The Psychopath Whisperer: Summary & Review

the psychopath whisperer book cover

In The Psychopath Whisperer (2014), Dr. Kent Kiehl describes in captivating prose his long-time studies and researches on psychopaths, and how he came to the momentous discovery that psychopaths are different because they have a different brain structure.

Bullet Summary

  • Psychopaths become serial killers when they also present paraphilia
  • Don’t ever trust a psychopath: they are consummate liars and manipulators
  • Psychopaths’ brains function differently. Thus, most psychopaths are born psychopaths

Full Summary

About the Author: Kent A. Kiehl is a neuroscientist who dedicated his life to studying psychopathy. He is a professor at the department of psychology, University of New Mexico

The Profile of Serial Killers

Talking about a serial killer he was interviewing, Kent Kiehl reflects that he didn’t fit the typical profile of a serial killer.

He says:

Most serial killers are driven to commit their murders, usually in association with sexual dominance or sadism. 

Serial killers like Ted Bundy would meet criteria for psychopathy and they also have paraphilia, a sexual-based disorder like sadism. 

The drive to kill comes from the latter.
The lack of emotions, empathy and guilt comes from psychopathy.

When you combine psychopathy with paraphilia you get a very dangerous person.
Fortunately, such people are very rare.

However, psychopaths who don’t derive pleasure in killing or hurting others still can end up being serial kills when they get angry very easily and easily resort to violence. 

Mass Murderers’ Profile

Most mass killing are committed by individuals suffering from psychosis, not psychopathy.

Individuals with psychosis have a distorted perception of reality, sometimes hearing, seeing, smelling or believing things that are not real.
Indeed in his book “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” Dutton shares that the psychotic ward in prison tends to be more dangerous than the one housing psychopaths.

The most dangerous types of reality distortions when it comes to psychosis and murder are “auditory commands hallucination.”

Not all psychotic patients commit crimes of course, but psychotic symptoms do increase the risk of homicides (44 times more likely than among non-psychotic individuals). 

Schizophrenia is one of the main disorders associated with psychosis and albeit people affected with schizophrenia are less than 1% of the overall population, estimates say they commit between 5% and 20% of all homicides.

But if the psychotic patient receives cure, then the risk of homicide drops precipitously. 

Psychopaths’ Connection With Children

The author talks about psychopaths who didn’t remember the names of their children or their date of birth.

He says that a lack of connection with their children is one of the most salient features of the psychopathic condition. 

Parole Boards Are Ineffective

Parole boards are not very good at assessing the likelihood of prisoners to re-offend outside of prison.

A study, says the author, shows that psychopaths are actually more likely to convince parole boards to let them out. 
Which is an issue since psychopaths are more likely to re-offend than non-psychopaths.

Professional judgment from a psychiatrist and psychologist is also unreliable.

Scientists’ risk assessment tools do better at predicting risks (some of the variables used are: age, gender of victims, types of prior crimes, age of first criminal behavior etc.).
Kent Kiehl’s aim was also to help improve the risk assessment. 

Prisoners’ Manipulation

During his first stint in prison, the author fell victim of prisoners’ manipulation before realizing what was on.

A huge and violent sex offender disliked Kiehl.
And a more friendly but equally aggressive one psychopath defended the author.

Except… It was all a ruse. 
Both of them had organized the game to manipulate and eventually get something out of the Kiehl.

Kiehl realized and confronted the friendly psychopath, who eventually admitted the game.

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

Prisoners’ Power Moves

There were some interesting Machiavellian strategies to learn.

The author talks about Richie, an inmate who had recently arrived in prison.

While all other inmates were huddled to watch TV, Richie walked in the room in front of the TV completely naked.
He went outside in the rain, then walked back in and went back into this cell.

All other inmates looked incredulous or pretended not to notice, but everyone noticed.

By acting crazy in front of everyone, the new inmate had shocked everyone and grabbed the initiative.

In the subsequent interview with Richie, the author reveals that Richie had done it on purpose. He wanted to make an impression right away and “establish himself”.
“Even the big ones get nervous”, said Richie, and if you don’t establish yourself they think they can test you.

By doing crazy shit that people didn’t expect, he would steal the initiative, get people to react and think about him. And by the very nature of his seemingly unstable behavior, people would think twice before crossing him.

Psychopath Traits Exist in All Of Us

Kent Kiehl says that psychopathic traits exist in all of us. 

