Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

How Psychopaths Choose Their Victims

Just as sociopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims.

Recently my journalistic career brought me in contact with a man who, when I first met him, seemed to be the very embodiment of a charming and well-heeled gentleman. He is a natural raconteur, good-looking, athletic, intellectually curious, financially successful, and wittily self-deprecating. What few people know about him is that he has left behind a trail of emotional destruction, having spent decades abusing vulnerable individuals for his own twisted purposes.

Psychopaths, or sociopaths as some prefer to call them, are well known figures in our culture. We're fascinated by their predatory relationship with the rest of humanity. Their chilling alien-ness makes them convenient villains in books, film, and television. When we encounter them in real life, we think: There really are monsters roaming the world. But as my own recent experience has taught me, the crimes of the psychopath are not merely a function of the perpetrator. We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims.

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As my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marisa Mauro has pointed out, psychologists have long been known that the more psychopathic a person is, the more easily they can identify potential victims. Indeed, they can do so just by watching the way a person moves. In one study, test subjects watched videos of twelve individuals walking, shot from behind, and rated how easily they could be mugged. As it happened, some of the people in the videotapes really had been mugged -- and the most psychopathic of the subjects were able to tell which was which. Writes Mauro:

The [subjects] completed the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale: Version III, which measures interpersonal and affective traits associated with psychopathy as well as intra-personal instability and antisocial traits... Overall results confirmed a strong positive correlation between psychopathy scores and accuracy of victim identification. This means that individuals that score higher for psychopathy are better at selecting victims.

And what was it about these people that made them seem vulnerable? A later study found that the men were picking up on whole suite of nonverbal cues, including the length of their stride, how they shifted their weight, and how high they lifted their feet. Taken together, these cues gave the psychopathic men a rough gauge of how confident their potential victims were. Body language that implies a lack of confidence --- read: socially submissive --- includes lack of eye contact, fidgeting of the hands and feet, and the avoidance of large gestures when shifting posture.

The researchers' findings confirmed my own suspicions regarding the dubious fellow I mentioned above. The women who wound up on the receiving end of his attentions were individuals who, in their own description, were not very worldly, experienced, or outgoing. They were psychologically vulnerable and hence ill-equipped to either resist this fellow's predations or to deal with them emotionally after they had occurred. In the aftermath, they are so traumatized that even speaking about their experiences is extremely painful. And so the psychopath continues on his way.

The rather depressing upshot of all this is that, as much we may hate the idea of "blaming the victim," people who are on the receiving end of crime often do mark themselves out, if only subliminally. I suppose that we could look on the bright side and recognize that there are things we can do to make us less vulnerable. But unfortunately there always going to weaker and more vulnerable members of society -- the lambs on whom the wolves will focus their attention.

UPDATE: In response to some critical comments, I further address the subject of "blaming the victim" here. Am I guilty? Feel free to vent.


Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.


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