Much has been written on the all the toxic and destructive behavior psychopaths engage in, wreaking havoc in workplaces and personal relationships. But can they be ever made to change their behavior? Are there any prospects for reform with the psychopath? Can they ever be cured and made to behave more normally?
All the clinical research as well as personal experience in the wider world dealing with psychopaths indicates that they cannot and will not change their behavior. They appear completely immune to any kind of therapy, treatment, punishment or admonition to change, and remain fundamentally manipulative and dishonest in their behavior all through their lives.
We will cover the topic from a couple of different angles, looking at the behavior of psychopaths firstly in controlled, clinical settings like prisons, and then in the wider world in work and personal relationships.
Regardless of the environment or context, the conclusion is the same – psychopaths do not ever truly change their toxic behavior. Any apparent changes in character are purely simulated and put on by the psychopath as a way of gaining or re-gaining someone’s trust, or for more effectively manipulating someone.
Psychopaths Cannot Be Rehabilitated in Clinical Settings
“Many psychopaths describe the traditional treatment programmes as finishing schools where they hone their skills. Where they find out there are lots of techniques they had not thought about before”
Dr Robert Hare
Pretty much all the clinical research on this with criminal psychopaths incarcerated in prison has shown all kinds of attempts to get them to reform and change their behavior will fail. Psychopaths remain completely immune and resistant to any kind of treatment or therapy which attempts to mould and change their character and behavior.
Moreover, it has actually been shown in some studies that attempts to treat psychopaths with therapy have actually made them worse. Recidivism (reoffending) rates have increased among psychopathic prisoners receiving treatment versus those that have not, hence the quote we put from psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare just above.
More specifically in terms of punishment and reinforcement, psychopaths remain completely resistant to any kind of negative reinforcement (punishing bad behavior). There is some evidence that positive reinforcement (rewarding good behavior) helps to manage, but not cure psychopathy in clinical settings.
It is almost as if any attempts to make the psychopath change their behavior actually makes them even more determined to behave in the same destructive and deceptive way towards others. Moreover, in therapy they often absorb the intelligent psycho-jargon they are hearing and use it to more effectively manipulate others in the future, often able to use it to come across as intelligent and emotionally literate.
This is also confirmed in personal relationships with them in the outside world. They remain immune to the threat of any kind of punishment or stigma which would motivate any normal person to behave properly.
Excellent documentary on the attempts to treat psychopaths in prison
When we understand the psychopathic mindset, we see that this is no surprise though. Let’s turn to this now.
A Psychopath’s Behavior is Linked to How They See The World
This is an obvious point to state, but still gives us a concise reason as to why psychopaths never change their behavior. Put simply, their character traits and worldview mean there is very little motivation or incentive for them to change. Psychopaths think they are already perfect in every way and see no reason to change.
To be more specific, let’s list some of the common characteristics of the psychopathic personality:
- A feeling of superiority over others.
- A sense of arrogance an entitlement. The normal rules don’t apply to them.
- A lack of conscience, guilt or remorse for wrongdoing
- A lack of empathy; cannot put themselves in other people’s place emotionally, nor feel the consequences of their actions on others.
- Other people are seen as objects to be manipulated for their own ends.
- See the psychopathy checklist from Dr Robert Hare and our traits page for other common psychopathic traits.
From these traits alone, we can see that a lack of desire to change is pretty much built into the psychopathic character. They see no reason to change their behavior because they don’t think there is anything wrong with them to being with.
Here is a good way of summing up the psychopathic mindset as related to any attempt to impose rules on them or get them to change:
“I’m better than these other people around me with these pathetic things called “emotions”, “conscience” and “rules”. They may think these things matter, but I don’t. No one tells me what to do, or makes me “change”. I do whatever I want.”
There is a real underlying arrogance to the psychopathic personality which explains why any attempts to get them to change always fail and often make them worse. They are obsessed with controlling others, but see any attempts to control or change them as a battle of wills, and therefore step up their toxic behavior even more.
Psychopaths Can Sometimes Modify Their Behavior to Blend Into Society
Another way of looking at this issue is that most psychopaths do learn as they progress through life that open violence and aggression towards animals and other people is not tolerated by society. They see it is punished and so learn to conceal or modify this behavior, which they seem naturally accustomed to.
A common precursor to Antisocial Personality Disorder is something known as Conduct Disorder, where young children are constantly engaging in destructive and violent behavior towards other children and animals. You can see this as the embryonic, unrefined psychopath or sociopath, who hasn’t yet learned to conceal his destructive behavior towards others.
As they move out into the world, they sometimes realize this behavior is not accepted. “OK, if I do it openly, I get punished”, the psychopath realizes. “I need to be more clever and concealed the way I do it”. There is no interest however, in stopping the toxic behavior. They just move to different forms if it which aren’t so obvious.
