People are complicated. What we want, what we need, changes minute to minute, hour to hour, and day to day.
And that’s a very fine thing indeed.
Imagine if we ticked a box and that was it.
Hungry? Eat a banana. Job done. Life’s purpose fulfilled. Boring.
Thankfully, we’re more multi-faceted than that. Over the years, various theories have been put forward about human wants and needs. The most famous is Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Maslow divided up our needs into five groups:
- Physiological needs – sleep, food, water, and warmth. The very basic building blocks of Not Being Dead.
- Safety needs – safety and security. You’ve got food, now you’ve got to avoid becoming food.
- Belonging & love – friends and relationships. The human as a social creature.
- Esteem needs – pride and accomplishment.
- Self-actualisation – fulfilling our potential
The pyramid part comes in because we have to focus on the basics before our aspirations can change. Think of it like building blocks. Without safety sorted, we’re not too worried about belonging. We don’t worry about writing a novel if we need to eat. Love doesn’t matter if a grizzly bear is chasing us. Friends don’t matter if we’re dying of thirst.
Even this theory oversimplifies the complexities of life. It has to. It’s just a framework, one we could spend many many blog posts dissecting. I’ll leave that for someone else – I’m just a crime writer, not a sociologist.
But what fascinates me about this is how fluid it all is, how quickly life can change.
Have you ever seen the film Trading Places?
Dan Akroyd plays a rich stockbroker. Eddie Murphy plays a homeless crook. As part of a cruel game among Akroyd’s millionaire bosses, the two find their fates switched. In an instant, Akroyd’s character is fighting homelessness while Murphy ascends to the wealthy elite.
It’s a brilliant film. If you haven’t watched it, please do.
Then come back here ‘cause I’m not done!
I wanted to write a crime novel with this sort of premise but rather than rely on a cruel puppet master, I wanted to ground my book in a more garden-variety fraud: the classic Ponzi scheme. This con is as old as time: promise people insane returns, use money from new investors to pay old investors. It works so long as you’ve got an ever-growing number of schmucks to steal from.
Enter Kent Bancroft.
He’s a market-maker, the guy who buys and sells shares. The specifics don’t really matter. His firm is failing so he starts stealing from new investors to pay off older investors. He’s stealing from everyone who invests with him: banks, pension funds, and, of course, individuals. It’s a basic Ponzi scheme with a modern twist.
One of those he’s conned is a man who suffered a horrendous accident at work. He got electrocuted, lost his leg, and the construction firm he worked for gave him a payoff: £500,000. It should have been enough to get him through to retirement.
Except, he had the misfortune of investing it with Kent.
And he loses it all.
He ends up homeless, friendless, and penniless, begging outside Kent’s swanky offices in the City.
This is where The Grifter begins. We’ve got two men, one struggling to keep his con going, the other struggling to eat. They’re at opposite ends of the Pyramid.
Kent is concerned with status. He wants to be known as the richest, most successful man in London. The last thing he expects is a homeless man coming after him for everything. Not just his money, but his reputation, his security, even his sanity.
Think “Trading Places” meets “Bernie Madoff”. That’s The Grifter in a nutshell.
I can’t say much more otherwise I’m going to spoil the story for you, but if you want to see how this plays out, check out The Grifter on Amazon. It’s out on 15th August and there’s an early-bird pre-order price that can’t be beaten.
If you can’t wait ‘til then, I’ll be giving away review copies next month. Email me if you’re a blogger/ reviewer.
What makes a psychopath tick?
The idea of the psychopath has long held a dark allure for the general public. From Hannibal Lector to Norman Bates, Charles Manson to Jack the Ripper, these men (and by and large they are usually men) fascinate and frighten in equal measure.
When I started researching psychopathy (for “The Psychopath Within”), I started with the most basic question of all: what exactly is a psychopath?
It turns out that it isn’t a simple question.
In 1941 Hervey Cleckley wrote “The Mask of Sanity”, a work which described psychopathy as “a deep-rooted emotional pathology concealed by the outward appearance of good health”. That’s the first part: psychopaths aren’t obviously ill. They walk among us, unseen and unnoticed. They’re often highly successful socially and in business as we’ll come onto later on.
But what is it that lies underneath that outward appearance and corrupts their otherwise normal behaviour?
Early research (Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist) described psychopathy as “callousness”. Today’s definition (courtesy of Lynam and Widiger’s 2007 Psychopathy Resemblance Index) prefers the term “coldheartedness”.
