Thursday, February 20, 2020

The origins of criminality as a feature in sociopathy (part 2)

Cleckley’s sociopath was “bold”, boldness here being “a capacity to remain calm and focused in situations involving pressure or threat, an ability to recover quickly from stressful events, high self-assurance and social efficacy, and a tolerance for unfamiliarity and danger. Terms related to boldness include fearless dominance (Benning, Patrick, Blonigen, et al., 2005), daringness, audacity, indomitability, resiliency (Block & Block, 1980), and hardiness (Kobasa, 1979).” Id. Bold individuals are likely to show: “social dominance, low stress reactivity, and thrill–adventure seeking (Benning et al., 2003; Benning, Patrick, Blonigen, et al., 2005) . . . imperturbability, social poise, assertiveness and persuasiveness, bravery, and venturesomeness.” Id.

Boldness was evident in [Cleckley’s] case descriptions and diagnostic criteria in terms of poise and high social efficacy, absence of anxiety or neurotic symptoms, diminished emotional responsiveness, imperviousness to punishment (“failure to learn by experience”), and low suicidality. Other historic writers concerned with psychopathy in psychiatric patients as opposed to criminal samples (e.g., Kraepelin, Schneider) also identified bold externalizing types. Id.

Cleckley studied non-criminal sociopaths at a large inpatient facility. No other researcher has focused so extensively on non-criminal sociopaths.

Most researchers studied criminals, and consequently defined sociopathy as a dark strain of criminal deviance. Early researchers William Maxwell McCord and Joan McCord painted a picture in “The Psychopath: An Essay on the Criminal Mind” (1964) of a socially detached, predatory, aggressive, and remorseless individual plagued by angry-reactive forms of aggression and resultant criminality. Similarly Lee Robins, whose work underlies the DSM-V’s “Antisocial Personality Disorder” (ASPD), focused on a maladjustedness marked by persistent aggression, criminality, and destructiveness. Robins (1966, 1978).

Around that same time, Robert Hare developed his Psychopathy Checklist (now revised, PCL-R), based on the Canadian criminal population. The PCL-R is the most popular diagnostic tool for sociopathy. Hare based it on Cleckley’s sociopath, however, it is distinctly darker:

In contrast with Cleckley’s portrayal of psychopathic patients as personable and ostensibly well meaning but feckless and untrustworthy, this latter perspective conceptualizes psychopathic individuals as cold, abrasive, and aggressively exploitative in their interactions with others.

Patrick, et al. (2009).

Cleckley saw “boldness.” Hare substituted “meanness.” Why? Interestingly, Hare’s own early work also found boldness instead of meanness. Id. What changed?

Alice, a sociopath I met in Australia, theorizes that it wasn’t the sociopaths that changed, but Hare. Alice thinks Hare is biased. In fact, she goes so far as to tell me she believes he’s a subclinical narcissist. Her evidence for narcissism includes Hare’s statements that suggest he has a fragile ego and needs to be liked by others. For instance, you could read the following statement as a theory about how most people feel, or you could read between the lines and see someone who is overly concerned with how he is perceived by others:

“We are haunted to some degree by questions about our self-worth. As a consequence, we continually attempt to prove to ourselves and others that we are okay people, credible, trustworthy, and competent.”

He does seem to take the misdeeds of sociopaths personally, for example he warns:

“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.”

Hare speaks from personal experience. He is on record describing his first encounter with a sociopath “Ray” as a long con in which Ray influenced Hare to break prison rules. Hare said he did what Ray asked to build a “rapport”. Due in part to Hare’s influence, Ray received a plum job in the prison mechanic shop. When Hare’s tenure at the prison ended, Ray performed a tune-up on Hare’s car. The brakes failed while Hare was driving down a hill, family in tow. A local mechanic confirmed that the brakes had been rigged with a slow leak. 

Alice thinks this early experience and his continuing inability to build a rapport with prison sociopaths caused him to harden his heart against them. Alice thinks he sought payback by portraying them in the worst psychological light possible, destroying their possibility of parole.

Alice’s theory for Hare’s anti-sociopath bias is consistent with the facts as we know them.

To give you an idea of Hare’s lack of scientific objectivity, in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us he calls sociopaths the “monsters of real life” and warns:

“On a more personal level, it is very likely that at some time in your life you will come into painful contact with a psychopath. For your own physical, psychological, and financial well-being it is crucial that you know how to identify the psychopath, how to protect yourself, and how to minimize the harm done to you.”

