehow trained to accept the abuse and/or think we can “fix” it at least up to some point.

What makes some of “us” different from others is that some of us finally at some point (sooner or later) catch on to the patterns in the Psychopath(s) in our lives and start to work on ourselves after we have healed from the accute grief their D & D does to us. Others of us, never see the pattern and continue to stay with the original abuser, never breaking free, or if they do break free froom the first, not see the patterns and go on to find a series of abusers, living a life of total misery and chaos.

I don’t suppose I have all the answers for sure, heck I am not sure I know all the QUESTIONS, much less the answers! LOL I can only speak from my own perspective and what I have experienced or gleened from the experiences of others, and what I have read in research. I WISH I did have all the answers, or even all the questions. It seems when I get one new “answer” there are 50 new QUESTIONS it prompts. Does make me want to live for another 50 years to see what further research brings to light! God bless Dr. Hare and the others who started studying these people!


The s I was with self-diagnosed himself as having Aspberger’s.

He is NOT as aspie, even though he would love to be seen as one.

This self diagnosis always pissed me off; it seemed like such easy cop-out for acting like a jerk.


I also think that there is no single reason/cause for psychopaths but rather a variety of different things come together at the right time and right combinations which could be different for different people. Looking for a silver bullet has and I think is going to continue to fall flat because there is no single cause or answer. Most of the criminals I worked with who would have fallen under the psychopath label knew what they were doing, knew it was wrong, enjoyed how they were and did not want to change. And you can not force someone to change unless they want to. No matter what mental health treatments are tried it will not work unless the person sincerely wants to make the changes. I have yet to meet a true psychopath who has ever wanted to change. I have met anti-socials and some who could appear to be psychopaths (like gang members) who have wanted to change though.

I also have an issue with the whole moral reasoning bit because of the subjectivity of it. There were and are places and cultures and groups where it is acceptable to do whatever to “them” but not to “us”. And yet not all those folks are psychopaths. I have also seen quite a few “normal” people want to hurt someone else and feel it is a “good” depending on the circumstance (hurting the person that hurt them or their child is one example).



My preference is “moral reasoning ability.” It lends more to “thought” or “purposeful decision making”. It puts responsibility on the sociopath to reason, which we know they can do.

Regarding success…… I tend to believe, based on my experience that they find someone to organize and order their lives for them. In the case of the XS, he used people in times of need, which led to his success financially and emotionally in many ways. (I do believe that will be short lived.) Even to the extent that he allowed his children to advise him in personal and financial matters. Adult children but they were extremely, immature, dysfunctional and totally financially dependent on him.

I spoke a few months ago to a woman with whom he had an affair years ago. He was successful in that when his father died, she helped him to organize his estate and money and she basically told me she was with him in NM when his father died and helped him with family finances. As I helped him with the same things in his divorce.

As far as the emotional drama……His daughter once stated that he would be in “all kinds of shit” if not for their mother. She “kept him under control”. He told me his daughter(who was in law school) was negotiating with his x wife on his behalf during divorce. (He also has grandiose ideas about her and insists theya re just alike and I htink he is right. She has serious issues.) Just caused more emotional drama and got her directly in the middle of the power struggle but he did it to make her seem more valuable to him and to try to WIN her from her mother.

He set up his girlfriend (former stripper on welfare, the one he cheated on me with) to clean houses for a living because he didn’t want her tending bar. So when he moved into his house guess who became his cleaning lady? When he had his heart attack and his kids weren’t available to care for him. She was available. I think that too will be short lived.

He has since lost his job. He couldn’t afford the house even when he was working but it’s a lure for him. All that he has was given to him by family or won in a lawsuit from an accident he had years ago. The financial success will not last. It was not made by him. As far as emotionally, It can’t be possible that I am the only one he treated like that but I am sure he will find more people like the x stripper to manipulate. I don’t think he will be happy enough and will cheat on her too.

So if emotional success to them is that they find more people to pull things over on. He has that now and who knows that may result in another 26 yr marriage as with his previous wife.

Under my definition of success, he will never have it financially or emotionally. He will just use people so that he APPEARS successful and after all, isn’t that what they want?

Jim in Indiana USA

Sorry, this one’s a little esoteric for me. How about…”Immoral Agency”? Or “Amoral Agency” Immoral (or amoral) agents driven to do evil.

