R.K.: My guest tonight is Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD.
She spent her career studying the criminal mind. She was one of the most senior profilers of the FBI until her retirement in 2009. She has helped capture, interview, and understand some of the world's most infamous people and she is recognized as the FBI's leading expert in the area of psychopathy. Psychopaths. Welcome to the show.
R.K.: Okay, so I wanted to take this in another direction now. We've got a million psychopaths. One percent of the population. That's over three million psychopaths in American then, right?
M.O.: I'd have to do that math, but I think that's correct.
R.K.: There's about three hundred and fifteen million Americans, it's about three million. Now, if only fifteen percent of people in jail are psychopaths and there are about two or three million people in jail that means that most of the psychopaths are not in jail. They're out there.
M.O.: Mmh huh.
R.K.: Where I've been really going with this, once I get started thinking about this is what do we do? What does law enforcement do? What do corporations do? Because, I'm very interested in corporate psychopaths. That was actually the title of the article, wasn't White Collar, it might have been White Collar at one point, but the title of the article on the FBI website is 'The Corporate Psychopath."
R.K.: So, my question is what about the ones who are not in jail, who are not murderers who are smarter and more strategic. What is done to deal with them and to protect the public from the ones who get away with it? The ones who are so good that they're running corporations, or maybe even in politics. Maybe even behind a badge.
M.O.: Well, let me ask you this question for clarification. Are we talking about someone who is psychopathic but doesn't break the law and runs a company or are we talking about someone who manifests the traits of psychopathy and breaks the law?
R.K.: Well, I've done a number of interviews, one I did was somebody who teaches therapists how to help people who have been victims of psychopaths. My impression is that a lot of psychopaths exploit people as they're predators, they exploit people by going into relationships with them and they get away with an awful lot that is illegal, but they don't get to go to jail. And then there are people and, let's face it, if you have a lot of money, your consequences are minimal of your risk of going to jail.
I just read an article today about one of the Mars family from the candy company, she's a billionaire. She got into an accident, fell asleep, hit somebody, she's going to get away with a $2,500 fine and six months probation. I guess my point is there are an awful lot of people out there who are not in jail, yet they're predators and I think that a lot should be done to deal with them preventatively.
Now, when I've written about it, people have brought up the "Majority Report" that movie Tom Cruise was in where people were predicted to be criminals before they did anything, and I don't want that, but I'm just wondering what the FBI does to deal with people who have not yet committed crimes, if there's anything that's done, if there is a government plan, or any kind of a psychological approach to dealing them.
M.O.: Well, what law enforcement does is if someone doesn't break the law, then law enforcement has no jurisdiction, or no basis to get involved with their life, or to dictate what should or shouldn't happen. So, that's number one. Number two, I think people have to understand, someone can have the traits of psychopathy, but never break the law.
And I know that that's a very difficult concept to get, but that's the reality. So, if someone is not out there breaking the law, law enforcement can't just walk into their home and say you know we think you're acting like a jerk, and they may use other words, so we're going to get involved in your life.
Now, what some of us do is we do work with corporations doing training to make them aware of what psychopathy is so that when their HR people are hiring, or interviewing people, they'll know what the disorder is, but they're also, the HR people are also trained to look for other things as well. So, I think it's important to note that this sinister personality type is not lurking around every corner, or attempting to break down the doors of corporate America, but we do know that these folks are out there and that if they do come in to law enforcement, or any profession, and they get involved, the damage that they can do can be significant.
They can be very disruptive. They can, but does that disruption equate to criminal behavior and, no, it does not necessarily do that, but if corporations would have their own strategies for dealing with an employee that uses and manipulates people, that sells company secrets, that does other kinds of very disruptive behaviors, and so does law enforcement, if we have a law enforcement officer that doesn't commit a crime as a police officer, but becomes very disruptive because possibly being psychopathic, then they have their own ways of dealing with that through internal affairs and then termination.
But, again, if someone is having psychopathic traits and they're not breaking the law there's nothing that you can do. Now, I get calls all the time from people, primarily women, who believe that they are dealing with a psychopathic boyfriend, or a psychopathic husband, and I hear from them a lot that what they're trying to do is to deal with him.
Sometimes they're trying to deal with him in a court situation like custody, or sometimes they're just trying to deal with him, and they ask for my advice and I'm very careful about giving advice because in a five minute conversation you don't know what you don't know and most of the time it's like 99%, or they're not telling you because you don't have that kind of time, but when it comes to changing somebody's personality, what I tell people is you cannot change them.
You cannot change them and so best advice is to walk away. You have to find an exit strategy, but you can't call up your local police department and say I think my boyfriend is a psychopath, it's not a criminal offense.
