Sanctuary for the Abused
Monday, March 17, 2014
by Robert D. Hare, Ph.D
Words from an Overcoat Pocket
One question runs like a refrain through the stories told by the victims of psychopaths:
And when victims aren’t asking themselves, somebody else is sure to pose the question. “How on earth could you have been taken in to that extent?” The characteristic answer: “You had to be there. It seemed reasonable, plausible at the time.” The clear--and largely valid--implication is that had we been there we too might have been sucked in.
Some people are simply too trusting and gullible for their own good--ready targets for any smooth talker who comes along. But what about the rest of us? The sad fact is that we are all vulnerable. Few people are such sophisticated and perceptive judges of human nature that they cannot be taken in by the machinations of a skilled and determined psychopath. Even those who study them are not immune; as I’ve indicated in previous chapters, my students and I are sometimes conned, even when aware that we’re dealing with a probably psychopath.
Of course, pathological lying and manipulation are not restricted to psychopaths. What makes psychopaths different from all others is the remarkable ease with which they lie, the pervasiveness of their deception, and the callousness with which they carry it out.
But there is something else about the speech of psychopaths that is equally puzzling; their frequent use of contradictory and logically inconsistent statements that usually escape detection.
Recent research on the language of psychopaths provides us with some important clues to this puzzle, as well as to the uncanny ability psychopaths have to move words--and people--around so easily. But first, here are some examples to illustrate the point, the first three from offenders who scored high on the Psychopathy Checklist.
- When asked if he had ever committed a violent offense, a man serving time for theft answered, “No, but I once had to kill someone.”
- A woman with a staggering record of fraud, deceit, lies and broken promises concluded a letter to the parole board with, “I’ve let a lot of people down. . . . One is only as good as her reputation and name. My word is as good as gold.”
- A man serving a term for armed robbery replied to the testimony of an eyewitness, “He’s lying. I wasn’t there. I should have blown his f*cking head off.”
- A tabloid television program showed a classic con man who shamelessly swindled elderly women.(1). When the interviewer asked, “Where do you draw the line between right and wrong?” he replied,"I have some morals, whether you believe it or not, I have some morals.” To the interviewer’s question, “And where do you draw the line?” he replied, “That’s a good question. I’m not trying to hedge, but that’s a good question.” When asked, “Did you actually carry around in your briefcase blank power-of-attorney forms?” his reply was, “No, I didn’t carry them around, but I had them in my briefcase, yes.”
- When Ted Bundy was asked what cocaine did to him he replied, “cocaine? I‘ve never used it. . . . I’ve never tried cocaine. I think I might have tried it once and got nothing out of it. Just snorted a little bit. And I just don’t mess with it. It’s too expensive. And I suppose if I was on the streets and had enough of it, I might get into it. But I’m strictly a marijuana man. All I do is . . . .I love to smoke a reefer. And Valiums. And of course alcohol.”
Psychopaths also sometimes put words together in strange ways. For example, consider the following exchange between a journalist and psychopathic serial killer, Clifford Olson. “And then I had annual sex with her. “ “once a year?” No. Annual... from behind.” Oh. But she was dead.”” “No, no. She was just unconscientious.” About his many experiences, Olson said. “I’ve got enough antidotes to fill five or six books -- enough for a trilogy.” He was determined not to be an ”escape goat” no matter what the ”migrating” facts.
Of course, words don’t simply pop out of our mouths of their own accord. They are the end products of very complicated mental activity. This raises the interesting possibility that, like much of their behavior, the mental processes of psychopaths are poorly regulated and not bound by conventional rules. This issue is discussed in the following sections, which outline evidence that psychopaths differ from others in the way their brains are organized and in the connections between words and emotion.”
A CONVICTED SERIAL killer, Elmer Wayne Henley, now asking for parole, says that he was the victim of an older serial killer he worked with, and that he would not have done anything wrong on his own. Together, they killed at least twenty-seven young men and boys. “I’m passive,” he offered. “I don’t want to be no psychopath, I don’t want to be no killer. I just want to be decent people.”
Consider the following exchange between the interviewer and Henley. The interviewer says, “You make it out that you’re the victim of a serial killer, but if you look at the record you’re a serial killer.” Henley replies, “I’m not.” “You’re not a serial killer?” the interviewer asks in disbelief, to which Henley replies, “I’m not a serial killer.” The interviewer then says, “You’re saying you’re not a serial killer now, but you’ve serially killed.” Henley replies with some exasperation and condescension, “Well, yeah, that’s semantics.”
--From the May 8, 1991 episode of 48 Hours
Who’s in Charge?
In most people the two sides of the brain have different, specialized functions. The left cerebral hemisphere is skilled at processing information analytically and sequentially, and it plays a crucial role in the understanding and use of language. The right hemisphere processes information simultaneously, as a whole; it plays an important role in the perception of spatial relations, imagery, emotional experience, and the processing of music.
Nature probably "arranged" for each side of the brain to have different functions for the sake of efficiency. For example, it is clearly more effective for all the complex mental operations required to use and understand language to take place in one side of the brain than if they were distributed over both sides. In the latter case, information would have to be sent back and forth between the two hemispheres, which would slow down the processing rate and increase the chances of error.
Further, some part of the brain has to have primary control over the task; if the two sides of the brain were competing for this control, the conflict would reduce the efficiency of processing. Some forms of dyslexia and stuttering, for example, are associated with just such a condition: Language centers are bilateral--located in both hemispheres. Competition between the two hemispheres makes for a variety of difficulties in the understanding and production of language.
New experimental evidence suggests that bilateral language processes are also characteristic of psychopathy. This leads me to speculate that part of the tendency for psychopaths to make contradictory statements is related to an inefficient “line of authority”--each hemisphere tries to run the show, with the result that speech is poorly integrated and monitored.
Of course, others with bilateral language--some stutterers, dyslexics, and left-handers--do not lie and contradict themselves the way psychopaths do. Clearly, something else must be involved.