Untouchable: The Chilling Confidence of Psychopaths

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Psychopaths are confident primarily about two things: their skill in manipulating, and their understanding of human nature, especially of neurotic individuals. It’s our very nature that gives psychopaths their confidence.

After many months since the former 30-year veteran Illinois police officer was arrested on charges that he murdered his third wife, Drew Peterson has finally gone to trial. And already, two serious missteps on the part of the prosecution have put the trial’s very survival in jeopardy. For his part, Peterson has always publicly cast his prosecution as both a waste of time and a forgone failure, and has repeatedly voiced confidence that he will eventually have to be set free. Some regard Peterson as the ultimate example of a psychopath: a heartless yet clever and calculating individual, with a powerful capacity both to charm and to manipulate, but who is without feelings or conscience and therefore has no qualms whatsoever in doing whatever he pleases with those who may have once been under his spell but somehow found the courage to break their chains of emotional bondage. And a few months ago a movie based on the case was aired on cable television and given the title Untouchable in view of Peterson’s alleged assertion to one of his victims that he was clever enough to commit perfect crimes and was confident that he would forever remain beyond the reach of the law. And while I make no claims in this article about Peterson’s guilt or innocence or about the nature of his character, there are aspects of this particular case that raise some very important issues about the almost stupefying confidence some individuals have that they can literally get away with murder.

Peterson’s prosecutors actually suspect that he committed murder twice, but they have no direct physical evidence of that. They know that his fourth wife suddenly disappeared, which triggered suspicions because his third wife just happened to have drowned in the bathtub. At the time, the death was ruled an accident, because there appeared no compelling evidence to the contrary. But the whole history of Peterson’s relationship with women, when retrospectively examined, became highly suspect. It seemed like he had an uncanny ability to charm and eventually control those who entered relationships with him. And he seemed to dismiss them quite quickly when he was through with them and became hungry for a younger, prettier model. At the time of his third wife’s death, he was already involved with the younger woman who would become his fourth wife. And it wasn’t long after his fourth wife “disappeared” that he became involved with yet another younger woman. So, authorities exhumed the body of the third wife, re-examined it, and made a different assessment of how she likely died, which led to Peterson’s indictment.

I don’t plan on providing any more background about this case because as I mentioned, it’s not my intent to make any judgments about it or Peterson per se. But I feel compelled to address some issues about the chilling conviction some people have about their invincibility, because the case files are replete with examples of serial killers (e.g., Ted Bundy) and other psychopathic and sociopathic figures who displayed a disturbing confidence that they would never be sanctioned for their actions. More specifically, I’d like to address why certain personalities have this confidence and why it so naturally gives rise to marked anxiety in the rest of us.

Psychopaths are confident primarily about two things: their skill in manipulating, and their understanding of human nature, especially of neurotic individuals. In fact, it’s their spot-on understanding of neurotics and their vulnerabilities that enables them to manipulate so successfully. Other disturbed characters are savvy about neurosis, too. But not to the degree psychopaths are. They know we overly conscientious types have qualms. We also have fears and anxieties. We have empathy. We want to do the right thing, and we become unnerved when we think we’ve done something wrong. We hate making rash or unfair judgments. We don’t want to be the cause of anyone else’s suffering. And we’ve been very careful over the years to write laws and endorse rules that go the extra mile to ensure that we don’t deprive anyone of their freedom unless we have clear and convincing proof that it’s really the right and necessary thing to do. It’s our very nature that gives psychopaths their confidence. They know us inside and out. They know how we think, how we feel, and how we operate — even though they don’t feel, think, or operate in any manner like we do. But because they know us and they know our hesitations, and because they trust their capacity to charm and persuade us, it’s easy for them to feel “untouchable,” even when they do us great harm or do us in. And as I point out in Character Disturbance Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] and in In Sheep’s Clothing In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], they also see themselves as “superior” creatures to us because they regard the characteristics we typically posses as signs of our weakness and unfitness. That’s why they feel perfectly “entitled” to prey upon us. And because they can so easily convince others of their superiority and invincibility, their victims often resign themselves to a position of subordination.

I don’t think it’s any accident that a seasoned prosecutor has already made some key mistakes that might jeopardize the trial at hand. It’s very common for neurotics to be very unnerved in the presence of great confidence. Inordinately confident people naturally force you to contend with your own insecurity. That’s not to say that everyone who exudes such confidence is a psychopath. But when you’re in the presence of someone whose every “vibe” says: “I dare you to get one-up on me,” it’s natural to feel apprehensive. And when we’re anxious, we make mistakes. And sometimes making big mistakes, especially in the courtroom, can allow even the most heinous criminal’s purported “untouchability” to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ll be watching the Peterson case unfold with great interest. It should prove instructive in many ways. I’ve already researched the case quite a bit. As things presently stand, I can see many reasons for the former officer and accused murderer to feel confident. And this gives me a bit of a chill.

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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