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The ‘Almost Psychopaths’ Among Us

Most people think of psychopaths as those who commit horrible acts: brutal murders or enormous fraud.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe, they’re our neighbors, co-workers or family members who — while not exactly serial killers — might be what some are calling the “almost psychopath.”

Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry Ronald Schouten and former federal prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney James Silver spoke with WBUR’s Deborah Becker about their latest book “Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy?”

Deborah Becker: What was the key characteristic, Ron, of an “almost psychopath?”

Ron Schouten: These are people who display a number of the traits that we associate with psychopathy, but in fewer numbers and with less intensity than full-blown psychopaths do. Key factors: conning and manipulative behavior, being glib and superficially charming, pathological lying and a general aggressive sense of self where every action and every behavior is focused on them facilitating and achieving their own needs.

And this is about 5 to 15 percent of the population, you say?

Schouten: That’s an estimate, yes.

So, Jim, not necessarily criminal?

Jim Silver: Not necessarily people who are going to stab you or beat you senseless, but maybe who are going to take advantage of you at work — steal credit for your idea. Maybe in relationships they’ll be sort of serial cheaters. They’ll be the kind of people who don’t make good neighbors and don’t make good office workers and colleagues over time. They create havoc in the lives of people they come into contact with.

I wonder if each of you might want to give a brief example of folks that you might come across and you might recognize some of these characteristics. One of them who I though was very good was Greta. Tell us Greta’s story.

Schouten: Sure. Greta’s story is one of a very bright and capable person — attractive, charming, accomplished educationally — who throughout her life has been a player. She’s used all of her skills and advantages to manipulate other people, often convincing them that she deserves much more credit than she really does for her behavior.

She’s an almost-psychopath?

Schouten: Yes.

But society tells her these are the things you need to do to get ahead and she does get ahead from doing these. When is it psychopathic behavior?

Schouten: It’s psychopathic behavior when it’s playing outside the rules. Some of these traits — the aggressive narcissism that we talk about in psychopathy — confers competitive advantage in certain fields. Risk-taking confers a competitive advantage. But at some point it falls off the curve and becomes deleterious not only to the people around them, but to the individual themselves.

Silver: As Ron said, if you are a stone cold liar and can lie easily — and by that I mean, you don’t sweat, tremble, have any nervous ticks, you’re just a really good liar — that may help you be a great salesperson or a great lawyer or a politician or whatever.

You are a lawyer.

Silver: I am a lawyer and I wish I were better at… no.

Laughter.

Silver: No, no. In all honesty, it can be helpful. It’s just if you operate like that all the time and can’t operate in a different way with family with friends outside of the workplace, you’re edging more towards that almost psychopath or true psychopath.

If someone is trying to figure out if someone that they know may fit into this almost psychopath category, what advice do you give them?

Schouten: Talk to friends, talk to family, you know, ‘Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? What do you see?’ But at that point it’s time to look for some professional assistance to help sort this out.

Silver: We don’t exactly say this in the book, but at some point, if you say somebody’s a psychopath or an almost psychopath — and you really figure out that’s what the person is — you may just have to cut your ties with that person or say to the person, ‘I’m not going to believe you.’ Right? It’s a hard thing to do.

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