R.K.: Right. So Bernie Madoff, would you call him a psychopath?
M.O.: I'm not going to call anybody a psychopath that hasn't been assessed.
R.K.: Okay, fair enough. Does his, from what you have seen about him, does his behavior look like it might be? I mean, how can you respond to a question about Bernie Madoff in a way you're comfortable with?
M.O.: The way I'm comfortable with is to say I'm aware of his behavior, but I didn't work on the case, I wasn't involved in the investigation, and wasn't asked to be, so it would be very, it wouldn't be appropriate, nor would it be ethical, to say based on the very limited amount that I know I would use this term to describe this person. I have to be very careful because of my position to use that term and that's not a cop out.
I've got to be very careful because I still testify in court and if someone hears me being very reckless with terms because labels matter and words make a difference. So, I believe that before we can use that term I have to have a basis for being able to do that and certainly, especially with high profile cases, unless there's been a formal assessment, I won't do it.
R.K.: Okay. That's fair enough. I guess I wanted to go there because let's say somebody in his operation had concerns that he was doing illegal things and was a psychopath, or I guess there are two separate things, or are they? If somebody has got suspicions that they're dealing with a psychopath at work, what do they do?
M.O.: Again, if someone, and here is the caution that I would give to people, people will, it's kind of in our nature, people will read one or two books on psychopathy and they'll go to work and they'll sit next to their coworker who is kind of a jerk and all of a sudden they're labeling them as a psychopath. So, you can see how dangerous that can get.
Again, it's not a term to use very lightly. Now, if someone is at work, and you work next to them, they're not friendly, they're kind of a jerk, but they're not breaking company rules, they're not hurting people, they're just being very unpleasant, I don't know what your company wants to do with that. That's up to your company, but I would caution people not to become arm chair therapists and I see that, I honestly see that, happening way too often.
If there is behavior at work, disregard the label. Disregard the term, psychopath because it's too easy to try put people into a box. If you're working with someone who is hurting you, is creating serious issues at work, who is hurting the company somehow, when you see behaviors that rise to the level of being more than just unpleasant, then you go to HR, and I don't care what label it is, and you go and you discuss it with them and then let them process it through whatever system that they have and, I tell people this a lot. You're not trained to assess psychopathy, but if you see behavior that is problematic, you bring that behavior to someone's attention, but don't bring the label because you don't know if the label fits, or if the label doesn't fit. It doesn't matter, if the behavior is problematic, report the behavior, suspend the label.
R.K.: Okay, that sounds like good advice. Don't use the word psychopath, but use the descriptions that you're seeing. It makes sense.
M.O.: Right, but the behaviors that you're seeing may, or may not, be indicative of psychopathy, but the behavior still can be dangerous, or threatening behavior so, again, I think there are people that can hurt us, threaten us, be dangerous to us, and still not be psychopathic. Not all criminals are psychopaths. The majority of people who do commit crimes are not psychopaths. So, we have to keep a healthy balance here and a healthy understanding of this.
R.K.: Now, I interviewed the author of Confessions of a Sociopath who uses a pseudonym, M. E. Thomas. She's a lawyer in her early thirties and I asked her for advice on how to detect somebody who is a psychopath and you're a profiler. What advice would you give to somebody on how to get an idea if someone they're dealing with is a psychopath?
M.O.: Well, what I tell people is this. Don't have that tunnel vision about whether they're psychopathic, or not psychopathic. Look for behaviors and look for patterns of behavior. Maybe this pattern of behavior doesn't rise to the level of calling them psychopath because, again, the number of psychopathic individuals is small, but there are still dangerous people out there.
Again, suspend the label, but look for patterns of behavior and you look for things, not just going out one night with someone the first night you've met them, you go out and you see them doing one thing. You don't do a whole assessment on one behavior. You look for patterns of behavior and you look for people that lack empathy, or compassion.
That's very important. You look for behaviors where people have anger management issues. You look for patterns of behavior to suggest that someone is very impulsive, disregards the feelings of others. In my book, Dangerous Instincts, I talk about these patterns of behavior. Whether, or not, they ever rise to an assessment for psychopathy, or not, these are still patterns of behavior that can be harmful to you if you let that person into your life, either physically, emotionally, financially, or otherwise.
What I have seen over my career in law enforcement is that often times we'll meet someone and they will, they're very charming with us in the beginning. There are a lot of people out there who are charming, but not psychopathic, but they're charming, but the world is all about them and we're so taken with them that we don't know, and we don't know how to read for warning behaviors.
We just look for people that are nice to us, for people that seem to have a steady job, for people that have these trappings of normalcy. That has nothing to do with whether, or not someone could be violent, or hurt us.
