Without Conscience

Who are likely to be the most unethical people in business and society?

Emeritus professor of psychology Robert D Hare provides some answers and cautions against doing business with “a class of individuals found in every race, culture, society and walk of life.”

Extracts from “Without Conscience” by Prof Robert D Hare:

“Several years ago two graduate students and I submitted a paper to a scientific journal. The paper described an experiment in which we would use a biomedical recorder to monitor electrical activity in the brain of several groups of adult men while they performed a language task. This activity was traced on chart paper as a series of waves, referred to as an EEG. The editor returned our paper with his apologies. His reason he told us: “Frankly, we found some of the brainwave patterns depicted in the paper very odd. Those EEGs couldn’t have come from real people.”

Some of the brainwave recordings were indeed odd, but we hadn’t gathered them from aliens and certainly hadn’t made them up. We had obtained them from a class of individuals found in every race, culture, society and walk of life.

Everybody has met these people, been deceived and manipulated by them, and forced to live with or repair the damage they have wrought. These often charming – but always deadly – individuals have a clinical name: psychopaths. Their hallmark is a stunning lack of conscience; their game is self gratification at the other person’s expense. Many spend time in prison, but many do not. All take far more than they give…

Not surprisingly, many psychopaths are criminals, but many others remain out of prison, using their charm and chameleon-like abilities to cut a wide swath through society and leaving a wake of ruined lives behind them.

Together, these pieces of the puzzle form an image of a self-centred, callous and remorseless person profoundly lacking in empathy and the ability to form warm emotional relationships with others, a person who functions without the restraints of conscience. If you think about it, you will realise that what is missing in this picture are the very qualities that allow human beings to live in social harmony.

[These people] are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards. Their acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilling inability to treat others as thinking, feeling human beings. Such morally incomprehensible behaviour, exhibited by a seemingly normal person, leaves us feeling bewildered and helpless…

We are far more likely to lose our life savings to a an oily-tongued swindler than our lives to a steely-eyed killer… Many psychopaths never go to prison or any other facility. They appear to function reasonably well – as lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, academics, mercenaries, police officers, cult leaders, military personnel, businesspeople, writers, artists, entertainers, and so forth – without breaking the law, or at least without being caught and convicted. These individuals are every bit as egocentric, callous and manipulative as the average criminal psychopath; however their intelligence, family background, social skills and circumstances permit them to construct a facade of normalcy and to get what they want with relative impunity. 

Some commentators refer to them as “successful psychopaths”. Others argue that individuals of this sort benefit society. Just as they are able to ignore society’s rules, the argument goes, intelligent psychopaths are able to transcend the bounds of conventional thought, provide a creative spark for the arts, the theatre, design, and so on. Whatever the merits of this argument, they are more than offset – in my view – by the broken hearts, shattered careers, and used-up people left in their wake as they cut a zig-zag route through society, driven by a remorseless need to “express themselves”.

Rather than refer to these people as successful psychopaths – after all, their success is often illusory and always at someone else’s expense – I prefer to call them subcriminal psychopaths.Their conduct, although technically not illegal, typically violates conventional ethical standards, hovering just on the shady side of the law.

Unlike people who consciously adopt a ruthless, greedy and apparently unscrupulous strategy in their business dealings, but who are reasonably honest and empathetic in other areas of their lives, subcriminal psychopaths exhibit much the same behaviours and attitudes in all areas of their lives. If they lie and cheat on the job – and get away with it or are even admired for it – they will lie and cheat in other areas of their lives.

I am certain that if the families and friends of such individuals were willing to discuss their experiences without fear of retribution, we would uncover a rat’s nest of emotional abuse, philandering, double-dealing and generally shoddy behaviour. These rat’s nests are sometimes made public in a dramatic fashion. Think of the many high-profile cases in which a pillar of the community commits a serious crime [and] in the process of investigations by the police and news media the perpetrator’s dark side is revealed. Many such cases are vividly portrayed in books and movies and the shocked public asks “where did they go wrong?” and “what made them do it?”

The answer, in most cases, is that the culprit didn’t just suddenly “go wrong”. Individuals who frequent the shady side of the law stand a good chance of slipping over the edge. In such cases the crime is simply a natural consequence of a deviant personality structure that has always been present but that, because of good luck, social skills, cover-ups, a fearful family, or friends and associates who conveniently refused to see what was going on, had not previously resulted in a criminal act that came to the attention of the justice system. 

Nevertheless, high-profile cases have considerable value. Typically they are well documented, alerting us to the fact that such people exist, and that before being caught they were relatives, neighbours or co-workers of people just like us… 

A frightful and perplexing theme runs through the case histories of all psychopaths: a deeply disturbing inability to care about the pain and suffering experienced by others – in short, a complete lack of empathy, the pre-requisite for love…

Learning to behave according to the rules and regulations of society, called socialisation, is a complex process. On a practical level it teaches children “how things are done”. In the process, socialisation – through parenting, schooling, social experiences, religious training, and so forth – helps to create a system of beliefs, attitudes and personal standards that determine how we interact with the world around us.

Socialisation also contributes to the formation of what most people call their conscience, the pesky inner voice that helps us to resist temptation and to feel guilty when we don’t.

