“Our default understanding of humanity is gonna be that everybody has some good in them. The research that Dr Robert Hare and Dr Martha Stout have done have really turned that around to say that 4% of human beings don’t have a conscience, they have no remorse for their behavior, and they actually look for opportunities to cause harm to others”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
This is a question many of us will have asked at some point, especially if it is a belief that is being challenged by our current relationships. Many of us might reflect at some point on whether it’s true that all people are basically good, which might lead us to also consider it’s corollary – are some people just bad? Do everyone have some good in them somewhere, or are some people just irredeemably bad and evil?
The reality of the situation is that there are some people in world, on the psychopathic and sociopathic end of the spectrum, who have no goodness in them at all. Their personalities are characterized by a glibness and smooth charm that conceals a mindset totally lacking in any understanding of morals, empathy or conscience, and these toxic personalities cannot be implored to reform of change by any means.
They actively seek to cause harm to others, and do so with full conscious intent and awareness. This has been verified time and again by experts who have studied them and case stories of unfortunate people who get caught up with them.
The predictable patterns of toxic and destructive behavior they engage in is difficult to interpret in any other way than to see them as deeply disturbed people who are just bad, with no good in them whatsoever.
A crucial mistake the rest of humanity tends to make here is to judge others by our own values. Because we would never dream of doing things a psychopath does, we assume no one else would dream of doing these things either.
We are assuming our own mindset and emotional traits like empathy and conscience, automatically also applies to everyone else. Because we feel bad when we do something really bad to others (empathy kicks in), we assume the same thing must happen for everyone else.
Sadly, the research has shown that there is a small subset of the population who lack these emotional fail-safes the rest of us have, and so do not have any limits on the things they will do to others. Destroying the lives of other people is just fun and games to them.
This is why this dangerous myth that all people are basically good needs discarding, however much we would like it to be true, since psychopaths prey precisely on overly innocent and trusting people who buy into this assumption about other people wholeheartedly. They love to use other people’s kind, sincere and trusting nature against them.
This is why humanity in general needs to sharpen up to the existence of these malevolent types of people, since they are predatory characters and will go for the easiest, most gullible and easily influenced targets. Let’s look at the nature of psychopathic people in more detail to understand why some people are bad, and how we can better protect against them.
Psychopaths & Sociopaths Have No Good in Them
“(Psychopaths) are individuals who are extremely egotistical, self centered, lacking remorse for what they have done, knowing exactly what they are doing. And what they’re doing is manipulating and deceiving other people for their own ends”
Dr Robert Hare
The most common personality type we can point to to emphasize the point that unfortunately not all people are good, and some people are “bad” or evil, is the psychopathic or sociopathic personality. These definitions are partially covered under the Cluster B and Antisocial Personality Disorder definitions.
Let’s lay out a very brief outline sketch of the psychopathic or sociopathic personality, as it relates to the point we are making here:
- Psychopaths are characterized by a glib, shallow, charming, but self centred and manipulative personality.
- They are compulsive liars and will use deception whenever necessary.
- They see others not as human beings but as objects to be manipulated for their own ends. Their entire mindset and worldview is predatory.
- Any ostensibly good or kind acts they do are not out of inherent kindness or generosity, but are manipulative tactics which have a self serving agenda to them.
- They have a total lack of empathy, remorse, conscience and guilt for their actions.
- Psychopaths commit continual physical and/or emotional abuse on others, causing an enormous amount of subjective internal distress towards other people they come into contact with in work and personal relationships.
- They do so in full, conscious, deliberate awareness of what they are doing, and the distress they are causing others.
- Since they repeatedly and knowingly cause harm to others, there is an aspect of free will and choice involved with them which implies moral deviancy as a crucial component of the disorder.
- All attempts to treat and reform psychopaths and implore them to change have failed, in clinical and personal environments, often in fact making them worse and more deceptive.
- Hence, psychopaths can be seen as malevolent, evil people devoid of goodness, whose interaction with the world and others is entirely self serving and manipulative.
