Films and the media in general tend to portray psychopaths as violent “crazies” with murderous impulses that can be triggered on a whim.
This serial killer stereotype of a psychopath is embodied in legendary film characters such as Hannibal Lector. But is this the typical manifestation of a psychopath? Are they all violent in this obvious way?
Psychopaths are by no means always violent and whilst they do exist, the stereotype of the violent psychopath is by no means the most common form of psychopathy in the general population. Far more common is the scheming, conniving, manipulative psychopath who prefers to inflict psychological damage to his victims. These types of psychopath are the most common and remain at large in the general population.
Let’s look at the issue of psychopathy and violence in more detail, examining both violent and non violent manifestations of this disorder.
Violent Psychopaths do Exist But Are Only The Minority
It would of course be silly to claim that some psychopaths are not violent. We all know of the well known cases of serial killers and horrific sadistic murders such as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen to name just a few.
These people must have clearly been psychopathic in order to commit the crimes they did, as to wreak such horrendous harm to others with no care or regard for their suffering requires the complete lack of empathy that characterises psychopathy at the core.
No human being with a conscience could do what these people did, because the normal function of empathy would kick in and make us realize what we are doing to the other person.
We are able to put ourselves in their shoes and realize we would not like to be treated this way, so we shouldn’t do it ourselves. Empathy acts as a fail-safe mechanism thats puts a limit or boundary on what we will do to others.
For whatever reason, psychopaths completely lack this fail-safe and are devoid of empathy. They are unable to conceive of the consequences of their actions on others. They simply don’t “get” that their behaviour causes suffering for another person and so there is nothing off limits in terms of what they will do or how far they will go.
This is why so many of these murderous psychopaths we hear about in the news were able to do the horrendous things they did without stopping or showing mercy as any normal person would.
Sadism is also a common thread amongst some of these killers as again without empathy there are no limits and so they just keep going no matter the suffering they are causing others.
It is also a common thread that when describing their actions to police once they were arrested, they talk about the horrifying things they did in a completely calm “matter of fact” manner. The same as you or I would describe eating our breakfast, tieing our shoelace or emptying the garbage can out.
Dennis Nilsen – once he was caught
Violent psychopaths are very “matter of fact” about the horrific crimes they commit and talk about it in a very cold, unremorseful way.
They simply don’t get that there is anything wrong with what they did, despite the fact any normal person would be horrified. Because they are incapable of empathy they are also incapable of remorse. Their inability to tune in to the emotions and feelings of others means literally cannot see that they have done anything wrong.
These violent psychopaths are the ones we hear most about because they are the ones which commit crimes we have laws against, and are therefore apprehended and sent through the criminal justice system. The most extreme of these criminal cases are the ones which makes the news, such as serial killings and torture.
Violent psychopaths also make up a parge portion of the “bad guys” we see in the movies. The cliche holds that a violent psychopath is more interesting to watch than a non violent one.
Anyone who has seen the masterful performance of John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game will probably reconsider this view. See our review Of the Malkovich’s brilliant portrayal of non violent psychopathy or mind games.
There is therefore a bias or skewing of the picture of psychopathy in the media, and we will tend to assume that all psychopaths fit into this Ted Bundy/Hannibal Lector mode of a violent killer who can explode at any moment.
“If (Hannibal Lecter) did exist… he would be a member of a rather select club. Serial killers are extremely rare; there are probably fewer than one hundred in North America. In contrast, there may be as many as 2 or 3 million psychopaths in North America.
Even if almost all serial killers were psychopaths, this would mean that for every psychopath who is a serial killer, there are 20,000 to 30,000 psychopaths who do not commit serial murder”.
Dr Robert Hare, Psychopathy expert
This propotion of the psychopathic population is only a very small proportion of the whole, and the majority of psychopaths are actually non violent and blend in to the general population. The stats vary but point to the fact that up to around 4% or 1 in 25 of the general population display psychopathic or sociopathic traits, and violent psychopaths are only a small subset of this 1 in 25.
The only ones most of the population hears about are the most extreme subset who end up committing heinous crimes which make news headlines. The vast majority of psychopaths continue to live among the general population committing more insidious and concealed forms of violence towards others.
The stereotype of the violent psychopath portrayed in the movies is an oversimplification and does not characterize the majority of psychopaths in the general population
Many Psychopaths Prefer Psychological to Physical Abuse
It is true from victim’s testimonials and experiences with psychopaths in everyday life that the majority actually do not inflict so much physical damage as psychological, emotional and spiritual damage to their victims.
This is a more covert and concealed form of abuse but can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse and much longer lasting. It needs to be spoken about just as much as the physical damage some psychopaths cause.