R.K.: What I've been struggling with is we know there are one percent of the population who are predators who their meaning in life comes with playing with people, manipulating them, ripping them off, doing things that are hurtful,
R.K.: ...and you've told me that the FBI and law enforcement can only act if somebody breaks the law, but if somebody has a disease, a communicable disease, we want to know about it and we want to identify them so we can protect the public.
Is there any kind of program that's been developed that can help people protect themselves, or protect other people, or just protect people from psychopaths? Is there anything like that underway? Has there ever been anything like that? Is there something wrong with that idea?
M.O.: Well, the flaw in that idea, I mean, I understand the sense behind it, the feeling behind it, but you're describing behaviors that could be applicable to many, many people who would never be diagnosed as psychopathic. So, are there mean, hurtful people out there who will steal your money and sexually assault your children? Yes. Are they necessarily psychopathic? If I were to formally assess them using the PCLR, not necessarily.
So, it's the same concept as this. What are the mental illnesses that exist in these mass shooters? There is kind of a sense out there that they all have the same kind of mental health issue. Well, you know what? No, they don't. So, that's not the answer. The same is true here.
You have people out there that don't rise to the level of having an assessment for psychopathy. Does that make them less dangerous, hurtful, concerning, threatening? No, it does not. So, we're trying to lump all bad behavior into the box called psychopathy
R.K.: No. I'm not, I'm not, but it's pretty widely accepted that one percent of the population is psychopathic.
M.O.: But that means ninety nine percent of the population isn't and that's important because it does not, of that ninety nine percent, there are people in the ninety nine percent who can be hurtful, dangerous, molest children, become rapists, even murder, but they're not psychopathic.
R.K.: I understand that, but there, perhaps there are other ways to understand them. But we know that there about three million Americans who are psychopaths, who have a proclivity towards being predators and, I just, it seems to me like there ought to be at least some research. There should be money spent, a lot of money just as there's money spent on treating and preventing AIDS and heart disease and cancer. There ought to be some money spent on identifying, or at least understanding it, and protecting the public. Is that, am I wrong about that?
M.O.: I think you are wrong. I do. I think you are wrong. There is a lot of research that's going on in the field of psychopathy just in terms of, especially in the area of brain health, but I feel like you're taking this whole issue of psychopathy and kind of missing a really important point and that is we know that the majority of people who would get a high score on the psychopathy checklist don't act out violently.
So, that is an important issue to keep in mind and to say we need to protect ourselves from these, it's almost like this band of vampires walking around who are waiting to do something bad. The disorder is a frightening disorder, but one percent of the population is what the estimate is, but the majority of those are not going to act out violently and to answer your question, there is research that's being done but we have to keep it in perspective.
R.K.: Okay. But, look, one percent is a huge number when you're talking about three hundred million people and I understand that most of them don't act out violently and, frankly, they're the ones I'm interested in. They're the ones who are predators to the women that contact you.
M.O.: Well, not necessarily. That's what I'm trying to tell you is that they're not.
R.K.: I hear you. They're not necessarily psychopaths.
M.O.: Right and, again, I'm very, very tempered with how we use the whole idea of psychopathy and what I'm hearing is that we should have a much greater organized approach to, kind of, putting all of these people together and separating them from the rest of society.
R.K.: No, I'm not saying that. People raise that issue when I discuss this, but I'm not trying for that. I think the first thing we need to do is educate people and make them aware and more cautious. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe that's not even the right thing to do. Maybe that would raise people's paranoia too high.
When I discovered that there were so many people who were predators, you know, when you watch TV some of the most popular TV shows are about psychopaths. Whether it's "Dexter," or "Breaking Bad" and Walt. You know, you see these hugely successful entertainment programs where the stars are psychopaths. I mean, and I don't think there's much dispute that those people are psychopaths.
M.O.: The stars themselves in real life?
R.K.: No, no, the people that they're playing.
M.O.: Oh, the character that they're playing. I mean, maybe.
R.K.: In one way, the media, the entertainment media, are exploiting the concept of this psychopath because they're such a riveting kind of a person to watch. They're so fascinating.
M.O.: Well, the flip side to that question, though, is I don't agree that they're exploiting that. When I watch these shows, which is very rarely, I often and most of the time, frankly, see them not portrayed the way I know real, for example, serial killers to be and that's where we get a lot of our education is through TV shows and movies and you know videos and that sort of thing.
But as someone that actually works in the field as the serial killers are portrayed in different program,s or in different venues, they're not how I know them to be so and my colleagues are pretty much the same. We don't watch them because it's not realistic for us, but so I don't think that they're exploiting something. Again, I agree with what you just said.
