Writing for Slate, Katy Waldman characterizes the current attention we focus on narcissism as the “syndrome du jour.” Tongue in cheek (hopefully), she dedicated the article to herself, since “there was no one else so incandescent, so charming, so wittily expert in the field of personality disorders as the one who appears in my mirror every morning. . .”
Katy’s attempt at humor falls flat, at least for me. There is nothing funny about the upward trend of narcissism over the last few decades. Narcissism is toxic to any family, to any team, to any community, to any society.
Numerous studies have documented the gradual increase in narcissism. Ms. Waldman even refers to one—a 2008 study documenting that today’s college students score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than students in 1979. Dr. Jean Twenge, the same person who conducted the 2008 study, recently updated her research and reports that narcissism continues to rise. (The revision to her book, Generation Me, is due out next month.)
This is no laughing matter. As an investigator for more than 45 years, I have encountered predators of all kinds. Killers, con men, pedophiles, white collar thieves, thugs or even those who exploit others in ways that fall short of criminal, all have at least one thing in common. They are narcissists. Narcissism is a defining characteristic of predators. Thus an increase in narcissism, even if it’s not clinically diagnosable, should be cause for great concern, not light hearted joking. The more narcissists, the more predators.
In an earlier post, I described how child molesters, as a group, intersect with psychopaths and non-psychopathic predators; and how some can’t be considered predators at all. Almost all child molesters are predators. For the most part, they are a subset of the larger group as you can see in the illustration.
It’s one thing to know this and another to be able to identify who they are. To do so, we need to be able to identify the common and distinguishing characteristics of these groups, as well as the characteristics of those who would be considered safe people—characteristics that could be called protective qualities. As I mentioned above, the driving characteristic of predators is narcissism. But it’s not enough to know just that. What is significant about the relationship between narcissism and predatory behavior is that the more self-serving people are, the more a host of other undesirable characteristics begin to surface in them. Simultaneously, qualities that can be considered safe or protective, begin to diminish. Identifying predators, profiling predators, requires that we look at a whole constellation of factors.
This sounds more complicated than it is. Essentially we look for patterns, something our brains were designed to identify. Once we know what patterns to look for, and once we’ve collected enough information, recognition almost becomes automatic. Once you’ve see a photo of a Grizzly Bear, or just a drawing, you won’t have any trouble recognizing the beast in the wild. The same is true for recognizing human predators. The following are the characteristics useful in distinguishing between predator and protector:
The predatory characteristics on the left are generic terms drawn from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). There are more that could be used, but these provide enough points of reference to make a reasonable assessment. The protective qualities are the opposing generic virtues, drawn from ancient sources including the bible, which have been generally accepted for millennia to be necessary for civilized society to thrive. Each dimension should be viewed as a sliding scale. The issues are, what quality is dominant, how dominant, and how persistent?
The challenge is to collect sufficient observations of a person to make a reasonable judgment about which side of the continuum is dominant. Remember, even the most self-sacrificing person can be self-serving now and then. But is that characteristic dominant?
Any dimension—for example deceptive to truthful—can fall anywhere on the continuum, but when trying to identify who might be a threat, clinical precision is not necessary (if there is such a thing as “clinical precision”). What’s important in deciding who has a greater likelihood of being safe around children is, which side is dominant? In the PCL-R, Hare rates people as 1) having the characteristic, 2) maybe having the characteristic, or 3) not having the characteristic. He assigns the score of 2, 1 or 0 respectively. When using this scale I recommend using the same method of determining which side is dominant—yes(2), no(0) or maybe(1). Scores on the left are negative values, on the right, positive values.
Over 16 years ago, I took Dr. Hare’s training on using the PCL-R. The training had rigorous standards for assigning a value to an element, even to the point of what records could be used, how to conduct the interview, etc., so I don’t know if Dr. Hare would approve of evaluating people in the way I am recommending. But the formality he insisted upon in using the PCL-R was necessary to achieve as much clinical or forensic precision as possible.
Our purpose is to identify potential threats in order to take greater protective measures for ourselves and our children, not to determine who to lock up and for how long. Profiling is a fuzzy exercise. But it is essential as a tool to make evaluations and decisions. The problem comes in when you use too few characteristics in your evaluation (like only race or sex—which can be relevant in some circumstances), or use the wrong characteristics (like what day of the week a person was born).
This brings me back to the issue of narcissism. While all predators are narcissistic, not all self-centered, self-focused people are predators. Most are. Another reminder is that not all predators engage in criminal acts. Some confine their damage to wreaking social havoc and exploiting others for their benefit in ways that fall short of criminal (For more insight on this, read the book “Snakes in Suits” by Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, although the focus of that book is on psychopaths, i.e. predators on steroids).
The reason narcissism is important when trying to identify predators is because it’s relatively easy to recognize and, thus, serves as a signal to be alert. It should trigger our closer examination of the narcissist’s character. It should be like hearing a growl coming from the underbrush as you’re walking through the woods. Don’t ignore it. Pay closer attention.
In future posts I will describe how to do that for each element of the scale to help achieve at least some consistency in the ratings from one profiler to the next. After fully explaining the assessment scale, I will focus in on how to determine which predators might be child molesters.
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