I’ve interacted with a few autistic people. I don’t see a strong connection, when viewed as their impact on the world for good or evil.

But, that’s just me…carry on.


holywatersalt – You say, “I don’t really believ everyone operates just for rewards and to avoid punishment, if that were the case we’d have no martyr’s , no self-sacrifice.” I think there’s more than one way to look at rewards and punishment. There’s the higher level reasoning of “if I clean my room, my mother will be pleased with me and let me play outside,” or “if I drive the speed limit I will not get a ticket,” but I think there are more subconcious aspects to it as well. When I take on burdens in my office because I know they need to be done I’m not doing it for a reward, it doesn’t make me feel happy to do it, but if I don’t do them and they fall through the cracks I feel guilty, so you could say my self-sacrifice is in fact a way of avoiding the punishment of guilt. I think quite often when someone does something out of the goodness of their hearts, they aren’t conciously looking for a reward, but they feel good about what they do and that in itself is a reward.

The S I knew operated on that higher level of rewards and punishments, “if I compliment her, bring her flowers, and put her on a pedastal she’ll do whatever I ask her to do,” or “I need to make this fake ID look as real as possible so I won’t get arrested.” When he brought me flowers it wasn’t because it made him feel good to make me happy, it was because it made him look good, it made people admire him. And when he bought me gifts after lying to me and committing credit card fraud, it wasn’t because he felt bad about what he did, it was to try to distract me with presents so I wouldn’t turn against him. I also have the feeling he gave me those gifts so he could try to implicate me in his schemes if I tried to turn him in.


Jim, you are so funny!!!!


To answer Liane’s questions, I think “moral reasoning ability” makes more sense than “moral agency.” Moral agency may fit best by definition, but when I’m reading I have to stop and think about what it means which distracts me from the actual discussion at hand. Moral reasoning ability is very clear.

I’m assuming when you talk about successful S’s and P’s you’re talking about ones who have attained wealth and power and are maintaining it. I agree with keeping_faith, they will never have real financial or emotional success, but they consider themselves successful I’ve they’ve achieved the appearance of success. The S I knew was on his way to success, but he slipped up too many times, and shot himself in the foot. He was good at manipulating systems and playing by the rules just enough to fool everyone else and get ahead, but his mask slipped and he got sloppy and lost everything he’d built up. I think the successful ones build a buffer around themselves by controlling people who can maintain order for them while they live in chaos.

Jim in Indiana USA

Sorry, but amoral seems to fit better. Rules don’t apply to them. Truth doesn’t apply to them. Morals don’t apply. They are neither “moral” nor “immoral”…they are “amoral”.


Jim, I do agree with you. Somehow moral agency sounds like a club for moral police rather than immoral (amoral)people who hurt others without a concern…..


Yeah, I just went back and reread what Liane wrote, that she was looking for a term that “would describe the moral deficits of sociopaths,” you’re right Jim, “amoral” would be the most fitting. “Low moral reasoning ability” would imply they just aren’t very good at applying morals to their reasoning, when morals aren’t really a consideration for them.

Ox Drover

Speaking on issues of “trust” with the Ps. I think that THEY think that we are sort of like them (or at least some of them do) and since they know THEY have evil intentions, they assume we also do, therefore, they have difficulty “trusting” us.

DO UNTO OTHERS, BEFORE THEY DO UNTO YOU. Seems to be their motto. They EXPECT us, it seems, to be the way they are and therefore it is fine for them to “strike first” before we strike them. Since they have no way of knowing that we are NOT like them, and they ascribe their own feelings/thoughts/intentions to us, then why should they feel guilty?

We, in turn, ascribe them “human compassion etc” when they have none, but we think (or seem to) that everyone has “good down there some where” when in fact, that is NOT TRUE.

They do learn what triggers us, and learn how to “herd” us in the direction they want us to go, to keep us off balance, to distract us, etc. just like my Border Collie herds goats, sheep or pigs, or cattle. They know that with sheep they must stay far out and not come too close cause sheep are stupid and will panic, so to accomplish their purposes they do that. With cattle they know that they must be more aggressive and come in closer and even bite the animals to control them, with goats, some goats will fight back, and some won’t so they have to assess the individual goats a bit. In herding hogs, they have to learn to bite the ears of the hogs if needed, but also that pigs can also bite . With horses, they have to learn that they CANNOT herd horses because horses will and are equipped to kill the dogs rather than run from them.

