Recently my journalistic career brought me in contact with a man who, when I first met him, seemed to be the very embodiment of a charming and well-heeled gentleman. He is a natural raconteur, good-looking, athletic, intellectually curious, financially successful, and wittily self-deprecating. What few people know about him is that he has left behind a trail of emotional destruction, having spent decades abusing vulnerable individuals for his own twisted purposes.
Psychopaths, or sociopaths as some prefer to call them, are well known figures in our culture. We're fascinated by their predatory relationship with the rest of humanity. Their chilling alien-ness makes them convenient villains in books, film, and television. When we encounter them in real life, we think: There really are monsters roaming the world. But as my own recent experience has taught me, the crimes of the psychopath are not merely a function of the perpetrator. We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims.
As my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marisa Mauro has pointed out, psychologists have long been known that the more psychopathic a person is, the more easily they can identify potential victims. Indeed, they can do so just by watching the way a person moves. In one study, test subjects watched videos of twelve individuals walking, shot from behind, and rated how easily they could be mugged. As it happened, some of the people in the videotapes really had been mugged -- and the most psychopathic of the subjects were able to tell which was which. Writes Mauro: