Anthony Hopkins playing the psychopath Hannibal Lecter in the film Silence of the Lambs

Anthony Hopkins playing the psychopath Hannibal Lecter in the film Silence of the Lambs
One in 100 of your connections on Facebook could match the cold and calculating class of personality, an expert tells Sheena Hastings

It's nearly a quarter of a century since Kerry Daynes began working with psychopaths. Her first job, at the age of 21, was as an assistant psychologist in a maximum security prison with men who had either raped or murdered women. She has worked with some of the country's most notorious psychopathic criminals and treated mentally disordered offenders in medium-secure units as well as high-risk individuals in the community.

Today, she has broadened out her work to a more mainstream caseload, but for many years she focused on the behaviour of some of society's worst, most violent offenders. One thing she learnt is that not all killers are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are killers.

Daynes, who's based in Cheshire and studied at both Leicester and Sheffield universities, says that while around 15-20 per cent of the prison population are psychopaths, it's thought that 2 to 3 per cent of the general population display some psychopathic tendencies. While they may not have the full complement of traits present in a Fred West or Dennis Nilsen-style serial killer as she and co-author Jessica Fellowes say in their book Is There A Psycho In Your Life?, these characters can wreak havoc in the lives of others.

The phrases "psycho ex" or "psycho boss" are bandied about by many, referring to an unstable and aggressive person in our lives who persistently gives them a hard time and can behave unpredictably. As a boss, a non-criminal psychopath can make life hell for those around them, with their peculiar mixture of charisma, inability to understand others' feelings and the propagation of a climate of fear.

As Daynes says: "True psychopathy can only be diagnosed using strict and detailed criteria...but as a lay person there are certain red flags that can alert you to the possibility that there's a psycho in your life."

By this she means a person with psychopathic character traits - a cluster of psychological abnormalities and anti-social behaviours which include a cold and calculating nature. Her message about them is clear: be alert to their behaviour and give them a wide berth if you can.

"Their condition is resistant to treatment, and they are devoid of empathy, out to get what they want, no matter who gets in their way."

More common than you think

With the increased contact fostered by social media, Daynes says that potentially one in 100 of your Facebook friends will have these psychopathic tendencies. But, with the psychopath's behaviour including smoothness, charm and plausibility (at least at first), they can very easily insinuate themselves into your life.

They're clever and manipulative, need stimulation and are easily bored - which is why they are attracted to technology and often watch violent videos.

"This sort of psychopath doesn't walk around with a severed head in one hand and a bloody knife in the other," says Daynes. "They are much, much more subtle than that.

"And you have to bear in mind that these non-criminal psychopaths are not insane; they are fully aware and in reasonable control of their actions. Their acts are all the more chilling, as they are not explicable as the result of a sickness, but part of a cold indifference to others that lasts a lifetime.

"This aspect of their condition means they are resistant to change - which is why, if you do have a psycho in your life, you must do your best to remove yourself from them rather than try to 'cure' them."

Daynes says this kind of "functioning psychopath" or "sub-criminal psychopath" won't necessarily ever break the law, but they will have no problem in behaving immorally and are quite happy to ride roughshod over others.

"They're risk-takers, always optimistic, focused on their ambition but don't learn from their failures. Experiments in which people with psychopathic tendencies and those without the tendencies are playing a game show that the non-psychos will stop if they keep losing. The psychos will continue regardless."

Jobs in high finance are attractive to them, and many fraudsters are found to be psychopaths. Terrorists are wrongly thought of as psychopaths, says Daynes.

"Despite their atrocious acts they're not actually psychopaths. They are acting out a perverted moral code, and psychopaths don't have any moral code - or any morals.

"They can be cold and calculating but can also feel a maelstrom of changing emotions at times. They don't process language in the same way as the rest of us and feelings such as disgust and fear are not really present in them, even when presented with an awful word such as "rape". They don't recognise reactions of disgust in others, either."

How to handle a psycho

We all have moments when a certain psychopathic tendency comes to the fore, says Daynes. "Yes, there are times when we are totally self-focused and in survival mode, not at all concerned with the welfare of the group. But these are just brief moments for most of us, thank goodness."

Daynes and Fellowes wrote their book because, although society has a fascination with criminal psychopaths, we tend to think such behaviour happens "out there, far away". In reality, we are likely to be close to a person with some psychopathic behaviours quite tendencies in everyday life. Forewarned is forearmed.

For Daynes, the professional satisfaction in working with psychopaths lies in "identifying them, managing them and keeping other people safe. They'd already committed offences, so how are we to approach risk management in the future?

"I learnt quickly never to appeal to a psychopath's better nature. You have to develop a relationship with them in which you emphasise the costs to them of re-offending."

She says that learning to recognise the destructive signs of sub-criminal psychopathic behaviour are useful to us all, and the book gives a checklist of questions to ask yourself about someone in your life who is causing serious problems.

These questions embrace certain kinds of body language (overuse of hand gestures), portraying themselves as victims in their own life story, bragging about risky behaviour, frequently falling in love, a tendency to brush over lies and the ability to make you feel used, dominated and anxious, as well as ruthless ambition that would, probably, lead them to trample over their granny to gain a prize.

The good news, according to Kerry Daynes, is that "if you think you're a psychopath, then by definition you almost certainly aren't".

'Is There A Psycho In Your Life?' by Kerry Daynes and Jessica Fellowes is published by Coronet, £6.99

Source: The Yorkshire Post