But fortunately, the distribution is skewed, meaning that most people have few of the traits and score low in each one of them.
Some more people score a bit higher and very few people score very high.

Misuse of The Word “Psychopath” 

The author talks about how the word “psychopath” is misused often by both people and the media.
Sometimes it’s used as a derogatory term, but not from a medical point of view.

Diagnosing A Psychopath

He then goes on to show how a psychiatrist would score a psychopath using Doctor’s Hare psychopath scale (read: The Psychopath Test for a critic on the test).

He takes the only two killers of American presidents’ history and scores both of them on the checklist.
This was a wonderful exercise both for those who want to become a psychiatrist and for those who just want to understand psychology and psychiatry better.

Don’t Rely on DSM

The author says that the sacred book of American psychology, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder) should only be your starting point.

He says that it’s shaped by science, politics and economics. And not necessarily in that order.

It’s also helpful to consult previous versions of the DSM to see how the definition has evolved -an why-.

Acquiring Psychopath Personality With Brain Damage

There have been reported incidents of head traumas in which patients with damaged paralimbic system became psychopaths.

Paralympic brain-damaged patients have problems with:

  • aggression
  • motivation
  • empathy
  • planning and organizing
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • poor insight
  • lack of behavior controls
  • decision-making skills
  • recognizing nuances of voice and facial expressions
  • apathy
  • promiscuousness
  • lack of respect for authority

sometimes:

  • grandiosity
  • confabulation

All of symptoms we find in psychopaths.

It’s not so common to damage our paralimbic system. It can happen to football players who suffer repeated concussions for example.

All this led to one conclusion, later confirmed by brain scans: it’s the paralimbic system that is the problem with psychopaths.

Female Psychopaths

There is not nearly as much research on female psychopath. 

Part of the reason, is because there are fewer female psychopaths. Research suggest around one female psychopath every ten male psychopaths.

The rate of psychopath in female prisons is around 15% to 20%.

A Different Way of Reforming Psychopaths

The author discusses an important experiment with the most difficult youth psychopath offenders.

To begin with, punishment does not work equally well in deterring people from action. And it does not work well with most psychopaths.

My Note: indeed in my research it’s only intelligence that can help psychopaths rationally avoid self-defeating behavior while computing the long term consequences. And that does not work with low IQ psychopaths.

The experiment’s main idea was to break the cycle of violence that often sets in between psychopaths, guards and “correction” system (in connection to the guards the author also mentions The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo).

Decompression Model

The correction system, with its escalating use of force and , was exacerbating the problem instead of helping it solve.  
Kiehl says that the inmates, victims of the vicious cycle, become “compressed” and the only answer left for them is violence.

There is also a natural tendency for some people to resist control and authority, which contributes to the escalation.

The idea of the experiment was to gradually decompress the youth and help them develop pro-social bonds.

The decompression model was a big success.

the psychopath whisperer

Quotes

The Psychopath Whisperer is both informative as it is hilarious and entertaining.

I will list here some of the best and most ironic quotes.

Here talking about his first visit at the high-security prison:

First steps into this new environment I smiled to myself that my first concern, a cavity search, had not come to pass as I went through security.

I made a mental note to get even with the senior graduate student who had told me that cavity searches of new staff were common in Canadian prisons.

Talking about missing razor blades for shaving.

“The inmates get razoers?”
I inquired with a puzzled tone. “Yes”, she said laughing, “and they often disappear. I don’t ask where they go”.

“I realized that doctor Ren was wise in telling me to sit closest to the door during my interviews”.

On psychopath’s characteristical traits and how they handle life in prison:

Another difference between psychopaths and other inmates is that psychopaths don’t get distressed by being in prison.
Most inmates get depressed when they get inside, and they find prison to be a stressful experience. A hallmark feature of psychopaths’ disorder is that they don’t get bothered by much of anything. They don’t ruminate and they don’t get depressed.”

On psychopath lying and you calling them out on it:

Lying is common in psychopaths, so I have to trust my gut feeling and review his file again later.
Because you can’t trust a psychopath to be telling the truth, you have to review all their files to review everyting they say. 
If you catch them to lie, you have to be willing to call them on it and see how they respond. 
Just sit in the chair closest to the exit in case you piss them off.

On a psychopath retelling the story of his homicide:

Knives were flashed, but they were no match for Grant’s 9mm handgun.

“Bambam, bambam, two down” he said, pointing is index finger and thumb in classic gun pose.
“One of my better shooting days”.