Together, this inner voice and the internalised norms and rules of society actors act as an “inner policeman”, regulating our behaviour even in the absence of any external controls, such as laws, our perceptions of what others expect of us, and real-life policemen. It’s no overstatement to say that our internal controls make society work. Our collective amazement and fascination with the psychopath’s utter disregard for rules suggests, by comparison, the power our “inner policemen” actually have over us.

However, for psychopaths the social experiences that normally build a conscience never take hold. Such people don’t have an inner voice to guide them: They know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation and their transgressions elicit no guilt. 

Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with. Any antisocial act, from petty theft to bloody murder, becomes possible…

Psychopaths are very good at giving their undivided attention to things that interest them most and at ignoring other things. Some clinicians have likened the process to a narrow beam searchlight that focuses on only one thing at a time. Others suggest that it is similar to the concentration with which a predator stalks its prey.

Many situations are complex and require that we pay attention to several things at the same time. If we concentrate on only what we find most interesting, we may miss something else of importance, perhaps a danger signal. This is what psychopaths often do. They pay so much attention to obtaining rewards and enjoying themselves that they ignore signals that could warn them of danger. [Yet we let them lead financial institutions where the risk-reward trade-off is an even more integral aspect of astute and responsible management than other industry sectors].

Laboratory experiment using biomedical recorders have shown that psychopaths lack the physiological responses normally associated with fear. The significance of this finding is that, for most people, the fear produced by threats of pain or punishment is an unpleasant emotion and a powerful motivator of behaviour. Fear keeps us from doing some things… Not so with psychopaths, they merrily plunge on, perhaps knowing what might happen but not really caring.

[Their innate fearlessness can be both an advantage and disadvantage, such as a WWII study:] “Completely unresponsive to interests of their [coworkers] / fellow GI’s and more attuned to instant gratification than to the fundamental rules of caution in combat, these fellows had a much greater chance of getting shot.”

Nothing is more convincing of the need for clarity and reflection on psychopathy [than] real-life stories of disappointment and despair… A way of easing into this strange and fascinating subject [is] by conveying that characteristic sense that“something is wrong here but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

It is unlikely that psychopaths would make good spies, terrorists, or mobsters, simply because their impulsiveness, concern only for the moment and lack of allegiance to people or causes makes them unpredictable, careless and undependable, likely to be “loose cannons”.

Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behaviour that normal people find not only horrific but baffling…

Psychopaths are very good at putting on a good impression when it suits them, and they often paint their victims as the real culprits.

Lying, deceiving and manipulation are natural talents for psychopaths. With their powers of imagination in gear and focused on themselves, psychopaths appear amazingly unfazed by the possibility – or even by the certainty – of being found out. When caught in a lie or challenged with truth, they are seldom perplexed or embarrassed – they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so they appear to be consistent with the lie. The results are a series of contradictory statements and a thoroughly confused listener. 

Psychopaths are frequently successful in talking their way out of trouble.

[One example] “He lied endlessly, lazily, about everything, and it disturbed him not a whit whenever I pointed out something in his file which contradicted one of his lies. He would simply change the subject and spin off in a different direction… He remained absolutely unflappable even after his deceit was revealed…” What in his psychological make-up gave him the power to override reality, apparently without compunction or concern? I would spend the next 25 years doing empirical research to answer that question.

[Another example] “Although he expressed zero empathy for his victims, he clearly loved his crimes and seemed to be trying to impress the interviewer with his amazing feats of irresponsibility. [He] was a mile a minute talker, with the psychopath’s characteristic ability to contradict himself from one sentence to the next. His long conviction record reflected not only his criminal versatility but his clear inability to learn from past experience.”

Psychopaths often come across as arrogant, shameless braggarts – self-assured, opinionated, domineering and cocky. They love to have power and control over others and seem unable to believe that other people have valid opinions different from theirs. They appear charismatic or electrifying to some people.

Obligations and commitments mean nothing to psychopaths as breaking promises does not seem to bother them. The irresponsibility and unreliability of psychopaths extends to every part of their lives. They do not honour formal or implied commitments to people, organisations or principles. Psychopaths are not deterred by the possibility that their actions may cause hardship or risk for others.

[Psychopaths] are much freer than the rest of us to pick and choose the rules and restrictions they will adhere to. [Another example] “It’s not that I don’t follow the law. I follow my own laws. I never violate my own rules.” She then describes these rules in terms of “looking out for number one”.

For most of us even the imagined threat of criticism functions to control our behaviour. 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.

The psychopath carries out his evaluation of the situation – what he will get out of it and at what cost – without the usual anxieties, doubts and concerns about being humiliated, causing pain, sabotaging future plans, in short, the infinite possibilities that people of conscience consider when deliberating possible actions. 

In stark contrast, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behaviour is the result of choice, freely exercised.

For those of us who have been successfully socialised, imagining the world as the psychopath experiences it is close to impossible.

An industrial psychologist commented to me that nuclear power plants carefully screened prospective employees, for obvious reasons. However, he volunteered, the usual screening procedures – interviews, personality tests, letters of reference – do not always succeed in detecting a class of individuals notorious for their unreliability and irresponsibility – namely, psychopaths.

If we can’t spot them, we are doomed to be their victims, both as individuals and as a society.”

 

Extracted from Hare RD: Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us. New York, Guilford Press, 1999