I think the psychopaths are able to assess whether we are a “goat, a sheep, a pig, or a cow,” and treat us the way they treat others of our emotional species. When they come up against a “horse” they avoid that species because they know that they might get seriously hurt.

I think our task for our own safety is to quit being “sheeple” as the psychopaths call us on their web site, and become EQUINES—I am working on becoming a female donkey, a JENNY, the female equivalent of a JACK ASS! SMART, UPPITY, taking no nonsense from anything or anyone trying to “herd” me, and if I see strange behavior or aggressive behavior, either retreat or fight, whichever is appropriate.

Someone sent me a series of photograpsh recently of a mule (half donkey, half horse, but smart and gutsy like the donkeys) killing a COUGAR. So, I might even settle for being a “Molly Mule” (female mule) but I will never again be a SHEEPLE. TOWANDA!!!!


I wanted to post this link again for those that are interested about the whole nature/nurture and research into it. The study is one that follows up and adds to previous research:

Following analysis, the results showed that, in children with psychopathic tendencies, antisocial behaviour was strongly inherited. In contrast, the antisocial behaviour of children who did not have psychopathic tendencies was mainly influenced by environmental factors. These findings are in line with previous research showing that children with psychopathic tendencies are at risk to continue their antisocial behaviour and are often resistant to traditional forms of intervention.

Dr Essi Viding says: “Our research has important implications. The discovery that psychopathic tendencies are strongly heritable suggests that we need to get help for these youngsters early on. Any behaviour is influenced by multiple genes and an unlucky combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder.

BloggerT, that’s an interesting research project, but it would be interesting to know how they factored out the impact of psychopathic parents or close relatives.

Ox Drover

Dear Liane,

Thanks for this above comment.

WAsn’t the Identical twins, raised apart study about 80% if one was a P the other was? I also wonder, too, if the 20% (if that is the right figure) were a score of 10,20, or 25 instead of the higher numbers at the cut off?

I don’t think that psychopathic personality disorder is 100% genetic, but I also DO think there is a genetic>environment, but like you mentioned about TB or even diabetes, the TENDENCY is there and environment makes it “happen.”

With SO many variables in growning up in humans, there isn’t any way that we can “control” for the variables or have 1000 kids grow up in the same home…so I think MANY studies need to be done.

Also, a child raised by a P has the double whammy of a bad genetic tendency (most likely) and a BAD enviornment (surely). But at the same time, I know several kind caring people who have been raised by VERY abusive P parents…while their sibs are just like “Mommie/daddy dearest.” Plus, many people who adopt children from P parents, and even though the child has a “good” upbringing from caring parents, they turn out to be “conduct disordered” children who are dangerous as heck by the time they are 10-12 years old. I have seen many examples of these little darlings in in-patient units.

I don’t know if you remeber the mother who blogged on here a while ago (I can’t remember her name, CRS) but she had a daughter who was dangerous at age 10 and was having difficulty with fiinding placement for her daughter. The mother, as I remember it, was about “frazzled” out with stress and feeling hopeless.


Wow, what a fascinating article. Great theory on why politicians become sociopathic just by virtue of enjoying increasing levels of social power.

In thinking about the last question, about “successful psychopaths”, I can only speak about what I know of my ex S, who seems to be enjoying a successful career in the army in spite of ongoing fraud and deception. I believe in his case his wife of 10 years (who once divorced him over his pathological lying and remarried him years later) probably does help to keep his life somewhat organized so he can accomplish his goals. I also think the fact that he is married with a young child makes him more sympathic to the authorities.


I vote for “poor moral reasoning ability”, it sounds more like one is speaking of an individual or a group of individuals.

Interesting article. I was involved for 14 years wiith a man I have considered an N. He has 2 brothers and 1 sister, the sister has always worked, none of the men has ever held down a job for a long period, in fact, they have hardly worked at all (the 3 of them are all in their 50’s now). The thing I have wondered about is… 1 of the brothers has a son who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s… could this be a defective gene that is carried in the males of the family and just came out more pronounced in the boy?

The N was a fabulous musician, never made a living at it, but he relied on me to try to get gigs for him at local clubs & to produce marketing material, seemed like he was not capable of handling the business side of things at all, I would meet the club owners and build rapport with them. And he fit right in there with the description of not being able to comfort others, and not wanting to be comforted himself.


