Why there are more psychopaths than we imagine

A man I knew at University

There was an unpleasant atmosphere in my halls of residence during my first year of University. The women in my block were ensconced in psychological warfare with each other for reasons only they could understand. Many bystanders, myself included, were expected to take sides and empathise, alternately, with each warring faction.

To my embarrassment, I often found myself doing so, and then feeling ashamed that I had. Everyone was drawn into the squabbles at one stage or another. Everyone, that is, except for one boy called Neil, who was a polite and softly spoken fellow, seemingly uninterested in the petty teen-like squabbles we were pulled into.

He would work in the block’s kitchen on his electrical engineering assignments, look up when someone entered the room, greet them in his northern English accent, and then return to scribbling notes in his book. Now and again he would read a magazine and chuckle to himself over some story. He was a hansom fellow who dressed conservatively and groomed himself well.

His self-contained nature and his rejection of smutty talk gave me the impression that he was that rare “salt of the earth” Englishman from a bygone era, a small town man of quiet courage and humility, a man you could trust during war.

At one point Neil had a girlfriend who was very unattractive. He walked around with her, arm in arm, like she was a princess, as though he were entirely absorbed in her mind and thoughts as a person and wholly unconcerned with the shallow pursuit of outward beauty like the rest of us. Eventually his relationship with her ended. For some time afterwards he appeared quiet and withdrawn, like the break up had really shaken him. Perhaps he had even loved her.

After time in his company I always felt the need to better myself morally, to shed my shallow preoccupation with the perceptions of others, and to be truer to my own moral compass. But I sensed he was a man that was better than I was, and that I would never achieve the benchmark he set.

In the months before I left University Neil started a new relationship with a pretty young American lady called Rachel. At the rowing club, during a fundraising event, they smiled and laughed with each other as they handed food to guests. They seemed completely drunk with joy on each other’s presence.

The next I heard of a Neil with the same surname, was six years later when I opened my morning paper. A Briton was wanted for questioning in connection with the murder of his wife and child in America. It must be another Neil Entwistle, I muttered to myself.

My phone rang. It was a friend who’d lived with Neil during second year of University. “Have you seen the news! I can’t believe it!”

The slain woman was the same Rachel that Neil had married after University. “He must have gotten into debt with the wrong people”, my friend suggested. “Maybe they came by the house, couldn’t find him, and then took out their rage on his wife and baby”.

Over the next days several of us who’d known him posed theories about what might have happened at Neil’s home. Every one of them assumed Neil’s innocence. We could scarcely imagine him kicking a pigeon, much less killing a human. With little information to go on, we settled on the most likely explanation given what we knew of his character: Neil got into business with the wrong people, got into debt, and then the mob came after him.

Who was this man?

I followed Neil’s case as it unfolded over the ensuing months and years. The police alleged that Neil had run pyramid schemes and fraudulent Ebay accounts that never delivered anything to anyone.

They alleged he was in severe debt fuelled by fraudulently obtained credit.

They claimed that he’d searched for ways to commit murder from his computer.

They provided evidence of regular sex with escorts. Was this the same Neil I knew?

I watched as much of the trial on Youtube as I could. At one stage the camera panned across to Neil, showing him with a bizarre facial expression, impossible for me to tell whether he was crying or laughing.

It was in the aftermath of the trial that I discovered something that I’d previously missed: on the day of his arrest, Neil had in his pockets numbers of call girls scribbled on a scrunched bit of paper. He was planning to have sex with prostitutes two days after the death of his wife and baby.

Nobody neurotypical, I reasoned, would be capable of emotionally detaching to the point of seeking casual sex two days after discovering the brutal slaying of their wife and child. In that moment the final edifice of the excuses I had constructed for him came crashing down. I saw what I had tried so hard not to see: that Neil was a coldblooded psychopath. He had fooled me brilliantly and completely. At University, had I been required to hand pick a team of men to be shipwrecked with, Neil would have been among the five I would have chosen.

Neil’s lawyers argued that Rachel had killed Lillian and then herself. But the prosecution forensics said otherwise. They showed that Rachel’s arms were too short to account for a self-inflicted gun injury and too short to account for the angle of the bullet entry wounds.

An unwitting confession

In 2016 I found out that a woman, undecided about Neil’s innocence or guilt, had begun writing to him in prison. She contacted the police when she received a letter that began, “Dearest Heather…”

“Even Rachel, as her eyes met mine before she fired that fatal shot, she seemed to be saying something, though she uttered not a word.”

and then:

“When I think back, I still wonder what went through Lilly’s mind, nine-months old though she was, as she yelled out in pain. Was she calling for her daddy to come and help?”

The above words place him at the crime scene at the time of death, in stark contrast to his repeated claim that he merely discovered the bodies hours later.

