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Snakes in Suits - When Psychopaths Go to Work 2/x
Paul Babiak, Robert Hare
3/ Psychopathic Manipulation
Without prolonged and perceptive interactions with a person we’re not sure what their character is, especially if the person is physically and socially attractive.
The absence of heartfelt emotions gives the psychopath the ability to kill without remorse and for the reasons filled with banality. The emotions themselves, as presented, are copied from someone else and are extracted from memory.
Even well-trained researchers can be fooled and manipulated by known psychopaths they’ve just met. However, the less interesting one is to a psychopath, the less effort the latter exerts, and it becomes easier to see a psychopath without the veil of charm.
The people who’ve just learned about the psychopathic traits it’s common to see everyone around them (including themselves!) as part-time or full-time psychopaths.
It’s a known fact that people have three faces: what they believe themselves to be (a private personality), what they project to others (a persona), and the attributed personality – the reputation others make for us.
The private self is a combination of idealised visions of who we are and who we want to be. It hurts us if others suggest our traits are not as perfect as we want them to be. It also includes the traits we don’t want others to see and know about – and most often we don’t plan to fix them, either. Acceptance is the new rule now. These can be our dark thoughts, insecurities, illusions about ourselves and our place in the world. It takes substantial mental efforts to suppress these thoughts and behaviours in order to put our cognitive dissonance about ourselves in some sort of balance. Psychotherapy and counselling allow to resolve the psychological conflicts between the bright and the dark sides of one’s character. As long as one’s bright side is larger than the dark side, it’s possible to at least achieve reconciliation under the “I’m an OK person” banner, leading to the sought-after behaviours like self-confidence and inner strength.
The public self is a carefully edited version of the private personality being revealed to others to influence how they see and judge the person. It takes a lot of effort to maintain a consistent version of the public self without exposing the part of the private life that can be perceived differently.
Reputation is how others see and describe us based on their interactions with us and concerning us. It’s often a twisted mirror as everyone is biased in their own way. This leads to a phenomenon when people make their judgements in the first seconds of interaction and subconsciously filter out any information contradicting their snap opinion. It’s a known fact that reputation depends on one’s consistency of words, promises and actions, but even consistency is not a full cure for a misjudged first opinion. Reputation, however, most of the time doesn’t fully match one’s self-image and a public persona.
The most dangerous psychopath is the one who’s intelligent, “well-bred” (i.e., coming from a respectable background) and physically attractive.
While experienced sales agents, HR staff, police officers, psychotherapists and other human-facing professionals are good at digging deeper into the personality dynamics, psychopaths do it for a living, while using their knowledge of character to project the most effective persona.
Psychopaths start with learning more about a target during their interactions with a goal to understand the inner workings of the target’s character, especially the strengths and weaknesses. Overall, psychopaths are trying to communicate four important messages to the target:
They like and value the target’s strengths and talents. It’s positive reinforcement of the target’s self-presentation. Communicated in a charming matter, it’s hard to resist, especially when people are self-centred and / or insecure.
“I’m just like you” – this message requires guessing some parts of another person’s personality, simulating a matching personality (in terms of values, beliefs, and life experiences) and pretending to lower the guard to encourage the target to reciprocate and become more vulnerable. Generally, people want to be understood, so giving away more information about oneself is natural, although reckless.
“Your secrets are safe with me” – this message follows the sharing of private information deviating from the target’s public persona. Safety and security are a basic need, and psychopaths pretend to fulfil it.
“I am a perfect friend / lover / partner for you” – this is the natural progression of the trust one places in a psychopath; it starts looking like a true friendship, which can evolve into an affair. The psychopath becomes someone who can seemingly fulfil the deeper needs for romance, important discussion topics or support in decision making. The artificial persona becomes a perfect match (perhaps too perfect, as a matching piece for an unusually complex puzzle piece) for the target – and that’s when the setup for victimisation is complete.
The difference between true friendship / love and a psychopathic manipulation setup is that the matching persona never really exists and was carefully crafted to suck out resources out of a target. The relationships are not based on the informed choice: the target is being chosen not for the character, but rather for the abusable flaws of character. Fake relationships don’t and can’t last long, and almost never involve more energy spent on maintaining them than barely needed. Finally, such relationships are always one-sided as one of the parties has predatory motives.
The outcomes of such manipulations are invariably ruinous to a target – both from a psychological and a financial perspective. Victims have a hard time accepting the truth that the relationship has never existed and even want their abusers back in their lives. It’s even harder to accept if the psychopath is personally or physically very attractive.
4/ Enter the Psychopath
In a group setting it’s hard to maintain several personas at once (it becomes easier to spot inconsistencies), so it makes more sense to focus on one person at a time, and ideally make sure these individuals never talk to each other, at least about the matters the psychopath is mostly interested in.
