violence to control
others and to
satisfy their own
Scams, Schemes & Swindles
|By Jeanine DeNoma|
Participants at the Skeptic’s Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon, spent four days in August 1998 learning about the nature and psychology of deception. Everything from medical quackery to media misrepresentation and pranksters to paranormal peddlers was examined. The following articles are based on talks by Dr. Ray Hyman, psychologist at the University of Oregon, and Dr. Barry Beyerstein, physiological psychologist at Simon Fraser University. Additional information is from reading lists provided by conference faculty.
Con-artists are among the criminals least likely to be apprehended. Their crimes are usually viewed as less serious than violent crimes such as murder and rape. Yet con-artists repeatedly prey upon the most innocent and vulnerable people in society, stealing money, possessions, sexual favors, and sometimes even the health of their victims. Their crimes frequently go unreported, perhaps because of the victim’s shame and embarrassment.
Dr. Barry Beyerstein examined con-artists and their crimes in a talk titled “Psychopaths and the motivation behind con-artistry.” In doing so, he used the backdrop of psychopathic behavior as described by Dr. Robert Hare, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and a leading expert on psychopathy. Beyerstein discussed two types of cons: those in which the victim is ensnared by his own greed and those in which a vulnerable individual unwittingly becomes entrapped.
Preying on greed
The saying “You can’t cheat an honest man” was spawned from confidence schemes that rely upon the victim’s greed and willingness to step outside the law. Victims are recruited in the guise of co-conspirators enlisted to rip-off another victim, usually a large corporation, government, or someone portrayed as reprehensible and undeserving. The victims of such schemes seldom report the crime to authorities, largely because that would require admitting their own illegal intent. Consequently, the perpetrators are almost never caught. Many sit in board rooms, legal and medical offices, and the halls of academia where they prosper handily from their crimes, said Beyerstein.
Preying on vulnerability
More tragic yet are crimes in which con-artists prey upon vulnerable individuals, typically the lonely, bereaved, ill, elderly, or handicapped. Cons are always more likely to succeed if the victim can be separated from the guidance normally provided by friends and family. These individuals make particularly easy prey, as they are often already isolated. Success also depends upon the ability of the con-artist to find and identify susceptible individuals. These criminals seek out people whose need, good nature, benevolence, naivete, or lack of experience makes them just a little too trusting. Their victims are often, but not always, less educated and may be unskilled or unsystematic in handling their financial affairs.
“Love bandits” befriend those who have recently lost a spouse through death or divorce, and who have assets such as money or property. They pursue lonely people who have a strong need to be liked and feel helpful, or who desire intimacy and support. Individuals who crave love relationships are often willing to go to greater extremes to satisfy those needs, making them particularly vulnerable.
Recent immigrants are also attractive targets, especially to others from their own country. Immigrants often lack a good support network, may not speak the language, and may be unsure or unfamiliar about the customs. And, possibly because of their experience in their old country, they may be especially reluctant to go to authorities such as the police.
Are con-artists different?
What is it about con-artists that allows them to commit such crimes and then, without remorse, simply move on to their next victim? Certainly most people would find such behavior unconscionable, and empathy for the victim would serve as a hinderance. That is not so, however, for these criminals. Beyerstein argued such con-artists are substantially different, both physiologically and emotionally, from the rest of us. Specifically, they lack the ability to feel empathy toward their victims. These con-artists, said Beyerstein, fit all the criteria for psychopathy with one exception: They are less prone to violence.
The term “psychopath” has lost much of its meaning through overuse. In popular slang it is often used synonymously with “crazy.” In psychology, however, it has a very specific meaning. Psychopaths are not delusional or experiencing mental distress; they are not psychotic. They are considered to be rational and freely choose their actions. Nor is psychopathy the same as “antisocial personality disorder,” which is a diagnosis based upon social behaviors.
Psychopathy refers to a specific set character traits. Hare, who developed the “Psychopathy Checklist” (see Table 1) for identifying psychopaths from interviews, case-histories, and archived data, describes psychopaths as “predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs.” Hare has focused much of his research on imprisoned violent criminals; however, he also discusses psychopaths who manage to stay just this side of the jail bars and who are more likely to be involved in crimes of deceit. These con-artists tend to have above average intelligence and, therefore, are less likely than other criminals to need to resort to force or threats. Their verbal giftedness and outgoing personalities allow them to rely instead on words and manipulation to get what they want.
|Table 1. Robert Hare's check list of traits associated with the pyschopathic personality|
Profile of a psychopath
“Good looks, a touch of charisma, a flood of words. Contrived distractions, a knack for knowing which buttons to press-all these can go a long way toward obscuring the fact that the psychopathic presentation is nothing more than a ‘line’,” writes Hare. “A good-looking, fast-talking psychopath and a victim who has ‘weak spots’ is a devastating combination.”
