For most of us, literature and cinema have hijacked the term “psychopath” to evoke an image of a crazed sadistic monster, Hannibal Lecter frying up his victim, or Patrick Bateman in a frenzy of chainsaws and blades. The real psychopath is a far more mundane creature. He’s simply a guy that lacks empathy, whose actions are driven consistently by self-interest, who seems peculiarly immune to his own screw-ups, even when he coolly apologises. Chances are that you’ll encounter his type fairly often. According to psychologists, those whose psychopathic tendencies drive them as far as violent crime are “unsuccessful” psychopaths. Far more prevalent are the “successful” ones, the ones that become CEOs of major companies, that blend in with our friends and families with only occasional hiccups that hint at the dark pathology behind their successful veneer. In this blog post, I consider the profile of this personality, and look specifically at the phenomenon of the “cyberpath” – someone that uses the internet as a medium for acting out their psychopathic tendencies.
The power of online networking
I’ve met loads of people online, in different settings – some of them in person, and some just in the virtual context. The Scottish puppeteer that employed me in Edinburgh back in ’96. The fabulous weirdos from The Kraken, some of whom I met in person in February 2005. The gardeners at John Harrison’s awesome allotment forum, who taught me tons about gardening, and some of whom sent me seeds and beans that I grew on my allotment! There are the friends I made via the useful Netmums site, which is brilliantly organised into small local networks. The lovely women that I met via the Continuum Concept mailing list after investigating Jean Liedloff’s book by the same name. The classmates I met through one of UCLA’s online courses. Then there are the various people I met whilst I was dabbling in so-called online dating. Some of these new acquaintances became friends, others of became regular chess opponents or sometime climbing buddies. Most faded from memory and contact after a while. One became the father of my child.
Many of these people have provided conversations that varied from the compelling to the inconsequential. Some have turned out to be warm and constant friends. A small handful were the people you almost wish you’d never met in the first place – the weird alien-encounter conspiracy theorist; the numerologist with an astonishingly vicious tongue; the desperate few who forgot they were meeting a person and instead appeared to be meeting with a list of checkboxes (“What do you expect from a life partner?” was one astonishing question; “Do you believe that a couple have to have the same religious beliefs in order for their marriage to survive?” was another.) But I think it’s fair to say I’ve met a wide range of people over the Internet, and most of them have been pretty normal.
However, recently, I’ve realised that the sheer abundance of nice, normal, friendly and well-meaning people on the Internet helps to lull normal users into a false sense of security about the people we interact with online. According to some psychologists, the psychopathic make up around 4% of the general population. The percentage could well be higher online given the attractions of the virtual environment for these personalities. It’s well worth staying alert to the dangers of this place, especially if you come here often.
“Cyberpath” is a colloquial online term that describes an individual with a pathological disorder who uses the internet as a medium for acting out their pathology. The alternative definition is a psychopath who uses the internet to find, stalk and exploit others either online or in real life.
The Internet provides rich pickings for all kinds of social networking. As I described above, it can be used in good faith, with brilliant results. You can track down old friends; meet new ones; find like-minded people that share your hobbies and interests; find a job; get expert advice; procure pretty much any service you like. In short, you can find pretty much whatever you’re looking for. And so can anyone else.
Who is a cyberpath?
Typically, the cyberpath is someone that displays one of the so-called “Cluster B Personality Disorders”. These disorders are evidenced by dramatic, erratic behaviors and include Histrionic, Narcissistic, Antisocial and Borderline Personality Disorders. I’ve summarised a brief outline of these disorders below:
Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD)
Someone with APD displays a lack of empathy or conscience, difficulty in controlling impulses and manipulative behaviours. This disorder is sometimes also referred to as psychopathy or sociopathy, although Antisocial Personality Disorder is the clinical terminology. “Antisocial” in this case does not mean lacking in social skill; on the contrary, psychopaths may often be unusually charming and compelling. They are particularly able to focus their cold, calculating efforts on self-gratification, typically at the expense of others.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
BPD interferes with an individual’s ability to regulate their emotions. The characteristic emotional instability results in dramatic and abrupt mood swings, impulsivity, poor self-image and tumultuous interpersonal relationships. People with this disorder are prone to unpredictable outbursts of anger, and may harm themselves and threaten to harm others. Borderlines are particularly sensitive to rejection. Their fear of abandonment may result in frantic efforts to avoid being left alone, such a suicide threats and attempts.
Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD)
People with this disorder display excessive level of emotionality. They crave the limelight and constantly seek attention and approval. They tend to dominate conversations using grandiose language and frequent interruptions. Those with HPD can be manipulative, offensive or insulting; for them, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
People with NPD demonstrate grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. Narcissism occurs with varying degrees of severity, but the pathologically narcissistic tend to be extremely self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ perspectives, insensitive to others’ needs and indifferent to the effect of their own egocentric behavior. Narcissists feel entitled to great praise, attention, and deferential treatment by others. Those with NPD crave the limelight and are quick to abandon situations in which they are not the center of attention. Defects of empathy may cause narcissists to misperceive other people’s speech and actions, causing them to believe that they are well-liked and respected despite a history of negative personal interactions.
I’m sure we’ve all encountered people with some degree of these characteristics. I am not a psychologist, and nor would I venture a diagnosis for anyone I’ve met, online or offline. However, it’s worth knowing what to look out for when you deal with people you meet online, as this environment is frighteningly well-suited to camouflaging this kind of behaviour. Psychologist Robert Hare argues that ‘we live in a “camouflage society,” a society in which some psychopathic traits- egocentricity, lack of concern for others, superficiality, style over substance, being “cool,” manipulativeness, and so forth- increasingly are tolerated and even valued’. I would suggest that the Internet is even more of a “camouflage” environment for people with these disorders.
What is the cyberpath looking for?
Like all psychopathic personalities, the cyberpath tends to get bored easily. He looks for ways to fill his boredom with exploits that will satisfy his need for personal gratification. The Internet provides a wide array of offerings – chatrooms and discussion groups, mailing lists, social networking sites, and many portals for interpersonal communication with a huge variety of people. The cyberpath tends to find someone that gratifies his need to feed his narcissistic desire for attention – whether with intrigue, argument, conflict or adoration and love. He may flit from one victim to another quite quickly, or may stay with a single victim for an extended period, depending on how long the victim continues to feed this endless need.
Dominance and power form recurrent themes in the social relations of psychopathic personalities. The cyberpath constantly seeks to dominate and control others. This takes a variety of forms:
- in arguments and debates, he constantly needs to have the last word;
- he attempts to silence others and close discussion with his point of view;
- he will resort to insults and attacks in order to retain dominance;
- if he seems to be losing his dominant position in an argument, he will abandon it, forget it and later deny it rather than face any sort of compromise of his dominance.
In his personal relationships, his bids for adulation and devotion will take on more subtle forms:
- he will go to great lengths to elicit love and devotion from others;
- he is only interested in the thrill of achieving or winning this, and once the relationship gets past its initial excitement phase, his boredom and need for further validation will lead him to seek out further victims;
- he is highly adept at lying, and even as his lies get discovered, he will refashion his story to make himself appear credible, often using the stance of humility and remorse to get himself out of a corner. Gradually he will have to set up new online profiles and sites in order to clear away any previous evidence of his track record repeating itself.
Psychopathic personalities enjoy playing jokes and tricks on others in order to humiliate them or assert dominance. In other words, he is not necessarily looking for money or sex; he may simply be looking for the thrill of a new connection, a new game. This is not to say that the psychopath is necessarily aware of what he’s doing; he may not even realise or acknowledge that he is hurting or exploiting others in his quest for attention and narcissistic supply. Indeed, his own sense of need and lack may be so great that it may express itself in very genuine self-pity, heartfelt longing and sweeping declarations of love and desire.
A psychopath tends to play the same games over and over. He tends to have no real interest in your inner emotional state as he is incapable of actual empathy (although he may have a deep desire to feel empathy, and may indeed claim to feel it). Consequently, few psychopaths are actually stalkers. They do not connect emotionally to others, so once a relationship has run out of steam for them, they simply move onto the next person that piques their interest. For those who have found themselves at the end of a relationship with a psychopathic individual, one of the most frustrating aspects of the breakup can be the lack of any acknowledgement that the relationship even happened
Gordon Banks, in his essay “Don Juan as Psychopath” points out that this personality “gives no real love, though he is quite capable of inspiring love of sometimes fanatical degree in others”. Of course, after the relationship is over, it means very little to the cyberpath, who tends to turn cold (and sometimes even vicious) but the victim may find themselves shocked, devastated or seriously traumatised. The perverse twist to this theme is that the psychopathic personality may take pleasure in “psychoanalysing” his victims, and casting them as crazy, obsessive and even delusional (and reinforcing his own power as the dominant “rational” figure in the relationship).