I think educating people is extremely important to psychopathy, but I also think that educating people to violence and gender is extremely important. I think talking to people about how to read people correctly, how to look for dangerous patterns of behavior, whether or not they end up pointing down the road to the psychopath or not, but because there are so many other personality types that are hurtful, or can be hurtful to us, that focus on one small group I just know as someone who teaches for a living now and still consults on cases, I talk about, sure I talk about psychopathy but I talk about violence and gender in general and I talk about recognizing violent patterns of behavior regardless of how you label that personality type.
So I'm totally on board with you. I think education is extremely important, but I think it has to be broad-based.
R.K.: Now, you have a book out called Dangerous Instincts; How Gut Feelings Betray Us. How does that tie in with psychopaths?
M.O.: Well in the book, if you read it, it's almost like a kind of I want to say a cookbook, that wouldn't really fit, but every chapter is different just in terms of violence and behavior. So, I know for example I have one chapter in the book on interviewing people which I know sounds probably a little lame because it's not, the book is written for the general public, but I talk about listening and how listening is really important when you want to read people's behavior.
You need to listen more than you talk, you need to watch more than become involved. So, it's about spotting what we can do to be better readers of behavior and because there is so much interest in psychopathy, I did one chapter on psychopathy, but that's one out of twelve chapters where I do talk about behavior in general and how the general public can hopefully learn from some of the skills that I was taught as an FBI profiler to assess people for dangerousness and not assess people necessarily for psychopathy, assess them for dangerousness, because I felt like I had the benefit of some excellent experience and tremendous training and I dealt with a lot of victims and their families who just didn't see it coming, they just didn't and it's not that they weren't smart, or astute, but often times we walk in to a situation and the hair on the back of our neck doesn't stand up and that's a fallacy.
People tend to think if something bad's going to happen, I'll feel it viscerally in the middle of my stomach or on the back of my neck. You and I both know that doesn't happen most of the time and why do we think people get involved in... throughout the country, millions of people are involved in very abusive relationships. Why? Because they sought out an abusive relationship? No, because they didn't see that this person that was so wonderful to them in the beginning could become so abusive to them once they let their guard down.
So, the book is really about reading people better and not using those trappings of normalcy that you hear people typically use, but one chapter is on psychopathy because there is such an interest and it's a topic that I am very passionate about and have studied for many, many, many years, so I knew I was going to have to do a chapter on psychopathy.
R.K.: Well you're an expert at it and it's really a pleasure to talk to you about it. We're winding down the interview now but I want to just pursue it one more time. Are there researchers who are specifically looking at how to protect the public? I'm not saying jail them, or coral them, or anything like that, but just looking at how to understand them better and in some way do anything that protects the rest of the ninety nine percent from them?
M.O.: The research that's being done now in the area in psychopathy and, also, other areas of neuroscience that are focusing on brain health involve how we can identify psychopathy in the brain because eventually we know that a lot of the symptomologies that are presented in DSM will eventually come down to brain health and brain pathology.
But if there are groups of people out there, and believe me ,I've worked in the field to study psychopathy for many years, I'm not aware of any group of people that are out there looking to protect people from a group of people that may, or may not breaking the law. Can you imagine though, really when you think about it, what if we did this with people who were depressed, or PTSD, and often times there is familial violence out of post traumatic stress, or schizophrenia, but the vast majority of these folks are not violent, not hurtful.
What if we took the same framework mind set and focused on that? People would be outraged as they should be and so it is with people that are non criminal psychopaths that are not breaking the law, but may if they're given this test for psychopathy may hit a certain score, but they're not doing anything wrong so again I would just urge people to, we have to be very tempered with this and really that's what education is all about. Understanding what we can and can't do, what the label means, and doesn't mean, and how to proceed from there.
R.K.: I hear you, I really do, but then again I would think that it could be useful to identify particularly, let's say, we've got a horrible situation with suicide with post traumatic stress disorder veterans and it might be really good to identify ways to assess them for risk and what have you to protect them.
M.O.: That's very different when you're talking about suicide. Suicide is a crime of violence and that's very different than talking about someone that may have some of the traits of psychopathy because psychopathy is dimensional which is...
R.K.: Yes I'm clear from our conversation. I guess if it's not violence, but let's say it's theft, or corruption or fraud. That's still crime.
M.O.: But those are criminal offenses. Violent means, what you're talking about is all of that is criminal behavior. When you're talking about people that behave criminally, that's a totally different conversation.
