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Book Review: Without Conscience, by Robert Hare

Dr. Hare, creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, toots his own horn.


Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

The Guilford Press, 1993, 236 pages



Most people are both repelled and intrigued by the images of cold-blooded, conscienceless murderers that increasingly populate our movies, television programs, and newspaper headlines. With their flagrant criminal violation of society's rules, serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are among the most dramatic examples of the psychopath. Individuals with this personality disorder are fully aware of the consequences of their actions and know the difference between right and wrong, yet they are terrifyingly self-centered, remorseless, and unable to care about the feelings of others. Perhaps most frightening, they often seem completely normal to unsuspecting targets. Presenting a compelling portrait of these dangerous men and women based on 25 years of distinguished scientific research, Dr. Robert D. Hare vividly describes a world of con artists, hustlers, rapists, and other predators who charm, lie, and manipulate their way through life. Are psychopaths mad, or simply bad? How can they be recognized? And how can we protect ourselves? This book provides solid information and surprising insights for anyone seeking to understand this devastating condition.




Having read several books about psychopaths/sociopaths now, I found the one written by the most notable expert, Robert Hare, creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, to be the most sensationalistic and the least grounded in facts. Indeed, Hare spends much of the book describing ominously how terrible and dangerous psychopaths are and how worried we should be about them. But do not use his Psychopathy Checklist to self-diagnose or diagnose others — no, you should consult a trained professional, like Dr. Hare. He reinforces his warnings with claims about the damage psychopaths do, but often couched in suggestive but deniable language — the "evidence" of "today's society" is that psychopathy is a growing problem. Really? What evidence? By what measure does Dr. Hare claim that society now is worse than in the past, and specifically, how would one test his hypothesis that psychopaths are more common now? He suggests this is the case, but presents only lurid anecdotes and speculation about rapists, Wall Street bankers, gang-bangers, and murderers, many of whom "might" be psychopaths.

Many of the descriptions of psychopaths in Without Conscience are taken from fictional characters, like Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Even while noting that they are fictional, Hare repeatedly references movies and books for examples; even when he cites non-fiction like Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me (a book about Ted Bundy), he chooses those that have maximum dramatic effect.

Other books about psychopaths, like Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door and Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, refer to Hare's Psychopathy Checklist, but in this book he spends entirely too much time talking about his research and what a notable person in the field he is, his consultations by trial attorneys and Hollywood producers, and why you should be scared of psychopaths.

Most psychopaths are not serial killers or Wall Street predators putting thousands of people out of work. Hare acknowledges this, and does talk about the less violent damage they can do — ruin to businesses, destruction and chaos in families, children abandoned if not abused, and most heart-breakingly, the difficulties of parents in dealing with a child who may be without a conscience. While discouraging readers from trying to diagnose someone, he describes the signs to watch out for, and one of the interesting things that did emerge in this book — a point some of the other books I've read did not really touch on much — was the disadvantages of being a psychopath, besides the obvious inability to truly love and enjoy friendship (which is only a disadvantage from the viewpoint of a non-psychopath).

Psychopaths have poor impulse control. They understand right and wrong and the consequences of their actions, but it doesn't inhibit them; they're often simply unable to think beyond the moment. This is why even smart psychopaths are usually caught sooner or later.

Psychopaths also have difficulty maintaining a coherent narrative. They will lie and contradict themselves with no apparent awareness they have done so. Hare quotes repeatedly from psychopaths, of the criminal and non-criminal variety, who talk about how much they love children immediately after describing how they allowed their child to die because it was a burden. One psychopath talks about how much he loves his mother and how he worries about her, with no sense of irony after admitting that he stole the money she obtained from taking out a second mortgage on her house. When confronted on such contradictions, psychopaths simply ignore it and move on to another subject. Psychopaths adjust their words and their responses to their listener, paying attention to reactions to figure out how they are "supposed" to respond rather than actually responding in an appropriate fashion.

The more educational chapters were those that talked about these things, and what makes a psychopath's brain different — they seem to often have linguistic mannerisms like misusing words or inventing neologisms.

That said, much of the book was filled with vague illustrations of a point (not all rapists are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are rapists, so why does Hare describe rape as a crime "typical of a psychopath"?) and assertions offered without much evidence.

Like everyone else writing about psychopaths, Hare does not offer much hope for their treatment. The condition seems to start in childhood, if not at birth, and no form of behavioral therapy actually changes them. They cannot be cured, they cannot be reformed, they cannot be persuaded that they "should" behave differently, they can only be bribed or threatened into it.

It's grim reading, like most books about psychopaths, but certainly not the best book I've read on the subject.



Verdict: Maybe journalists are better writers than PhDs, or maybe Dr. Hare is just too interested in selling books, but while there were a few interesting bits of information to pull out of Without Conscience, I found this book to be mostly sensationalist, speculative, and horn-tooting, rather than a serious scholarly examination of psychopaths and what makes them tick. Read Martha Stout's book instead.




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