Psychopaths and how to spot them

Founder and investor guide to dealing with psychopaths.

Something was a little off about him. My wife Kerrie got the creeps, yet he was so charming it was difficult not to like him. He had such impressive friends. When he offered to fly me on his private jet, it was pretty convincing.

Quite a bit of money later, I realised he was a psychopath…and damn it, I had seen enough of those to know better, and he still got me. It is very cold comfort to know that he got a lot of other people as well. Michael Brown ended up in prison, and yet one day soon he is probably going to get out and start the same pattern of behaviour all over again.

The problem is that all the rules we play by are controlled by a small region of the brain called the Amygdala. It’s the part of the brain that makes you feel a lot of things, and it lets you empathise. Psychopaths have smaller less functional Amygdalae, and as a result, they simply do not feel things the way we normal empaths do.

Psychopaths & Investment

It is a hazard of the job that psychopaths are attracted to investors, because their goal in life is to advantage themselves at the expense of others. So who better to fulfill their needs than someone with a lot of cash? The problem is that psychopathy is a lot more common than we realise, and so you undoubtedly know several of them yourself.

I have met and ultimately defeated so many now that I was intending to write a book about it, and fortunately someone just has!

In Taming Toxic People, David Gillespie provides a tour de force on what psychopathy is, how to spot psychopaths, and what to do about them in everyday life. Of course some psychopaths are phenomenally successful at what they do, so my first tip to you would be don’t vote for one…. I remember meeting Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, at the UN and getting the exact same vibe as I got from Michael. He creeped me out just a bit before he turned on the charm.

That vibe is a common sign of psychopathy, as are rapid mood swings, random tantrums, and a total lack of truth-telling so complete that it borders on irrational. In fact, most psychopaths quickly learn that the bigger and crazier the lies they tell, the more likely they are to be believed.

Psychopaths on Your Startup Team

Hiring a psychopath is unfortunately devastating to any business, and to startups it is almost guaranteed to be fatal because psychopaths very quickly erode the most important of assets: trust. They do this by spreading lies up and down. They lie with flattery to those they need to suck up to, and they talk down others. To those who are beneath them, they lie to keep them off balance and bully them. One psychopath can destroy the trust of any 20 normal people. One way to spot them is to see how differently they treat those above and below them in an organization.

Beware though: they are usually very difficult to spot, as they are just so damn good at lying. We always assume that people are afraid of consequences, so our usual rational mechanisms for defending ourselves against misbehaviour simply do not work with psychopaths, as they just don’t care about consequences because they feel nothing when punished. In fact, they only really feel something when they are getting the better of someone else.

When hiring, the easiest way to spot a psychopath is to have a team interview them all at once. Psychopaths have to simulate all their empathic emotional responses because of their total lack of empathy, just like in the movie BladeRunner. This takes a lot of effort one on one, so it is an almost impossible task if they have to deal with a group. So in a group conversation, they are much more likely to come off as insensitive.

As with other difficult people and problem generators, once you know you have hired one, fire them immediately. Change the passwords, change the locks, and have them remove you from all their profiles. Have them escorted by more than one person from the building. If they refuse to go, offer to bring everyone they know or have ever known together for a party to compare notes on them (my friend Dr Mark Goulston of Just Listen fame successfully did this), as psychopaths tell so many lies so often that they must keep all the people they deal with separated lest they get caught.

Beware as well that with every lie they tell, they also keep a thorough store of excuses for plausible deniability. As they do not feel remorse, they have no issue trumping the last lie they told with another and another and another. Like the Terminator, they simply will not stop even though their position is hopeless, and it’s beyond sane to keep going since they will take it a thousand steps further. I have seen legal battles with them go on forever because every court order that would scare the bejesus out of any of us empaths is meaningless to them.

Even if you Google them and discover evidence from their past, they will simply deny it, and many of them spend time on taking truthful accounts of their previous malfeasance down off of public records.

Good & Evil

I recently spoke to David Gillespie about the workings of psychopaths, and he told me: “Psychopaths are not even evil. Good and evil are moral overlays created by us as empaths. They have no sense of either concept. To them we are just sources of money and power, and if we are neither of those, then we can be abused at will and without remorse.”

To us, psychopaths appear the acme of evil, and yet they themselves are more akin to machines in that they lack empathy and thus are not more evil than any predator is. To them we are sheep and they are wolves. A wolf is not evil, it’s a wolf. Beware the wolves!

Just like an alpha wolf, a psychopath seeks to dominate and take all possible power. Their favourite method of doing this is to panic the sheep. Working with a psychopath will be highly emotionally traumatic for any normal empath like you and me, and the psychopath can create such mayhem because they simply feel nothing for us. Just as a wolf feels no emotional angst when tearing into a juicy piece of meat, indeed the terror of a frightened sheep might best be described as giving a wolf a bit of a buzz. So too your emotional pain may give the psychopath the same kind of predatory frisson.

The Truth Will Set You Free

According to David, the best defense against psychopaths is a simple one: transparent truth-telling. Thus if you strive to construct your organization and life with no tolerance for lies, then the psychopath is left with little to work with. If your teams are encouraged not to gossip and to share everything openly and transparently, your organization will simply not be fertile ground for psychopaths. I agree wholeheartedly. While not all liars are psychopaths, all psychopaths are liars, so the less lies an organization tolerates the harder it is for the psychopaths to infest them. The truth really will set you free!

Bill Liao is Managing Director at RebelBio and General Partner at SOSV.