Friday, December 9, 2016

Psychopathy and evil

I read M.Scott Peck's People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil shortly after it was published in 1983 because I wanted to understand why evil people behave as they do. That interest came about because my path unfortunately crossed with that of a person whose behavior was unquestionably evil and whose sole goal was to suck all of the goodness out of my soul. Peck did not disappoint; his book has to be one of the most disturbing (and scary) that I've ever read, because he described individuals who had committed evil acts and who had no problems relating those acts to a psychiatrist, who just happened to be Peck. He wrote the following about evil:

“When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life -- particularly human life -- such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may "break" a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head". I would add that evil people often kill more than one of these attributes. That is their goal.

And then I got to thinking about a scientific article I read recently that I can highly recommend for anyone interested in this subject: The Psychology of Wickedness: Psychopathy and Sadism by J. Reid Meloy, PhD, published in 1997 in the journal Psychiatric Annals:

Meloy wrote the following about psychopathy, and I cannot help but see the similarities between his description of a psychopath and Peck's description of evil:

"Some of the psychodynamics of the psychopath bring us closer to what we see as their evil, or their wish to destroy goodness. Psychopaths are aggressively narcissistic, and this aspect of their character pathology is often expressed behaviorally by the repetitive devaluation of others, not predominantly in fantasy, as we see in narcissistic personality disorder but in reality. Psychopaths generally do this for two reasons: first, to maintain grandiosity, or their sense of being larger than life, and second, to repair perceived insults or emotional wounds by retaliating against those they hold responsible. This repetitive devaluation of others, which may range from verbal insults to serial homicide, also serves to diminish envy.........Envy is the wish to possess the 'goodness' perceived in others. If the 'good object' cannot be possessed, it must be destroyed or damaged until it is not worth having".

Meloy goes on to describe how psychopaths can even manipulate the psychotherapists who treat them. That by itself is disturbing enough, but ultimately not surprising since psychotherapists are only human. He also talks about psychopaths' emotional detachment and inability to truly bond to other human beings. He writes:

 "......the psychopath appears most concerned with dominating his or her objects to control them. This pattern reduces threats to the psychopath and stimulates his or her grandiosity, but also diminishes the probability of empathy and inhibition of aggressive impulse. It is phylogenetically a prey-predator dynamic, often viscerally or tactilely felt by the psychiatrist as an acute autonomic fear response in the presence of the patient without an overt behavioral threat: the hair standing up on the neck, goosebumps, or the more inexplicable 'creepy' or 'uneasy' feeling. These are atavistic reactions that may signal real danger and should never be ignored..........."

So what do you do when you get that creepy or uneasy feeling in the presence of some (very few) people? When the only way you can describe the person in question to another person is to say that the person makes you extremely uncomfortable or gives you the creeps? What is it about them that triggers that response? What do you do when you do not want to be in the same room (or elevator) as them? I myself have met only two men whom I would describe as psychopaths. They were/are highly-intelligent people, intelligent enough to know how to read you and your body language. They know when they have found your weak points, and they will manipulate them for all they are worth. They are very charming and manipulative; these aspects could describe non-psychopaths as well, but the psychopath seems to have perfected both. It's hard to explain unless you've been on the receiving end of them. What I can say is that if a person leaves you in a complete state of bewilderment and self-doubt each time you talk with them, your alarms should go off. But what do you do when you understand that a person you have known for a long time, or a person you have worked together with for a long time, is a psychopath? When you know that that person has tried to destroy, without compunction, the lives and careers of several people you know? The sad thing is that there is no one answer and no easy solutions. The best piece of advice I could give is to try to avoid such people--give them a wide berth. Do not engage them.

If you have no choice but to deal with them (in a work setting, for example), I believe the best path to follow is to read about psychopathy in order to learn as much as possible about psychopaths. Forewarned is forearmed, as the old saying goes. In that context, I recommend the following article, Suffering Souls--The search for the roots of psychopathy, by John Seabrook, published in The New Yorker in 2008:

I also recommend Meloy's article (see link above) and Peck's book (

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