I strongly disagree with the statement “Also most everyone in prison is psychopathic.” Hare himself states that psychopaths make up only 25% of the prison population and I find I agree with him. I would also expect people who are in prison for any length of time to score higher or appear more psychopathic because of the environment they are in. You almost have to think and act in a psychopathic manner to not be preyed upon in prison. I also see this as expanding psychopathy to include basically ALL antisocial acts or nearly all and I really think that this wrong and part of the problem.

This interview that I read talks to some of this as well:


And for anyone who may have been interested in the Mask of Sanity by Cleckley the entire book can be read online at:

Note that it is 485 pages long and is the 1988 fifth edition of it.


Slow night at work so far so I thought I would toss another article out for those interested:

From the article:

“My main concern is that the label (of psychopath) is applied too liberally and without sufficient understanding of the key elements,” says Newman, who is chair of the UW-Madison psychology department. “As a result, the term is often applied to ordinary criminals and sex offenders whose behavior may reflect primarily social factors or other emotional problems that are more amenable to treatment than psychopathy.”


I haven’t gone through the comments yet, sorry for anything redundant… Let’s see how well I understand this stuff:

“non-incarcerated psychopaths have an arguably equal potential to illuminate our understanding of the emotional difficulties, such as lack of empathy and lack of conscience, which underlie psychopathy and which lead to offending behaviour.”

The problem with that sentence is that survival context is assumed. A psychopath locked into box will probably push the correct button repeatedly for food. A severe autistic forced to work as a traveling salesman will probably push the doorbell repeatedly, which I consider to be offensive behavior. But the potential for understanding better via studying successful sociopaths, you bet.

“Many autistic people display moral concerns, moral feeling and a sense of duty or conscience.”

Are they “moral concerns”, and not really just a form of ’pushing the correct buttons for food’? At some level, autistics know that their survival is dependant on being good dependants. I think they’d learn to grow aggressive behaviors as much as they were capable of learning the skills which allowed them to profit from aggressiveness.

“Autistic people have reported that their sense of morality comes from a desire to see their world as orderly and organized.”

Having (what looks to me like severed left-right brain functioning), they need order and organization to be able to navigate their way through their world without getting lost. With abstract reasoning or pattern matching abilities, comes an ability to predict what likely lies around the next corner.

“Dr. Kennett says that the autistic person is like Dr. Spock of Star Trek, and views life in purely logical terms. Since morality is logical and rational, autistics embrace it.”

Morality, as it’s defined by whoever defines it, is only logical and rational to creatures that require social order for their own (quality of) survival. Psychopaths prefer chaos because they can deal with it better than anybody else. They’ll go straight to the button which dispenses the food while everybody else is running around in a panic.

“Dr. McGeer disagrees, she states that the autistic need for order leads to an emotional connection to order and rationality.”

…until one moves the button which dispenses the food.

“His life is frequently distinguished by failed opportunities, wasted chances and behavior which is astonishingly self-destructive.”

In the extreme cases, I assume. The ’addiction to control’ thing? They’re always looking for that next fix?

“It turns out that anxiety and fearfulness in the first two years of life actually predicts the development of conscience.”

The developmental psychologist I knew swore by this, based on her work with attachment disordered kids. In her world there were no bad seeds.

“The brain punishment system seems to be more plugged in to the rational brain in kids who are dispositionally more anxious. These kids also have a more highly developed sense of empathy later on.”

Yes, but machiavellians are psychopaths with normal anxieties. What the dark triad all seems to have in common is very low agreeableness and low conscientiousness.

“Most (autistics) like who they are, enjoy life and wouldn’t choose a different life if they could.”

Are you talking about autistics whose needs are being met without much effort on their part (by parents, caretakers, the state…), or those who must earn their living competing with normal people out in the real world?

“It turns out that when many people get power reward they change. …Their moral agency is diminished.”

I agree. Survival context is a variable, but I dont think it’s a big one late in life.

“Do you think people will better connect with/comprehend the term low “moral agency” or poor “moral reasoning ability”?”

Depends on the person. The 10% or so who frequent these kind of blogs will understand the former, but the 90% who aren’t as intellectually curious or as experienced with sociopathy (and who are most at risk as either targets or enablers) would get the latter. Personally, my worst problems were not with the sociopath but with those they manipulated against me. How about the catchy “fraudulent humanoids” or “camouflaged eviloids” ?