Psychological abuse can take any number of different forms, but we will list some of the more common tactics they use below:
- Demeaning comments or put downs.
- Concealed digs or slights
- Occasional outright insults – followed by an excuse or attempt to minimize what they just said and claim the victim is over-reacting.
- “Gas-lighting” – a gradual chipping way at a person’s sense of reality and identity. The psychopath will claim things happened when they didn’t or vice versa.
- Exerting more and more control over their victim, either overtly or through a subtle but relentless erosion of boundaries, conditioning their victim to accept ever more control over their thoughts and actions.
- Blame shifting and projection. They will blame things that are their fault on the victim.
- Undermining of a person’s skills, abilities or experience, particularly in a work setting.
- Increasing violation of boundaries and increasingly outrageous behavior.
- Political scheming and smear tactics – systematically bad mouthing a person to others in an effort to turn them against the victim and isolate them. Again commonly used in a work setting.
- See our article on the idealize-devalue-discard cycle for an overview of the very common cycle psychopaths take their victims on, bringing them up and then down emotionally in relationships to cause the maximum damage.
- See here for an excellent radio interview with psychopathy expert Jackson Mackenzie, where he gives a detailed overview of the damage non violent psychopaths invariably cause in relationships they entangle victims in.
These are all real forms of psychological abuse and can cause just as much damage to a person as more obvious and overt physical violence, provided the violence isn’t fatal of course. Carried out over a long period of time they can arguably have more impact as they will wear down a person’s self esteem to the point they may require many months or years to fully recover.
Psychopaths systematically and repeatedly use all the above tactics to wear down their victims psychologically. It is an insidious form of abuse and it is not something we can “call the cops on”. This is another reason why psychological psychopathic abuse needs to be spoken about more.
It cannot be handled primarily by law enforcement as with physical violence. It can only be exposed and dealt with once there is widespread awareness of these tactics and how and when they are being used on someone.
Not All Psychopaths Are Violent Killers
Why Do Psychopaths Resort More to Psychological Abuse?
It is difficult to be fully sure why psychopaths resort to this as it is very hard to be 100% sure of any person’s true motives or intentions.
As Robert Hare describes in his excellent book on the topic (click to view on Amazon), psychopaths are without conscience and therefore you would think they would all go around killing people randomly. There are however, a couple of good explanations as to why not all of them do.
Firstly, psychopaths are actually often quite intelligent people, even though amoral. This means that while they don’t have any internal barometer inside themselves as to what it right and wrong, many are at least intelligent enough to observe what society at large deems to right and wrong, acceptable and not acceptable.
They can observe the values that society tends to live by even if they don’t genuinely share these values inside themselves.
They can then choose to mimic and “adopt” these values in order to better blend in to society and remain undetected. They can follow these general rules (eg. don’t kill, commit violence, rape, steal etc) but they only do so out of a pragmatic desire to blend in to society better, not through any internal sense of what is right and wrong.
Their adherence to societal norms is strictly functional and a means to an end. They couldn’t care less about being a good person just for the sake of being a good person.
Another way of looking at this is that psychopaths may indeed commit violence towards others early in life, but they learn to see that this kind of behaviour in punished by society. The psychopathic child can often be found trying to pull the ears off the pet cat or some other horrible behaviour, perhaps showing that this lack of internal moral barometer (or conscience) is often built into some people genetically from birth.
However it could be argued that some psychopaths learn through certain behaviours being punished what the moral “norms” of society are. Their internal destructiveness though does not fade away by being punished so they simply seek more covert and concealed ways to damage others.
They move their violence “underground” to more hidden, psychological abuse. Perhaps this is where the psychopath’s aptitude for relentless psychological warfare and mind games comes from.
They are experts at eroding the identity and self esteem of their targets. Many of them learn early on that physical violence tends to be punished so they opt for mental and emotional violence instead.
Admittedly that does not explain the cases of the psychopaths who are violent and commit murders, rapes and so on. Perhaps they never learnt in their early environment that physical violence was unacceptable.
Maybe many of these types grew up in an environment where physical violence was not punished and perhaps even encouraged and so they were not able to internalize this social norm even to a shallow degree.
However, it is still true that the majority of psychopaths seem to blend in to society and whilst being destructive individuals, they do not commit crimes they can be punished for through the legal system. This appears to indicate that there is an aspect of internalizing social morals for many psychopaths, however shallow. Some psychopaths may know the “what” of right and wrong, but not the “why”.
See our Resources page for a good list of helpful books and videos on psychopaths, which will give a thorough overview of the psychological abuse they inflict on others.