Myth: Psychopaths are great liars. Part 2 – The motives of psychopaths

Greenbottle Fly on Venus Fly Trap 3
Originally uploaded by Heeran Rathod

The psychopath does not lie primarily in order to deceive. He or she deceives in order to satisfy a more primary motive. And that is…

But just a quick recap, I’ve argued in the first post in this series of three on psychopaths and lying that:

They’ll say anything – lie or truth. A psychopath will lie through his teeth no problem. However, if telling the truth will attain his goal a psychopath may well do that rather than lie.

In other words, to concentrate on the lies of the psychopath is to miss the fact that for the psychopath his truths play precisely the same role as his lies.

Perhaps this is what ‘pathological lying’ means: not lying a lot, or unnecessarily, or outrageously; but rather that pathological liars lie even when they tell the truth.

Does the psychopath have a mind?
What I mean here comes from Evelyn Waugh who said:

It is better to be narrow-minded than to have no mind, to hold limited and rigid principles than none at all.

Waugh was referring to people who are too tolerant and see ‘good in everything’ – “which in most cases is an inability to distinguish good from bad,” he said. Ironically, what he may have been describing here is the perfect psychopathic victim. Both have a problem with right and wrong.

The over-tolerant person won’t tell right from wrong, and that is important to him or her. (After a while he or she can’t tell right from wrong because of an atrophy of his or her ethical muscles – though these can be built up again.) The psychopath can tell right from wrong, but it’s not important to him. ‘A blatant disregard for the truth’ is the phrase often used.

We might, then,  say that when it comes to morality the psychopath has no mind. The cliché ‘mindless violence’ has some purchase here.

Is it psychopath’s intention to deceive?
This is not quite as silly as it might sound. The psychopath’s primary motive is to dominate: to get what he wants and in the process push you down.

In order to dominate he is more than willing to lie. Or to tell the truth.

Not that regular folks do – or even can – tell the unadorned truth and have no alterior motives. Perhaps that is impossible – speech is always motivated. However, that’s not to say we’re all the same. The thing about the psychopath is that his or her motivation is so singular and single-minded.

Regular folks operate on the priciple of love: that is the sun around which they rotate. The psychopath is powertropic, i.e. his dark sun is power, and this power is power-over.

An example
From LoveFraud:

The con artist’s story may have small inconsistencies or unexplained loose ends. If you ask questions, the con will glibly provide an explanation—which may also not add up. Or, he or she will sidestep the issue by accusing you of paranoia or mistrust.

The psychopathic con artist is willing to deceive to get his way or to accuse you of being crazy. Or tell the truth, or do any number of things.

It is somewhat true to say that it is the intention of the psychopath to deceive. But it is true in a much larger sense to say that it is the intention of the psychopath to dominate, and that one of the many tools he’ll use is the lie.

In the next post I ask whether what the psychopath does even qualifies as lying.


39 thoughts on “Myth: Psychopaths are great liars. Part 2 – The motives of psychopaths

  1. I wish I could agree that “regular folks operate on the principle of love.” It seems to me that most of us fall prey to the desire for power fairly often. Probably not in the same way as the psychopath; mostly we are trying to keep from feeling too powerLESS rather than to dominate others for the sake of domination alone. But it’s not always possible to tell, and power issues seem to come into play all the time, and it seems to me that’s it’s the rare person indeed who is truly motivated primarily by love. Am I misunderstanding your statement?

    Sometimes I wonder if there is really any such thing as “regular folks” in a mental health context. But that seems like a question for another time….

  2. eric – Great to have you on board. All of the elements of ‘bullshit’ can be used paramoralistically (!) with one proviso – that there is the added intention to dominate, corrupt, undermine, etc. the other.
    As a non-philosopher let me also say that I really appreciate the way pros like you and he (Frankfurt) write – comprehensible and mind-stretching.

  3. sarah – It’s a question, for me, of what is primary. I’m groping for a metaphor….A tiger may be able to subsist on a vegetarian diet, but it remains a carnivore.
    1. Here’s how I put it in a response to ‘dumaurier-smith’:
    “If any person can, and sometimes does, use a paramoralism, that’s clearly not sufficient to call someone a psychopath. Or to use your phrase, “paramoral in character”. I’m with Nancy McWilliams on this. She’s a psychoanalyst who proposes that there are several character types and each of us belongs to one. She’s a depressive personality, for example. This doesn’t mean that she’s necessarily depressed, but that she has a certain pessimistic/realistic way of looking at the world, etc. It also doesn’t mean that someone with, say a masochistic personality can’t use some depressive ‘tools’ now and then. Similarly, paramoralisms can be employed by anyone (they have the potential to feel guilt and shame about it, though), but it is the stock in trade of the psychopath.”
    2. By regular folks I mean everyone besides psychopaths.

