Psychopaths are one of the smallest yet most destructive segments of the population in terms of the emotional and physical damage they cause to others, yet so many of them seem to breeze through life without suffering any consequences or punishment for their toxic and evil behavior. How do they get away with causing trouble so easily? Why aren’t they caught, exposed and punished more often?
This question can be answered in a number of different ways, depending on what you mean by “getting away with it”. Some psychopaths (not all though) manage to escape even criminal convictions – wrongdoing for which they could actually be jailed. Other psychopaths take pleasure in inflicting emotional and reputational damage on others which again they seem to be able to walk scot free from without any punishment in work and personal scenarios.
Either way it is the psychopath’s fundamentally deceptive and manipulative character, combined with the apathetic and easily influenced nature of so much of the general population – who are not psychopathic themselves, but are very easily taken in and manipulated by the psychopath – that allows this to happen.
In terms of criminal wrongdoing, the picture is more mixed – some psychopaths are smarter than others at avoiding detection. They tend to have a brazen, outrageous confidence which often throws even intelligent people off the scent.
There is however a growing body of literature and other resources on the subject which is exposing both the predictable set of manipulation tactics they use and also the underlying personality traits which drive this behavior. Let’s look at some different ways of approaching the question in more detail.
Some Psychopaths Get Away With Literal Murder
It is true that the more extreme violent psychopaths do indeed get caught, and these are the only ones psychopathy experts like Dr Robert Hare have the opportunity to actually study. We are talking of course about the psychopathic killers, serial killers and rapists who do get caught and punished, some of whom have become household names.
This statement needs qualifying with two caveats – a) not all psychopaths are violent and break the law in this way – more on this below; and b) not all violent psychopaths are caught; plenty of them get away with it.
There is a great deal of variety even among different psychopaths. Some are violent; some are non violent. Some are sloppy and careless; others are very controlling and “on the ball” pragmatically, which allows them to better conceal wrongdoing. Think of the meticulous serial killers who go to extreme lengths to remove evidence from crime scenes.
However, something that is common among all psychopaths is a brazen ability to “walk the walk”, “talk the talk”, “chit the chat”, and very convincingly lie and manipulate their way out of situations. They can appear completely cool, calm, collected and unflustered even if they have committed horrible crimes like murder just moments before. They can act as though nothing is wrong and this is where we start to see the fundamental differences between psychopaths and normal human beings.
As we have covered in more detail in our article on psychopaths and emotions, psychopaths do not have the emotional safeguards of morality, conscience, empathy and remorse that other people do.
Hence the title of Robert Hare’s book Without Conscience – see our books section. This difference reflects in brain chemistry, where certain parts of the brain do not function in psychopaths in the way they do with normal people.
A great example of this, covered in the video below, is that a psychopath can have just murdered someone and be driving along the highway with the body in the trunk and be totally cool and calm, as though nothing is wrong, even if they get pulled over by the cops. They literally don’t care.
Any normal person in this situation would likely give themselves away through a nervious, uncomposed appearance, shaking, sweating, trembling, inability to speak properly and so on. A psychopath just treats it like a perfectly normal scenario; it doesn’t matter to them whether its a dead body or groceries in the trunk.
” A psychopath can get pulled up by the cops with a dead body in the trunk and still be totally cool”
The physiological reactions of a normal person to breaking rules are basically our conscience and morality kicking in and essentially notifying us that we have transgressed some rule. Psychopaths completely lack this fail-safe and so do not get physiologically aroused even when doing horrendous things like murdering people.
This is also the reason why they can pass lie detector tests and lie to people with a perfectly straight face and without giving off the same cues that a normal honest person would.
So on a practical level this is one explanation for why psychopaths get away with so much. They are simply not wired like the rest of us in terms of emotions, morality, conscience, brain chemistry and fight-flight arousal and so can continue to appear perfectly calm and normal even when doing horrible things to others. They are also completely incapable of shame, guilt and remorse.
“Something is wrong upstairs” as the common saying goes. Whether this is hardwired and biological or whether it comes from other psychological factors that feed down to the physical level is still the subject of much discussion. See this article for some discussion on whether psychopaths/sociopaths are born or made.
