Mind Matters: Steer clear of psychopaths

When I lived in the United States, I met a university student, “Graham”. He told me he had been in the South African army prior to the end of apartheid and said that he had seen terrible things. He had short hair and talked with a South African accent. He seemed like a nice but intense guy.

Weeks later, Graham made the headlines. He had been arrested at his research practicum site for molesting boys in a residential treatment program. It turned out that he was not South African and had never been outside the US. He was a convicted sex offender.

I never saw a university expel a student so fast.  His practicum site then made excuses for not checking his background before letting him work in the facility. Clever psychopaths can bamboozle just about anyone.

But the story does not end there. Graham went to prison. One day a helicopter landed in the prison yard, he jumped in, and off he flew with a boyfriend, who had stolen the copter. They crashed, had a shootout with police, and both ended up in a maximum security prison.

Not all psychopaths are as deceptive or as criminal as Graham. Some work more or less consistently at jobs. You can find psychopaths serving in Parliament, working as CEOs, and advancing their careers in a police force. I have encountered psychopaths in academia.

What distinguishes psychopaths (sometimes called sociopaths or a person with antisocial personality disorder) are their inflated sense of importance and manipulation of others. They are big on violating rules, they lack compassion, and they are unwilling to accept responsibility for their misdeeds. They often have a superficial charm that can be appealing – for a while.

Know anyone who fits the bill? If not, look at some newspaper headlines. Look for individuals caught misbehaving in amazing ways.

Show me a dictator, and I will show you a psychopath. But most psychopaths do not rise nearly to the level of running a country. Most suffer huge setbacks in life, and many end up in prison or an early grave.

Unlike most of us, psychopaths learn little from punishment. Prison might isolate them from the public, but it is unlikely to help them change their ways.

So what would I do if I encountered a psychopath somewhere?  I would stand firm. Or I would run!

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.