“successful psychopaths… either have a better appreciation for order or organization, or they find someone to organize and order their lives for them.”

Because they’re not psychopaths per se? (unless Hannibal Lecter types really do exist)… The successful sociopaths I’ve known (3) had rational goals of wealth and power but were insane in that they didn’t know when to quit. They caused plenty of damage unnecessary to their goals, but still reached their goals nevertheless, and two are still active in their careers. I’d classify them as sub-psychopathic machiavellians and narcissists. I’ll have to respond to that one in more detail later.


Work is really really slow tonight, a good thing, and so I thought I would post a link to another article that talks about a variety of different research views on psychopathy:


“Emotional Autism” is what I used to call the condition of my ex. A complete blank when it came to human interaction, other than when there was a power play involved.


BloggerT: The article by Hercz that you use to quote Dr. Robert Hare says, “. . . thanks to Hare, we now understand that the great majority of psychopaths are not violent criminals and never will be. Hundreds of thousands of psychopaths live and work and prey among us. Your boss, your boyfriend, your mother could be what Hare calls a “subclinical” psychopath, someone who leaves a path of destruction and pain without a single pang of conscience. Even more worrisome is the fact that, at this stage, no one — not even Bob Hare — is quite sure what to do about it.”

The term used here is “subclinical” psychopath. The PCL-R uses a numerical scoring system with an absolute cut-off point for diagnostic purposes. It also relies on judgment of an interviewer who, no matter how highly trained, can be susceptible to manipulation by the psychopathic subject, as Hare himself has reported.

When assessing the percentage of the prison population that is psychopathic, I believe it is VERY important to consider that the 20% or 25% that you use may only represent those who are above Bob Hare’s cut-off. A person who scores 30 or 25 or even 20 on the PCL-R is still significantly psychopathic, certainly likely to be in the “subclinical” category. By this standard, the percentage of psychopathic individuals in the prison population increases substantially.

Ox Drover

Good point, Rune!

Yea, and for MY MONEY the percentage of “psychopathic subclinical” criminals is about 90% not 20%! I ALSO include every pedophile as a psychopath, every rapist. Maybe I am “over reacting” but how could someone commit these crimes if they had a conscience? No Conscience=psychopath.

To me, I realize that there are a few people who go to prison and come out “a better person” but the majority of prisoners are AT BEST dysfunctional when they go in, and prison itself doesn’t improve them any more than putting your collie into a cage for a year as punishment for disobeying, out in the front lawn, rain, snow, or heat pounding down on the poor dog, and then the neighborhood kids poking sticks at its ribs as it sits there in misery and pain, and then…what are you going to do, turn it loose and say to it “Now, have you learned your lesson, go play with the children now and be a good dog.”

I have come to the conclusion that there are NO EX-convicts, if they weren’t a psychopath when they went into prison, they are at least warped when they come out, having lost trust in mankind and probably with PTSD if they aren’t a P to start with. My P-son was a psychopath when he went to prison the first time, but when he came out after two years in prison, he had a PhD in psychopathic behavior….”new and improved” version then became a killer.


BloggerT: Have you ever been in an intimate relationship with a psychopath? You research, you work in a setting that puts you in contact with psychopathic individuals, but have you ever had one insinuate himself/herself into your day-to-day life as a trusted friend or lover?

I’m not putting this forward as a challenge to you, but rather a point of consideration. If a psychopathic individual presented himself as heartless and remorseless, he wouldn’t get anywhere in society. It’s the fact that the fabricated persona is so “authentic-feeling” that they insert themselves into our lives the way they do to accomplish all this damage.


OXY, Either get out the skillet or give me a dose of much needed reassurance.

I went out last night with girlfreinds. Went to a bit of a redneck place with two girlfriends after dinner. Scoped the lot as always to make sure his vehicle wan’t there. I don’t usually se e him there but it’s habit now tolook for his car when I am near home. THe place has really bad karaoke but good dance music in between. We were dancing and having fun and suddenly he walks into the room. I’m certain he saw me. I’m certain he came into the room because I was there.