- The works by Dr Robert Hare (Without Conscience) and Dr Martha Stout (The Sociopath Next Door) cited in the above quote, which back up this viewpoint, can both be found in our books section.
- See also our lengthy article on Dr Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Traits Checklist, which covers each malignant aspect of the psychopathic personality in more detail.
One of the most difficult things for victims caught up in relationships with psychopaths and sociopaths for the first time, without realizing all of the above points yet, is diagnosing what is happening to them.
They can’t quite put their finger on it, but they know something is seriously wrong with the person they are tangled up with, but without the tools to spot and diagnose severe personality disorders, they just struggle on through, in the hope things will somehow improve.
Underlying this is a lack of knowledge of psychopathy, but also this naive belief that all people are basically good and no one is really bad, hence the constant forgiveness and second chances that often characterize these relationships. There is also an exasperation there, as the victim struggles to find some good in the other person.
“There must be some good in them somewhere, some humanity. If I try harder, they’ll be a good person” is often the mental trap the victim gets caught in. With psychopaths, there is no goodness and no prospect of change, and it often takes a lot of suffering and distress before a person realizes this and gets away, or else the psychopath drops them first and moves onto someone else.
The “If I try harder, they’ll be a good person” trap
How Toxic Relationships Can Change Your View of Human Goodness
Moving out into the world with a strong belief that all people are basically good, and then encountering one of these more poisonous personality types close up in a work or personal relationship, can bring us crashing back down the earth with a bang. We realize we may have to re-evaluate our belief that everyone is good.
We see that some people are not inherently good, and in fact seem to be inherently malignant or evil. This seem to make it their mission in life to be a dishonest, manipulative, deceitful person. There is active will-power, planning and determination put into their toxic behavior.
This can be a very traumatic experience for us, since beliefs like the humanistic view that all people are basically good can be psychological pillars or cornerstones which hold up the entire way we see the world. When these start getting undermined, the entire way we see the world, and our relationships with others, starts to get undermined.
We start to get mistrustful, suspicious, paranoid, hyper-vigilant in the aftermath of toxic relationships. We don’t know who to trust anymore. We may think everyone is bad and out to get us. We realize the world is not a safe and cozy place. Our entire safe world theory is undermined and we have to start over.
This can be a very difficult process to go through for people who are damaged by these psychopathic personality types. However, it is better to learn this lesson and come out the other side more resilient and prepared for the world as it really is, than be an unsuspecting person who has yet to learn this lesson.
It is also totally possible to realize all the harsh realities we have pointed out about toxic people existing, and yet still survive and thrive in the world. It just requires more awareness and a shift in mindset, and a removal or naivety and gullibility. See further below for more on this.
The Lack Of Remorse Of The Psychopath
Perhaps one of the biggest clues that some people are just bad is the total lack of empathy or remorse you will find in psychopathic personalities. They are not sorry for bad things they have done to others, even down to taking their lives.
A more obvious example of this the psychopathic serial killers, many of whom once in custody talk about their crimes in a totally flat, emotionless, matter-of-fact way. There’s no remorse or guilt there. They see it as “just another thing” they did. This is very common among the worst psychopathic killers, and is a symptom of the deleted empathy they have. See the video below for an example:
Dennis Nilsen – Matter of Fact Killer
However, you don’t have to watch interviews of serial killers to see this. It’s also true in non-violent psychopaths, who take pleasure in psychologically and emotionally destroying others in relationships. They are also never sorry for what they do, never sincerely apologize to their victims, and even see it as a humorous and entertaining endeavor to systematically erode the self esteem and identity of others, in personal relationships and also the workplace.
Are Psychopaths Really Bad At The Core?
Some people may still think that it isn’t really possible to diagnose someone as purely “evil” or “bad”, even if they have a psychopathic/sociopathic personality. Some philosophers and theologians also hold the view that “pure evil” doesn’t even exist – that everything is relative, and that even people we would call “bad” are only really doing what they are doing what they do because in their mind, they think it’s “good”. In this sense, it can argued that’s it’s impossible to extract a definition of “pure evil” when everyone’s experience and inner world is subjective.
