May 01

Tom Ripley: Psychopath or Sociopath? (“Ripley” Spoilers)

The core story is always the same: A wealthy man enlists fraudster Tom Ripley, his son’s distant acquaintance, to travel to Italy and woo his errant, playboy son back to the fold; but rather than returning Dickie to his family, an envious Tom disposes of him and assumes his identity. Other murders follow to cover the first. Carole V. Bell, NPR, regarding the various portrayals of Tom Ripley

Whether you’ve seen the new Netflix series Ripley or the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (or any other filmed or stage versions) or read any of the five novels by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) that originated Tom Ripley, you may have wondered about his psychopathology. 

Opinions abound on the internet: he’s either a psychopath or a sociopath. But don’t we tend as a culture to throw these terms around without much forethought or knowledge? Also, as Kristen Fuller, MD, Psychology Today, has pointed out, “The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, which causes much semantic confusion…”

Guess what? Neither term made it into the DSM-5, the current psychiatric diagnostic bible. Instead, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is the blanket term for both conditions. “Individuals with this personality disorder demonstrate behaviors that disregard the violation and rights of others and society.” Other traits can include lying and manipulation, impulsive behavior, irritability and aggression, a pattern of irresponsibility, and lack of remorse.

Bu, now back to common parlance. Winifred Rule, Psychology Today, recently stated, “Ripley has high psychopathic traits and generally exhibits a detached unemotionality as he plies his various schemes.” Indeed, Ripley’s creator herself called him her “psychopath hero.” Furthermore, she was, in fact, “openly enamored of her creation,” and not at all judgmental of him (NPR).

It may not be so surprising, then, that Highsmith was reportedly “a misanthropic and hateful racist with unrepentantly cruel views of basically every person she met….She referred to the Holocaust as either ‘Holocaust Inc.,’ or sometimes the ‘semicaust,’ because it killed only half of the world’s Jewish population” (The Ringer).

Having psychopathic traits doesn’t necessarily mean having full-blown psychopathy, though. Highsmith actually gave Ripley guilt feelings at times, Rule notes—which had the effect of lessening his degree of psychopathy and adding to his likability.

Speaking of guilt, those readers who wind up rooting for Ripley to get away with murder may deal with some of this.

Decades after the debut of Anthony Minghella‘s film The Talented Mr. Ripley, the best known of all the adaptations (which came out after Highsmith died), the psychopath/sociopath terms have continued, though with updated nuances. Hugh Montgomery, BBC, refers to young Matt Damon‘s Ripley as “a sociopath for our Instagram age”; Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “a psychopath made for social media.”

And now we have the new eight-episode Ripley. Among its generally positive critiques is some recognition regarding the character’s persona now being less likable, less sympathetic. (Also less youthful.) I have to agree. Regardless of which diagnosis you prefer, what matters most is that  Andrew Scott‘s Ripley is loathsome—attractive only on the exterior.

Christopher Willard, Medium, on the powerful ending all Ripley incarnations have: “Although Tom gets off scot-free, even financially set, goal obtained, he remains imprisoned by his sociopathy.” (Or whatever you now choose to call it.) “He’s a feral creature on the run…always beholden to his uncontrollable impulses.”

Feb 23

“The Devil Wears Prada”: Is Your Boss a Narcissist? Psychopath?

Is your boss a narcissist? Well, does his or her behavior resemble that of fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the demonic boss in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)? Because almost everyone seems to believe she’s a really good example of a narcissist.

Marco R. della Cava, USA Today, writes about asking Dr. Paul Babiak, co-author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, about the Priestly character“As the ability to diagnose psychopathic behavior has improved, we find there are more women who fit this profile,” he states.

So, then, perhaps she’s a psychopathic narcissist? A narcissistic psychopath? A psychopath who’s also a narcissist? This sort of parsing is precisely what the DSM folks have grappled with. (See Charles Zanor, “A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored”).

