Understanding the Predatory Aggressive, Part 2

Disordered characters, especially predators, don’t really want us to know who they really are. They tell us what they think we want to hear so that we will think them more like us.

Research continues to demonstrate how different the Predatory Aggressive Personality is from most of us (see “Understanding the Predatory Aggressive Personality”). Some recent research even suggests that the brains of individuals diagnosed as having psychopathic or sociopathic personalities operate very differently from the brains of normal individuals.

Some areas of the human brain are particularly involved in the production of emotion, in responding to emotionally-charged situations, and in the recognition of material that carries emotional connotations. Other areas of the brain are more specifically involved in language, and there are particular portions of these areas that are very involved in the recognition of words and their meanings.

One relatively recent study exposed both normal individuals and psychopaths to words (flashed before them visually) that were thought to be either emotion-neutral (i.e., having no significant emotion-evoking character) or emotionally-charged in some way. Words for inanimate objects like door or shelf would be examples of emotion-neutral words. Words that typically involve human activity and emotional interplay such as marriage, divorce, loneliness, etc., were considered emotionally-charged.

Normal individuals experienced activity in the brain associated with language and recognizing word meaning when they were presented with emotion-neutral words. The brains of psychopaths behaved in a similar way when they were presented with the emotion-neutral words. But when the emotionally-tinged words were displayed, the activity in the brains of the psychopaths was very different from that of normal individuals. In the normal individuals, brain activity occurred both in the areas associated with language processing and word meaning as well as the areas involved in emotion. In the brains of the psychopaths, however, there was no activity in the areas typically associated with emotion. It was as if the brains of the psychopaths processed information that has some emotional impact on most of us as if it had the same quality as an inanimate object.

This study may help explain why there is such a disconnect on an emotional level between psychopaths and normal individuals. The findings from the study are also congruent with the notion that psychopaths are able to recognize concepts as well as anyone and are therefore able to “mimic” more normal behaviors, especially behaviors that appear to have some emotional basis. They might know, therefore, how to display a particular emotion in the face of a circumstance in which most individuals might display the emotion, but it would lack genuine conviction.

Without making a definitive or diagnostic statement on the matter, I’d like to relate a recent story from the news in the U.S. that caught my attention. For some time, a certain congressman had a reputation for being perhaps too interested in adolescent males who served as pages and other staffers. Despite repeated denials of rumors, certain information came to light suggesting that in fact he had been brazenly preying on such males, and his increasing sexual appetite and brazenness was threatening his career and his party’s standing. Recently, without admitting specific criminal wrongdoing, he admitted engaging in behaviors he described as both embarrassing and shameful. He appeared contrite, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, implied that his behavior was the result of being molested as a child by a priest. In my experience working with disordered characters as well as sexual offenders, I have heard many similar stories before. What I didn’t hear in the story the congressman told, however, was how the experience of sexual contact with a much older man then predisposed him toward a longstanding sexual attraction to teen males, or how his deep-seated wounds — still unhealed — could allow him to prey repeatedly and so unabashedly on those he solicited.

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You see, I’m a natural skeptic. Disordered characters — and especially the predators among us — know very well how most of us tend to think and feel, as well as what we think and feel. Most predators know that most of us believe that most abusers were in fact themselves abused, but that presumption is not at all supported by the most reliable data (I could cite a plethora of findings on this, but perhaps the discussion is best left to another post). Predators also know that any of us who were indeed traumatized by an experience in our childhood could easily be moved to some emotion upon recalling it. So, if the perpetrator uses the “abuse excuse” and displays the tears, he automatically paints a picture in our minds — the picture of a victim instead of a predator — and secures our sympathy as opposed to outrage. It’s a great set of tactics that I’ve seen used many times before. Remember, I’m not making a definitive judgment here. But I’m always skeptical when predatory behavior is involved. Disordered characters, especially predators, don’t really want us to know who they really are. They tell us what they think we want to hear so that we will think them more like us.

Editor’s Note: We’ve decided to include a quick pointer to some of the relevant research evidence mentioned in this article in a brief follow-up post. See “Footnote on the Abuse Excuse”.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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