M.O.: But if you're talking about people who are minding their own business, sitting in their living room, and maybe they score reasonably high on the PCLR, but they're minding their own business, I wouldn't want to be married to that person and I don't think I'd want them as a parent, but if they're minding their own business, really, what are you going to do about that?
R.K.: Yeah, it's really, exist with them, I guess. You wouldn't want to be married to one. Would you want to know if you were working with someone like that?
M.O.: I would want to know, and I would know, if I was working with someone who was cheating the company, who was doing stuff to me professionally, my reputation behind my back, who was taking away promotional opportunities for me, but how do you diagnose that person to do that?
Are they all psychopaths? Or some people just jerks? And they never rise to the level of that kind of a diagnosis, does that make it, are you going to go to your little cubicle at the end of the day and say well, boy, they're walking all over me and, boy, they're stabbing me in the back and, boy, they're doing this to me but, thank goodness, I can't call them a psychopath. Really? Do you see what I'm saying. Look at the behavior. Suspend the label.
R.K.: Have you ever been in a job situation where you had somebody you were dealing with who manifested psychopathic behavior?
M.O.: You mean who was a coworker?
M.O.: I don't think so and I've certainly given it a lot of thought because we talk about psychopaths being pulled in to a, or being attracted to, I should say, careers like law enforcement where it's risk and excitement and that sort of thing. Are they, do we have psychopathic individuals who are drawn to the law enforcement career?
I believe that that's certainly a possibility because you cannot draw lines in the sand and say a psychopath would never be a cop, or an FBI agent. I think that it certainly is a possibility and I teach that, but from a professional point of view I have not. But do I think it's possible that we have psychopaths that go to every profession? Yes, I do.
R.K.: How would... this is a fascinating and scary concept and they make movies about it sometimes and sometimes recently they show things on TV that you have to wonder how could a police man do something like that, but what would it look like if somebody in law enforcement was a psychopath? How could somebody in that position operate? What would be some signs, perhaps?
M.O.: Well it certainly could vary, but, again, you're going to hear me say the same thing. You can have a police officer, or law enforcement person, who is corrupt, takes money on the side, abuses their authority with the general public. We've had cases where a law enforcement person has been, we've had people that are in law enforcement careers that have been rapists and murderers. Does it happen a lot? Not a lot. But does it happen?
But are those people also, they certainly are corrupt law enforcement people, but are they necessarily psychopathic? Does that make the fact that they raped five people any less dangerous. If they were, they were not psychopathic? So, again, that's the issue.
The important thing is the behavior and I think when people hear this we don't want people to think in order to be a really violent criminal, or a recidivist, you have to be psychopathic. There are plenty of people out there who are scary, frightening criminals and scary, frightening people. If I were to give them the PCLR, would they necessarily score high on psychopathy? I don't know. Maybe, maybe not, but there behavior is enough for me to say these are scary people. They're violent people. They're hurtful people.
Psychopathy doesn't have to be a part of that. It can be, it doesn't have to be.
R.K.: Got it. So, I've also heard that there are related personality types that are problematic. There's a category of them that includes a narcissist and borderline. Any comment on them and where they fit in?
M.O.: Well, there's... when you're talking about someone who is... narcissism is one of the, is really one of the traits, the twenty traits of psychopathy. In the research, the term that's used is grandiosity, but there are a number of distinct personality disorders and there may appear to be some overlap just in terms of the resulting symptomology, or behaviors.
So, for example, borderline personality disorder is one of multiple personality disorders, just like you can have liver cancer and breast cancer and thyroid cancer. They're all cancers, but they have their different symptoms and different treatment, that sort of thing. So, narcissistic personality disorder is another type of personality disorder. Are there overlaps? Yes, there are in terms of the behavior and can each one of those personality types, depending on the individual, cause them to kind of walk that fine line between criminal and noncriminal behavior? Sure. Sure.
And I think if people are real interested in learning more about personality disorders, which I think are fascinating, they may want to pick up the new DSM-V and read about them, or a book on personality disorders, but I will say this about personality disorders. I think that there are, I don't know that we have a figure on the percentage of people with a personality disorder and the term, again, is used pretty loosely, but a personality disorder does not mean the person is out of touch with reality. It means their personality is flawed and a person with a flawed personality is going to have, just like psychopathy is a personality disorder, it's not a mental illness; people with personality disorders are going to have problems throughout their life with interpersonal relationships, job issues, relationships with children, family, parents. Whatever the issue is, they're going to have issues throughout their life because of how they view the world. How they interact with people. How they think the world views them, but, there are a number of them and they overlap, but they have their own distinct behavioral characteristic traits as well.
R.K.: Alright. Well you've given me a lot of time here and I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
M.O.: Oh you're welcome