When it comes to interview and interrogation, we may deal with many different personality types, which can influence the way that we approach the situation and the conversation. When we think of psychopathic personalities, our minds likely wander to Hannibal Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, or the Joker—killers and sexual predators without feelings or emotions like our own, preying on the innocent for their own sick reasons.
Psychopathy, like many illnesses, ranges from mild to severe and may be mixed with other personality disorders, making those who suffer from the disorder very complex individuals. These complex personalities are often grouped under the heading of antisocial personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or are referred to as psychopaths or sociopaths by the general public.
A sociopath is defined differently and usually is someone who habitually violates the law without learning from past mistakes. The psychopath does this as well, but he or she also lacks the ability to feel emotions.
Over the years, we have dealt with numerous psychopaths in both the public and private sectors. These people are remarkably different and need to be understood to develop a successful approach to our techniques and the strategies that will help us to successfully deal with them. Although people toss the term “psychopath” around casually, they are probably classifying an individual as one, but it may simply be a person that has a milder antisocial personality with some emotional feelings. Only a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist can give a diagnosis in the presence of personality disorder characteristics.
While lying can be a component of psychopathy, the psychopath is different from the compulsive liar. The compulsive liar lies out of habit, stretching the truth about things large and small. This behavior perhaps started in childhood as a defense mechanism for the individual’s low self-esteem. In fact, two of the key components we have seen over the years in these individuals are a general lack of success in life and low self-esteem.
The compulsive liar often impulsively lies even when it is foreseeable his deception will be detected. Unlike the psychopath, there is no attempt to con or manipulate. Rather than the con, these lies are habitual and impulsive with little thought to their long-term effects.
Sometimes these lies take on an aura of truth and success as they are told repeatedly, creating a fabricated image to overcome the individual’s low self-esteem. The result is a background, story, or alibi that will not stand up to the bright light of an investigation. The psychopath’s lies are more insidious—consciously woven to con or manipulate another.
Depending on the research, experts estimate psychopaths may make up two to three million people in the United States, which makes it possible that you have met one. Men are more likely to become a psychopath than women, although female psychopaths do exist. Experts also estimate as much as 25 percent of the male prison population may be psychopaths.
Since the psychopath lacks feelings of guilt and remorse that provide a moral compass, it should not be surprising to find these individuals have broken the law and wound up in prison. Plus, the psychopath lacks the ability to have emotional responses, thus even fear and anxiety are muted. Fear and anxiety are essential components of having a conscience, so it is no wonder the law is broken.
Not all psychopaths wind up in prison. One expert examined over 200 corporate executives and found 4 percent scored high enough on the psychopathy scale to be evaluated for it. Once we see the obvious personality disorder characteristics, such as a lack of guilt, the all-about-me attitude, and a devious, manipulative manner, it is easy to see how an organization can be led off track by a psychopathic leader playing fast and loose with the rules.
The corporate psychopath is generally outstanding at self-promotion and has a grandiose sense of self with a general disdain for other employees. They are often described as selfish, self-centered, and irresponsible—treating people as if they were objects, rather than valued coworkers. These types of people often turn to fraud since they are charming, self-assured, and unfazed by the possibility of their dishonesty being discovered.
While many criminals may exhibit some of the personality disorder characteristics of psychopathy, what makes them different is their ability to feel guilt, emotional attachment, and empathy for others. They understand what it means to feel emotions, and at least partially experience the emotions themselves.
While the psychopath does not experience these emotional states, he is incredibly adept at recognizing another’s emotions and exploiting them. They can assess a person and size them up quickly, which helps in the ultimate manipulation of the individual. Many of the researchers who study psychopaths describe them as chameleons, capable of changing masks to meet the needs of each person they speak with. They know the buttons to push to manipulate while being indifferent to the individual’s suffering, allowing them to use the person for their own needs.
The psychopath often has excellent communication skills, letting him jump into a conversation where others might fear to tread. They often have a grandiose sense of their own self and intelligence. What the psychopath lacks in content is covered by his flamboyant manner and use of industry-favored jargon. People listening to a psychopath tend to not drill down into the message, but are left impressed with the delivery of the words. Other psychopaths are socially inept and turn to threats and violence to get their way, often resulting in a visit to prison. This type of psychopath is generally screened out during the hiring process or terminated for cause.