One of the reasons why victims rarely go to the authorities is the shame associated with the realisation of having been conned. Businesses also swipe such incidents under the carpet whenever possible due to the potential reputational damage. Thus, it becomes a low-risk invitation to psychopaths.
In prisons and mental wards experiences psychopaths may learn to manipulate the guards and doctors to pretend they’re crazy and not criminal or the other way around – whatever serves their interests.
Affinity groups (religious, political or social) in which all members share common values or beliefs are particularly attractive to psychopaths because of the collective trust that members of these groups have in one other. [a quote] The manipulation exploits the common belief systems – something that people from different backgrounds have in common, allowing them to interact with each other with a degree of trust. Affinity groups are prone to manipulations by people who send all the right in-group signals, while having their personal motives behind the facade.
Not all members of affinity groups are gullible: roughly 1/3 are more influenced by style than substance and are victimised, another 1/3 is indifferent and the remaining 1/3 is suspicious or distrustful. This split doesn’t change even after the fraud gets exposed.
Many people feel uncomfortable around a psychopath, citing a predatory stare and empty eyes. It’s true that psychopaths are intraspecies predators, and it’s normal to feel uneasy and anxious around them due to the potential threat they pose.
Business organisations / corporations are not affinity groups, rather they combine the labour of many people with the resources to make a product or provide a service. Bureaucracy is inevitable once the company grows, and this creates discomfort for business owners, which can be exploited.
Contrary to expectations, psychopaths are not good material for traditional bureaucracies (which don’t exist in the pure form anyway):
They are rule-breakers, which makes them unwelcome in the environments with strict rules and procedures.
They’re not team players, being too selfish to work with others on a common goal. As manipulation requires one-on-one conditioning, the privacy of a relationship and the results being hidden from the management, this can’t be done at scale, and hiding the lack of results from the management can be really hard.
Getting value from corporations is a marathon, not a sprint, which is the preferred game of psychopaths. The lack of instant gratification makes many corporate activities boring and unattractive to them.
Corporations most of the time have the means for employees to vent their dissatisfaction with non-performing peers and have them reprimanded or worse. Hotlines and other means to uncover fraud are effective means to stop many psychopaths from achieving their goals most of the time. [MK: as we all know, any system can be abused, and this one is not an exception.]
Psychopaths don’t have the work ethics required to work diligently and consistently achieve results. [MK: this is not to say that all people who can’t stand the 9-to-5 routine are psychopaths.]
However, corporate psychopaths do indeed exist: many corporations are prime feeding grounds for entrepreneurial and socially attractive psychopaths. They do well where the action is [MK: meaning a high degree of uncertainty, which is present in most growing companies] and where they can take advantage of the company and its perks. There’s a lot of fish to be caught in muddy waters, making it relatively easy for psychopaths to commit fraud, staying under the radar and neutralising colleagues who may uncover their wrongdoings.
It is not true that female psychopaths don’t exist. It is also true, though, that there is a bias towards men to classify their traits as psychopathic, while women are classified as histrionic or narcissistic. This is partially because psychopaths are expected to be tough, dominant and aggressive – but this ignores the sex-role stereotypes reflected in different behaviours of men and women in society.
This actually makes women psychopaths even harder to identify as they may come across as caring, nurturing and dependent – stereotypically so. However, the percentage of psychopaths in female offenders is similar to one for the males, and their capacity for cold-blooded violence matches one of their male counterparts, too.
Entering the Corporation
Joining a company is not hard [MK: at least, passing the culture fit interview with the right answers is a breeze to someone who has been faking sincerity for a living]. It’s not easy to fake technical resumes as successfully pass interviews, but if the job description has any of the “critical thinking”, “strategic planning”, “leadership” and other corporate BS, the hiring decisions start being subjective and prone to manipulations by the skilled candidates (not necessarily psychopaths). Face-to-face interviews are precisely the places where psychopaths shine and their chances of getting hired increase dramatically.
15%+ of resumes contain exaggerations or outright lies. Psychopaths, though, can fake the entire work history with the right references. In in-person interviews they have an upper hand by being assertive, confident and backing their claims with fictitious stories.
In rapidly growing companies it’s common to hire new staff based on the perception of the management potential of a candidate or their future value to the firm. [MK: the assumption here is that companies fire the wrong hires equally as fast, which is rarely the case. It’s much harder to get a job than to be fired from it.] Another assumption is that these new hires may be candidates for higher-level jobs (with more broadly defined responsibilities) where functional expertise is less important for success. Selling oneself becomes a walk in the park for a psychopath.
Charm, as well as the projection of being bright, conscientious, honest and socially skilled, is something companies really need in their candidates, and these are exactly the qualities that are easiest to fake and abuse.