    1. Dr. Steve – This is a response to an old post I just read – this may or may not be relevant (I think it is very relevant to your analogy, however) A tiger absolutely cannot subsist on a vegetarian diet – it will go crazy and die (all felines included). Talk to a biologist who has further information on the topic if you like. Dogs, somehow, are different although it’s a debate whether the vegetables and grains we put into their foods are a covert way of cheating them out of proper health.

  4. Are you drawing the line around intention? If so, how could this be established? Other than through introspection?

    Is single-mindedness part of the problem. In this case much of the success literature would be tinged with psychopathology (set your goals, ignore distractions, be single-minded etc). A conclusion which I would welcome in some ways.

    Looking forward to the next in the series.

  5. evan – 1. Brain scans. Different sites light up when psychopaths vs regular folks are confronted with neutral and loaded words (like rape…).
    2. I detect that tinge too. More than a few of the most successful are psychopaths. And that discourse promotes the psychopathic attitude and behaviour in others too (without making them into psychopaths).

    1. While it is true that psychopaths rely upon amoral behaviors to achieve their desired ends, they can also induce no less vicious and amoral behaviors from people who are “normal” and easily led. The Fuerer principle requires only one willful leader — but many willing followers.

      1. They can induce even worse acts in followers – Charles Manson never killed anyone as far as we know, but he could get others to do so. Its an interesting question as to what it is in the others than enables this to happen? I suspect there are several variants of this.

  6. My X P when confronted about his HIV status. (he lied to me about having HIV) said this:

    I’ve done nothing to damage you or me, and our relationship wasnt a big ole pack of lies, we were honest and truthful and we honored each other, I plan to continue honoring you even while we are not together, dont want to get you caught up in my Xs crap..(his X is the one who told me he was HIV+..showed me email where my X admits it, and gave me names of doctors, so yes, I am sure he is.)
    Words are meaningless, get tested, verify that facts.

    Now, is this an example of skirting around the truth or what!!

  7. I’ve been reading Robert Hare’s depiction of the psychopath. Does anyone else think the depiction fits politicians to a T?

  8. dumaurier-smith – Indeed.

    One thing that doesn’t fit, though, is the so-called lack of empathy of the psychopath. I’m going to write soon about how this is absolutely false. But were it the case, then the instance of the Bill Clinton – also called ‘the greatest salesman in the world’ – would not fit as he’s famous for his ability to empathise. To a lesser extent, so are many other politicians.

    1. In a very interesting interview of a lady who has been one of Mr. Clinton’s close friends for many years, she was finally asked “so who is Bill Clinton, really?” Her very purposeful response: “Whoever you WANT him to be — right now.” This is a considerable difference to genuine empathy, and arguably it’s opposite.

      1. Nice example, Bud. However, ‘genuine empathy’ doesn’t seem helpful to me. I prefer sepertaing th concepts – a person or an interaction can be empathic and genuine or empathic and false. Clinton is an empathic savant, no doubt.

  9. Dr. Steve,
    You’ll have to argue a long time to convince me that the “I feel your pain!” of the politician has anything to do with real empathy. PR empathy is a long way away from the real thing. If speech represented real feelings, the world would be a different place.

    1. Empathy as described by myself (not a professional but I am schooled in the field) – can be described as: “an interaction between usually two persons, quietly and without pretense or obligation”. This interaction may be witnessed by others but only by accident as bystanders are ancillary to the initial interaction in that ‘they’ may repeat what they witnessed in the exchange. Once the act is published by the recipient of the exchange, or published by bystanders, themselves, it loses it’s humble position as it becomes an ideal by the majority and the empathizer is thereby, idolized (not a good outcome for an empathizer). The interaction may be as simple as a ‘thought’ of relating to another person – experiencing an emotion inflicted onto the empathizer (a triggered memory of similar circumstance, a twinge of doubt, guilt or heart-wrenching mercy for the person in turmoil) causing the empathizer ‘not to act’ therefore observers or the person receiving the empathetic feelings, have no idea the interaction took place. There may be a situation of one single empathetic action toward 2 or more individuals, however – this is less muddied with ‘thought’ or ‘inaction’ alone. If the empathizer becomes proactive and undertakes to act as a result of empathy or conscience, he/she will always question what her motive was – to act in a pure form or to receive praise from more than one other individual. Was it for affect? A person need always check their own motive for undertaking to act or the ego can easily creep in – especially when getting used to recieving the glow of praise. Could turn a true altruist into an attention hound. Must have faith in the universe that all things will be okay without our own interference. Now, that is a healthy attitude…Restraint is a virtue (much like patience).

