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Enter Psychopath, Exeunt Certainty

Psychopaths are the Olympians of impression management.

Psychology Today
Source: Psychology Today

I met this man three years ago, for one second. We locked eyes in the grocery store and a jolt of adrenaline forever imprinted his face on my mind. The French call it coup de foudre, but the electric charge was wholly negative. I looked at his eyes—an unusual iris-to-pupil ratio—and feared for my safety in the midst of a brightly-lit cereal aisle. I was certain that I’d just met a psychopath. I wish I could say that his mugshot appeared in the next day’s paper—such things do happen. But in this case, it is just as likely that he was on drugs, or that the fluorescent light refracted something sinister into my eager imagination.

To say that you can spot a law-abiding psychopath is almost an oxymoron (though clearly it’s never stopped me from trying). Psychopaths are by definition masters of emotional disguise. If there were an Olympics for impression management, psychopaths would be frequent and exultant medalists—they, more than most liars, are capable of subterfuge in matters large and small. Indeed, psychopathy evolved, according to one line of thinking, because there is great value in exploiting the vast majority who conform to social norms. It is a lonely niche, worth occupying precisely because it is foreign to most people.

The emergent thinking is that, like many traits, psychopathy exists on a spectrum and that the label is less relevant than the degree to which the behavior is exhibited: Charismatic politicians and ruthless criminals reside on the same continuum. (The spectrum approach is nicely explored in Kevin Dutton's The Wisdom of Psychopaths and in further books on the horizon).

The June issue of PT offers meditations on being in and alongside dark–but-by-turns-charismatic minds. You’ll get a sociopath’s-eye view from a self-described and clinically-tested psychopath (she prefers the label sociopath, which is almost synonymous but less scary in popular parlance) and read the odyssey of Jeff Wise, a writer baffled by behavior that he deemed peculiar enough to raise alarm.

The author of our cover story “Confessions of a Sociopath” is anonymous. John McAfee, the subject of Wise's “Dancing with a Madman” briefly went into hiding last year. For every fact revealed, you will want to know 10 more. Some answers are here, some are unknowable. I hope these stories illuminate people whose inscrutability is both a prized asset and a potential threat, depending on where you stand relative to them, and how the light hits.