The Psychopathic Suspect
Imagine what it would be like to make everyday decisions without caring how your choices affected others and to live each day with the only goal being to elevate your insatiable self-worth. When telling lies or engaging in criminal activity you experience no guilt or remorse and you have such confidence in your ability to escape punishment that you lie at will; in fact, engaging in illegal behavior, and the thrill of getting away with it, becomes a driving force in your life allowing you to express superiority over others: Welcome to the mind of the primary psychopath.
Fortunately, less than one percent of the population is diagnosed as a primary psychopath. The predominant traits that characterize this psychological disorder include lack of remorse or guilt, poor behavioral control, need for emotional stimulation, irresponsibility, shallow affect, failure to learn from experience, and involvement in anti-social behavior, including frequent lying. Primary psychopaths are usually diagnosed in their twenties, tend to be male and have a higher than average IQ. They experience a psychological burn-out by mid-life after which they are likely to be nonproductive members of society (incarcerated, drug addicts, recluses).
Statistically, an investigator is much more likely to encounter a secondary psychopath. These are individuals who possess some psychopathic traits in combination with symptoms from other personality disorders or mental illness. About fifty percent of the prison population is diagnosed as having some psychopathic traits.
Identifying the psychopath
An investigator is generally not concerned with exactly what mental illness a suspect suffers from, but rather how to recognize fundamental symptoms of a disorder and how to effectively deal with the suspect. A suspect with psychopathic tendencies will exhibit several of the following behaviors:
1. Glibness / superficial charm e.g., unconcerned attitude, overly polite, inappropriate levity
There are a number of key behaviors that may indicate a suspect has psychopathic tendencies. The first is the suspect who, upon meeting the investigator, exhibits no fear or anxiety. Rather, the suspect appears to almost enjoy the challenge of answering questions and does not present any outward symptoms of anxiety or guilt even when caught making an inconsistent or false statement.
The suspect may engage in testing behavior shortly after meeting the investigator. This concept comes from con men who would stage certain scenarios to test the gullibility of a potential victim. Examples of testing behavior may include asking the investigator for a business card, to draw a map showing the best route to the freeway, or simply for the current time. By engaging in this preemptive behavior, the suspect gains a sense of control during the interview.
Finally, it is not uncommon for psychopaths to falsify their credentials and even impersonate others. When psychopathy is suspected, the investigator should question the suspect about his background, education, professional licenses and certification. It may be productive to ask the suspect, “Have you ever pretended to be someone else, where you posed as another person?”
Interviewing The Psychopath
Because of the psychopath’s high level of self confidence, he often believes that he does not need an attorney. A psychopath is likely to waive his Miranda rights and agree to be interviewed. During the interview he is easily engaged and appears to be helpful and cooperative. In reality this “cooperative facade” allows the psychopath to manipulate the investigator with the intent to convince the investigator of his innocence.
The challenge in interviewing a psychopath is that, depending on the degree of psychopathy, the suspect may exhibit minimal behavior symptoms of deception when lying. This includes the lack of specific nonverbal or paralinguistic behaviors reflecting anxiety, guilt, fear or low confidence. Similarly, on the verbal level, the psychopath may not reduce anxiety by using memory qualifiers e.g., “to the best of my knowledge.”
In fact, psychopaths often tell bold lies that invite a challenge, e.g., “I had nothing to do with this whatsoever. I’ll give you my fingerprints because I know you won’t find them at the crime scene.” Later, the investigator finds the suspect’s fingerprints all over the crime scene. Needless to say, when a suspect exhibits psychopathic traits the investigator should not take anything the suspect says at face value. Rather, the investigator should carefully document the suspect’s alleged credentials or alibi, obtain exemplars, get blood sample, take fingerprints etc. and check everything out.
The psychopath’s weakness is within his attitudes. During an interview he will come across as unconcerned (inappropriate levity, express leniency toward the guilty party), offer unrealistic assessments of the crime, and express insincere emotions. The predominant feature is the absence of anxiety or concern that is typically observed from innocent suspects. Moreover, because psychopaths engage in spontaneous behavior, often there is clear evidence that places them at the crime scene or with the victim. Of course, when confronted with the evidence, the suspect will have an explanation for the evidence and protest his innocence with a great deal of conviction.
Interrogating the Psychopath
Hard-wired within the psychopath’s affected personality is a very high index of suspicion; psychopaths are incapable of fully trusting another human being and believe that everyone only acts in their own best interests. Consequently, if the investigator attempts to come across as someone who understands the suspect’s situation and can sympathize with the suspect’s reasons for committing the crime, the investigator will lose credibility.
Rather, the investigator should use a factual approach to the interrogation. The investigator’s statements should focus on evidence and attacking the suspect’s credibility. The investigator’s demeanor should be professional, emotionally detached and confident. It is rare for a primary psychopath to fully confess his crime. More often, he will make incriminating statements and ultimately accept a plea bargain from the prosecutor – the psychopath will not fully admit wrong-doing, but may acknowledge that it is in his best interest to plead guilty.
In conclusion, investigators must guard against labeling every suspect who commits a despicable crime or who frequently lies as a psychopath. While it is true that many people who commit crimes have psychopathic tendencies, certainly not all criminals are primary psychopaths. Psychopathy occurs on a wide continuum. Consequently, rather than asking, “Is this suspect a psychopath?” the investigator may be better off asking, “ To what extent does this suspect exhibit psychopathic tendencies?”
The more psychopathic tendencies a suspect exhibits, the less weight should be placed on specific behavior symptoms of truth or deception during the interview. In fact, the focus of the interview should be to obtain detailed information, about the suspect’s alibi, relationship with the victim, financial situation etc., and that information should be verified (or refuted). The psychopath’s guilt is usually revealed by detecting not one big lie, but several little ones. Also, the interrogation approach should appeal less to the suspect’s emotions and more to logic and intellectual arguments.
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