15-01 Story 1: Sharks in suits


Synopsis: Almost everyone is victimized at some point by a cutthroat co-worker who lies with ease and feels no remorse. These people may be “almost psychopaths,” people with psychopathic characteristics too subtle to be diagnosed. Two experts explain how these people operate and how the rest of us can avoid being played.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Jim Silver, former federal prosecutor, and Dr. Ronald Schouten, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Director, Law and Psychiatry Service, Massachusetts General Hospital. They are co-authors of Almost a Psychopath

Links for more information:

 Almost A Psychopath

Reed Pence: At some point in life, just about everyone gets victimized by somebody whose lies are so effortless that they just have to be true. Someone who doesn’t give a second thought to stabbing you in the back if it helps them get ahead. It’s almost like the ethical, caring part of their brain is missing. They’re not violent, but they may be a psychopath just the same.

Jim Silver: People who are psychopaths also are manipulative, they’re cunning, they’re very egocentric. They’re, generally speaking, very kind of irresponsible and also impulsive.

Reed Pence: That’s Jim Silver, a former federal prosecutor, now a criminal defense attorney in Boston, and co-author of the book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy?

Jim Silver: One of the things that’s really tricky about people who are psychopaths is, and this is so sort of counter-intuitive, along with those sort of darker types and traits, they’re also typically sort of glib, superficially charming. So they can present to you, or to anybody, as maybe a nice person, maybe somebody who is a bit chatty, somebody you might like to know. But, in fact, you’re just prey for them;they’re very predatory. So, the kinds of things that cause problems for the people around them are: they are using people around them. They are cunning, manipulating, doing anything they can to serve their own self-interests, which is inevitably going to cause problems for people they come into contact with.

Reed Pence: Most scientific work on psychopathy has concentrated on people who can be clinically diagnosed. But those are only the worst of the worst, who make up maybe one percent of the population.

Ronald Schouten: The people I’ve known and evaluated had extreme ends of the scale. Have engaged in violent crimes, and they’re just really quite vicious and very dangerous characters.

Reed Pence: Silver’s co-author, Dr. Ronald Schouten, is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. He says that perhaps 10 to 15 percent of people carry almost-psychopathic traits–not diagnosable, but significant just the same.

Ronald Schouten: The almost-psychopaths are people who you may encounter on a regular basis, and we run into them in our lives in multiple settings at work, in the community, sometimes in families and certainly in social relations. And you just sort of scratch your head and say “Wow, hmm, maybe I was wrong about that, but it sure seems like this person was lying to me about all sorts of things.” They’re telling me they’re going to do things that they never do, they borrow money but they never pay it back. One of our favorite examples we heard was somebody was talking about the book saying “Oh, I knew somebody like this. When we were in high school we would all go out to eat after a ball game or something, and one guy would always say oh I’ll take care, I’ll tally up the check. And he would always tally up the check and tell everybody else what they owed, and then they eventually realized that he was tallying up the check but he was never assigning an amount to himself to pay.”

Reed Pence: Silver says one of the most common times people get caught in the crosshairs of an almost-psychopath is at work. Maybe you’re assigned to work on a team with a seemingly friendly guy named “Bob.”

Jim Silver: You’re working on a big presentation to present to the boss on Tuesday. And it’s all set up, but then Bob shoots you a little e-mail and says “Yeah, actually the meeting’s been moved to Wednesday.” And then come Tuesday, Bob walks into the boss’s office and takes credit for the whole project. You go back and say, “Hey, Bob what happened?” He says “Oh, no I uh, I thought I told you Tuesday,” and you show him the e-mail, and he lies again says “Oh, right, I guess I made a mistake, sorry about that.” One time you can forgive something like that, but Bob’s going to have a pattern of behavior like that. He’s going to take more credit than he’s due. He might start rumors about you if he sees you as a competitor, somebody who might be getting that next promotion. He’ll undermine you. He’ll go around spreading a rumor. He might even sabotage your work. It may not be something that’s really criminal, in the sense that you know we might think of psychopaths being violent criminals, and some are, some aren’t. However, having somebody undercutting you at work, taking credit, is really damaging to your life, and that’s the kind of person who is an almost-psychopath.

Reed Pence: True psychopaths often lie and cheat so outrageously that they don’t last long in a workplace. But the almost-psychopath can modulate his behavior. The rules of civilized society don’t apply to him, but he can at least pretend like they do.

Ronald Schouten: The societal standards don’t matter except to the extent that they may interfere with their goals, and being caught transgressing those standards might interfere. So they can adhere to those if it serves their purposes, and avoid getting themselves in trouble. And that’s why many of these folks can fly just below the radar screen and, you know, not get picked up and carry-on.

Reed Pence: Schouten and Silver say most people don’t have their guard up against these kind of backstabbers. Many of us simply can’t believe that anyone would so blatantly refuse to play by the rules, and not care at all who they hurt in the process. We may wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

Jim Silver: The reason you didn’t see it is because probably you’re a decent person and you expect people to be reasonably honest, you expect people to have some empathy for others around them. And so it is surprising that anybody would operate outside of those bounds of behavior, and what I find is that people who are almost-psychopaths–they prey on your good nature. And it is hard to believe sometimes that somebody would so brazenly lie, and so brazenly continue to lie even when confronted. At some point when you confront an almost-psychopath and they continue to lie, continue to lie, continue to lie, you may start to questioning yourself and say wait a minute. For example with Bob, maybe Bob did say that, maybe he really did mean to tell me the right day and just made a mistake. So it really is hard to wrap your head around the idea that some people just don’t operate by the same rules.

Reed Pence: However, Schouten says almost-psychopaths believe that they are operating by the same rules. They feel no empathy for people, so they figure that’s how everybody is. They assume everyone is just as heartless and cutthroat as they are.

