Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feeling for others, they take what they want and do what they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret. Their bewildered victims desperately ask: “Who are these people?” “What makes them the way they are?”
- Robert Hare, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia
recent discussion thread I followed touched briefly on the topic of psychopathy and the destructively predatory/parasitic behavior encounted in certain individuals. This is a topic worth further exploration for a number of reasons:
1. The public’s perception of sociopaths is skewed by the media and Hollywood, which portray them as flamboyantly evil characters beyond the scope of human comprehension (think Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or Kevin Spacey in Se7en). Consequently …
2. … they fail to realize that vast majority of sociopaths exhibit very conventional outward appearances and mannerisms. Thus, most people leave themselves vulnerable (sometimes repeatedly) to a sociopath’s predation, because they cannot fathom the extent to which a seemingly normal person could be so remorseless in exploiting/hurting others.
3. Finally, it is estimated that approximate 3% of males and 1% of females can be considered psychopaths. (Robert Hare, Without Conscience) 3% corresponds to 1 in 33, and 1% corresponds to 1 in 100.
So while the probability of being kidnapped, butchered and eaten by a cannibal is vanishingly small, with a 1-in-33 occurrence of psychopathy in the adult male population – the prospect of you encountering (and potentially being victimized by) a sociopath is almost inevitable.
(Note: although the terms ‘sociopathy,’ ‘psychopathy’ and ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ are considered to technically have distinct definitions, they are close enough in meaning that I tend to use them interchangeably.)
So how do people end up the way they are? Are psychopaths “born bad” or have they been socialized into predatory behavior as a result of childhood abuse? Empirical research on that topic is scant, and criminal psychology professionals have widely disparate theories regarding the origins of psychopathy.
I have my opinions, of course. Given the extraordinarily diverse childhood backgrounds of diagnosed sociopaths (from upper-class, privately-schooled children who end up as stock market swindlers, to ghetto-class children who become gang members), and the fact that (by definition) sociopaths exhibit significant antisocial patterns at an early age, I believe sociopathy is primarily caused by physiological and biochemical factors.
Before discussing the psychology of human predators (which I intend to cover in the next segment), it may be instructive to analyze psychopathic-like behavior in the animal kingdom, and observe an entire species whose babies are genetically hardwired to lie, cheat, steal and kill from its first breath.
Today’s Lesson in Ornithology: Cuckoo Birds – Nature’s Psychopaths
The cuckoo bird’s most distinctive feature is its reproduction pattern – cuckoo birds cannot build nests or hatch their own eggs. Instead, a pregnant cuckoo hen must find unattended nests of other bird species with eggs already inside, slip in, lay one her own, and fly off.
Cuckoo chick being fed by its unwitting foster parent (whose adult body is half the chick's size)
Cuckoo hens are capable of holding their eggs much longer than other birds – right up until a few days before they are ready to hatch. Consequently, cuckoo eggs, (once laid) are the first to hatch in the nests where they are deposited. This is important because a cuckoo hatchling’s first instinct upon opening its eyes in its foster home is to sweep all the other eggs in the nest and dump them over the edge in order to eliminate its competition. In other words – the very first instinct-hardwired act of every baby cuckoo bird is fratricide: murdering its stepsiblings to ensure the exclusive feeding attention of its foster parents.
Curiously, the wrens, sparrows and robins that are victimized in this fashion have no hardwired capacity to recognize hatchlings of their own species. Much like “imprinting” in reverse, they instinctively dedicate unswerving devotion to the contents of their nest regardless of how radically different their “child” may be in appearance to themselves. A human analog would be like an black couple who delivers a child at a hospital, gets handed a blond, blue-eyed baby from the maternity ward, and goes home to raise the child as their own with no questions. (Incidentally, the term ‘cuckold,’ referring to a man whose spouse’s infidelity results in pregnancy, is derived from how cuckoos reproduce)
In essence, cuckoos survive by hijacking the nesting/parental instincts of other birds, slaughtering a clutch of their victims’ children, and deceiving them into raising the cuckoo’s own brood. Indeed, without a plentiful supply of unwitting foster parents to dupe, cuckoos will die, as they have no capability or instinct to raise a hatchling on their own.
(to be continued)