We know psychopaths are toxic characters, but just how much damage do they actually cause in society? What are the different ways in which they cause misery and suffering in the lives of others?
Psychopaths are the most destructive of all personality types, simply because of the sheer damage they cause to society. This damage manifests in all sorts of different ways, but can broadly be broken down into the damage caused by the violent and non violent psychopaths – physical and psychological damage respectively.
The violent, criminal psychopaths who end up in the justice system cause a more obvious kind of damage in the form of injury, death, trauma, suffering and grief for the families of victims, police and court costs, damage from terrorist and other illegal activity and so on.
The cumulative cost of this physical, psychological and legal damage is enormous, with expert Dr Robert Hare estimating that violent psychopaths are responsible for around half of the violent crime committed. See the embedded video below.
However, in this article we also want to draw attention to the more covert, hidden form of psychological damage psychopaths cause in everyday work and personal relationships. We have to move away from the stereotypical belief that the only psychopaths that exist are the violent ones in prison and the movies.
Non violent psychopaths are every bit as destructive and evil as the violent ones; they have just learnt to move their destructiveness underground to more hidden, covert, psychological forms of abuse that we can’t call the police on.
They are very adept at blending into society and can very easily draw people into relationships with a superficial charm and charisma, before turning toxic and psychologically undermining, devaluing and discarding them and moving onto someone else.
This kind of emotional abuse leaves many victims with long standing problems which are every bit as real as the more obvious physical damage we can see more clearly.
The lost opportunity in people’s lives as well as the cost of repairing this damage is enormous, and another reason why we must understand the personality disorders of psychopathy and sociopathy more. They are a very small part of the population but they cause by far the biggest amount of damage.
Let’s now break down all the different forms of damage psychopaths are responsible for in society. We will separate the physical and psychological, with particular emphasis on the latter, since this is something that there needs to be more awareness of. The physical damage they cause is bad enough but is well known.
The More Obvious Damage – Violent Psychopaths
These are the kind of psychopaths people are more familiar with, the violent criminals and serial killers who often end up behind bars and form the basis for research that takes place into psychopathic personalities. These people are obviously deranged and twisted psychologically because of what they have done and are the easier ones to spot.
The damage and ruin they cause to others is more clear – lost life, injury, damage to property, plus all the resources which have to be spent to catch, convict and securely incarcerate these people. Police, court and prison time is all expensive and places a strain on the budgets of governments who are already struggling across the world.
However, it is when we realize the sheer amount of the violent crime that psychopaths are responsible for out of the total amount, that we start to see how significant these people are. Dr Robert Hare sums up this issue very well in the video clip above:
“Critics and commentators have said in the past that to study 1% of the general population seems to be a waste of time. Why not spend our time studying criminals in general? There are a lot more criminals that there are psychopaths. Even when we get into prison, we are talking about maybe only 15-20% of the population , is it worth really paying attention to them?
It sure is. And the reason is, there may only be a small number of psychopaths in the population, but the damage they inflict in society is very widespread and in fact I would estimate that the 15 or 20% (of the prison population) I’m talking about are responsible for at least half of the violent crime in our society.
So we’ve got to understand this particular disorder.
Dr Robert Hare
Yes, that’s right. A tiny slither of the population of around 1% is reponsible for around half the violent crime committed according to the world expert on psychopathy.
They simply don’t have the same regard for rules, boundaries, and feelings of others that normal people do and their poor impulse control means they often just do stuff first and think about consequences later.
This statistic needs careful consideration from those in government. Cut violent crime in half and how much money do they save in police, court and prison costs?
How much suffering do they also prevent in the lives of others? Study into psychopathy should be near the top of the agenda for governments around the world.
There is of course crossover here into the psychological area with the damage the violent criminal psychopaths cause. What about the trauma and grief that they cause in the lives of the families of people killed through their actions? Also what about the trauma surviving victims of rapes, beatings, assaults, violent spousal abuse and so on from psychopaths have to live with?