One of my freinds was furious with me for wanting to leave. I had so much anxiety I came home and vomited. He gets up on the dance floor with, yes the trashy x stripper who is twice his size and mine and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I told the other friend I have to go. SHe agreed.

I think he needed to be seen. He wanted to put on a show for me and I would not allow it. I left. One friend said “DO you think he’s trying to make you jealous?”. I said no, I think he NEEDS to be seen. He was with a group of people. Two women had teeth missing in front. One looked like she was searching for the nearest pole to dance. THe guys were wearing (not tshirts) undershirts, looked dirty, were very loud. I think they were her x con brothers. I’m disgusted and sick. NONE of the above paragraph matters because quite honestly he doesn’t give a crap about me or anything and I was just a fixture (from day one), one that he knows he will never use again.For a man who cared so much about me looking “classy”……WTF?

I didn’t sleep. I didn’t dream either about him. I can’t be near him WHy? After a year? WHy am I still asking why?

I wrote this to a friend this morning and it’s how I really feel:

“My earlier email wasn’t a question of better off or not without psycho freak. It was about continually struggling with why? Why he chose me? WHy he lied? WHy he is with the kind of woman/people he is with? How could I be so stupid? How are there such evil people in the world who can continue to get by with no justice or realm of punishment for what they do? Not just with regard to breaking the law or violating the stolen valor act or stealing the honor that others lost lives and parts of themselves to earn. NO how about stealing someones heart and spirit and soul because you are so unfaithful, immoral, unethical and disrespectful? Or violating other people’s boundaries by pretneding to be someone you are not and abusing the hell out of anyone for your own personal pleasure?

I am past the “relationship. I am past the lies. I am even past the mind rape. I can’t get past why. THis is where my analytical and logical self is just anal in trying to undersand the psychology behind it and the reality is that there are no answers. I will never understand because people who are selfish, greedy and imulsive will never seem logical to someone like me. THat kind of evil didn’t exist in my world of possibilitites. Thos e words aren’t strong enough to describe what they are and the damage they do.”

I can’t talk to anyone about it anymore. When my kids dwell on simple things I tell them “shit happens, get over it and move on.” If one more person tells me that I am going to die! Some days I feel so smart about all of this and days like today I feel like I have made no progress.

Jim in Indiana USA

keeping_faith: “THe guys were wearing (not tshirts) undershirts,”

The kind with no sleeves…ribbed knit..known as “wifebeaters”? Figures…

You’re making progress, one day at a time…do what’s best for you. You’re gonna get there!


no Jim not wifebeater. the kind with short sleeves like you would wear under a dress shirt, just dirtier and stained.

I suspect they save the wifebeaters for their various appearances on episodes of “COPS”

Ox Drover

Rune, another good point.

After my X-DIL and the Trojan Horse Psychopath were arrested, my egg donor screamed out in pain that “but they were SO RESPECTFUL OF ME!” She just couldn’t believe that anyone that “respectful” was faking…I was the horrible bad one because I lost it in frustration one day when trying to convince her that the TH-P was a pedophile with a looooong record (I had the documentation she would not read or look at it, said I made it up, faked it, using my computer) I had lost it and in frustration told her she was “senile”—-so she was FURIOUS with me for “not being respectful”—-but THEY were “respectful” while they stole her money.

I asked her what she expected, that they should say “give me your money you old bat!” How much money would they have been able to get her to give them if they had done that? I was the only ONE NOT TAKING MONEY, but I wasn’t “respectful” so I was the BAD one. LOL

Yep, the faking it is what the Ps do best, and some of them are really REALLY good and some are only okay, but faking it is all they can do.


Keeping faith –

Once when my S was really “down on his luck” or so i thought.. but what it was – was really the choice he was making not to do anything positive for himself on his own for a job/career. All he could do was tell people he was out of work and sit around and wait for a friend or a friend of a friend to come up with a suggestion or a referral — when low and behold yet another person pulled through and suggested he try for a new career at his sister-in-laws business. Said he would hook him up. Think it was a mortgage co. i was skeptical but, I encouraged and supported him as I always did. He interviewed, he knew it didnt go great for lack of experience but he said “Ill get it, cuz my friend is the brother of the owner in the biz… but it wasnt handed to him..first he had to fill out a credit report and then agree to take and pass a three day course out of town… to get him in to an entry level position with the company with benefits and potential for growth. I saw it at as huge opportunity. He hung up from receiving the offer saying …Im not going to spend 300 bucks on a course, to end up working my ass off for someone sitting in a cubby making phone calls all day, ill lose my mind. I was flabbergasted. Here he was no job, no potential offers coming in and a valid opportunity practically tossed in his lap. I said, i think you need to do whats best for you, but please consider taking this opportunity thats in front of you. You have to work for things. You have to start somewhere, albeit from the bottom. And they are offering you a job with benefits and continued education to eventually get some kind of license, and career. I believe my support and encouragement helped him. He filled out credit report, background check etc. and ordered the books to study.