Other Psychopaths Get Away With Murder Figuratively
As we have covered in another article though, the majority of psychopaths are not violent. The cliche of the serial killer psychopath only actually represents a very small extreme subset of the total number of psychopaths who exist.
Most of them remain at large in the general population, causing damage in more subtle, covert ways, and never seeming to suffer any consequences. They get away with murder in metaphorical rather than literal terms.
These are the psychopaths who have realized that physical violence is punished by society, and so redirect their internal destructiveness more towards causing psychological and emotional harm towards others. They enagage in behavior which is evil, unethical and immoral, but not necessarily illegal. The smarter psychopaths know very well how to go right up to this line without crossing it.
These are the poisonous psychopaths and sociopaths who entrap and destroy people in personal relationships, idealizing them with a barrage of initial charm before slowly devaluing and discarding them, leaving a trail of emotional wreckage in their wake before moving on to the next target.
They are also the slimy, scheming workplace troublemakers who constantly undermine and spread gossip and rumours about those they see as a threat, having no trouble destroying careers and reputations people have spent years building.
The so called sociopath-empath-apath triad dynamic is a great way of describing this pattern of behavior. The psychopath/sociopath acts inappropriately or sets someone up, the empath or high quality empathic onlooker calls them out and confronts them on their behaviour, then the sociopath blame shifts and co-opts the apaths or easily influenced onlookers into siding with them against the apath.
The empath is then left furious that this situation has somehow been turned around on him, whilst the sociopath walks away scot free, often grinning or smirking at how easy it is to play this game on people over and over again.
This is a common scenario in workplaces especially, and explains how psychopaths or sociopaths can manipulate their way up the ladder in a company, turning others against high quality people who they are envious of and see as a threat and pushing them out the company, destroying the livelihoods and reputations of others and moving on as though nothing has happened.
This kind of thing also happens in personal relationships, where psychopaths engage in constant gossiping, deceit and rumours to turn people against their victim once they have decided to discard them and move on to someone else.
They launch a co-ordinated smear campaign to paint the victim out to be the bad person while they play the victim and walk of scot free and move on the next relationship, where the whole cycle begins again.
One of the crucial things to realize though is that this dynamic of the psychopath “getting away with murder” is largely driven by the apathetic and easily influenced nature of so many people; the so called apaths in the sociopath-empath-apath triad.
Psychopaths know full well how easily most people are manipulated and their awareness of this is often what drives them to so outrageously play the games they do, simply because they realize that for most people in most circumstances, they know they can get away with it.
How Do They Get Away With It So Easily?
In terms of work and personal relationships, psychopaths are the masters of deceiving people and getting away with it. Let’s look at some typical charactertistics of the psychopath and the people they co-opt and manipulate that allows them to get away with so much so often. Everyone plays a role in this so we will cover it from all the different angles.
1. Glib, superficial charm – One almost universal feature of psychopaths is that they have a glib, surface charm that can very easily take in shallower, more easily influenced people. They can often exude a superficial warmth and charisma that can be very good at wooing unsuspecting people to think they are “all that”, some cool dude who has it all and can do it all. This is of course a nonsense act they are putting on but so many people still fall for it, which is the other half of the problem.
Psychopaths rely on people being taken in by this shallow charm and going on superficial first impressions in order to both lure in their victims and also to co-opt bystanders into turning on their victims when they have decided to discard them and move on.
This tactic of manipulation can be averted by simply watching a person’s character carefully and without bias over time to see how they really behave and treat others before forming an opinion on them. Giving away trust immediately and pretending you have found a “soulmate” after a few hours should also be avoided. Healthy relationships very rarely form this way.
2. Manipulative personality – Psychopaths are fundamentally manipulative characters at the core; it seems to be built in to them and come naturally. Whereas most normal people prefer to be mostly honest in their interactions with others, psychopaths revel in constantly lying and manipulating in their dealings with others.
We have mentioned before that there are no innocent, agenda free interactions with a psychopath; there is always an angle or agenda and it is more a case of when they aren’t lying or manipulating as opposed to when they are.
This constantly tendency towards manipulation means that it comes so naturally to them that it can almost seem like an art from how effectively they can do it. It is sometimes said of some psychopaths that they can manipulate an entire room, such is their ability to deceive and take people in.
