What would a psychopath think to be evil?

This is what makes psychopaths tick - one psychologist explains

What is a psychopath? Why do some of them commit cruel crimes? Why do they murder children, rape women, beat random victims to death? Are you born bad and unscrupulous, or do you choose to be bad? t-online.de spoke to the criminal psychologist and best-selling author Lydia Benecke about psychopaths and their personality traits. We all, she says, move "on thin ice".

Mirko's murderer Olaf H., the “mask man”, Marc Dutroux or Josef Fritzl - they are all psychopaths, convicted of murder and rape. How can such people live unnoticed in our society for years?

Psychopaths have a greatly reduced emotional life, but they can often lead a completely normal life outwardly. They're not just monsters. It's creepy, but psychopaths have perfectly normal and nice personality parts that stand alongside the bad ones.

So if you are nice to your neighbor or to help someone or if you listen in a friendly way, then it can be a pretense, but it can also be that you simply mean it in the situation.

What are the typical personality traits that characterize psychopaths?

You have little or no compassion or guilt. Ordinary people have an involuntary emotional impulse when they see a child hurt themselves, for example. Psychopaths lack that. But if you've never felt compassion in your life, then you automatically lack guilt. It only happens when we feel guilty about making others feel bad about us.

Then there is the inner emptiness and boredom that many psychopaths experience. Their strong need for kicks is what makes them so dangerous. They are often spontaneous and impulsive and do not think about the consequences. In addition, they lack any feeling of fear.

Another important point is the lack of interpersonal skills. In their world, people are only objects, pets at best.

Does this also apply to close relatives? For example, your own parents, or even your own children?

I say yes. The mass murderer Richard Kuklinski from the USA said after his arrest that he loved his wife and children. Nevertheless, he once said to his children, for example, "If I accidentally kill your mother in a fit of anger, then unfortunately I have to kill you too - even if it is difficult for me".

I believe that to a psychopath, someone they say they love means as much as normal people mean their pet, favorite sports car, or an expensive chain.

How do you become a psychopath? Is that genetic or does a broken childhood make you one? Or is one even raised to be a psychopath?

The dangerous recipe is made up of environmental influences but also genes. When people are traumatized in their childhood, the brain has several options to react to them. Some develop panic disorders, others depression. Certain genes, on the other hand, make the development of a psychopathic disorder at least more likely.

To become a really dangerous psychopath, you must develop a very severe childhood trauma before your third year of life. They need to grow up in an environment where they are emotionally neglected and abused. This can also be abuse that is invisible to others.

Outwardly, serial killer Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer had a picture book family, but at home his mother looked like an emotionless zombie. She completely neglected her son, the father buried himself in his work. The boy had no caregiver. This has a strong influence on the child's psyche.

You say in your book that almost everyone is capable of almost any cruel act. So are psychopaths really that different from us? Or are there psychopathic traits in each of us?

Actually, they are no different. We just feel guilty in between. For example, if we don’t donate to starving children in Africa because they are so far away and we don’t have a guilty conscience, then at that moment we are acting like a psychopath would. We find justifications for not donating.

A healthy brain has learned to feel responsible for people in our immediate surroundings, to feel bad when we refuse to help them. This mechanism does not apply to donations for Africa. The psychopath did not even learn this feeling of guilt. For example, he could drown a child in a lake so as not to ruin his expensive leather shoes in the water.

So, in principle, one can say that we act according to the same cost-benefit principle as a psychopath, only enter the situation with a different wallet?

It is exactly like that! In your wallet you will find all the emotions that the psychopath does not have. But that's the only reason why they act differently from him. Your cost-benefit principle works in exactly the same way. Most people just don't know that.

How can I tell whether my neighbor, my partner, my child or even myself am a psychopath?

The longer I work with these people, the more I believe that it is difficult or impossible to recognize the psychopath in everyday life. There are many signs, such as unreliability, infidelity, mendacity, pronounced narcissism.

However, not all of these personality traits are present in all psychopaths, or they are equally pronounced. In addition, one can be unfaithful without being a psychopath. As you can see, there is no clear inclusion-exclusion criterion.

In addition, serious statements by psychopaths usually sound so strange to us that we tend to see them as weird humor. For example, one of my patients said when introducing his new girlfriend to a good friend: "This is not my girlfriend, this is my property". He was completely serious, the friend started laughing. This is something I experience very often when dealing with psychopaths.

In prison you often work with criminal psychopaths such as serial killers or rapists, but as a therapist you also regularly deal with non-criminal psychopaths. What are the differences?

I think this has to do with the severity of the trauma. Everyone had a difficult childhood, but the non-criminal psychopaths probably had something that made up for the uncomfortable experiences. A caregiver who helped them or something. This enabled them to develop some prosocial traits despite their disorder. At least they have a cognitive conscience and make a rational decision that they don't want to be a criminal.

Fear of punishment also plays a role. And of course the possibilities that someone has in their life. When a person with psychopathic traits grows up in a well-protected home, goes through the normal educational path, completes a degree and finally finds a good job, then he has the opportunity to buy the things he would like to have. He doesn't have to rob a bank, he doesn't have to become a criminal.

What role does free will play? For example, does the murderous psychopath have to follow his impulse to kill?

I like to compare it to a diet: everyone knows it, you decide to only eat vegetables for the next four weeks. Nevertheless, after a certain time, the strong impulse to eat a piece of cake arises. If I give in to this impulse, will I be a person without free will?

It is similar with psychopaths. Only that with them the impulses are a little stronger and the control mechanisms a little weaker. Compared to a car: the psychopath has an over-sensitive accelerator pedal, unfortunately the brakes are pretty weak. In this area - between the accelerator pedal and the weak brake - his free will moves. He has to have a lot more willpower in order not to hit the wall with the powerful accelerator and weak brakes.

Keyword safekeeping: is psychopathy curable or treatable at all? Or do you have to lock up criminals for life to protect society?

The greater the psychopathic value, the higher the risk of relapse. There are currently numerous research groups that are precisely concerned with the question of whether psychopaths can be treated. To be honest, there has been no clear answer to that yet. But I can say very clearly: Today we are not yet ready to treat a highly psychopathic person who, for example, has pronounced killing fantasies. We have to lock someone up permanently.

But I want to say again very clearly: In this form, this only applies to extreme cases. The vast majority of psychopathic offenders are not such extreme cases and can be treated if necessary.

Current therapeutic approaches are never about turning psychopaths into nice and emotional people. It's always just about teaching them how to better control their brakes. This is done in their own interest. Such people, as you can imagine, have very little desire to spend their lives behind bars. Many of them are accordingly motivated to work on their problem.

Lydia Benecke works as a freelance psychologist and therapist, among other things in a social therapeutic facility for the prison system with serious offenders. She is the co-author of the bestseller "From the Darkroom of Evil", which has been translated into several languages. Her current book "On Thin Ice - The Psychology of Evil" was published in autumn 2013 by Lübbe-Verlag.