But in practical terms, I personally find this kind of intellectualizing irrelevant. In the real world, psychopaths and sociopaths do not change, save for some very, very rare and exceptional circumstances where they put many of years of effort into therapy and introspection. In almost all cases though, there is no way to “reach” these people, and in fact they even use these attempts to reach them as fuel to manipulate and deceive others more effectively in the future.
Trying to convince and psychopath or sociopath to change their ways is futile. Therapy often makes them worse. There is a “shell” surrounding their personality that’s impossible for anyone else to crack, and can only be cracked through them choosing of their own free will (NOT by someone else making them) to go through many years of hard work to unpick the toxicity in themselves. It goes without saying this almost never happens – perhaps one in a million or less psychopaths go down this more difficult path.
Therefore the reality is that, in this life and this body at least, psychopaths and sociopaths are bad people at the core. We do not know and cannot control what happens to them after they die, and it is useless to speculate. When dealing with these personality types in the real world, it is safer to hold the assumption that these people are bad, otherwise we’ll always remain open to them taking advantage of our willingness to always believe there’s some good in them somewhere.
Sam Vaknin – The “Malignant Optimism” Trap
Video summary – A common mistake with victims of narcissists/psychopaths is they rigidly and stubbornly hold onto the belief that there’s a good person in there somewhere, just stuck in there, that they can bring out somehow. If they just find the right combination of words, the right therapy, or if they “love them enough”, they’ll be able to bring the goodness out of them eventually. This mindset never works and just leads to the abuse and exploitation from the narcissist/psychopath continuing. In fact, they contemptuously view this “malignant optimism” in victims as a weakness to be exploited for their own ends.
Thriving In The World Whilst Knowing Some People Are Bad
“There comes a time when when you really just don’t think about that encounter (with a toxic person) anymore. All you’re doing is living with the tools that you gained from it”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
It is true that whilst encountering severely abnormal personalities like psychopaths in relationships can knock us completely out of balance, sometimes for a long time, it is also possible to recover and in fact be stronger and more resilient than you were before. See our definitive resource guide for recovering from toxic relationships for more help on this.
Whilst having our “safe world theory” that all people are basically good shattered can be a brutal experience while it happens and immediately afterwards, it is possible to overcome these traumas and thrive in the world, whilst also knowing it is not the safe place we may have thought it was before, and that bad people such as psychopaths and sociopaths do exist.
In simple terms, knowing that these malevolent types of people do exist (around 4% of the population), but also knowing how to spot them, can arm you with all the tools you need to see red flags you may have missed before, and avoid or escape these individuals more quickly if and when you do encounter them.
Here are some general pointers, insights and tools survivors of toxic personalities like psychopaths come away with from their experiences, which make them a stronger, more well protected person:
- We are on the lookout for for psychopathic traits like glibness, shallowness, insincerity, manipulativeness, dishonesty, Projection, blame shifting, covert smearing and trouble-making, gas-lighting and so on.
- More importantly, we don’t simply overlook or ignore these red flags like we may have before. We act on them and either avoid situations/relationships or get out as soon as possible once we see they are toxic.
- We are not taken in by superficiality, glib charm and smoothness.
- We slow down and watch a person’s behavior and character more carefully over time before deciding whether they are worthy of trust.
- We are more guarded as to who we let into our personal circle, watching for real qualities like empathy, sincerity and integrity. The Bright Triad Traits (clarity, maturity, stability) are also a good criteria to use. We actively look for these and other positive human qualities more closely than we did before.
- We have zero tolerance for manipulative, dishonest, scheming people. Instead of tolerating, overlooking or excusing their behavior, we simply choose not to be around these people.
- We value people who value us, and not just shallow people who only value the feelings and buzz they get by being around us.
- We have stronger boundaries, very quickly confronting toxic behavior and ending any relationship where poor treatment and manipulative behavior continues. We don’t tolerate being treated badly anymore.
- See also our Recovery From Toxic Relationships Resource Guide for links to books and video that will arm you with all the knowledge you need to spot and avoid toxic personalities in the future.