The words were spoken with such calmness, with such matter of factness that I wondered if they were true.
The file confirmed it. Two shots center mass to both accomplices.

On psychopath’s grandiosity:

Many psychopaths are so grandiose that they feel they can do a better job defending themselves than an experienced lawyer could do.
Despite the fact that most of them didn’t finish high school. 

On rumination, worrying and psychopaths never having OCD:

Psychopaths never ruminate on anything.

Rumination is a process that often contributes to depression and in extreme forms to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The process of rumination is often associated with some anxiety or subjective feeling of concern or worry, and this can help precipitate change in the individual in order to reduce the anxiety.

The psychopath experiences none of this.

Indeed, if you ask a psychopath if he has ever worried about whether he left the house with the stove on (a common problem among those with obsessive-compulsive disorder), he will look at you like you are an alien, in stunned disbelief.

Psychopathy and OCD are at the opposite end of the spectrum.

On the case of psychopathy with a particularly low emotional intelligence:

Brian rated some some of the stimuli with severe moral violation as far less immoral than everyone else rated them.

in particular, Brian rated one picture of a man holding a knife against a woman’s troat as low on moral severety.

Later during the debriefing Brian confessed that he knew most people would rate that picture as “high” in immoral content, but he said he was not sure if it was “much of a violation”.

As much as he tried, it was abundantly clear Brian lacked the emotional connections that the rest of us take for granted.

Note though that as far I understood, this was the worst case of emotional intelligence impairment and most other psychopaths had at least some shred of understanding of how others would interpret emotions (and some also develop some attachment themselves, especially the non-severe psychopaths).

Real-Life Applications

Watch Out for Superficial Glib
Psychopaths speak quickly, animatedly, and often interrupt frequently. They can come across as quick-witted and likable, but the gut feeling is that “there is something not quite right”.
Listen to that gut feeling. The more experience you make with both psychopath and people in general, the better your gut feeling tend to become (also read Blink by Gladwell).

Psychopaths Cannot Grasp Abstract Concepts
Psychopaths cannot understand metaphors, which makes metaphors and abstracts concepts a great test to see if you are dealing with a psychopath. The blank expression they give you is a major tell of a psychopath. 
Read here more signs of sociopaths in relationships.

CONS

  • Maybe Less Personal Stories Could Have Made It Briefer

Some stories were yes interesting but unneeded -like being held on suspicions of murder at the airport-.

  • One Million Dollar Calculation

To compute the saving of the decompression model the author says that each person adds, on average, one million to the economy during his lifetime. 
Then he proceeded to add up psychopath’s murders, weighting them at one million each, to estimate the cost savings.

That’s didn’t make much sense to me.

To begin with, I suspect that psychopaths would kill mostly within segments of the population that are into shady business or not extremely productive. 
Thus, an amoral commentator might say, it’s all to be seen whether removing someone from a shady business actually increases the well being of the world.

Furthermore, in an overpopulated world struggling to contain emissions and pollutants, fewer people might do more good than more people.

  • “77% of Psychopaths Are In Prison”.. Fact?

The author says that 77% of psychopaths are in prison.

Then he adds “fact”. 

I would have appreciated some numbers to back it up and I don’t like the word “fact” when dealing with statistics that, by their own nature, seem rather unreliable.

I ran a quick search, and I am now even more doubtful. 
The psychopaths most frequently in prison are low functioning ones, and some of the high functioning ones might never get diagnosed to make it into the statistics. 

PROS

  • Best book to learn about psychopathy I have ever read
  • Wonderful text to learn more about the intersection of abnormal psychology and criminality
  • By learning more about abnormal psychology, you deepen your general understanding of “normal” people and psychology
  • Deep reflections on the intersection between psychopathy, illnesses, the judicial system and the law
  • Highly entertaining

Review

I learned a lot from “The Psychopath Whisperer”.

It is not only highly informative, but also extremely captivating.

At times I just sat listening to the book as you would listen to a great triller or novel.

Highly recommended to anyone studying psychology and human behavior, psychiatry, and, of course, to anyone researching psychopathy or working with inmates.

Check the best dark triad books or get the book on Amazon

2 thoughts on “The Psychopath Whisperer: Summary & Review”

  1. Devin K Clapper

    I would like to read the rest of Full Summary, how can I do that?
    (edited message)

    1. Lucio Buffalmano

      Hi Devin,
      I think you might be stumbling on the Paywall after you’ve already read 9 articles in a month. You might have to subscribe to get the full access.

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