Exaggerated shows of words, flashy demonstrations of wealth and influence, false displays of sincerity, and an aura of excitement, all facilitate the psychopath’s single goal of draining his victim dry. The personality traits of the psychopath, as described in Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, help explain how these criminals succeed in getting what they want.
Glib and superficial. These criminals present themselves as likeable, witty, flattering, and charming. They have an easy, fluent way of talking-the “gift of gab.” They often have a wide but shallow knowledge base. They pretend experiences and expertise they don’t actually have and fluently toss about the language, jargon and buzzwords that match their story. If pressed for substance, it isn’t there.
With such skills, they have successfully impersonated doctors, airline pilots, financial consultants, psychologists, and skilled professionals. They get away with these charades because they have perfected the art of being liked. People around them want them succeed and often cover for their mistakes and create excuses for their failings. Their congeniality and charm leads peers to overlook what should be obvious. Many impersonators are exposed only when a chance event gives away their deception. Others give themselves away by coming across as insincere, mechanical, superficial or too slick. Once discovered, they pack up and move on, often slipping away before they can be apprehended by authorities. Interestingly, “a signpost to this trait is often a smooth lack of concern at being found out,” writes Hare.
Hare gives the example of an impersonator who ran for the local school board in a community where he had lived for several years posing as a Berkeley Ph.D. psychologist. A local newspaper reporter decided to check the candidate’s credentials and discovered that not only was everything he had told the community a lie, but he had spent most of his life either in prison or dodging authorities. When the newspaper revealed the fraud, many people in the community came to the imposter’s support. Instead of being defeated by the revelations, he was ready to capitalize on them. Hare quotes him as saying, “Name recognition is so important to a politician, and now more people know my name than before. I can run with this for years.” He later told the reporter that the school board job paid $18,000 per year. From there he thought he could land a $30,000 job as a county commissioner, and possibly go on to be a state representative. That was just before he landed in prison.
Egocentric and grandiose. These con-artists have an inflated view of their own self-worth. They are self-assured, often charismatic, and have infectious energy and enthusiasm. With luck and the right victim, this grandiosity may pay big. But they usually lack the discipline to bring their grandiose goals to fruition. When problems arise from their behavior they blame others or an unfair system, never themselves.
Lack of remorse or guilt. Psychopaths have no remorse about breaking rules or laws, regardless of the consequences to themselves or others. Once caught they blame their victims for dangling rewards in front of them, or for being gullible or stupid. They show no concern for their victims.
Lack of empathy. These are people who completely lack the ability to feel for others. Instead, they intellectually calculate other people’s emotions. Lacking empathy, they are free to exploit their victims and are indifferent to the suffering they cause others.
Psychopaths see the world as made up of predators and prey. From their view, victims are there for the taking; if they don’t take them someone else will. Relationships are trivial except for what can be gained from them. Family members, spouses and children are viewed as possessions instead of people. They live off of their victims like a parasite until what they want is gone and then move on. They can be quite astute at exploiting the weaknesses of others for personal gain and usually have no scruples against conning friends, family, or foes.
Deceitful and manipulative. Psychopaths know the rules of society, but choose not to follow them. They use their knowledge, however, to manipulate others. They know their victims will not only follow societal rules, but will interpret the psychopath’s actions under the assumption that he too is following the rules. These facts make the psychopath’s job easier and the victim more subject to manipulation.
Psychopaths are pathological liars. They lie convincingly without any outward sign of lying, and often do so for no reason. When caught, they are unconcerned. Hare tells this story of one psychopath he studied: The psychopath had observed a young couple on the dock admiring a large sailboat with a “For Sale” sign. He approached them, falsely introduced himself as the owner of the boat, and invited them aboard. After an hour on board, the couple made an offer on the boat, negotiated the terms of the sale, and gave him a $1500 check as deposit. They agreed to meet at the bank the next day. The psychopath cashed the check and was never seen by them again.
Shallow emotions. “Psychopaths seem to suffer a kind of emotional poverty that limits the range and depth of their feelings,” Hare writes. “While at times they appear cold and unemotional, they are prone to dramatic, shallow, and short-lived displays of feeling. Careful observers are left with the impression that they are play-acting and that little is going on below the surface.
“Sometimes they claim to experience strong emotions but are unable to describe the subtleties of various affective states. For example, they equate love with sexual arousal, sadness with frustration, and anger with irritability,” writes Hare.
