Is is true that psychopaths do indeed have an ability to be selectively empathic, or conversely, selectively indifferent, towards different people? Do they mould and shape how they act towards different people to suit their agenda at the time?
Psychopaths are indeed very chameleonic and are quite capable of changing the mask or persona they wear to suit different people. Part of this tactic may definitely involve being selectively empathic or charming (or indifferent) towards a certain person or group. It is often a part of the mind games they love to play with their victims, where they single out and target a specific person psychologically.
The key thing to remember though is that any empathy or charm a psychopath does direct towards someone is totally synthetic and fake, as in reality they have no real ability to connect or empathize with others. They may produce a fake or cloned version of empathy but this is only either to take a person in or to play a mind games against someone else. Let’s look at this facet of psychopathy in more detail.
M Scott Peck on Selective Indifference
The great psychiatrist M Scott Peck specifically addressed the issue of selective insensitivity or indifference in his excellent book People of the Lie. Click to view the book on Amazon. It is essential reading for anyone looking to study the traits of evil or psychopathic people.
He looked upon the issue in terms of selective indifference rather than selective empathy; in other words, being selectively toxic towards a certain person than than selectively charming. Nevertheless the two ideas are just corollaries or two sides of the same coin. The point is that psychopaths will behave towards a certain person or group differently, either positively or negatively, in order to play mind games or serve some other agenda.
Peck addresses this behaviour pattern that he observed in a couple which came to see him, who he calls Mr and Mrs R. He noticed they seemed capable of a superficial charm and sensitivity towards people they met in life, yet they seemed utterly and consistently insensitive and indifferent to their son, Roger.
It was as though they had singled him out as a scapegoat, onto which they projected all their hate and negativity, whilst still being seemingly charming and graceful with all other people they dealt with in their lives, including Peck himself initially. He recounts:
“Might we not say that Mr and Mrs R were remarkably insensitive people (towards their son) and leave it at that? But the fact is that they were not insensitive people. Highly intelligent, they were finely tuned to social nuances. We are not talking of poor dirt farmers in Appalachia but of a well educated, gracious, politically sophisticated couple, quite adept in the committee and at the cocktail party. They could not have been who they were had they lacked sensitivity. Mr R would not make an unconsidered legal decision and Mrs R would always remember to send flowers on the right occasion. But Roger they would not remember or consider. The fact is that their insensitivity towards him was selective. Conscious or unconscious, it was a choice” People of the Lie, p.118
Here Peck perfectly describes what so may victims of psychopaths will validate; that they do indeed have an ability to be sensitive and at least superficially empathic but they wilfully choose not to apply it to certain people as a way of targeting and undermining them psychologically.
Of course we should emphasize again that any empathy or sensitivity psychopaths do manage to direct towards others is still a synthetic or cloned version of these qualities, as a key characteristic of these people is an inability to experience or comprehend real emotion. They are empty and fake people inside emotionally.
In the case of empathy for example, a psychopath may intellectually understand what empathy is and see that another person is experiencing which they call an emotion, but they are incapable of actually feeling what another person feels and this is what empathy means on the deepest level. Robert Hare explains this brilliantly in the video below.
Robert Hare on the superficiality and lack of real empathy of psychopaths
Nevertheless psychopaths have no problems mimicking empathy or sensitivity towards others when needed, either to blend in to society and come across as normal people (see Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity on Amazon) or to target by omission a certain scapegoat by deliberately not directing this empathy towards them whilst being seemingly fine with everyone else.
Part of the Mind Games
This whole tactic is part of the mind games and identity erosion a psychopath likes to inflict on their victims. They can produce a fake charm and empathy to take someone in and gain their trust, or they can deliberately withhold empathy or warmth from a specific person as a way of breaking them down psychologically and isolating them from a group.
The “positive” use of empathy to gain a person’s confidence has been well covered by now and we will not go into great detail over it here – see our article on the “mask of sanity” for instance. Psychopaths are very adept at luring people in with a superficial charm and charisma and they often have a specific target who they bombard with this intial warmth.
They are capable of producing a synthetic copy or clone of the “perfect partner” or the “manufactured soulmate” who appears to perfectly understand and mimic you and walks and talks in step with you. See Jackson Mackenzie’s book Psychopath Free on Amazon for a brilliant detailed description of how they do this. See also Anthony Johnson’s presentation for his account of a psychopath playing this game with him.
However the more pernicious mind game that psychopaths also play is the selective indifference card, where they specifically withhold support or sensitivity towards a certain person whilst directing a superficial charm towards everyone else. This is where the psychopath can become really vicious and destructive, particularly in a work environment.
This kind of selective withholding serves a couple of purposes to the toxic person. Firstly, it is a form of identity erosion and “gas-lighting“, where the psychopath erodes the target’s sense of reality and self esteem. The victim sees the psychopath being seemingly fine with everyone else, and over time may start to think it must be them going crazy or mis-reading the situation.
