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The ever-alluring charm of the psychopath

Wednesday, 19th February, 2020 3:54pm

Is James Bond a psychopath?
A new book released by an Irish consultant psychiatrist explores why we are fascinated and charmed by fictitious psychopaths in popular culture and answers that very question.

‘Psychopath? Why We Are Charmed by the Anti-Hero’ takes the reader on through a world of fictional psychopaths such as Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley, and even James Bond.

Written by consultant psychiatrist Dr Stephen McWilliams, the non-fiction book explores our fascination with characters who depict selfish, cruel, and often brutal traits.

Speaking about the book, Dr McWilliams said: “A psychopath is essentially a manipulative person who fundamentally lacks a conscious, and has a life-long history of engaging in a wide range of irresponsible or unethical activities for personal gain.

“Typically, these people are grandiose, they lie, they cheat, and they have no empathy. They lack remorse and are often superficially charming.”

Though the term is often associated with crazed knife-wielding maniacs, the characteristics of a psychopath are much more complicated, and more common than we know. Most psychopaths are not serial killers.

“There are estimated to be about 30 million psychopaths in the world. About 1 in every 200 of us.

But most function perfectly well in society, they carve out impressive careers as CEOs, lawyers, politicians and advertising executives.

“Even the occasional psychiatrist. Psychopaths tend to be quite narcissistic, so anything with power,” said Dr McWilliams.

He believes our fascination with psychos in fiction is that they appeal to an inherent part of us that longs to be depraved. “We’re seduced by their charm, we never find them boring. They have looks, talents and skills that we admire. Sometimes, on a more psychodynamic level, they appeal to a part deep within us that longs to be bad. We’re all good people, but there’s a little bit in us that likes to see the badness in the anti-hero.”

Some psychopaths are often considered likeable or even charming. However this is a calculated method of controlling your perception of the person.

“In real life, ultimately, psychopaths will burn you. They may seem charming and pleasant initially when you meet them because they’re excellent manipulators.

“They do something called impression management, which is a deliberate attempt to influence how others perceive them by controlling the information they provide. They’ll give you just the information needed for you to like and trust them, and then they’ll do what they need to do with impunity,” said Dr Williams.

In the book, Dr McWilliams applies the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, based on the work of Canadian professor of psychology, Robert D Hare.

The checklist was designed to outline the characteristics of psychopathy as a way for psychologists to assess if the traits are present in a person. The checklist is considered the gold standard of assessment, and is the basis on which Dr McWilliams’ identifies if fictional characters are psychopaths.

While researching the book, Dr McWilliams explored psychopathic characters in a variety of mediums. Some struck him as particular well researched in their depiction of psychopathy.

“I think possibly the best described psychopath in fiction would be Kevin Khatchadourian from Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’. He’s very clearly a psychopath, and it’s very clear that Lional Shriver did her research. It’s almost a perfect description of a psychopath. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a compelling book,” said Dr McWilliams.

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