According to Hare, psychopaths do not show normal physiological responses to fear or anxiety. Take the following laboratory test, for example: A subject sits listening to a metronome and after every fifth tick is administered a shock. A normal subject will show an anticipatory reaction before the shock; psychopaths do not.
Fear of punishment and negative consequences, which are normal deterrents to bad behavior, do not restrict psychopaths’ actions. They appear unable to learn from punishment or the consequences of their actions. As a result, they are impulsive, lack responsibility, and have few restraints on their behavior. Psychopaths never develop a normal conscience.
“We don’t know why the conscience of the psychopath-if it exists at all-is so weak,” writes Hare. He does provide a number of possibilities: Perhaps psychopaths don’t have the aptitude to experience emotion and, since fear and anxiety are the cornerstones of conscience, they simply lack the ability to form one. They may have little ability to mentally picture the consequences of their actions. Or, it may be because “the inner speech of psychopaths lacks emotional punch.” Normal subjects, writes Hare, show different brain responses to emotionally charged words, such as death, than they do to neutral words, such as paper. Psychopaths do not, indicating they do not place emotional meaning on words.
Paul Ekman, in his book Telling Lies, explains why lies often fail. Liars give themselves away with subtle signs of guilt and fear of being caught. Psychopaths are convincing liars because, without these emotions, they provide no facial clues that reveal their deception. They often, however, give themselves away by telling so many lies they begin contradicting themselves.
Percentage of the population
Psychopaths make up approximately 1% of the population, about the same rate as for schizophrenia. They are estimated to be about 15% to 20% of the prison population. Violence-prone psychopaths are more likely to show up in prisons. Con-artists, with their ability to manipulate others, seem better able to avoid getting caught and when they do, they usually receive shorter prison terms. Their efforts to avoid jail are often bolstered by higher intelligence, better verbal skills, higher education level, high social standing, good looks, and an engaging personality.
Nature or nurture?
Psychopaths’ behavior problems begin very early in childhood, usually before school age. Parents describe these children as being “different” from their other children. Punishment, pleas, threats and counseling seem to have little effect. Normal approaches to discipline just don’t work. Hare describes these children as “stubbornly immune to socializing pressures.” By adolescence, they have usually had multiple encounters with the law. Are the parents or the child the source of the problem? Are these “simply exaggerated forms of normal childhood behaviors” aggravated by poor parenting, or is it something more?
Hare is of the opinion “psychopathy emerges from a complex-and poorly understood-interplay between biological factors and social forces.” He supports this argument with a number of lines of evidence from genetics, neurobiology, and psychology. The starting point is an individual to which nature, as a result of genetics and biological development, has provided the inability to experience empathy and emotion. As a result, human bonding, socialization, conscience, and internal control do not develop normally.
“Social factors and parenting practices help to shape the behavioral expression of the disorder, but have less effect on the individual’s inability to feel empathy or to develop a conscience. No amount of social conditioning will by itself generate a capacity for caring about others or a powerful sense of right and wrong,” writes Hare. “... Family life has much less influence on the antisocial behaviors of psychopaths than it does on the behavior of most people.”
Most criminals come from troubled families, but psychopathic criminals are different from most other criminals. Hare found in his studies that the age at which non-psychopathic criminals became involved with the courts depended upon the stability of the criminal’s family. Those from troubled families appeared in court at an earlier age. “In sharp contrast, the quality of family life had absolutely no effect on the emergence of criminality of psychopaths. Whether the family life was stable or unstable, psychopaths first appeared in adult court at an average age of fourteen,” writes Hare. Family differences did effect the number of violent crimes psychopaths committed, supporting Hare’s hypothesis that social experiences influence the expression, but not the presence, of psychopathy. Psychopaths who become con-artists and white-collar criminals were more likely to have come from affluent, stable families.
The common assumption that psychopathic behavior can be corrected with therapy or counseling has, in Hare’s opinion, little scientific support. In fact, he sites examples where therapy, especially group therapy, served as a “finishing school” for psychopaths by equipping them with a better understanding of how and why other people react as they do.
Dangers of a “camouflage society”
Hare expresses concern that our society, as it increasingly glamorizes and reinforces some traits, has created a culture in which psychopaths can hide and thrive. In some sectors of society it is permitted and even “cool” to show attitudes such as lack of concern for others, superficiality, style over substance, and egocentricity. This sets the stage for psychopaths to become role-models for youth who have little other guidance.
Hare, Robert. 1993. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. Pocket Books; Simon & Schuster Inc. New York.
Ekman, Paul. 1985.
Lies. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.
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