His words are simultaneously sentimental and detached:

“Was she calling for her daddy to come and help?”

A nine-month-old Lillian, I assume, would be capable of screaming in pain, but it seems unlikely she would have the presence of mind to ask for help. The description of Lilly’s dying moments suggests a morbid curiosity in the process of death itself, rather than any emotional reaction we might expect from a father who’s witnessing his wife murder their baby. The word “daddy”,in that context, comes across as an illiterate attempt to pull the emotional levers of the audience, the kind of pattern cognition we might expect from a machine learning algorithm, rather than the unconscious distress of a parent mourning the senseless murder of their child.

The deception I experienced often reminds me that I will likely never know when I’m among monsters. The brilliant among them may well convince me to put my life and dreams in their hands.

Psychopaths and sampling bias

Our understanding of psychopaths is based on what we are able to observe. And what we are able to observe has largely been caught in the net of the criminal justice system. This group of people, like Neil, have been caught primarily because of two traits:

1. High levels of narcissism.

This feature causes them to overestimate their own intelligence. They believe, wrongly, that they’ll get away with their crime. Neil, for example, imagined that he had his penpal so firmly under his spell that it was safe to toy with presenting evidence of his guilt to her. He thought he could kill his wife and that the story he’d construct about it would be gullibly swallowed.

2. Low self control.

People like Neil are unable, or unwilling, to place limits on their behaviour. They act on their criminal tendencies in a way that other people don’t. They think about what they want, and they often take it in the present moment without considering the consequences to others.

It’s no surprise, then, that the DSM IV manual describes Antisocial Personality Disorder with traits that reliably predict capture and detection within the criminal justice system: impulsivity, disregard for social conventions and high self esteem.

Undetectable psychopaths

Consider, however, that there may be a subset of psychopaths who understand their limitations, who are humble, and who possesses high levels of self control. Such individuals would weigh up the pros and cons of committing crime and, for the most part, avoid it, and therefore remain undetected.

Moreover, with the other milieu of psychopathic traits still present, they would lack the conscience, shame, and concern for others, to seek psychological therapy. Why would anyone who is selfish, disinterested in others, and unencumbered by the neuroses that normal people suffer, seek help? Help to achieve what?

Not being arrested, and not seeking therapy, this subset of people would remain invisible to both the criminal justice system, and to the medical community.

On the social platform, Quora, I once read a confession from an anonymous person claiming to be a psychopath. He admitted that, in a world of no consequence, he would readily approach any man holding a briefcase of money, shoot him dead, and abscond with the briefcase. He would do so without hesitation. That he didn’t was, by his claim, only because murder would result in his capture and imprisonment. Notions of right and wrong played no part in his reasoning, only machine cognition of risks versus rewards.

The above person, if he’s to be believed, is an example of an undetectable psychopath: someone who strikes strategically and only when they’re overwhelmingly certain of getting away with their crime.

Had Neil, for example, had higher impulse control, he might have conducted fraud at a level that would simply irritate people, rather than result in criminal prosecution. Had he been less narcissistic, he may have had the self awareness to realise his “she-shot-herself” story wouldn’t hold sway with anyone.

Crime and punishment

This group, if it is large, raises profound questions about the criminal justice system. Many Western intellectuals point to the fact that an overwhelming proportion of criminals re-offend following their release from prison. They point to the fact that people who commit crime before prison, often do so after their release. Punishment, they argue with the above logic, does not deter criminality.

The above reasoning, while tempting, has some fault with it: People in prison are, by their very selection, undeterred by the threat of punishment. If this is a rigid component of their character, it’s not necessarily surprising that they should remain undeterred by punishment after their release.

What we don’t know, and cannot measure, is what proportion of people have weighed up the pros and cons of punishment and decided against crime, through a simple cost-benefit analysis. People who can trade off long term punishment against short term gains are not likely to be in prison to begin with. For the psychopaths among us, like the prospective briefcase murderer already mentioned, reducing penalties will shift the cost-benefit analysis to make crime more appealing.

Conclusion

Since undetectable psychopaths are, by their very definition, impossible to study, we cannot say how many there are. Many of them are likely extremely high functioning, upstanding members of our communities. But they must surely also exact a difficult to measure penalty on us: exploiting us, stealing from us, and abusing power over us, in the work place, in our homes, and in our communities.

It’s often said that virtue is what people do when no one is looking. For this group, we know very well what they do when no eyes are on them.

Current estimates suggest that the rate of all psychopaths combined is in the region of 2–3% of the population. But if we include the unmeasured subset, the true value could be far higher. The question is: how high, and with what impact?

Technology, society, big ideas, the culture wars and the nature of good and evil.

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