This can all be added to the total cost burden on society these characters are responsible for. Whilst there is definitely sometimes overlap between the physcial and psychological damage psychopaths cause, we want to emphasize that a large portion of psychopaths are not violent at all and direct their evil towards the psychological destruction of others. We will look at these further down in the article.
Corporate Psychopathy & It’s Effects on Society
We have dedicated a specific section to this kind of non violent psychopath, since they often thrive in an environment in which they can rise to have an inordinate amount of control and power of resources and people which can lead them to cause a greater level of damage to society than even psychopaths in everyday personal relationships can.
We are referring here especially to the financial work of banking, trading, and high level corporate business. Here we have institutions who can make financial decisions which could potentially affect the lives of thousands or millions of people, and studies have shown that the concentration of psychopathic characters in these lines of work is often very high.
Psychologist Paul Babiak sums up how dangerous a psychopath’s mindset can be in this line of work in this excellent documentary on the subject. Remember psychopaths do not act with the same safeguards of impulse control, fear and conscience that others do and so will make decisions on the flip of a dime that normal people would never dream of doing. Babiak articulates this problem:
“Most businesses are risk averse or at least try to manage risk. A psychopath will do something risky just to see what happens, making a decision that others would have taken a long time and a lot of data to come to, they’ll do it on a whim. And because they are fearless, it could even hurt them, but it doesn’t bother them”
In the financial world of derivatives, bonds and trading accounts where millions or billions are being moved all at once, this is exactly the mindset you don’t want, yet the evidence appears to show that psychopaths actually gravitate towards these professions!
See Robert Hare’s study on corporate psychopathy levels in high end business. The Wolf of Wall Street movie is also an excellent depiction of the psychopathic mindset which infests parts of the high end financial corporate world.
Anyone looking to understand where the financial crisis of the late 2000s came from should look into this as a major influencing factor in the risky decisions that were took which had ruinous consequences in the lives of othes and cost governments a lot of money to resolve. The same goes for large scale scandals in the corporate world such as the downfall of Enron.
Even at the lower levels of business, where there is not quite so much money at stake, psychopaths can still often flourish and be a toxic presence in lower level retail companies in particular.
They have no problem treating others poorly and ruthlessly to advance their own careers and can make the lives of those working under them a misery. See our articles on psychopathy in the workplace.
The workplace psychopath will think nothing of destroying in the blink of an eye a career and reputation someone has spent years or even decades building.
They have no remorse or guilt about doing so. They simply don’t care. It’s nothing to them. It’s collateral damage for them getting to where they need to go or removing someone they see as a threat.
Non Violent Psychopaths & The Damage They Cause
We now turn the the most neglected but in some ways most important and widespread way in which psychopaths ruin the lives of others – through personal friendships and romantic relationships where they initially take someone in with their glib charm and superficiality and then seek to undermine and destroy that same person as part of a carefully premeditated plan they had all along.
These are the more concealed, covert types of psychopaths; the predatory type who is not violent but has a very keen eye for the weaknesses of others and will hone in on someone they see as a suitable target.
Their destructiveness is more psychological than physical, since they intially build a person up and then take them down through the well known idealize-devalue-discard cycle common to relationships with psychopaths.
This is what we mean when we say that we must get past the cliche that the only psychopaths around are the serial killers and violent criminals. A far greater proportion of psychopaths are living among us, seeming on the surface to walk, talk and function like anyone else but on closer inspection causing enormous damage in the lives of people they target.
Thankfully there are some great resources which are starting to expose these types of psychopaths. Jackson Mackenzie’s Psychopath Free and Tim and Jane McGregor’s The Empathy Trap are two brilliant books available on Amazon which are written specifically for lay people to deal with the aftermath of these toxic relationships and help to spot these predators more easily in the future.
