The Psychopath War – Part 1 – The Phenotype

“Back Stabbers” by the O’ Jays

(What they do)
They smile in your face
all the time they wanna
take your place the
back stabbers (back stabbers)

What do psychopaths have to do with flu pandemics? Plenty, as we will see in subsequent blogs in this series. But in this first blog, I will focus on defining what a psychopath is.

It’s not uncommon to see the term psychopath used as an epithet in every day speech to describe someone who is unusually cruel or mentally ill. However, for the purpose of this series of blogs, I will use the term in its scientific and medical sense to describe a group of people with a specific neurological deficit. As we will see, these people may not appear to be either cruel or mentally ill, at least not at first glance.

There is no single set of definitions that describe people with this disorder. But there is general agreement on their most dangerous trait: Psychopaths do not experience the feeling of guilt. Just as a blind person cannot see and a deaf person cannot hear, a psychopath is incapable of experiencing remorse or pity. This results in a distinctive pattern of behaviours.

Psychopaths can lie very convincingly. When a normal person lies, their guilt triggers a variety of “tells”, lip licking, eye aversion, blinking, etc. which we have learned indicates that the person in front of us may not be telling the truth. However, because a psychopath feels no guilt, they can lie without any stress. Thus, they can tell the most outrageous lie while looking you directly in the eye and speaking with apparent sincerity. Our normal lie detectors fail completely with psychopaths. Since they oftentimes get away with their lies, and feel no guilt about telling them, psychopaths are world-class manipulators. If they are intelligent, and some are, they can rise to important positions within companies or bureaucracies. These are the type of people who appear to be your friend when you’re in the room, but blame you for their failures when you’re not there. The term “backstabber” accurately describes the typical psychopath.

Psychopaths have problems planning for the future. They seem incapable of considering the consequences of their actions. As a result, they find themselves in a series of crises which they attempt to lie their way out of. The less intelligent psychopaths frequently end up in jail at an early age as their guilt-free lying is insufficient to overcome the ample physical evidence implicating them. However, the more intelligent psychopaths are better at covering their tracks and may escape detection for many years. Others may end up taking the blame for their misdeeds while the intelligent psychopath jumps from crisis to crisis, always landing on his feet like a cat in a milk factory.

These two defining traits: lack of guilt and inability to plan for the future, stem from a common defect in the frontal lobes of the brain. The circuitry in this part of the brain evolved most recently. It is involved in emotion and planning. There is substantial evidence that there are physical defects in this area of the brain in psychopaths. Although the environment may modify behaviour to some extent, many psychopaths appear destined to a life of inflicting pain on others from an early age, despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers.


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