It’s Hard to See a Psychopath

I’ll start with one man who has dedicated his life to teaching others how to assess and clearly identify psychopaths. Here’s part of the bio from his website.

“Robert Hare is Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of British Columbia, where he has taught and conducted research for more than four decades, and President of Darkstone Research Group Ltd., a forensic research and consulting firm. He has devoted most of his academic career to the investigation of psychopathy, its nature, assessment, and implications for mental health and criminal justice.

He is the developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and a co-author of its derivatives, the Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version, the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version, the Antisocial Process Screening Device, and the P-Scan (for use in law enforcement).”


Why start with the psychologist?

I’m starting with him because he’s the guy behind THE assessment we use to identify psychopathic individuals.

(He emphasizes the use of the word “psychopath,” so I’m using it here to be consistent with his work.)

Dr. Hare spends a huge portion of his time teaching other professionals how to see. How to see a psychopath.

And that’s a really big deal. It’s critical that we as professionals know how to see and assess psychopathic individuals, and he’s developed the most widely used tools in the world for doing so.

If you ask me what I think we need to do differently when it comes to difficult cases in the family courts, this is where I’d start. Yes, there are other changes to be made. Major, critical improvements. And I’ll write about those changes in the coming weeks—because a clear assessment in the hands of a corrupt magistrate can mean nothing. Or if an assessment is too expensive for any average individual to utilize, then it’s not helpful to humanity. But we have to start somewhere, and since there are apparently so many professionals currently involved in court processes who lack the capacity to identify psychopaths (with tragic consequences to their victims), I’m going to start there.

If you’re a mental health clinician who works with any human system (and that means every clinician, in my opinion), then you need to know who and what you’re working with, and you need to be able to clearly identify any obstacles on the path to healing and health. Those obstacles are often people. And if you’re dealing with a secretly undermining psychopath in your system, then you clearly have an obstacle.

And it helps if you can see the obstacle.

But professionals like charmers, too.

The problem is that professional clinicians are just as human as everyone else. And we like warm, charming people.

Now you might say, “I’ve always hated charming people. They seem like they’re up to something. They make me suspicious. So I can’t be fooled.”

But I’d say that you can.

Because charm isn’t always so obvious. Not in the psychopathic world. When I’m talking about charm, I’m talking about a psychopath who has the ability to size you up and come off as a quiet person if you’re attracted to quiet people. Or maybe as a chest-thumping patriot if you’re the patriotic type. I’m talking about a warm, wonderful fake. A chameleon.

A person who can fool anyone.

Who might study your face while you’re watching a cooking show and then quickly round up a couple bumbling recipes that will make you giggle and find delight over the togetherness of boiling water and chopping vegetables and catching each others’ eyes as you hear some kind of humble with just-enough-awkward-to-be-believable hook like, “I’m not the most graceful cook, you know, I mean, look at this. But maybe it’s ok to just love the sensuality of the whole thing. You know? I mean ok, I don’t want you to think I’m all soft or something, and I mean I’m supposed to be this hard core driven person. I mean look at me. But I guess maybe I’m really just like this big softie on the inside. Like those vegetables are just beautiful, you know? But my God, I can’t believe I’m saying that. I mean seriously, that’s just between us. Our secret. Now tell me something about you. To make me feel better.”

And what you’ll know is that you feel connected over the food. More connected than ever before, because you never knew someone who felt the way you do about these things. But what you won’t know is that your new “friend” frankly doesn’t care in the least way about food, or about you, or about anything but whatever end goal has been established. Maybe the goal is to have you. Maybe it’s to destroy you. Maybe it’s to rob you.

But when you’re talking about your togetherness over food, you won’t know.

You won’t see.

And you often won’t even say that it’s charm.

Charm doesn’t always look like charming.

Because it doesn’t always look charming. Sometimes it just looks soft.

It looks like whatever you’ve been dreaming of for years.

And that’s for a reason.

So how can we protect ourselves? How can we look for the cold eyes or the warm eyes or the charm or the distance or whatever it is that a psychopath is supposed to have going on?

The truth is that it’s most often really incredibly hard to see.

The truth is that even too many professionals don’t know how.

And the truth is that because of these inadequacies, lots of pretty good people get stomped.

Over and over and over.

So I’m writing this now to declare that we all need to do a better job of seeing and identifying psychopaths. We need to admit that we can’t look through a convenient seven-point checklist and know who’s who.

Because in an office or a court room, the psychopath in front of you may look like the best parent around. There may be a child involved in the interview, and if so, that kiddo may be getting hugged and tickled and tossed into the air a little and tickled some more and then turned around and hugged again. There may be some talk about the best new parenting books that are out, there may be some talk about the concerns this (psychopathic) parent has with their ex’s ability to be a stable parent. The child may then tense up and speak up to say that he or she doesn’t want to see the parent who’s not in the room. Ever. The psychopath may look at you directly in the eyes at this with a look that says, “See, I told you there were issues. Isn’t this alarming?” And as a professional, it’s easy in those moments to get confused. Who is this person in front of you? Is this person a great parent who has a difficult ex, or is this person a con-artist who is trying to destroy the other parent?

We need to spend more time getting trained to assess. And we need to know how to help people deal with psychopaths. Because even if the above parent is a confirmed psychopath, does anyone have a clear and consistent model of what should happen next to protect the other people in the family? Or is it up to the courts to decide?

In my experience, it’s up to the courts to decide. And that adds another layer of complexity and another opportunity for the psychopath to fall through the cracks and/or do serious damage to everyone involved.

We need to admit that we’re contributing to the harm of innocent people when we fail to identify a psychopath and take appropriate measures to help or protect those who are connected.

Clear identification is where we need to start. In my opinion. Yes, there’s much more to do than that.

But if a psychopath is evaluated professionally based on interactions or by some other inadequate scale, then that psychopath is going to walk around with professional verification that he or she is not actually a psychopath.

And that has major, life-long impacts on everyone else involved.

So let’s at least begin with the ability to see.

Let’s start with some wide-spread training in assessment.