The psychopath in everyday life will gravitate towards a person who has qualities they envy, or else will draw a person in with a glib charm. They take them through a honeymoon phase where they idealize and portray themselves as the perfect partner, walking and talking in step with them. They are robotically creating a manufactured soulmate.
At a certain point, either through boredom or a premeditated plan, they will “turn” and start to undermine and chip away at their target psychologically in the devalue stage. This is often the most unpleasant part, where we see the real and destructiveness inherent in the psychopath. They will use any one of the following tactics, among others:
- Demeaning comments and put downs.
- “Gas-lighting” – pretending things were said or happened when they didn’t or vice versa. They are trying to change a person’s memory of events and undermine their sense of perception.
- Subtle comments to attack and undermine a person’s self esteem and sense of autonomy.
- Often increasingly controlling or intrusive behavior, wanting to know where a person has been and what they were doing etc. Intrusiveness and invasiveness can either by physical or psychological.
- Increasingly outrageous boundary violations through unacceptable comments and behaviors, to chip away at a person’s sense of normality and make them accustomed to being treated poorly, thinking this is somehow normal.
- Isolating them from any support systems of friends and family through the creation of rifts or divisions or the manipulation of perception.
- Playing others off against them and isolating them through manipulation, deceit, lying and triangulation. See our article on Sociopath-empath-apath triad.
- They often engage in cheating and infidelity, which many be hidden at first but is often broadcast clearly towards the end to rub the victim’s face in it.
Through these methods and others, psychopaths have no trouble completely destroying a person psychologically, before discarding them and moving on to the next target.
Victims are often left with a completely shattered sense of self and a whole host of psychological problems which can take months or years to recover from. See our Resources page for some excellent books which can help with recovery.
Targets who don’t fully understand psychopathy often get caught in the trap of thinking they must stop eventually, since everyone has some humanness in them, right? Unfortunately not.
The defining characteristic of psychopaths is precisely a lack of this humanity, and so they see this entire process of ruining the life of another as simply a game for their own internal amusement and entertainment.
The costs of being drawn into these relationships with psychopaths are huge, in the form of the thousands of pounds or dollars that has to be spent on therapy recovering, plus the lost time and opportunity that often occurs when a person is sent back to square one from this kind of abuse and has to completely rebuild their self esteem from scratch.
We can add to this lost earnings from good people being forced out of jobs by psychopaths. See our articles on psychopathy in the workplace for more on this topic.
Why Research Into Psychopathy is Important
The conclusion that research into this condition is important should hopefully be self evident from laying out all the different kinds of damage they cause in the lives of others and the total cost to society of their actions.
We need to understand psychopathy more – where it comes from in particular – in order to limit the damage this small minority do in society.
Psychopaths simply do not act with the same restraints of morality, conscience, fear of consequences and empathy that normal, feeling people do and this simple fact means that having so many unidentified psychopaths roaming free in the world causing harm to others is placing a massive financial and psychological burden on society.
If cash strapped governements worldwide are looking for a way to bring down the costs of their police and justice systems, then they will be well served to look at the all the damage and costs violent psychopaths are directly and indirectly responsible for in the form of police and court time, prison costs, criminal damage, financial losses and bailouts and so on.
For understanding and preventing where most of this damage comes from, psychopaths are undoubtedly the most important part of society.
They are only a very small proportion, at around 1% for psychopaths and around 4% for the wider definition of sociopathy, but are by the far the most destructive portion even if we only take into account the more obvious physical damage to other people and property they are responsible for.
When you take into account the more intangible factors such as psychological damage they are responsible for in everyday relationships (depression, trauma, cost of therapy, lost opportunity, unfulfilled potential, destroyed careers and lost time) then this cost to society is massively increased even further, perhaps even doubled or more.
To summarize, psychopaths and sociopaths are a very small but very, very significant proportion of the population who have no trouble ruining the lives of others through a number of different means, and therefore have to be better understood so the condition can be diagnosed and hopefully prevented.
See our Resources page for links to some excellent books on the disorder of psychopathy/sociopathy.