Ask the Expert: Q & A with Dr. Stephen Porter

Dr. Adelle Forth, Carleton University, sent several questions to Dr. Stephen Porter, University of British Columbia- Okanagan. He answered these questions (see below) with help from his graduate student, Pamela Black, with whom he has studied psychopathy and victim-spotting.

What are the factors that make people more easily duped by psychopaths?

 As part of the parasitic lifestyle, psychopaths like to manipulate and exploit people to gain access to resources (e.g., money, a place to live, etc.), sexual favours, and power. There has been some research to show that psychopaths target specific people for this exploitation; people who are socially isolated and emotionally vulnerable. Vulnerability is related to low self-esteem, self-worth, confidence and a lack of assertiveness. These individuals are more likely to be duped because they may be enamored by the attention given to them by the psychopath and have difficulty saying “no” when the psychopath asks them for things (directly or indirectly). Research has shown that psychopaths are skilled at identifying this type of vulnerability from body language alone, such as slumped shoulders and gait styles. Also, recent research shows that psychopaths are able to mirror people’s behaviours (making them more likeable) and are skilled at mimicking emotional expressions as they need to, even though their emotional experience is extremely limited.

Are there any red flags that would alert someone they are dealing with a psychopath?

There are a number of red flags that might identify psychopaths, but often the cues are not obvious when first meeting one. Psychopaths are notorious social chameleons who can initially present as charming and interesting smooth talkers, so it is difficult to identify a psychopath upon first encountering one. However, as time goes on, and you begin to notice a pattern in his/her behaviour you might start to pick up clues to their underlying pathology. For example, psychopaths frequently use deception, lying to anyone and everyone, and even when confronted with their lies, are usually able to talk their way out of it. You also may notice that they lack empathy for others, do not show appropriate responses to emotional situations, are extremely narcissistic, and have an inability to maintain long-term relationships. Further, they are more likely to engage in violent crime and varied substance use. Research in our lab has demonstrated that psychopaths are far more likely to plan out (and enjoy planning out!) and commit a ‘cold blooded’ murder than nonpsychopaths who are more likely to commit a spontaneous reactive type of murder. This is consistent with a thrill-seeking inclination. Psychopaths will engage in extreme thrill-seeking actions outside of a criminal context as well, so driving recklessly, high-risk hobbies, etc. It is important to note that showing one or two of these symptoms is not enough for a diagnosis of psychopathy, and that it is the collection of a number of traits that makes a psychopath. A diagnosis can only be given using validated psychological tests, such as the Psychopathy Checklist created by Robert Hare, and the term should not be applied to anyone who has not been formally assessed. However, a rule of thumb that you can use when meeting new people is that if they seem too good to be true, they probably are.

How does the language of psychopaths differ from nonpsychopaths?

Psychopaths are said to have the “gift of gab”. That is, they are interesting and charming storytellers who are easily able to capture the attention of those around them. However, if you listen more closely to the language that psychopaths use, you may notice a couple of trends that might indicate that their stories are too good to be true. For example, psychopaths are prone to, and skilled at, deception. They are easily able to tell lies, and sometimes enjoy doing so (e.g., “duping delight”). Further, when they are confronted with their lies, they often show no shame or guilt for having lied, avoid directly answering the questions being asked of them, and continue to tell more lies. Also, the stories of psychopaths are tangential, often jumping from topic to topic and not making much sense. If you are suspicious that a person might be psychopathic, listening to the content of their stories might provide you with a couple of clues.

What do you think has been the most significant development in the field of psychopathy in the last few years?

 I think that the one of the most recent significant developments in the field of psychopathy is the increasing recognition of the role of environment in the development of the disorder (work by Eva Kimonis is notable). Until the last decade or so, the dominant opinion was that psychopathy was primarily an innate, genetic condition. More recently, studies have begun to examine how the environment (i.e., early childhood experiences of trauma) can play a role in the development of psychopathy, and how this type of psychopathy might differ in presentation from the biologically driven psychopathy. There is an increasing recognition that there are multiple pathways to the development of this devastating disorder.

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