The psychopathic personality shows no loyalty to anyone other than himself. As a result, their attachment to another is often only superficial, allowing him to change partners at will. Many psychopaths are also strongly narcissistic. To him, he is the sun and center of the universe while the rest of the human race revolves around his countenance.
Psychopaths would be unlikely to get along with one another since the pair would exhibit similar personality disorder characteristics—self-centeredness, aggression, and narcissism, to name a few. As a result, if a psychopath has a partner, they are often within the normal range but have elements of antisocial behavior.
The use of alcohol has a profound effect on the psychopath, prompting most to become loud, vulgar, and domineering. This may cause them to engage in jokes or pranks that may appear cruel or bizarre.
The psychopath is a master manipulator, using other people as puppets to gain his way. These individuals are capable of articulating a society’s morals, but can never fully internalize them to their actions. These individuals also have no need to rationalize their behavior since they do not feel guilt for violating society’s moral requirements. They simply act out in a ruthless fashion to gain what they want regardless of its impact on others.
Some borderline psychopathic individuals do not have the antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder characteristics. However, they still have a split that separates them from guilt and its resulting anxiety. These individuals may have some remorse and concerns for others that may come into play, but only after they have acted to gain what they wanted.
Evaluating for Psychopathy
Dr. Robert Hare, who has worked extensively with psychopaths, has created a widely used scale to evaluate people for psychopathy. In his scale he examines a list of twenty criteria that are evaluated with a score of zero if it doesn’t apply to the person, one if it partially applies, or two if it fully applies. Following is his full list of psychopathic personality disorder characteristics:
- Glibness and superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Cunning and manipulative
- Lack of remorse
- Emotional shallowness
- Callousness and lack of empathy
- Unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions
- Tendency to boredom
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Lack of behavioral control
- Behavioral problems in early life
- Juvenile delinquency
- Criminal versatility
- History of parole violations
- Multiple marriages
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
A full-blown psychopath would score 40, while a score of 25–30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy in Hare’s scale. Scores between 21–29 are considered middle subjects who have many of the features of a psychopath, but do not fit all the criteria. A score under 21 is in the non-psychopathic range.
Building Rapport with Someone Exhibiting Personality Disorder Characteristics
Note: While we address the issue of interview and interrogation techniques involving a psychopath, sociopath, or someone exhibiting other forms of antisocial personality disorder characteristics, let’s be clear—we will rarely have a clinical diagnosis to rely on prior to an interview. While a layman may observe some of the personality disorder characteristics associated with sociopathy or psychopathy, it requires a diagnosis by skilled clinicians to determine the scale of the disorder. Rather than worry about a clinical definition, let’s address them all as non-emotional offenders.
The idea of rapport building is encouraged in almost all interviews, but it can be problematic when dealing with the non-emotional offender. The idea of rapport is effectively creating a relationship between two people that is based on trust. The non-emotional offender uses rapport in a much different way than one would in a normal conversation. The non-emotional offender often uses rapport to manipulate and influence another for his own benefit, rather than trying to create a long-term relationship based on trust the normal population experiences.
Rapport during a normal interview may be established by identifying common ground with the other person that later becomes the foundation for a relationship. This will rarely be true with the non-emotional offender. In fact, divulging personal information to the non-emotional offender may result in helping him to influence and manipulate the conversation to further benefit himself.
This is not to say that establishing rapport is an unimportant component of the conversation, but rather to alert the interviewer there may be two different desired outcomes of the rapport-building process. The non-emotional offender is intent on influencing and manipulating the investigator for his own gain. When we consider the personality disorder characteristics of many of these individuals, especially narcissism, we remember that they see themselves as the sun around which the planets revolve. The interviewer may use this view of the world to make the conversation much more about the suspect and his thoughts rather than focusing on components of the investigation.
This type of offender also may consider himself to be smarter and worldlier than the investigator. The non-emotional offender often has the ability to read another with tremendous accuracy, focusing on those parts of the individual which are vulnerable. For example, if the non-emotional offender senses nervousness or uncertainty in the interviewer, he may use this to control the conversation, directing it in ways that benefit him or conclude the investigation is not as certain as the interviewer claims.
It is not unusual that psychopathic personalities may partner with another person who has antisocial tendencies or similar personality disorder characteristics. This is a relationship of convenience and one that can be one-sided, with the self-centered, narcissistic personality playing the dominant role and using the other individual for his purposes. In these types of situations, it is often useful to interview both parties at the same time using two interviewers and separate rooms. The self-centered, non-emotional offender seeks to protect one person and one person alone—himself. This may result in the subject implicating his partner while shifting the blame and minimizing his participation in the event.
