“How can you stand working with psychopaths?” is a question I sometimes hear when people find out that I’m criminal lawyer. And, yes, over the years, I’ve prosecuted and represented people who’ve done pretty bad things, but I still find the question fascinating because of the assumptions behind it – that all criminals are psychopaths (they’re not) and that all psychopaths are criminals (they’re not).
Depending on how well I know the person, I might respond: “How can you stand working with psychopaths?” (I know it’s not polite to answer a question with a question, but occasionally it’s worth breaching a rule of etiquette for the appropriate effect.)
“What are you talking about? I’m a teacher.” Or a nurse. Or a plumber. Or a bus driver. Or a banker.
“Well”, I say, “Believe it or not, some psychopaths are teachers.” And nurses. And plumbers. And bus drivers. And bankers.
In fact, experts believe that at least 1 in a 100 people in the general population is a psychopath, and that psychopaths are found in every walk of life. That’s 1 in a 100 of the people in your town, at your kid’s college, at your wife’s job, in your professional association. Psychopaths are everywhere. They are people you love, people you hate, people you’ve known since you were kids, people you just recognize from around. Of course, that means that almost everyone you know isn’t a psychopath, but it’s extremely likely that you’ve run into a number of them at some point in your life. Maybe you are even dealing with one now (whether you recognize it or not).
Psychopathy is a psychological condition in which the person shows a profound lack of empathy for the feelings of others, and a willingness to engage in immoral and antisocial behavior for short-term gains. Psychopaths are also extremely egocentric and quick to use any means, including violence, to get what they want. They will have a life history chock full of examples of conning, lack of remorse for their inappropriate actions, pathological lying and the like, but they are not all convicted criminals.
Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like anyone you know? Or work with? Or dated? Live down the block from? Maybe someone your boyfriend told you about from his past? And, as we discuss in our book, it’s likely that a higher percentage of people (anywhere from 5 to 15% of the general population) are what we call Almost Psychopaths, people who display the characteristics of a psychopath to a lesser degree or with less frequency, but who are nonetheless more manipulative, impulsive and dangerous than the average person.
So, I guess the best answer to how I can stand working with psychopaths is that I don’t have a choice. And really, neither do you.