Ronald Schouten: They anticipate that everyone else is acting in their own self-interest and therefore, you know they take an attitude well I’m going to screw the other guy before they screw me. So it becomes, you know, sort of this ratcheting up and self-promotion of aggression and self-centered behavior.

Reed Pence: So what makes psychopaths and almost-psychopaths act the way they do? Is their cruelty and callousness learned as they grow up? Or is there something wrong, some deficiency in their brains? Again, Schouten says most of the work has been done on true psychopaths. But there appear to be real differences in the brain.

Ronald Schouten: Early studies showed that people with psychopathy had sort of low arousal rates. You know one of the characteristics of psychopathy is that need for stimulation. That these folks in all sorts of situations had just a low level of arousal, and it took a lot more to get their adrenaline pumping, and they become somewhat adrenaline, sort of dopamine junkies as well because they need a thrill. So they’ll take a lot of risk. The studies that have been done most recently and functional MRIs show real differences in function, physiological function, in the brain in response to punishment, in response to excitement and in response to rewards.  So there is evidence that full-blown psychopaths have different brain structure and function in some areas.

Reed Pence: Schouten says that doesn’t explain everything, but it does help explain why getting an adult psychopath to change is often unsuccessful, even with expert treatment. True psychopaths are also unlikely to recognize they have a problem or be interested in changing.  Experts don’t know how many brain differences might exist in almost-psychopaths, or in children who display psychopathic traits, an area that’s extremely controversial. Silver says psychologists and psychiatrists won’t diagnose psychopathy in kids, even those who display that kind of behavior.

Jim Silver: Mental health professionals tend to not want to use the diagnosis of or even the label of psychopath or almost-psychopath with children, because it’s such a stigmatizing label.  What they do talk about though is seeing psychopathic type traits that they call callous and unemotional behavior.  So they do see these things as callous and unemotional, lack of empathy in children.  The thinking is that with children if it’s recognized early enough that there’s probably some things that can be done and some behaviors that can be changed.  So I think the current thinking is that it’s not a life long label if a child has callous and unemotional traits. There are probably and hopefully some things can be done to change that person’s life course.  On the other hand a child who doesn’t get any treatment, who has these traits, who is maybe being raised by a family of psychopaths or people who have a lot of psychopathic behaviors, probably is going to wind up being a psychopath or almost-psychopath.

Reed Pence: That leaves most people in the position of having little help in avoiding almost-psychopaths. Silver and Schouten say the best way to keep from being victimized is to have your guard up. Don’t forgive somebody’s lies too easily, and if a friend tells you to watch your back around some new co-worker, pay attention. Don’t naively assume that no one could ever be as rotten as they say.

Jim Silver: It really is situational awareness. It’s hard to imagine somebody would spend their time consciously trying to undermine you, purposefully lying to you all for their own good. And being unable to see when you say to them, “Gee, that really hurt my feelings,” or “That’s horrible — do you know how that made me feel or how it made me look?” And understand that the person you’re talking to does not care. They will know how it makes you look. They might even understand at an intellectual level how it makes you feel, they just don’t care. And it’s important to be aware there are people like that in the world, and it’s not your problem. Well, it may be your immediate problem, but it’s not something that’s wrong with you. You may need to though get yourself away from this other person.

Reed Pence: But what if it’s too late? What if an almost-psychopath co-worker has already thrown you under the bus, or been sabotaging your work? What do you do?

Ronald Schouten: Our advice is that people document what they’re seeing, what they’re noticing, and what’s been happening, so that they have a good record because these folks again will have developed some alliances higher up corporate hierarchy.  And you know they’ll just shrug their shoulders and they’ll say “Well, you know, I didn’t do anything, I have no idea what he or she is talking about, they must be confused, they must be mistaken.” That ability to lie and to lie very convincingly is part of the picture that we see with these folks. So having good documentation, talking to other people, bringing them in so they can back you up if possible.

Reed Pence: But even then, it may be hard to get your boss to believe you, much less do anything about it. Our fictitious almost-psychopath Bob has likely already ingratiated himself with the boss. That’s why Silver says you have to be prepared to go up the ladder before you make any claims.

Jim Silver: It may be the boss isn’t going to be receptive to that, and then we suggest possibly you may need to go to the boss’s boss, to human resources. It’s possible that somebody who is not involved with Bob at all may have a more objective view.  And then, finally, we do say that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change the almost-psychopath’s behavior.  If the boss or human resources aren’t willing to sort of move Bob out or somehow corral his behavior, you are unlikely to be able to change Bob. And then you have to decide, is it worth staying here?

Reed Pence: Getting out also has to be a consideration if you’re married to an almost-psychopath, because often, they see no reason to change.

Ronald Schouten: If it’s possible we certainly encourage people to address the issue, and say, you know, “Look honey, you’ve been doing the following things and it’s really bothering me, it’s affecting our relationship.”  And then you listen for their response.  If there’s denial, if there’s recrimination, if there’s blaming that goes on, and says “Well it’s your fault and I’m doing this because you do this and you do that,” that’s not a good sign.  But if you get a response that says, “Well, I hear what you’re saying, I don’t know that I agree with you, but lets talk about it and lets work on it” that’s very positive and I would say no need to get out.

Reed Pence: People with psychopathic traits can lie so easily that they often get others to doubt themselves. But Schouten and Silver say you should trust your gut. It’s not you. It’s them. But once you realize that, it’s generally up to you to keep from getting played.

You can find out more about Jim Silver and Dr. Ronald Schouten’s book, Almost a Psychopath, at the thealmosteffect.com.

I’m Reed Pence.



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