“Why are they being off with me but OK with everyone else?” they may wonder. Stronger willed people may stick to their guns and realize that the psychopath is playing games but more vulnerable people may start to believe it is something they are doing wrong and try ever harder to please and impress the psychopath.
Targets must realize that this is a futile move since it merely places you under the psychopath’s control and makes your behaviour dependent on them. They must learn to trust their own instincts and perception and realize when someone is trying to play mind games with them and wear them down psychologically.
Another purposes this often serves is to isolate the target from a group, particularly in a work environment. The victims may raise objections to others about the psychopath’s selectively toxic behaviour towards them, but other people just see that the psychopath seems fine with them and so may brush off the complaints as the person “whining” or “causing trouble”.
In this way the victim is further gas-lighted and their (correct) perception is invalidated. The fact is that the psychopath is controlling the entire process and creating this narrative by selectively withholding empathy and support to this particular person while being fine with everybody else.
This is a deliberate, wilful tactic but unfortunately most people cannot conceive someone would be this scheming and manipulative as they would not do this themselves, so they overlook this as a possibility.
Psychopaths are predatory characters and know that the vast majority of people are easily influenced and won’t truly think for themselves. Most people won’t be observant or discerning enough to spot the subtle nuances of how the psychopath is behaving differently with different people and isolating a specific target by withholding empathy and support from them. They will just speak as they find and say they don’t see what the problem is.
This problem is further exacerbated by the trap most of us fall into of judging others by our own values. Because normal, feeling people with a conscience would not go to these lengths merely to isolate and break down a specific person, they cannot even comprehend someone else doing this.
The unfortunate reality is that the psychopath has no morals or conscience and is constantly scheming against someone in their lives, however bizarre and pointless this may seem to normal people. There needs to be greater general awareness of this for psychopaths continue to go undetected, causing tremendous psychological harm to others, particularly in the workplace.
Psychopaths Target High Quality Individuals
We should emphasize another point here, namely that psychopaths only tend to target high quality, decent, moral individuals for this kind of toxic treatment. They do not target low quality, mediocre or easily influenced individuals, since there is nothing to envy in these people and they are easily controllable anyway without any real effort.
In a way victims could see this as some kind of relief, in that they know they wouldn’t be targeted unless they have some traits or qualities the psychopaths envies and wants to destroy once they realize they can’t just copy or clone them. The fact though is that psychopathic abuse is no laughing matter and knowledge of this is scant relief to the target when it is actually happening to them.
However there are certain types of people who need to watch out as they will be vulnerable to being targeted by psychopaths. There are certain traits that psychopaths will look to exploit and take advantage of. Here is a quick list:
- Highly empathic individuals, finely tuned into the suffering of the world and others
- Kinder natured, naturally trusting people
- People who are not naturally prone to arguments; people who are generally agreeable
- People who do not generally like to kick up a fuss
- People who are naturally highly individualist or non conformist and therefore somewhat separate from the group or the crowd to begin with.
- Intelligent and observant people with their own mind who may be able to spot and point out the contradictions and hypocrises in the psychopaths behaviour
- Most importantly, high quality, good, moral, decent individuals with a strong sense of right and wrong; not poor quality, mediocre individuals who just blend in with the crowd and don’t really stand for anything.
This is list is not exhaustive but it is a starting point for some of the traits in people that psychopaths envy and will seek to target. If they see a weakness there, in terms of an agreeable nature and somewhat diffuse boundaries psychologically, they will take advantage of it and the gas-lighting and identity erosion will begin.
Get Away Quickly
If you have some of these traits and you are fortunate enough to spot this dynamic unfolding just as it is starting and not afterwards, then the best advice is to simply escape and evade a psychopath and get away as quickly as possible.
Many people may object to this and ask “Why should I be forced to leave my job or change my life in some other way because of one person?”. This is a perfectly valid argument in one sense and in an ideal world we should indeed be able to live our life in peace without being disturbed or “pushed out” of certain environments.
However you must understand what you are going up against with a psychopath, in the sense they are not normal, feeling human beings like the rest of us are. They are utterly ruthless and they do not have the same constraints of morality, decency and conscience that the rest of us do:
Put simply, they will go to lengths that you will not to win the game they are playing. Without any real compassion or ability to empathize there is nothing off limits in terms of how far they will go and they don’t feel any remorse for the way they treat people
Stefan Verstappen intelligently articulates this point in the video embedded above. See around the 28:30 mark where they discuss this issue. For most people it is simply not worth the effort and ordeal of going up against these ruthless people and it is better to back out and seek a less toxic environment away from these psychopathic types.
In job terms, this means sending a new CV out and looking for another job if you feel yourself being isolated in a work setting by these types of characters. In relationship terms it just means breaking off all contact with the psychopath and finding a peaceful space to recover from the damage they have caused.
Hopefully as knowledge of this topic grows more people will be able to take decisive action and get away from psychopaths before they cause too much damage. At the moment many people only fully wake up to what the psychopath has been doing after the relationship with them has ended and the damage is done.
See our Resources page for more books and videos to help you spot psychopaths in you life, realize the mind games they play and develop a strategy to get them out of your life.