Psychopathy and the Art of Impression Management

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Psychopaths can leverage the cover of ministry or other positions of influence, together with their incredible capacity to present a positive self-image, to prey on the good nature of others.

Along with some members of a faith-based prison ministry, I recently attended a group discussion on putting faith into action. The people I met there were genuine, caring, and very socially conscientious folks, committed to doing all they could to make a difference in the lives of others and to helping guide those once on the margins of society into a more functional societal role. The mission of the more active prison ministries, though clearly well-intended, gave me substantial pause. That mission was to guide the most serious offenders, many of whom were diagnosed by prison psychologists as psychopaths, not only through the process of spiritual “conversion” but also through a ministerial training course via an online “seminary” to eventually secure certification as ordained ministers. The program had become one of the most popular in the prison, and for me, this was a big red flag.

The concept of one-time criminals reforming themselves and then putting themselves in a position to coach wayward others away from lives of crime and into more socially responsible roles is nothing new and is certainly not inherently problematic. And I’m happy to say that I’ve witnessed several individuals truly turn their lives around, much to the relief and joy of their families and society at large. So I’m a strong supporter of programs that really help people change. But providing a psychopath with a relatively quick path to securing a position of power and influence over others is something else entirely. A program purporting to to do that really makes me nervous.

The jury is still out about whether it’s even possible for a psychopath to significantly change in character. That’s partly because of the mounting evidence that much of the deficient empathy capacity common in psychopaths might be primarily biologically-based. And the most preeminent researchers and clinicians in the area of psychopathy, including Dr. Robert Hare in Canada, have long advanced the notion that it’s better to focus attentions not not so much on core personality change but rather on teaching psychopaths the practical benefits of modifying their most problematic social behavior patterns. Psychopaths are already known to do whatever they have to do behaviorally to serve their self-interest. So, the “treatment” most likely to achieve any success would be one that helps such folks see that it’s actually in their better interest to modify their patterns of exploitation and abuse. Naturally, no one is willing to assert definitively that a psychopath simply cannot change his/her most basic personality stripes. But when it comes to psychopaths and the possibility of meaningful character change, it’s always prudent to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.

One woman at the meeting I attended related what she thought might be an example of the most profound “transformation” of a person she had ever witnessed. She worked with a man who was known to be one of the most feared inmates — a kingpin on the streets who, while in prison, had ordered his henchmen to break the legs of drug-runners he suspected of cheating him out of money. He was believed to have done many other horrible things which the authorities couldn’t manage to pin on him or sanction him for. And he had come to prison in the first place on a plea deal (manslaughter), which made it possible for him to be eligible for parole relatively early, despite the fact that his crime (which was originally treated as a murder) by all rights should have put him away for life. Shortly after learning about the special program from other inmates, he started attending the chaplain’s group meetings. He was “saved” a very short time after that and his apparent turnaround made such an impression on the chaplain and others that they provided him with the rare opportunity to use the chaplaincy computer’s internet access to the online seminary program much earlier than they had for any of the other program participants. The woman admitted that she had some nervousness about things but couldn’t pinpoint why. And I could sense the anxiety she had while recounting the events. Still she couldn’t help but be impressed with how he seemed to draw other inmates into the program and how they looked up to him as a role model. She asked me what I thought. Could a person really be transformed from murderer to minister in just 18 months? Was it a miracle or merely a sham?

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Having assessed literally thousands of the most serious offenders over the years, I had many stories I could share with circumstances similar to the one this woman described. One in particular stood out because of its parallels, and I shared it with her. It was of a man who was also one of the more notorious inmates upon admission, and he displayed what appeared to be a remarkable turnaround after undergoing a conversion experience. He even became the chaplain’s right hand man. And he also very quickly made his way into a program designed to secure ministerial credentials online. He wanted to work with other misguided souls, he said, and help them to avoid making the same mistakes he had. He so favorably impressed not only his treatment providers but also the members of the parole board that he made parole at the earliest eligible time. After his release, he wasted no time currying favor with an elderly pastor at an inner-city church and began engaging in outreach activities, attracting many young men who’d had problems with the law, had done brief stints in jail or prison, etc. Along with these men came their wives and girlfriends, whom everyone would later realize were the true objects of this man’s interest. Knowing the criminal mentality inside out, knowing what issues the women in these men’s lives were dealing with, knowing their vulnerabilities, and presenting to them an almost irresistible image of a caring and compassionate man who really “understood” them and their circumstances like no one else could, he slowly, carefully, and successfully seduced and sexually exploited tens if not hundreds of these women before his “game” came to light and he was nearly killed by an outraged husband. He eventually returned to prison on embezzlement charges (he also had a knack for soliciting “donations” from elderly women in the congregation that never made it into the church coffers) and boasted of his conquests to the other inmates upon his return.

After I shared this story, the woman just looked and stared at me for awhile. The look on her face suggested she was more than just surprised or startled. It also seemed like something had been clicking in her brain as I had recounted the story. Then the woman told me how, as I was speaking, she’d started recalling some little comments the man had made to her about women and the kinds of situations he expected to encounter when he got a chance to work in a church setting. They made her feel uneasy, but at the time she couldn’t figure out why, so she did her best to set her qualms aside. As she remembered more and we talked further, it became clear that this was a man, who like all the individuals I refer to in Character Disturbance Character Disturbance as predatory aggressors, always seemed willing to do anything to occupy a position of power and influence over others. That was the one characteristic that she’d never seen change.

I’ve encountered hundreds of psychopathic individuals who admittedly used the cover of ministry or other positions of influence, together with their incredible capacity to present a positive self-image, to prey on the good nature of others. They are the paradigmatic examples of impression managers. And several researchers have noted that the more sophisticated psychopaths typically do four things while they’re in prison as part of their “game” of “impression management”: they get “saved,” they become exemplary “model” prisoners and leaders, they secure the trust of their guardians — often taking on semi-managerial “assistant” responsibilities in the process, and they get married (yes, married, even when they have no access to conjugal rights or even visits, and the reasons for this are too numerous to even begin to discuss here). You see, it’s all about the “image.” After all, you can’t run a con — i.e., “confidence” game — without first making people want to trust you. (See “Return of the ‘Con Artist’ — Tips to Protect Yourself”.) And it’s easier to convince some people to do that because they so desperately need or want to believe in the capacity of people to be good. While I’m certainly not willing to say that miracles simply can’t happen, I always maintain healthy skepticism when it comes to psychopaths. Unfortunately, those who really want to believe that it’s possible to go from murderer to minister in the blink of an eye present an almost irresistible opportunity for exploitation to these masters of impression-management. That’s why the sincere and well-intended folks trying to rehabilitate those with serious character disorders need to pay a bit less regard to their noble motives and more careful attention to evidence for efficacy in their programs.

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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