  10. Yeh, unfortunately I did not find any humor in it.
    Luckily I did not contract the virus, but I am still in disbelief in how he could do that, then lie to my face about it.

    here’s another ingenious quote:

    “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything to intentionally or unitentionally hurt you. You know that’s not me. You know who I am.”

    And how bout this: After going to get tested and recieving a negative result, I was advised to come back in 3 months to take another test, because it would at least take that long to show up in my body. I asked him to go with me and get tested if he was negative so I wouldnt have to sit around and wait and worry for 3 months. His response:

    “I’ll go take an HIV test for you, but I recommend going back in 3 months anyway, just for piece of mind. That way, whoever is telling you all this stuff can get their rocks off on some other aspect of me and you.”

    Pure and simple manipulation. So I called him, and asked him when he wanted to go do it…..”well…’re gonna believe who you want to……” yadda yadda……He never went to get tested.

    In another email conversation he was basically blaming all this stuff on his X- saying his X was a bad person. He even had this to say which I believe was a projection of himself:

    “he comes across as truthful, honest, and caring but few people know what lies beneath.”

    And to top it all of he throws this in:

    “But if I hadnt met him, moved here, then I would have not met you. And for that, I’m thankful.”

    BARF!! That was so apparently grammatical manipulation, trying to make me feel better……

    I hate this guy. I wish he was in jail.

  11. I agree. If you’ve ever known a psychopath, you will know that they will do anything in their power to get what they want regardless of anything. It’s quite sickening to witness, experience and watch.

  12. dumaurier-smith – 1. No thanks! I wouldn’t know how to go about showing that a politician’s ‘I feel your pain’ is real empathy. (Incidentally, could you make the argument that it’s NOT the case?) As far as psychopaths are concerned, I’m certainly on board – their words are worthless as guides.

    2. You’re absolutely right that Hare’s list of psychopathic-criteria sounds like the regular politician. Just to play devil’s advocate, though, could it be that the typical politician is something like what some people call the ‘sociopath’. Not in that they’re violent, etc., but that they’re mentally ill the way the psychopath is. Rather, they behave in ways that within their cultural group is normal and they follow those norms?

    3. The point I keep promising to get to is not that psychopath’s expressions of empathy are empathy, but that psychopaths are – despite the cannard – able to feel empathy.

  13. steve – A real pro! You’re probably right that this was a way of telling the truth about himself: “He even had this to say which I believe was a projection of himself: ‘he comes across as truthful, honest, and caring but few people know what lies beneath’.” Ah, but psychopathic truths are still psychopathic – i.e. used aginst another.

    It does amaze me how often the psychopath will reveal him or herself (and still not be spotted for a long time).
    1. They’re arrogant (and everyone else is lesser than them so…).
    2. They’re generally lie on the spot and so can easily slip up. Bit others often miss these slips because of the manner in which the lie is told. (For example, a psychopath might easily say: “I didn’t feel sorry for Y at all; actually, I thought it was rather funny” – but say this light-heartedly so that it’s hard to accept what is actually being said.
    3. Have you heard of what Paul Ekman calls ‘liar’s glee’. They delight so much in pulling the wool over that their faces reveal little smiles and smirks.

  14. eyes for lies – Sickening is right. I take the liberty of reproducing one example from your blog entry on the Drew Petersen case:

    “The Chicago Tribune is also reporting that they spoke to Stacy’s younger sister, Cassandra Cales, yesterday. Cales recounted a story that Stacy told her where Drew asked Stacy to go into the garage, and into the refrigerator to retrieve a soda. When she did, she told her sister she heard a loud bang, that a gun was fire, and a bullet came through the walls, and hit the floor near where she was standing. Others news outlets have reported that Stacy showed the bullet holes to Cales.
    Drew’s account of the story today? Stacy fired the gun but was probably too embarrassed to admit it. Drew says Stacy was fascinated by guns.

  15. This guy went above and beyone during our 2 month relationship to project himself as a truthful, honest, loyal, trustworthy person. All the while hiding his HIV positive status from me. 2 months into the relationship, we had non-planned, unprotected sex. I thought it was just our relationship progressing. It was not planned- it just happened. And he had PLENTY of time to stop me from making pentration. However, he didnt. He had sex the next morning- protected- because I wanted to use it. I always do, except that time. He broke up with me a week later. I found out he was positive 2 weeks later.