Lifelong psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare also summed up this manipulative trait in them very well with this quote:
“All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned, and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heart strings.”
Dr Robert Hare
Psychopaths can deceive and take in anyone, and also even somehow manage to wriggle and squirm their way out of situations whenever they are comfronted or somewhat exposed. They are very chameleonic and know exactly the role to play to get themselves off the hook if need be. See this excellent quote from this good article on Lovefraud:
“Should they express remose? Pull rank? Plead ignorance? Portray the bumbling fool? They’ll do whatever enables them to escape consequences”
3. A Predatory Personality – Another reason psychopaths manage to get away with so much is because they are experts at sniffing out the right targets; people who they know they can easily take in, abuse and discard. Psychopaths are masters at reading people and you can be confident that in most interactions, they will have cold read someone in a matter of minutes, seeing their strengths, weaknesses, vanities, dreams and insecurities so they can play on them all to their own ends.
Psychopaths are also very clever at targeting people who are moral and empathic but also have weak or diffuse boundaries in some way. This is when the games start for them, as they slowly start chipping away at this person’s boundaries, gradually eroding their identity and self esteem even further, before they inevitably become bored, discard the person and move on to someone else.
They are also experts at picking up on any aspect of self doubt or insecurity in a person’s character, and will start to relentlessly play on this. When they find someone like this, a psychopath well knows it is a game for them as they start to plant doubts in the target’s mind, erode their boundaries and self esteem and sit back and enjoy the show as the person begins to self destruct.
This is why having strong boundaries is so important in today’s world more than ever, since the prevalence of toxic personalities such as psychopath, borderline and narcissist seems to be increasing, not decreasing, so these toxic invasions of a person’s psychological space are only going to get worse if people don’t know how to set boundaries and ward these kind of people off. See our Books Section for some excellent books on boundaries.
4. A Brazenness and Sense of Glee – Psychopaths also tend to walk around with a sense of glee and superiority, internally (and sometimes externally) smirking at how easy it is for them to get away with what they do. “Look how stupid people are. Look how easy it is to manipulate these idiots. I’m better than everyone else” could be an accurate way of summing up how a psychopath privately views the world.
As they see themselves being able to successfully manipulate so many people in their lives to their own ends, taking them in with the same old act that seems to work every time, they grow more and more brazen in their confidence that they can play anyone they want to like a violin. So their manipulation often grows ever more outrageous, as they literally start to think they can get away with anything without any consequences.
The very few people who are more observant and can see through their act can easily be disposed of by turning the rest of the crowd against them. It’s just a numbers game to them. They know they have the vast majority of people covered no problem. See our article on the Sociopath-Empath-Apath triad for a breakdown of the same tactic they use over and over to play people off against each other.
This brazenness is exacerbated by the fact we mentioned above that psychopaths don’t have the same emotional or biological fail-safes that the rest of us do, and so don’t react with a fear of consequences. They’ll do something just to see what happens, and this is why they are so dangerous to society.
If they get away with something once, or get away with one small thing, they’ll try something else, then something else, and so on. Their lack of conscience means they don’t have the same limits normal people do. They just keep going. It’s just an experiment for them to see how much they can get away with.
This is another reason why boundaries are so important for everyone nowadays, because if a psychopath gets away with one boundary violation, they won’t stop. If a psychopath isn’t stopped, they’ll just keep going, ramping up their emotional abuse with increasingly outrageous behavior and dismissing any objections with the famous gas-lighting routine.
However, it is not a lost cause, since psychopaths will still always give themselves away over time by displaying a predictable set of character and behavioral traits, no matter how good their initial surface act is.
One of the biggest defences against a psychopath is to simply follow the logical and sensible advice of watching a person’s behavior carefully over a long period of time before deciding whether to trust them or not. Do this and you will sooner or later see the psychopath’s mask slipping, where their real character starts to leak out. You can then respond accordingly and not get drawn into their drama and politics.
Check out our Resources page for links to some great books exposing the most common methods of manipulation and deception psychopaths employ in work and personal relationships to create trouble and then get away with it.