Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Evil


(DELANY DEAN, JD, PhD) Introduction: During both my professional careers (criminal law and psychology), two areas of particular interest to me have been psychopathy and narcissism. Psychopathy is generally viewed as a particularly virulent form of narcissism, in which the person is not only very much focused on herself, or himself, but also highly manipulative, sometimes sadistic, and very much into control and power. One prominent characteristic of psychopathy is the presence of what is usually called a “glib, superficial charm.” These people are usually able, at least in the short term, to win over others very easily. They would generally be described as “very attractive” people (on the surface). Sometimes a person who merits the designation “psychopath” goes into a path of criminal activity (many, but not all, serial killers are psychopaths, and criminals known as “con artists” are often psychopaths); other times, the psychopath will be engaged in a legitimate career (politics, academia, corporate leadership). The key is not the type of activity the person engages in, but the degree of control s/he exercises over others.

Underneath the superficial charm, the narcissist/psychopath always has a “me-first” mentality. If you work with such a person, you may begin to see signs that s/he thinks that everything is about her; and, crucially, it will become clear that control/power is a major part of her game plan. However, this can be well concealed beneath a veneer of friendliness and concern for others; it may not become clearly evident until s/he receives what is known as a “narcissistic injury.” A person who is truly narcissistic will respond with extreme anger if s/he receives a challenge to her ego (an ego that is both fragile, and strongly defended). This response may look like an overblown rage fit, following a minor slight; or it may take the form of a cold vindictiveness, administered by acts of retaliation. These responses can be very shocking, even frightening, to the person who unwittingly triggered or evoked the narcissistic injury (by getting in the way of the narcissist’s plans, for example, or by displaying a lack of full approval and appreciation for the narcissist’s brilliant ideas).

A good non-technical book about this phenomenon is: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout [the term “sociopath” is closely related to the term “psychopath”].

Some good web resources about the phenomenon known as “narcissistic rage” are in my “” links (click over in the side column on this blog, where it says “And, Check Out…”). One of them is from the “Dr. Sanity” website.


Recently, Nature magazine published a great article [pdf] on the neuroscience of psychopaths, as investigated by an ingenious study being run by a group of Dutch researchers. Psychopaths are rare individuals who display what is sometimes called “malignant narcissism,” a capacity to use any situation for their own gain, with total disregard for the inconvenience or even suffering that their behavior might cause to others. At their worst, they may also be sadistic. Although it is sometimes said that they lack impulse control, the opposite may be true: many of these guys (most psychopaths are male) are very methodical. Here are excerpts from the article:

“Although there is a higher number of psychopaths among violent criminals, a psychopath is not necessarily someone who is violent.

“The term describes someone who is considered to lack empathy or conscience, is superficially charming, manipulative, has ’shallow affect’ (doesn’t have a big emotional range), and has poor impulse control. More recently, psychopathy has become synonymous with the use of the PCL-R, the diagnostic tool also known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist after its creator and psychopathy researcher Robert Hare.

“The Dutch team… are working with psychopaths who are in prison for presumably quite serious crimes, precisely because they lack empathy. They are comparing the brain activation between psychopaths and non-psychopaths when they view material that communicates emotions and normally evokes an empathy-driven reaction. By looking at which brain areas are less active in the presumably empathy-less psychopaths, they hope to find out the crucial empathy-related brain circuits.

“There are more details about the study in the article, but one bit is particularly interesting, wherein one of the participants, from a high-security prison, comments on the study. He says that, when he entered the prison five years ago, ‘borderline personality’ was the fashionable term and his designated pigeonhole. Later, he was diagnosed as a psychopath; about this switch, he says: ‘The psychopathy label is more damaging — it prompts everyone to see you as a potential serial killer, which I could never be.’ But [this prisoner] also wears his PCL-R score as a badge of honour: ‘I think my high psychopath score is a talent, not a sickness — I can make good strong decisions, and it’s good to have some distance with people.’