In some instances, driving a wedge between the two parties may be successful, causing the non-emotional offender to lessen his culpability by placing the majority of the blame on his partner. The interviewer can then use this information to obtain additional admissions from the other person that, in turn, may be used to generate additional admissions from the non-emotional offender.
Many non-emotional offenders have a personality that can charm others and make themselves seem likable, but this may switch at a moment’s notice to become aggressive. The more sociopathic individuals may feel confident they can handle any situation because of their success in doing so in the past. They view the investigator as dull and unable to deal with their intelligence and may actually enjoy the mental challenge of dealing with the interviewer. The interviewer should plan to deal with this aggressive change of behavior.
This suspect’s superior view of the world may actually be a chink in the armor that an investigator may use to bring the case to a successful conclusion. The non-emotional offender’s willingness to engage in a conversation in hopes of manipulating and persuading the investigator can actually be turned into an advantage for the interviewer. Keeping the suspect talking, the interviewer uses the suspect’s own words to trap him as he weaves lies that have served the suspect well in past.
Unlike normal personality types, the non-emotional offender is often willing to lie since this has served him well during previous brushes with authority. This impulsive lying and the individual’s lack of remorse often lead to statements that can be disproved by investigation, thus destroying the suspect’s credibility. This also can be turned into an advantage for the interviewer who has concealed the results of the investigation. The non-emotional offender can be susceptible to a factual approach once he has been backed into a corner through a careful interview approach.
In the early years of its development, the cognitive interview was an interviewing approach to assist victims and witnesses in retrieving information and details observed during a crime. More recently, these interviews have proven effective in identifying suspects in the crime.
Using the cognitive interview, the investigator obtains an open, untainted narrative from the suspect. The interviewer then breaks the story into parts and begins to drill down the untainted narrative into ever-increasing details surrounding the alibi or sequence of events. This provides the interviewer with two important components. First, the suspect has to commit to a number of details that can be proved or disproved through investigation, and second, these statements may be contradicted by existing evidence.
Since the cognitive interview is a non-confrontational approach that is designed to help victims and witnesses retrieve memories, there is little the suspect can say to dissuade the investigator from “helping” the individual remember what transpired. The problem for the suspect is he has no idea what the investigation has determined or the evidence available to the interviewer. This fact alone may increase the individual’s apprehension and potentially his behavioral leakage as the fear of detection rises. Unlike a normal individual, the non-emotional offender may require a higher level of fear of detection before the investigator sees behavioral changes.
A careful interview of the non-emotional offender drilling down into the details of his story or alibi may help to identify the individual’s true status. In two studies of the cognitive interview, interviewers were able to identify the guilty suspects accurately 100 percent of the time, and in a later study, 85 percent of the time. The investigator now goes out to prove or disprove what the subject has told him.
Offenders exhibiting personality disorder characterisstics can sometimes become aggressive, as mentioned earlier, if pressed by the investigator. The subject’s pushback can cause the interviewer to lose control of the conversation and bring the interview to an early close.
The beauty of a participatory accusation is its non-confrontational collaborative nature that keeps the suspect talking. In investigations where evidence has been collected, the interviewer conceals this evidence until late in the conversation. The interviewer leads the suspect though a series of conversations trying indirectly to have the suspect introduce topics of interest. Once these topics have been introduced, the interviewer begins to lock away possible explanations the suspect might use to explain away evidence.
For example, in a large fraud the suspect might be asked to discuss purchasing and the vendors used to provide different products. This will lead to a company that is believed to be paying kickbacks, and then later to the introduction of evidence contradicting the suspect’s previous statements.
By the time the evidence is introduced, the suspect has backed himself into a corner with lies that are easily disprovable with existing evidence. Like all criminals, the non-emotional ones also confess because they believe they have been caught and to preserve their self-image. The investigator can now shift blame to life circumstances, co-conspirators, or financial reasons for the participation in the incident.
The real key to handling these types of offenders is to anticipate who they are in terms of personality, the likely countermeasures they might employ, and to develop the investigation strategy to support a non-confrontational approach to our interview and interrogation techniques. Careful planning and anticipating the pitfalls can make these interviews as successful as those of the emotional offenders.
For those who might be interested in exploring the psychopathic personality further, visit certifiedinterviewer.com for reference material.
This article was first published in 2014 and updated June 29, 2017.