Robert D. Hare: Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

Robert Hare is a psychologist who has worked with inmates in Canadian prisons for a considerable period of time and estimates that as many as 25% of inmates are psychopaths (basically interchangeable with sociopath), though most psychopaths aren’t necessarily convicts.  One thing I’d never considered is that prisons are the only place a psychologist will get to work with adult psychopaths since, unlike most other psychological problems, psychopaths are quite comfortable in their own skin and would never see a need to seek help or try to change.  Why would they? They experience minimal anxiety, do whatever they want without regret and have little fear of social judgement or even physical harm. It’s like a robot wanting to see a shrink.

Hare uses his own experience working with and observing psychopaths in prisons to write this book. The verdict is bad: there is no effective treatment, the cause isn’t fully understood, they never change (aside from mellowing out in old age), have no conscience or moral center and enjoy lying, defrauding, conning and risky behaviour.  They do all this as expert chameleons, deftly able to read people and act in whatever way gets them what they want (money, sex, power etc.).

One cliche I’ve often heard is that psychopaths would make excellent businessmen, spies or militants as their lack of conscience would enable them to do a better job than their hesitant normal human counterparts. This isn’t accurate though as Hare explains that they also have no attention span and are unable to commit to any form of long-term planning. Their appetite for taking extreme risks will also sabotage their own work. It’s more likely that they won’t do any actual work, ruin a project and then leave a job to do the same thing elsewhere.  Same goes for relationships.

From my own personal experience I’ve encountered one individual that I’d wager a lot of money is a psychopath. This was a co-worker who was extraordinarily charismatic, capable of turning on extreme levels of charm in virtually any setting. Others admired him because he was able to go to a meeting while knowing next to nothing whatsoever and spin a bunch of bullshit convincingly. On the flip side his decisions often made zero sense, he would gladly destroy subordinates if it helped him, was involved in petty criminal activities (which he often bragged about) and had no hesitation to lie or cheat to help himself out, including launching fake accusations at others. Even knowing all that many people still liked him because of said charm.

Another guy I knew was eerily similar in the charisma department.  However, he was a habitual liar, engaged in petty frauds that weren’t necessary and was ultimately fired from his job, though he didn’t tell his wife for months on end, pretending to go to work every day while defaulting on his mortgage. None of it seemed to bother him too much.

Both of the above individuals ended up in senior positions at their companies, but were inconsistent, devious and left their jobs in a shit storm of their own making. They seem to fit with Hare’s description of a psychopath.

Personally I think the ideas in this book are essential for everyone to read and understand. It is the only real protection against people that are human zombies that look like us, talk like us, often seem better than us, but will happily destroy your life without hesitation.  There are some people who are beyond redemption, treatment and will never change.  The more that this affliction is understood the better others can identify it and stay far far away. A similar book in this genre is the popular Confessions of a Sociopath, which gives a glimpse into a psychopath’s internal logic. It’s a sickening read, though that’s kind of the point.  The book Columbine is another detailed profile of a psychopath and enters the psyche of spree killer Eric Harris via his own words care of a journal he left behind. Harris fooled psychologists, his parents and judges as he was able to read them, tell them what they want to hear and get them off his back. Lying wasn’t hard for him, like a normal person, he enjoyed it. In an ideal world his parents or the police might have understood that he was a textbook psychopath. There wouldn’t be anything they could do to fix this, but they wouldn’t have been played for suckers and taken actions to correct his behaviour that had literally zero chance of succeeding. What to do with psychopaths, especially child psychopaths, is a thorny ethical conundrum with no obvious answer.