“Interestingly, [these points] have also been made in the psychological literature. Ian Pitchford proposed in a 2001 article that psychopathy could be an evolutionary advantage for a minority of individuals, as it allows them act violently or antisocially without any emotional cost to themselves. Furthermore, discussion in both the psychological and legal literature has focused on whether labelling someone a ‘psychopath’ is unjustly stigmatising.

One article even goes as far as to suggest that ‘psychopathy’ is just a modern term we’ve invented to replace the world ‘evil’.” See the pdf of Nature article ‘Scanning Psychopaths’.

Authoritarianism and Psychopathy

I recently re-discovered the blog called Orcinus, and within it a series of articles by Sara Robinson about authoritarianism. She begins the series (click here) with a summary and review of John Dean‘s book, Conservatives Without Conscience. I was very much intrigued by this re-discovery, for several reasons. First, I did not realize that John Dean (who was made (in)famous by Watergate, and who is not a relative of mine, so far as I know), wrote about authoritarianism; second, I have not read anything within the academic literature about authoritarianism (see Dr. Robert Altemeyer) for years, probably not since I was in grad school; and, third, I am struck, again, by the very significant overlap between the construct of authoritarianism and the construct of psychopathy (which is an area in which I am quite interested in, click here).

I also am reminded of the phenomenon now known as workplace bullying, and especially the situation in which there is a supervisor who regularly targets others for mistreatment (click here for some of my previous writing about this). I have usually viewed that situation through the lens of the professional literatures about psychopathy and narcissism; but it is clear that the social psychology literature about authoritarianism is also very applicable. Here are excerpts from the first part of this series by Sara Robinson:

Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.

Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high social dominance orientation (SDO)… “These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others,” says Dean — and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who’ve made your adult life a living hell as well.

High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, [as well]… High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others… [In modern America], we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we’ll not only let them, but often cheer them on…

While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:

  1. Submission to authority. “These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado” writes Dean. “[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions… ”
  2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It’s also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice…
  3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy… Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others…

Anyone who looks at our contemporary culture, and the various parts of that culture, can see these characteristics and dynamics in full swing. They are readily apparent in government and big corporate environments, but they can also be seen in operation in smaller systems (closer to home, for most of us): in our work environments, in religious communities, certainly in the military, and of course within families. And I would submit that, although this set of dynamics might be over-represented among politically conservative (right-wing) groups and individuals, it is not their sole property; I have personally observed amazingly authoritarian types who identify themselves as politically liberal, and they are perfectly capable of garnering followers who may well also see themselves as politically left-wing. But this description of the personality, cognitive, and behavioral dynamics of authoritarian leaders and their followers, is right on target, regardless of political leanings.


Recently a British official in the criminal justice system had what he thought was a very good idea. He suggested that children who exhibit early indications that they might grow up to be psychopaths should have their DNA put into a database; later, I suppose, he thought that this would make them more readily identifiable when police are looking for suspects in criminal cases.

Most experts agree that there are in fact some children who look very much like young psychopaths. A recent study lists some of the commonly agreed-upon traits, as follows:

  1. Makes a good impression at first but people tend to see through him/her after they get to know him/her
    2. Shallow emotions.
    3. Too full of his/her own abilities.
    4. Is not genuinely sorry if s/he has hurt someone or acted badly.
    5. Can seem cold-blooded or callous.
    6. Doesn’t keep promises.
    7. Not genuine in his/her expression of emotions.

According to the article in Mindhacks, however, “the recent studies that looked at these traits in the general population found that these traits reliably, but only very weakly, predict antisocial behaviour during the following years.”

What does this mean? Well, it really just means that these early traits do not strongly indicate that the child will be readily identifiable as “antisocial” in adulthood. But it should be noted that a diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder” in an adult almost always occurs only in individuals who are caught up in the criminal justice system. It appears that these “kiddie psychopath” children are not necessarily going to become criminals.