But, do we really care that much about how to diagnose Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada? We’re more concerned with whether your own boss is a narcissist and/or psychopath.

Andrea, Anne Hathaway‘s character, does, of course, wind up experiencing the misfortune of getting hired after all. And of course is wildly mistreated by boss Priestley.

If you are unlucky enough to have a boss who’s a bully or a manipulator or a puppetmaster, these just happen to be the three types of psychopaths Babiak and Robert Hare, authors of Snakes in Suits, believe exist. Constructive advice is provided in the book about how to deal with them.

Below are selected quotes from Snakes in Suits:

When dramatic organizational change is added to the normal levels of job insecurity, personality clashes, and political battling, the resulting chaotic milieu provides both the necessary stimulation and sufficient “cover” for psychopathic behavior.

Rapid business growth, increased downsizing, frequent reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures have inadvertently increased the number of attractive employment opportunities for individuals with psychopathic personalities.

Companies are very pragmatic and respond to information about behaviors relevant to the work at hand rather than subjective feelings about another person.

Even in the face of contrary evidence, the psychopath can lie so well that listeners doubt themselves first, rather than question the psychopath.

Another characteristic of psychopaths is an ability to avoid taking responsibility for things that go wrong; instead, they blame others, circumstances, fate, and so forth.

In psychopaths’ mental world people do not exist except as objects, targets, and obstacles.

The real problem for others is when narcissistic features, especially a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy, shade into antisocial and destructive behaviors. When this happens, the pattern might be described as aggressive or malignant narcissism, which is difficult to distinguish from psychopathy.

Mar 19

“Horrible Bosses”: Is Your Boss a Psychopath Like Dave Harken?

Listen to me, you stupid little runt. I OWN YOU. You’re my BITCH! So don’t walk around here thinking you have free will because you DON’T. I can break you anytime I want! Dave Harken, boss portrayed by Kevin Spacey in Horrible Bosses

It’s Monday morning. Do you know if your boss is a psychopath?

Well, first, do you even know what a psychopath is? I for one have not always been sure. It’s a term too loosely thrown around.

If you look for it in the DSM, it’s currently hidden within Antisocial Personality Disorder. Wait until 2013, though, and word is that you just might find it as Antisocial/Psychopathic Personality Disorder. Maybe. We don’t know yet for sure.

And now I will proceed to list all the traits that define psychopathic personality disorder…

Not. It’s so much more fun to illustrate with an example.

When the movie Horrible Bosses came out last year, management coach Phil Hayes reportedly stated that “by far the most realistic” portrayal of a bad boss in the film was Kevin Spacey‘s character, Dave Harken. Harken is “a psychopath who likes nothing more than tormenting his employees.” (Source: Laura BarnettThe Guardian.)

Before going any further, let’s meet Harken. View the movie trailer below to catch glimpses of such horrible behavior as Harken tricking an employee (played by Jason Bateman) into working hard for a deserved promotion–and then yanking it out from under him:

So, then, what is a psychopath? Writer Kevin Voigt cites Clive Boddy, author of Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers (2011), as stating: “Psychopaths are great bullies. They are cunning and manipulative, and great at engineering situations. Although they don’t have emotions themselves, they can create emotional situations. The rest of us don’t even realize we’re being manipulated until it’s too late.”

Chances are better than you might think that you have a boss who is one. Voigt reports on a 2010 study that “found about 4% of senior managers displayed psychopathic tendencies, up from the 1% that researchers say could normally be found in society.” That’s one in 25, by the way.

Voigt also provides a relevant quiz developed by psychologists Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, authors of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (2007). Take the quiz. Read the books. Maybe you’ll figure out if your boss is one of these dreaded types. Or maybe you already know.

Is it any wonder that the black-comedy cinematic solution becomes joining forces with other mistreated employees of “horrible bosses” to do them all in?

Special note: Such behavior is not condoned by this blog.