The presence of predatory and antisocial individuals in the general population is a major problem for several reasons. First, anti-social people inflict a lot of damage on other people and society at large. Second, psychopathy especially is studied far less than other clinical disorders. And finally, most people are not trained to identify psychopathic behavior, and some do not, or will not, even acknowledge its sinister presence in others at all.
None of us are completely immune from the manipulative or aggressive behavior of antisocial personality types. It turns out that good, regular people tend to have a lot of blind spots when it comes to evaluating the character of others, identifying antisocial behavior, assessing risk, and determining who to trust. Even if you pride yourself on being a good judge of character, crime statistics show that the majority of people are often wrong. I've come across a lot of helpful expert information on how to protect yourself that I'll share with you in this post. Here's how to be a better judge of character:
Antisocial People: What is a Psychopath? What is a Sociopath?
"Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are more likely than are psychopaths to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society. They are sometimes unable to hold down a steady job or to stay in one place for very long. It is often difficult, but not entirely impossible, for sociopaths to form attachments with others...In the eyes of others, sociopaths will generally appear to be disturbed or erratic. Any crimes they commit, including murder, will tend to be haphazard and spontaneous rather than planned. Because of their seemingly erratic behavior, sociopaths are easier for both professionals and nonprofessionals to identify than are psychopaths."
Psychopathy on the other hand is rarer than sociopathy, perhaps more dangerous, and harder to identify. Emerging research, complete with brain scans, shows that the brains of psychopaths are not like the brains of rest of us, revealing decreased activity in the frontal lobes. Psychopathy seems to be the result of a combination of both genetic predisposition and how people are raised. The most important thing to understand about psychopaths is that they don't feel empathy for others as normal people do. Something is wrong with their brains in that they lack a conscience. Even worse, studies have shown that they actually view a normal person's empathy as a weakness that they can exploit. They are driven mainly by pleasure or the pursuit of power and control.
In Without Conscience, Robert Hare writes:
“[The psychopath is] a self-centered, 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 realize that what is missing in this picture are the very qualities that allow human beings to live in social harmony.”
It's also important to understand that not all psychopaths are violent or even criminals. They may even be well off and successful. Studies show that psychopaths are over-represented certain professions, especially in the corporate executive world and in politics. Martha Stout writes in The Sociopath Next Door:
“…many people know nothing about this disorder, or if they do, they think only in terms of…people who have conspicuously broken the law many times over, and who, if caught, will be imprisoned…most [psychopaths] are not incarcerated. They are out here in the world with you and me.”
As an aside here, there are also a fair number of people out there - diehard humanists, naive pacifists, and so forth - who think everyone is basically good or who deny the reality of sociopathy and psychopathy in some subset of the population. These people may also blame anti-social behaviors on a person being disadvantaged. This might be true for some sociopaths, but psychopathy is a brain disorder that makes someone not normal or empathetic. The presence of white collar and upper class psychopaths in politics and elsewhere invalidates such a position. It is a mistake to assume that all adults are basically good, although by in large most people are decent. But to ignore or excuse the dangerous behavior of antisocial people is at odds with reality. This is why I believe so strongly in armed self defense, and why there is an excellent moral case to be made for it.
Evaluating People in Different Types of Situations
A competing and compelling view on how to judge character and assess risk comes from retired FBI profiler and psychologist Mary Ellen O'Toole. O'Toole argues that we tend to decide whether people are dangerous or not dangerous based on superficial features. For example, they seem "nice," drive a nice car, are in some position of professional authority, and so on. They don't look like a scraggly-haired stranger, so we think they must be normal or trustworthy. We do this because because we don't understand the psychology of people who don't mind exploiting or hurting others.
O'Toole argues that you can't rely on gut feelings or first impressions in order to judge character. In her book she lays out a process that she uses to evaluate character, which I'll get to in a bit.
So who is correct? DeBecker or O'Toole? I would say both, but it depends a lot on the situation one finds oneself in.
DeBecker's method of paying attention to instinctive/intuitive gut reactions and predictors of violence is a function of the amygdala region of the brain. De Becker posits that we are wired to notice pre-attack indicators of violence at the level of the subconscious mind. We might feel that something seems wrong or out of place long before the rational brain has figured out what it is. He argues that this is an evolutionary holdover from our millennia as hunter-gathers in the wild, when we were sometimes prey for animals or victims of violence at the hands of other tribes.