However, the results of these studies do not say anything about whether the child is likely to grow up to be a person who could be diagnosed as a psychopath. Not all psychopaths (or “sociopaths,” as they are still sometimes called) are criminals. Many of them are what we call “successful” psychopaths, those who enter legitimate occupations (and often do so very successfully).

Take another look at the list of characteristics, just above. In your own work (and social) lives, have you ever met anyone (not a “criminal”) who displays a lot of these characteristics? Most people would likely respond in the affirmative. There are plenty of people who are highly psychopathic in mainstream occupations such as business, academia, politics, and law. Some of them manage to get ordained, and they can rise high in the church hierarchy. They “get by” with a lot, because they are masters at manipulating people and systems for their own ends, while portraying themselves as good and caring individuals. An early phrase used to describe their interpersonal and emotional characteristics was “the mask of sanity,” meaning that although they are highly abnormal, they are able to study normal human emotional responses, and to mimic them (more or less) successfully.

So, how about that database idea? I tend to agree that it would not be helpful in the criminal justice system, for the reasons stated, as well as many other reasons (civil liberties and privacy issues are no small matter, here!). Some of us might wish there were such a database against which to compare names of individuals who we are dating, or thinking about voting for, or interviewing as potential nannies… but, no. Never mind. It was just a thought… We are always wanting to find ways to solve the problem of human brutality (whether it be inflicted by physical violence, or by more covert and “civilized” means). I am not very optimistic that databases will provide us with any more relief than does retaliation.


Anyone who has ever studied psychology will remember reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo, the very prominent social psychologist. Recently, I discovered Zimbardo’s new book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. I have just finished about one-fourth of it, and it is both fascinating and excellent. If you want to read just one great book about the psychology of bad behavior, then I’d recommend either this book, or Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

Zimbardo’s book opens with an extremely detailed examination of the Stanford Prison Experiment, practically moment-by-moment. Subjects were recruited to participate, they were screened for obvious problems (including by way of interview and psychological testing), and then they were randomly assigned either to function as guards or as prisoners in a specially-constructed jail in a building on the Stanford campus. They were paid for their “work,” which was to have lasted for a period of two weeks. The results are famous, or infamous: the ordinary young men who were assigned to serve as “guards” quickly became amazingly sadistic toward the “prisoners,” who were also ordinary young men and who had committed no crimes. The prisoners responded in various unexpected ways, as well (groveling acquiescence, rebellion, and extreme psychological deterioration) that had not been predicted. Conditions became so insane that the experiment was called to a halt after only five days, and then only when a psychologist who was an outsider to the original design saw what was happening, and raised strong objections. Zimbardo candidly notes that he, too, should have seen that the experiment should have been stopped, and much sooner than it was.

What the book does is, first, provide a wealth of fascinating detail about these young men, their behavior, and their reflections on their behavior. Secondly, it persuasively sets out the implications of the experiment, providing the standard social-psychological emphasis on environmental factors as opposed to dispositional factors. Finally, it discusses more recent instances of outrageous human behavior (prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib, for example).

One of the young men who served as a guard is quoted about his experience, as follows: “’ I realized… that I was as much a prisoner as [the other subjects who served as prisoners] were… They had more of a choice in their actions. I don’t think we did. We were both crushed by the situation of oppressiveness, but we guards had the illusion of freedom. I did not see that at the time, or else I would have quit. We all went in as slaves to the money. The prisoners soon became slaves to us; we were still slaves to the money. I realized later that we were all slaves to something in the environment. Thinking of it as “just an experiment” meant no harm could be done with reality. That was the illusion of freedom.’”

You might also want to take a look at Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment website. You can see slides and film clips, including one in which one of the former “prisoners” is on film, talking to one of the “guards.” He complains bitterly about how he was treated. Then, the “guard” asks him: “What would you have done, in my place?” The “prisoner” pauses, then responds: “I don’t know.”

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