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Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best: A review of Snakes in Suits

006083772101_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v54208143_Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work  by Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Regan Books, 2006

I love this book. I read it in one sitting, more or less. I started reading it just after I cleared security at White Plains Airport and finished the last page as I touched down at my destination.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare is marketed and mostly reviewed as a business book on the problem of psychopathy in the workplace. For example MSNBC’s excerpt, coordinated with the authors’ appearance on the Today Show, is headlined “Snakes in Suits unmasks corporate psychos.” But what the book has to say is much more generally applicable and translates well to the larger context of daily life.

Snakes in Suits takes us beyond the stereotypes about psychopaths that emerge from news coverage focusing on serial killers, and from horror novelists’ attempts to delve into that same material. The psychopaths portrayed and profiled in this book for the most part do not kill people and are not in jail. And this last is one important reason why you should read this book: Most of us in daily life do not have the opportunity to interview cannibals, as do some of those who specialize in the profiling of the criminally insane. If and when we meet a psychopath, it is much more likely to be at a cocktail party than in a death row jail cell. So the literature of the profiling of criminal psychopaths, with its talk of organized vs. disorganized crime scenes and such, is not likely to be all that helpful. In contrast, the psychopaths of Snakes in Suits are presented in much more familiar settings and contexts.

In the book’s preface, the authors explain why psychopaths often excel at talking their way through job interviews: They can be very charming, often possesses a disarming charisma, and tend to be skilled at social manipulation. (xi) Their “appearance of confidence, strength, and calm” makes them seem right for the job and make them stand out among other candidates. (xii) These same traits can also make them shine in other social contexts like parties or conferences or stand out as attractive in context like dating web sites or Internet discussion lists.

Hare is the author of a checklist of indicators of psychopathy, the Hare Psychopath Checklist—Revised (PCL-R), and so the book’s definition of psychopath is quite concise. While the book vividly describes the traits of psychopaths, the authors’ repeatedly emphasize that the term is a diagnostic category to be applied by a professional, and that while we may observe psychopathic traits in others (or in ourselves) this does not mean that the person in question is truly a psychopath, and so they caution against the broad application of the term.

Some of the characteristics of psychopaths I found interesting in this section were these: That the aggression and violence of psychopaths tends to be “instrumental”, i.e. a means toward an end, rather than impulsive (18). That “psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves.” (19) That psychopaths often live a parasitic lifestyle (20) and are often liars who will lie about even the most inconsequential things. (21)

One of the most interesting, from the standpoint of literary characterization of psychopaths, is that they tend to manifest a semantic aphasia:

[Hervey] Cleckly  . . . noted that psychopaths use language somewhat differently than other people; their sentence structure, choice of words and tempo (or beat) were different. (22)

The authors describe this further a little later in the book:

. . . many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people.  They make use of the fact that for most people the content of the message is less important than the way it is delivered. A confident, aggressive delivery style—often larded with jargon, clichés, and flowery phrases—makes up for the lack of substance and sincerity in their interactions with others. (38)

If this sounds like your new best friend, watch out! As the authors remark further down the page, psychopaths are “social chameleons” (38) which makes them “a near-perfect invisible human predator.” (39)

However, psychopathy is also a type of personality disorder, and so while psychopaths are in many ways very versatile, people with personality disorders tend to have “a limited range of ‘solutions’” to life’s problems. (40) So they also lack flexibility and the ability to change that people without personality disorders have.

A psychopath’s targeting of his victim goes through three phases: the Assessment Phase (43), the Manipulation Phase (48), and the Abandonment Phase (53). There are some interesting remarks along the way as the authors describe these phases. For example, in the discussion of the Assessment Phase:

. . . the psychopath is constantly sizing up the potential usefulness of an individual as a source of money, power, sex, or influence. People who have power, celebrity, or high social status are particularly attractive. (44)

In this section the authors’ also discuss the attractiveness of emergencies and disasters to psychopaths, who can find opportunities in the confusion: “psychopaths remorselessly use other people even when able-bodied and capable of supporting themselves.” (46) They also remark on psychopath’s attraction to life on the edge: “there is evidence that psychopaths need considerable novel stimulation to keep from becoming bored.” And here’s another notable line: “Sometimes their sense of superiority is so great that they say they are conferring a gift by letting their victims support them.” (48)

And so, on to the Manipulation Phase:

Following identification of individuals who may be useful to them, psychopaths begin to create a shroud of charm we have labeled the psychopathic fiction. This is the beginning of the manipulation phase.

The first goal here is to gain the trust of the individual through ingratiation and various impression-management techniques. (48)

The psychopath’s lack of social anxiety makes him more believable:

Unencumbered by social anxieties, fear of being found out, empathy, remorse, or guilt—some of nature’s brake pedals for anti-social behavior in humans—psychopaths tell a tale so believable, so entertaining, so creative, that many listeners instinctively trust them. (50)

And then comes the Abandonment Phase:

Once the psychopath has drained all the value from a victim—that is, when the victim is no longer useful—they abandon the victim and move on to someone else. (53)

The creepiest section of the book, and one of the most engaging as well, is the description of the “Psychopathic Bond” (pp. 74-79) in which the authors describe how the psychopath convinces his target that he is exactly the friend or lover the target has been looking for, that all secrets are safe with him:

Those who have been in long-term relationships with psychopaths describe them as the supreme psychologist or mind reader. The more they interacted wit the psychopath, the more they felt mesmerized by the facade. Many referred to their psychopathic partners as “soul mates” and reported how much they believed they had in common with the psychopath. It is even more disturbing to hear some victims’ reports—once they have been cut loose during the abandonment phase—that they miss the relationship and want the psychopath back in their lives. It is very difficult to believe that the relationship never really existed. (79)

The author’s describe a number of different roles a psychopath’s targets and victims can fulfill for the psychopath. Particularly memorable is the character of “Dorothy,” a bright young woman who ends up doing all the real work for a corporate psychopath, “Dave,” that gives him the credibility to rise within the organization.

"The whole idea, from concept to action plan, even the executive committee proposal presentation, was Dorothy's work. Dave just tapped into her and took her ideas as his own." (293)

Images_1"Dave." meanwhile, had been complaining about "Dorothy"'s job performance.

Other “Roles in the Psychopath’s Drama” are “Pawns, Patrons, and Patsies.” (Chapter 6)

Later in the book, the various scenarios begun earlier play themselves out, and the authors try to give their business audience practical advice on how to keep psychopaths out of their organizations. Then they give advice to individuals on how to unravel a psychopath’s complex web.

The book is most notable for its description of the problem rather than for its proposed solutions. How many people it will save from the malign influence of psychopaths, I don’t know. But at very least, once people have been through it, it will help them understand what happened to them.

But that is indeed the nature of the beast: The psychopath is our real life nosferatu. Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best.

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