Hare has manifested other narcissistic traits. In a widely publicized move, he threatened to enjoin the publication of an academic, peer-reviewed article that criticized his PCL-R. The article, by researchers Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke, argued that “the PCL–R weighs antisocial behavior as strongly as—if not more strongly than—traits of emotional detachment in assessing psychopathy.” Consequently, it “is overly saturated with criminality and impulsivity (Blackburn, 2005; Forouzan & Cooke, 2005)” and as such, it “imperfectly maps psychopathy” and “does not fully correspond to Cleckley’s (1941) conceptualization, on which it is purportedly based.” 


  1. "Cleckley studied non-criminal sociopaths at a large inpatient facility. No other researcher has focused so extensively on non-criminal sociopaths."

    And thank God for that.

    It seems that when Hare first started interviewing psychopaths some of them were mean and he decided that they were all horrible people.

  2. Interesting post. If these traits are consistent in both "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" sociopaths, what differentiates them? Is it merely intelligence?

    1. Criminality certainly isn't a reliable predictor. Pablo Escobar was arguably high-functioning-- but only for a time. He got cocky and therefore eventually got caught. Yet, he was a brilliant sonofabitch. And he was certainly disordered.

      Intelligence is definitely a factor, but I would posit that culture, societal influences and environmental factors have much more to do with it.

      Sociopathy in itself arises from a complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences. These two factors are apt to create a feedback loop in which those who have a genetic predisposition to these traits are more apt to create an environment that encourages their fomentation. How sociopathic traits manifest and play out in the lives of affected individuals is dependent on a myriad of variables, including environmental, psychological, and spiritual factors.

      For this reason, I prefer the terms "disordered" and "non-disordered" to "high- and low- functioning".

    2. Hare has deemed psychopaths as evil creatures for decades. It's his #1 downfall . Although in last decade he has eased up on the whole "evil" thing.
      I know Hare has developed gold standard method for the psychopathy construct but I often think that the 2 Factor Model is too generalised . Many fall inbetween.

  3. In a fairytale a psycho told a little secret: "-When I´m visiting female opticians & they come close to look at my eyes usually two things happen: a) at the end of the session they become almost flirty b) they move back behind the counter & I can almost sense the hair on their arms stand up. The look like they´ve discovered a werewolf."

  4. In reality most sociopaths in prison probably welcome academics with open arms so they can tell them how special & important they are. Even if they portray them as cold monsters most of the monsters will see this as the ticket price for talking to somebody "on their own level"..

    1. I think they welcome anyone because prison is so boring they don't care with what person they meet. Not because they want to tell themnhow special they are.

    2. In your hypothetical scenario, you assume that most sociopaths would equate obvious pandering to "talking to someone on their own level".

      Are you clueless, feckless, or merely stupid?

    3. Many psychos feels special, so why would they resent lauded writers that like to study them as tigers or sharks? Would they rather hear stinky Pete tell that same story again?

    4. I didn't say they would resent them. They'd be much more apt to play said "lauded writers" like a piano concerto in A minor. :)

  5. If this is true, Hare was a fool to entrust the reparation of his car to a sociopath.

    His blaming the sabotage of his vehicle on the sociopathic population at large doesn't necessarily make him a narcissist, but it does expose his naivety and desire for vengeance.

    Victims don't appreciate being victimized. Hare may have consequently portrayed traits that might otherwise be perceived in a
    positively (adventurous boldness and courage) in a negative light, due to his own biases, negative experiences, and desire to punish a population he failed to holistically understand. This points to an abject lack of scientific objectivity.

  6. "Non-criminal" at an inpatient facility. Why. Is there a control group of non-criminal empaths. No so long ago such attitudes were prevalent in how homosexuality was dealt with in society. The suggestion being a "cure" could be found. Sociopaths are not ill or suffering, personality disorder. Or the, even more vague boardline personality disorder.

    Not to disparage the good doctor he at least separates by behaviour the sociopath. This is taken for granted for empaths.

    It would be interesting to have the study repeated used criminal and non-criminal empaths. What would this reveal. Why shall I suspect be waiting some time to find out.

  7. In a fairytale a man with a special mindset waved a magic wand and became a cat. The cats accepted him, he was one of them. Then he held the wand again & said: "-I want to be a cobra snake!". He became a cobra & went to meet his kin. The cobras looked at him and said: "-We are far more ice cold & hostile than you. To us you resemble a daft empath, an emotional sausage. A weak sack of shit. Go away." The man cried & said: "-I can relate to cats, but I cannot understand cobra snakes. They are the ultimate sociopaths!" He felt like a parent that realized for the first time that the child was so different from himself, so icy & filled with malice..

    1. "a daft empath, an emotional sausage"



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