    In a way, I feel as if he wanted me to contract it.
    He was already going to break up with me beause he knew I was not going to be his sugar-daddy, and he wasnt going to be able to use me. I made that VERY clear just days before we had unprotected sex. It’s just fucked up that he would allow that to happen (and yes, I do accept responsiblity in my part of not protecting myself), two-montns into the relationship- then break it off. It says to me that he couldnt care less if I caught HIV or not…and more so that he hopes that I would have. After all, he was done with the relationship- basically USELESS to since I wasnt going to put up with this BS. I wanted a REAL relationhip. He wanted someone to use, lie to, fuck around on, and them be ok with it. Well, I was NOT going to be OK with it. And he knew it. That’s why it ended. But it ended ammicably. He said he still wanted to be ‘friends’ and talk and stuff. Which basically means he wanted to leave me hanging, and as a back up source of narcassistic supply.

    Will karma ever catch up with this guy?

  16. Dr. Steve:
    Well, if my observations are correct that in communication psychopaths show affect in expressive phases and no affect (as evidenced in the usual expressive, feedback behaviors) in receptive phases, and correct that empathic behavior is a habitual if not “hard-wired” behavior, the absense of the behavior would suggest the lack of the feeling. I assume that affective responses can be faked, as I think some are in the expressive phase when the communication deals with feelings about others. But such fakery is easier when you work with your own script than when you’re working with someone else’s. It would be vastly harder to consistently fake receptive affect.
    I have it on the best authority, by the way, that a prominent forensic researcher found that politicians topped out on the Hare scale, being even more driven than serial killers for power over others, but were more socially adapted–so much so that they were able to destroy many lives in a single act without consequences to themselves. The research was classified and the researcher ensconced in a secluded federal “mental health” facility in Georgia, where he languishes today. (A smilicon is optional here.)

  17. steve – The laws of probability suggest that anyone who flaunts society’s norms often enough – and carelessly too – is going to come short eventually. It’ll never make up for the long history of offences, though. Most burglars, for example, commit hundreds of burglaries before they get caught – and then they’re only punished for the one they were caught for.

  18. dumaurier-smith – Nice one! I’m sure you’re onto something. Politicians (with some notable exceptions) are intelligent and Scandanavian research found that intelligent psychopaths cause greater destruction.

  19. Question: in the prior post on this it mentioned “passive aggressive insinuation.” Can you explain exactly what that is?
    Thanks in advance.

    Evan – Success literature is full of NLP (neurolinguistic programming) often used in sales & marketing.

    Unfortunately, those Seduce Women Now sites are full of the same NLP. Psychopaths seem to excel at NLP, in my experience. Either by learning it or trial & error.

  20. Thanks Dr. Steve.

    My ex-husband is a passive aggressive so I know what they are like. Just wondered what that insinuation might sound like.

    And yeah, I hear it every time I drop my kids for visitation.

  21. barbara – I thought of another one (actually, I found myself using it in a recent post trying to be humorous!): “[Blah, blah – then] …I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying” – i.e. so don’t bother replying because I’ve just said I haven’t said anything.

  22. Intentions smentions. Results matter more when it comes to human interactions. (ie: the person on the receiving end).
    Besides, how many people have committed atrocities with the “best of intentions”. 😡
    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    1. Hello Chloe,

      I work for a Production Company based out of NYC, and i came across your post on this website and i was wondering if you went through a bad breakup? We are casting for a new TV Series on Discovery Networks about Breakups and i was wondering if you had an interesting story you were willing to tell about your EX? If you are interested you can email me at I look forward to hearing from you!

      Erica Marolda

  23. Chloe – At the end of the day it’s hard to argue with you.

    Certainly when it comes to the psychopath his stated intentions are bound to be lies or half-truths or true but manipulations. His real intention is to get the better of you.

  24. I just must say, that extremely interesting blog and debate 🙂

    I my self trying to understand is noticeable % of politicians sociopaths / psychopaths. It seems logical that they are as they need many sociopathic skills to accomplish their job. This would also explain why is so hard to make them realize some big mistakes they make or some really bad decisions. Its not that they are evil (as most people think) or only want money – they are “sicks”, they believe they do the right thing and they do everything to accomplish it.
    Am i on right track?

    1. The psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams puts it best: while most people are organised on the principle of love, psychopaths are organised on the principle of power.

  25. MRI’s checking for psychopathy actually SHOW that their brains don’t connect in the same way non-psychopaths do. Science can PROVE if one is a psychopath. And all this stuff is true. They WANT to dominate and be worshipped. Just like the devil. If we were simply allowed to say that evil was real and came in human form. Oh, that’s right, it’s easier just to say we are all the same and let those of us who can be raped emotionally, spiritually etc. be destroyed. Psychopaths never can be destroyed in these ways. They are, as the Bible says, “twice dead.”

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