We were together the morning he got a call from the human resources dept. He saw the number and said “I knew it “- before he even answered. I did not know this, until that moment, but they noted a severely bad credit report ( think he thought they wouldnt even bother to check his credentials)…they said would you care to explain what this is all about. He said no – thank you for your time and hung up. I was in shock. I said why didnt you explain it? Why werent you honest? Why? Why ? Why? He stood up and said/LOUDLY I am $xx,xxx in debt. I ve written bad checks, Ive put my parents thru hell, etc. and nobody will want to hear that. All my life Ive had job after job. Nothing ever working out. AND WHY THE HELL DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT MY LIFE? THIS IS MY LIFE NOT YOURS? WHY DO YOU CARE?


(dont ask my how I did this- but I convinced him to call back and be honest. He was shaking. I said tell the truth – sometimes people will understand, and sometimes people will still not accept it and choose to pass on you – but tell the truth til someone accepts your truth. Because there are people who will. He proceeded to tell her during college he made poor financial decisions, he abused credit cards, he neglected to pay the bills and be responsible. He doesnt have a reason as to why. And he continued to do that after college. But in recent years he made better choices, started paying back what he could, kept more steady employment and is trying his best to get ahead. She asked if she could look into his recent payment history and get back to him after further review…. He hung up a different human being. i dont think he’d ever been honest about that a day in his life. Long story short, they approved him and the day before he was to leave for his training course – he bailed out. I dont believe he trusted himself, or ever will. He felt defeated, he also says he felt he cant work a desk job, or sit and cold call people all day every day 9 to 5. I was terribly disappointed FOR HIM, but I understood, for first time I really understood what it was like to let fear take over. And I understood that I was with someone who had somewhat of a lost soul, but I believed would find his way.

You asking yourself why, why, why over and over again is quite normal. Perhaps IF you didnt ever question him (rightfullly so tho) as to the things he was doing in the relationship that were red flags – you might still be in the relationship with him. You could be the girl on his arm. How lucky are you that you are not that victim anymore. She isnt questioning his actions, his words right now. Like you didnt in the beginning either. Maybe he’s on his best behavior, but the mask will drop. Or he will get bored. Or he will profess his undying love and then the next day someone unexpected will catch his eye and he is off and running around. The answer to the whys – are the answer I had to face to my question of why isnt he taking this opportunity this amazing job – the answer is HE DIDNT WANT TO, HE WAS AFRAID OF DOING SOMETHING HE IS NOT USE TO, HE DIDNT BELIEVE IN HIMSELF, AND ALL HE KNOWS TO DO/WANTS TO DO IS WHAT HE IS FAMILAR WITH – MAKING EASY AND BAD CHOICES. DOES THIS MEAN HE DIDNT CARE ABOUT ME – IT DOESNT MATTER – HE JUST DOESNT CARE ENOUGH ABOUT HIS LIFE TO MAKE GOOD CHOICES/BETTER CHOICES WHILE HE WAS WITH ME.. SO HE STAYS ON THE PATH HE IS ON. JUST A NEW FACE IN THE PICTURE WHEN THE COMFORTABLE ONES WISE UP. HE DOESNT KNOW HOW TO BE REAL, TO FEEL , TO CARE. HE JUST KNOWS HOW TO EXIST, GET BY, PLAY THE GAME…HOPE SOMEONE NEVER CATCHES ON …BUT LUCKILY FOR YOU — YOU DID.



So why did you stay? what we youre thoughts when you were being treated terribly or when you found out things you were comfortable with? Why were you willing to settle for less than you deserve? Why do you want someone like him? The whys arent about him anymore..for me…we know why they do it – they are unable to be any other way.

Start to think about the whys with you…the answers might help you get unstuck – as they did me.