It’s still pretty vague, isn’t it? And therein lies the problem. While there are tests to screen for psychopathy, it’s dicey. The label is inherently dangerous to apply. What if we get it wrong?
It gets even *more* complicated across national boundaries. In the UK, a score of 25 points out of 40 on the Psychopathy Checklist Revised Edition (abbreviated to “PCL-R”) is indicative of psychopathy. In the USA, on the same test, it takes a score of 30 to be considered a psychopath. It’s all muddied further by differing assessment methods which means a psychopath in one country isn’t necessarily a psychopath on the other side of a border. Add in misuse of the term (which is often confused with sociopathy) and we’ve got some serious confusion going on. Madness.
So here’s my own 20-point checklist. It’s based on the science (but for the love of God, don’t cite me if you’re writing about psychopathy for university – I don’t want anyone failing an assessment!):
- They’re uncaring. This isn’t just the aforementioned “coldheatedness” or “callousness”. It’s literally that they don’t care as much as the rest of us. Some research indicates there could be a biological component to this as emotional clusters in the brain aren’t as well-connected as they ought to be.
- They’re shallow. It’s not that they don’t feel anything, it’s that their highs aren’t as high as ours and their lows aren’t as lows. Think hills and plains not mountains and valleys.
- They’re unempathetic. They can’t read expressions on other people’s faces so can’t react as they ought to. This goes double for fear, an emotion which psychopaths are uniquely unfamiliar with.
- They’re fearless. They literally don’t feel fear. When neurotypical people anticipate getting hurt, they start to sweat. Psychopaths don’t exhibit this response at all.
- They’re remorseless. They don’t feel shame.
- They’re extreme when it comes to suicide. Weirdly, they either at an exceedingly high risk of killing themselves or at none at all.
- They don’t feel disgust. When we see horrible things – bodily fluids, insects, and the like – we might retch and react. Psychopaths don’t.
- It’s never their fault. Psychopaths can’t accept blame. They externalise it and blame anyone and anything for their failings. As a result, it’s nigh-on impossible for them to grow emotionally as they can’t learn from their mistakes.
- They’re arrogant and have a grandiose sense of self-worth.
- They’re deceitful. Lies are second nature to a psychopath.
- They’re impulsive. Pure hedonists at heart, they do what they want to do.
- They can’t plan for the long run. Because they don’t feel emotions fully, they fail to anticipate future harm – including harm to themselves. That weakens their ability to plan and renders their approach short-termist.
- They’re irresponsible. They’re often sexually promiscuous which ties in with their hedonism and their superficial charm.
- They break the law. Most psychopaths have a criminal record by their teens. Psychopaths who don’t have a criminal record are too intelligent to get caught and they make the most interesting characters in fiction. Many start with arson or cruelty to animals.
- They’re not violent. Well, not always. Predation isn’t necessarily violent. Psychopaths often prey on people socially: they manipulate, lie and cajole their way to success.
- They can focus on one task. Most of us can’t ‘zone in’ on one thing. Psychopaths are very capable of honing in on stimuli and ignoring others. They ace the “Stroop Test” which asks those tested to read a list of colour names which are printed in other colours (so the word “blue” would be printed in, e.g., pink). Because of their ability to hone in on one detail at a time, psychopaths have no trouble ignoring the colour of the ink and simply reading the word. For the rest of us, the conflicting information confuses the brain so we often say the colour of the ink instead.
- They often lack realistic life goals. Because they can’t plan, they rarely rise to the level required by their excessive sense of self-worth. This chafes.
- They have a low threshold for aggression. While this can manifest in violence, it isn’t always the case. Psychopaths tend to lash out verbally when they’re annoyed.
- They’re self-interested. Because they don’t care how their actions impact others because nobody else matters. There are two exceptions to this: they care what others think (because they have enormous egos) and they can pretend to care if those people can do something for them. Psychopaths are experts at mimicking the emotional responses required of them. They don’t feel it but they can fake it (often very well).
- Context matters. Psychopathy manifests within the context of the rest of their personality. A fearless pro-social personality gives you Cassanova or James Bond. In an anti-social person, the same fearlessness gives you Ted Bundy.
Reading this, you might be thinking “I know someone like that!”. And you might well be right. Up to 1 in 50 people could be psychopaths (Neumann & Hare, 2008). Psychopathic traits are especially common in some professions: lawyers, senior managers, surgeons, chefs, policeman, civil servants, and even among the clergy.
But many of us can exhibit some of these traits some of the time. Psychopaths exhibit most of them most of the time.
Still curious about what a psychopath *really* looks like?