This type of involuntary intuition makes complete sense in the context of a sudden, violent encounter before we have a chance to rationally think things through. This is most useful in situations where strangers and random acts of violence are involved.
O'Toole's method of evaluating behaviors on the other hand, is a function of the rational, prefrontal cortex. It is most useful for forming first impressions in social situations, or evaluating the behavior and character of people you may already know.
That O'Toole dismisses out of hand the possibility that intuition can be protective in any situation regardless of the context, even in the case of sudden violence, is probably a mistake. But O'Toole is correct that we shouldn't expect intuition to protect us in most situations because our feelings and first impressions are often wrong. We certainly can't depend on intuition for example, to tell us if our nice, normal seeming neighbor is really a covert criminal. Most situations (apart from immanent acts of violence) require thinking, reason, and knowing what to look for, which I'll get to in the next section.
How to Identify Antisocial People, Evaluate Character, Risk, and Spot Red Flags
Sometimes the consequences of being wrong about someone's charter are fairly benign, but other times the stakes are high - when hiring someone, deciding who to date, deciding whether to let our children sleep over at someone's house and so forth. At worst, we could fall in with someone who seeks to manipulate us, steal from us, or do us or our family harm.
O'Toole recommends when assessing risky situations or evaluating people, we class our decision making about a person or situation into low, medium and high risk categories. High risk decisions feature a high risk of your decision resulting in mental, physical, financial or emotional harm. Medium risk decisions could go either way, and you should classify a decision as medium when you don't have enough information one way or another. Low risk decisions have minimal consequences for you health and security.
O'Toole argues that most normal people can't comprehend the mindset of antisocial people, whether violent criminals, abusers, covert manipulators and so forth. She states: "They misread others, ignore dangerous behaviors, normalize those behaviors, and delude themselves into believing that dangerous people will automatically stop being dangerous."
Now that we have a rudimentary understanding of the psychology of antisocial people, we need a list of red flags to watch out for in order to make good decisions and properly assess character and risk.
According to O'Toole and DeBecker, this is why we ignore or fail to identify dangerous people, behaviors, or situations:
- We fear being perceived as rude or not being politically correct
- We make ourselves easy targets by not being situationally aware
- We ignore gut feelings of alarm
- The person seems superficially nice or normal
- We filter out negative information after having a good first impression of someone
- We have heard good things about someone from others
- We rationalize the person's behavior
- We don't take the overall picture of the person's character into account
- The person is charming or charismatic
- We are indecisive / we aren't good decision makers
- We make wrong decisions when we are tired or stressed
- We are too kind or too nice to others as a rule
- We fail to ask for information when making important decisions such as hiring someone
- We allow personal biases to overshadow rational judgement
- We don't evaluate risk well and/or don't take steps to mitigate risk in certain situations
- We are vulnerable because of low self-esteem, insecurity, or loneliness
- We do not dig for information or do background checks on people when the stakes are higher risk
Now that we understand what makes us vulnerable, here is a combined list of red flag behaviors via O'Toole, Hare, Stout, and DeBecker to look out for when trying to identify antisocial people such as (covert) psychopaths and (overt) sociopaths:
- The person or situation gives you a bad gut feeling even if you don't know why
- The person acts erratically, impulsively and/or is prone to rage
- The person asks for help, or insists on helping you without being asked, in such a way as to isolate you
- The person can't keep a coherent narrative and makes contradictory statements
- The person doesn't answer questions posed to them, or answers questions in an evasive way
- The person has a disconcerting or "reptilian" stare
- The person is narcissistic and/or is rude to waiters or hired help
- May accompany their speech with exaggerated and distracting hand movements
- The person evokes a strong emotional reaction in you
- The person lacks empathy
- The person (when dating) "loves bombs," you and starts talking about marriage and so on inappropriately early on
- Glib and superficial charm
- Risk taking behavior
- Fails to conforms to social norms or honor financial commitments
I hope this post has been helpful. As this is only an brief overview of the topic, I highly recommend reading the four books I've cited most from (The Gift of Fear, Dangerous Instincts, The Sociopath Next Door and Without Conscience) to learn how to identify anti-social people, assess risk and become a better judge of character.
*Post contains Amazon associate links. I may earn a small commission from any books purchased).