Thanks for your response. I think sometimes I am curious as to what goes on with him now so that I may be able to make some sense of him just based on decisions he makes now….. like the trashy stripper chick on welfare. To some extent I know the answers to the questions I ask. Some I will never understand but I think it’s because I don’t truly understand impulsive or selfish behavior. He was married for 26 years and I don’t understand that either. I saw this bizarre behavior in month four or five. It lasted almost two years and there was no way in hell I could have allowed it to continue. He knew that and it’s probably why he is with someone now, much like his x wife, who is afraid to question him.

Why did I stay? For some time I didn’t care about the answers to some of the lies because the answers weren’t significant. I felt bad for the man who was so insecure (so I thought)he told people he was this Navy SEAL, POW who was so good he did covert work for the NSA. WHen the stories got more bizarre and the behavior became more dysfunctional…..I had more questions. Then there were more lies about money and homes and family and eventually all of it was a lie. He only cared about what it “looked” like….nice home = money, loud sporty car = badass. I stayed because THE GOOD WAS GREAT. I LEFT BECAUSE THE BAD WAS TORTURE. The pain became greater than the pleasure and still is !!!!

My questions are more about the psychology and some of the answers have not been found. He may be with her for a long time as he was in his marriage. I sense she knows somethin gisn’t right. He cheated on me with her and her with me. I later found. He would ditch her too. He would accuse her of cheating too and probably still does. Maybe being stupid or blind or just plain ridiculous has its advantages (what we don’t know won’t hurt us?) That’s what he has now. That’s what he had in his x wife and x affair and I’m sure many others. He is now unemployed so I heard. I can’t imagine how someone lik ehim finds another job. You would think he would be in a panic with a nice new home that he couldn’t afford when he WAS working. THERE ARE BAD DECISIONS ALL THE WAY AROUND. I don’t want to mother him or coach him and I’m glad I was NOT the one nursing him back to health after his steroid induced heart attack. I am glad and I know I am lucky.

Maybe not NEEDING answers like I/WE do is a blessing. Sometimes I wish I was one of these people that can simply say, “doesn’t feel right….goodbye” and NEVER look back. I think I need some sense of justice. I don’t think I will see it. It just kills me when things look so good on the surface…… but when we were out together they looked that way too. No one knew or understood the turmoil of a day to day relationship with a sociopath.


LTL, I want to follow up by saying that although I didn’t care that he wasn’t a Navy SEAL POW, or aman who had money from working three jobs, and he didn’t own stuff, it was given to him and he didn’t earn $180000 a year, and he didn’t have a college degree……and on and on and on…… THAT stuff wasn’t important to me about him.

I felt so badly for this man because he HAD to lie to feel good, I LOST SIGHT OF THE FACT THAT a lie is a lie. There was something deeply wrong here and I didn’t look deeply enough, EARLY ENOUGH, to realize it’s not just a game to pick up women or look impressive or even simple insecurity and it KLLS me when guys, in particular, laugh like the lies are no big deal.

I realize now there is a dark dark place in him that these lies come from and I have tried to hard to see and understnad that, and I AM STILL ANGRY with myself for trying to absolve him for the lies. THe lies are a product of other REALLY bad things and I can’t even comprehend it. it makes me feel so naiive sometimes.


keeping faith – I understand what you mean. Material things werent important to me either. I felt sorry for him too. If he really was the person he portrayed himself as being in beginning of our friendship, theres a good chance I would still be in his life today. People change, but as long as the fundamental basics are there – respect honesty etc etc.

“Sometimes I wish I was one of these people that can simply say, “doesn’t feel right”.goodbye” and NEVER look back.” Keeping faith.


Wow did I ever need answers, closure, a sense of justice…for such a long time. I wanted answers, or I wanted to fix it, understand him, figure it all out. The answer for me is he just isnt healthy enough on the inside, mature enough on the inside, or capable enough on the outside to make good healthy choices for himself – let alone for the way to end a relationship.

They deal by just moving on, blocking it out… next co-dependent female in line please….all the rest in line, just be patient your number will eventually come up because Im unable to be real, honest, respectful, aware of others needs, beyond the basics – so none of my relationships ever grow – they just stay stagnant – and if Im lucky to get someone who wants to try to change me or figure me out or has her own flaws – then Ill be in the relationship longer if the money, sex and entertainment is good.

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