Most cyberpaths are not the kinds of hardened criminals that go as far as murder, rape and the other crimes we’ve come to associate with literary and filmic “psychos”. Rather, they tend to commit crimes of deceit, lying and infidelity. Their manipulation will go as far as seemingly heartfelt confessions, as well as successive revisions of their own narratives. Sadly, they will often actually believe their own stories.
A cyberpath will keep his victim hooked for as long as she keeps fuelling his narcissistic desire for devotion and approval. However, the charade will drop when this starts waning (typically the phase of a relationship where normal couples settle down from the initial infatuation into the normalcy of their relationship). Alternatively, it may drop when the cyberpath simply gets bored of his current victim and requires a more novel buzz.
What may attract you to a psychopath initially
- he may appear extraordinarily articulate, impressive and charming
- his provocative behaviour might initially seem attractively brave, daring or “true to self”; later when it makes you uncomfortable, you might well rationalise it by remembering that it’s part of what makes him “special”
- he will “zone in” on you and make you feel like you are at the centre of something extraordinary
- irresistibly, he will insist that your relationship eclipses and surpasses anything that went before – you are the first person that has truly seen or understood him; the best lover he has ever had; the first person with whom he has been truly honest or truly “himself” (indeed, he may believe this himself, as he does not have any emotional recall for previous relationships)
- even if he has cheated on or betrayed someone else in the initial stages of your relationship, he will twist this to demonstrate that you are the special case – now that he’s found you, there can be no further dishonesty
- he may overtly or subtly assert his dominance over you as a kind of private privilege
- he may create a heightened sense of intimacy (a sort of “me and you against the world” in-club) by insisting that you alone understand him and share his unique perspective.
The sorts of things that might alert you to psychopathic tendencies
- consistent failure to conform to social norms (e.g. a tendency to speak or behave to shock others, insistently provocative behaviour)
- deceitfulness, lying, creation of multiple aliases
- insulting or humiliating treatment
- arrogance, a sense of entitlement, inflated sense of ego
- a tendency to “psychoanalyse” others, especially previous exes, as insane or obsessive
- coolly rationalising or “explaining away” previous incidents in which he has hurt, mistreated or lied to others
- lack of empathy, guilt or remorse for previous misdemeanours and previous victims
- a limited or nonexistent social circle, largely made up of people he sees rarely or online acquaintances, rather than close friends or confidantes
- a pattern of serious mental illness or psychosis in his family; fraught or nonexistent family ties.
If you have been in a relationship with a psychopathic personality
- get as far away from them as you can, as quickly as possible
- don’t bother trying to communicate with them about the relationship – they will be unable to enter into a meaningful dialogue
- if you seek to expose them, bear in mind they are likely to respond with vitriolic rage, threats, vicious and hurtful communication, or attempts to discredit you and smear your reputation
- resign yourself to the fact that you are unlikely to retrieve anything from them unless you are fortunate enough to have a legally binding contract from before they turned cold on you
- don’t beat yourself up about not recognising the signs earlier; just act as soon as you do
- seek therapy as soon as possible; the trauma of these encounters can be long-lasting and profound
- if possible, warn others of your experience
- bear in mind he will be doing his best to cast you as irrational or downright crazy, so it might not be possible or worthwhile to warn his friends or his most recent victim
- tempting as it is to try get him to hear your point of view, cut your losses and keep away from any further contact.
The other side of the coin
With around 4% of the general population displaying psychopathic traits, some psychologists readily regard psychopathy, like some forms of autistic traits, as “just another way of being”. The psychopaths that end up committing socially unacceptable crimes such as rape and murder are simply the ‘unsuccessful psychopaths’; the successful ones may actually exploit their tendencies to achieve great outward trappings of success. Intelligence, charm and uncompromising self-interest can be a recipe for high earnings and some degree of social (or at least sexual) success. That said, if you’re among of the 96% of the population that values a degree of empathy and compassion in your friends and partners, it’s worth knowing what to look out for.
Banks, Gordon. “Don Juan as Psychopath”. 1989. http://www.gordonbanks.com/gordon/pubs/donjuan.html
Cleckley, Hervey. The Mask of Sanity. 1998.
Hare, Robert. “Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder: A Case of Diagnostic Confusion”, Psychiatric Times. Vol. 13 No. 2.
Enpsychopedia website. http://enpsychopedia.org/index.php/Cyberpath
Exposing online predators and cyberpaths (EOPC). http://cyberpaths.blogspot.com.