Hence, many psychopaths eventually observe the norms and rules of society, even if they don’t believe in them themselves, and adapt and adjust their behavior to better conceal their toxic nature to others. Incidentally, some don’t do this and remain as serial killers, rapists and other criminals, but just take steps to avoid being caught by law enforcement. These are usually the psychopaths that end up in prison.
Even if they do adapt though, this does NOT however, mean that the psychopath becomes any less toxic or destructive. It just means that they move to more concealed forms of destructiveness, such as attacking others psychologically rather than physically. They move to more covert forms of abuse, seeking to destroy people from within rather than without.
In this way we see that the psychopath’s fundamentally toxic character remains; it is just expressed differently. The psychopath is projecting their internal anger and rage onto the world at large, seeking revenge for the wrongs they have suffered. This projection of anger can express itself in different kinds of toxic behavior, both physical and psychological.
Psychopaths Do Not Change in Relationships Either
“….in the past you would have kept tolerating, and kept trying to work it out with this person, or kept trying to explain to them how their behavior affects you. But that’s not what a person with high value does. That person walks away.”
Meredith Miller – see here
It is also true that with psychopaths in the general population, they similarly do not display any real signs of growth and change. There is a caveat to this which we will go into in the next section. However, even the non criminal psychopaths in the outside world display a series of negative and toxic character traits which never leave them throughout their lives.
Victims of psychopaths in intimate relationships especially will often talk about the exasperation of trying to communicate to these people how their behavior is negatively affecting others and causing distress. They speak of the frustration of seemingly talking to a brick wall, with the psychopath unable to comprehend the impact of their actions on others (lack of empathy).
Instead of listening to and respecting the concerns, the psychopath will deny, distract, project/blame shift, gas-light and invalidate the person’s perception. Victims will often find they go into a situation with legitimate anger and come out apologizing themselves, such is the psychopath’s ability to invert reality and undermine people’s confidence in their own valid perceptions.
In this sense we can see that the psychopath is not interested whatsoever in any kind of growth or change in their character or behavior, and is instead actively looking to manipulate and cause harm to others. Any attempts to confront them on this behavior will only lead them to increase it.
Let’s go into an apparent exception though to this more general rule, which emphasizes the psychopath’s manipulativeness and desire to control all situations and outcomes.
Psychopaths Can Sometimes Appear to Change to Deceive Others
“(Psychopaths) are great at getting you to give them another chance”
It is true however that in some cases psychopaths will not give up right away when you reject them in personal relationships, and will instead try to get themselves back in your good graces. They will happily act for you, temporarily simulating the virtues and qualities you wanted them to have all along, as a way of drawing you back in.
It is important not to be taken in by this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to paraphrase and expand on a quote from this excellent article on the emotional abuse of psychopaths, they can sometimes force themselves to be nice, kind, empathic and caring, but it never lasts too long because they find it boring.
They much prefer it when they are causing conflict, division, chaos and internal distress for others and they quickly revert back to this.
Secondly, some of the more malevolent psychopaths are simply putting this act on to draw you back in because they see the whole process as a contest or game to see if they can deceive and dupe you yet another time.
A Perfect Example of “Hoovering” From the Psychopath/Narcissist
They see it as almost a challenge that someone has seen through them and backed off, and this makes them ever more determined to “win” by gaining your trust back only to abuse it all over again.
There is a smirking pleasure many psychopaths get when they manage to do this. See our article on psychopaths and duping delight. Again, they will go through the motions, but in these cases, they aren’t even trying to force themselves to be good; the whole process is just a game that they have to win.
They need to be in control the whole time. They need to be the one that rejects the other person. It does not make them happy when someone jumps the gun on this and drops them before they themselves drop you. To them, it feels like they’ve lost.
So it is important not to be drawn in by the psychopath’s attempts to lure you back into a relationship you have left. They are utterly incapable of ever authentically and consistently displaying any of the emotional qualities required to sustain a healthy relationship. Drop them cold and move on.
Psychopaths Will Never Change Their Fundamental Character or Behavior
The one conclusion we can take from all this is simply that the psychopaths will never truly change their behavior, no matter the scenario or the context. This has been shown time and again in clinical settings, and will be verified by anyone who has dealt with a psychopath close up in relationships in the wider world.
From this conclusion we can at least see that there is no point wasting any time or effort trying to get the psychopath to change. In clinical settings, this has implications for how resources are spent on psychopaths, and whether the more violent ones should ever be released.
In the context of personal relationships, this simply means walking away as the excellent quote above from Meredith Miller shows. Escape and evade remains the best option once you realize you are tangled up with one of these characters in a work or personal environment. Any efforts to get them to change their toxic behavior are futile.