A brief conversation with an agitated man transformed Adelle Forth’s research on psychopaths.
During an annual conference on psychopathy, Forth, a forensic psychologist in the Department of Psychology, was approached by a man whose daughter had been victimized by a predator.
Although he found reams of information describing the pathology, he found no information about the victims. Turns out, little research has been conducted on the victims of psychopaths.
Forth decided to change that.
Enlisting a graduate student, Forth developed an online survey that would be delivered to women in intimate relationships who self-identified as victims.
The survey included questions predictive of psychopathy that allowed the researchers to distinguish between merely bad and psychopathic behaviour.
The survey was unique not just in that it examined the victims but also explored psychopaths who were functioning in society at large. Research on the psychopathy to date has focused on prison populations so little is known about those individuals who skirt the law but are never incarcerated.
Mostly female, the respondents varied in age and profession. Many were or had been in long-term, romantic relationships with their victimizers. They exhibited symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety common to victims of long-term abuse. Worse, they were often viewed by friends, family and even health and legal experts as unstable or paranoid. Such is the psychopath’s ability to charm others.
They became victims in the most banal ways. They met a seemly perfect stranger who really was too good to be true.
“Psychopaths’ favourite hunting grounds are online dating sites, bars and even cruise ships,” explains Forth. “They go to places where they think they’ll find vulnerable people. They cast a wide net.”
And then they reel you in.
Incarcerated or not, they are notoriously difficult to treat. Little is known about the causes of the disorder, although increasingly scientists are pointing to abnormalities in the pre-frontal cortex and limbic areas of the brain.
Complicating things further, psychopaths themselves see no reason to change their behavior.
“They have the cognitive ability to see distress but they don’t have the ability to feel it,” says Forth. Because they are unable to feel either guilt or empathy, they are able to abuse spouses, friends and co-workers.
Forth’s research on the victims may be the best way to prevent others from becoming prey. She advises people caught up in whirlwind relationships to take a step back and pay attention to any feeling that the relationship might be progressing too fast.
Taking detailed notes of evasive responses to questions and shady behavior may seem paranoid but can make the difference when things spiral out of control.
“They make you feel special. They throw out tidbits of information to see how you’ll respond and when they get the information they are looking for, they will use it to exploit and manipulate you.”