What Can We Learn From Narcissist Sam Vaknin?Written by: Rob Print This Article
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Can we learn something from a narcissist? The answer is a resounding yes. Massive destruction on the level created by narcissists such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao shows us that narcissists can gain power and that some of them do horrible things with that power. By studying these people, we can see how they used charm, manipulations, and development of cults of personality to gain the power they used to do great evil.
Fortunately the lessons we can learn from narcissists do not always involve evaluating widespread societal destruction caused by them. Author Sam Vaknin is a self-identified narcissist. He was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in 1996 during the course of parole actions related to a conviction for stock fraud in Israel. Since then, he has written extensively about narcissism. His view is that many leaders in politics, finance, and religion are narcissists and that many of these narcissists are also psychopaths. His writings are intended to help others understand and protect themselves from narcissists.
Sam Vaknin is most unusual that he is willing to admit to his behavioral traits, unlike most psychopaths and sociopaths who deny there is anything wrong with them and work hard to hide proof of their behaviors. Indeed many of them project their own behaviors onto others, particularly their victims, and blame everybody but themselves for their problems.
Psychological Terminology Is Confusing
“Psychopath” is not a precise diagnostic term, at least not from the perspective of DSM-IV which is the current version of what is widely regarding as the standard for practice of mental health in the US. DSM-IV does not use “psychopath” as a label for any particular disorder.
Prior to DSM-III was was published in 1980, there was an APA (American Psychological Association) diagnostic label of “psychopath”. DSM-III changed that to Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). The current DSM-IV has continued the use of ASPD as the closest diagnostic label to what was formerly known as psychopathy. DSM-V, due out in the near future, continues to use ASPD.
One of the foremost experts on criminal psychopaths is Canadian researcher Robert Hare who developed a widely used checklist which helps identify psychopaths. He advocates returning to the definition of psychopath that was used prior to DSM-III in 1980. Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist includes items such as “Lack of remorse or guilt; Emotionally shallow; Callous/lack of empathy” in its “aggressive narcissism” section. These traits are very similar to the behavioral traits listed as being diagnostic criteria for the DSM-IV Axis II Cluster B personality disorders Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD).
People with NPD or ASPD as a group have higher rates of other disorders with similar behavior patterns seen in those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). Since many of the traits of Axis II personality disorders are highly similar, applying diagnostic labels becomes very confusing even for a mental health professional who has access to many examples of a person’s behaviors that are obviously out of the ordinary compared to how most others would behave.
A research study tested the hypothesis that criminal personalities include antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders and found that ASPD, BPD, and NPD seems to fit well with criminals but HPD is only weakly linked.
The authors tested J. S. Wulach’s suggestion that the criminal personality is a quadruple personality disorder (PD) consisting of antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic PDs. First, forensic patients with antisocial PD were compared to patients without PD using the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-II (MCMI-II). Second, mean MCMI-II PD scale scores of the antisocial group were examined for clinical significance. Lastly, correlations between the Antisocial scale and all other PD scales of the MCMI-II were computed to examine patterns of association. All comparisons support Wulach `s thesis that borderline and narcissistic pathologies coexist in antisocial individuals but provide only weak support regarding the role of histrionic pathology in antisocial individuals.
Sociopath is sometimes used to refer to the more polished types who are better at hiding their unusual behaviors and whose criminal behaviors are not as extreme as a psychopath. However, others use the terms interchangeably. Still others entirely avoid “sociopath” because that was not used even in earlier DSM versions. Unfortunately there is no widely accepted usage for each term.
Determining an exact DSM-IV style diagnosis for a suspected sociopath or psychopath is not easy. If you have five mental health care professionals evaluate the same patient, it is possible to get five different opinions on the exact disorders a particular person suffers. One may say the person “shows narcissistic traits”, another may diagnose NPD, a third may diagnose “narcissistic and borderline traits”, the fourth might diagnose Borderline Personality Disorder, and the fifth might conjecture “Antisocial Personality Disorder with schizoid features”. It might lead you to wonder if they are all incompetent. Indeed that is what many of their diagnostic subjects will claim as they try to worm their way out of the consequences of an adverse diagnosis.
The value of terms like psychopath and sociopath has more to do with how they can be used to roughly characterize a set of behaviors without having to name a particular formal diagnostic label. This means you can label as a sociopath or psychopath an attention-seeking person who verbally, emotionally, and physically abuses family members but is charming to strangers and acquaintances without having to dwell on the particular personality disorder that is a best match.
Australia Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary entitled “I, Psychopath” directed by Ian Walker that focused on Sam Vaknin and his wife Lidija Rangelovska. The piece also features input from Robert Hare and other experts including psychologists and biomedical researchers who ran tests on Sam and Lidija.
Sam Vaknin in ABC Documentary “I, Psychopath”
Some of the most interesting portions of this documentary are the interviews with Vaknin. Like many sociopaths and psychopaths, the man is at times charming and funny and other times rude and obnoxious. He might appear to those unfamiliar with personality disorders as simply a pompous jerk. But unlike many people suffering NPD, he is acutely self-aware of his behaviors.
At times he is quite funny in a twisted sort of way. At one point, an interviewer asks him if he is human. He replies that he firmly believes that the interviewer wishes to believe that he, Sam, is human.
Evolutionary psychologists contend that psychopaths gained a reproductive advantage over others by having no moral inhibitions or conscience. This might explain why there seems to be an increase in the number of psychopaths in recent years.
Some contend that psychopaths with low intelligence end up as petty criminals and average psychopaths end up being the sort a “normal” person might marry or work with without at first realizing there is something not quite normal about them. Such people often deceive others who do not know them well into liking them while they harm those close to them with frequent abuses.
Smarter psychopaths, like Vaknin with his reported IQ of 185, often aim for bigger conquests such as life as a high financier, a CEO, or a political, religious, or social leader. Often, they succeed for quite a long time — even many decades.
Some in the documentary speculate that Vaknin likes to call himself a narcissist because it helps him market his books from which he makes his living. In other words, he has leveraged being a narcissist into a financial advantage.
Vaknin is shown being subjected to multiple psychological tests related to personality disorders and psychopathy. The results are surprising, and not quite what Vaknin himself expected. The tests indicate he meets Hare’s criteria for a psychopath but isn’t quite up to the level of being a narcissist despite his earlier NPD diganosis. This seems to be exactly the opposite of what he expected.
Director Ian Walker discussed his frustration about being unable to capture much of Vaknin’s worst verbal abuse. He pointed out that Vaknin had a knack for identifying when their main camera was put away and other limitations that impeded capturing the most extreme of his behaviors. This experience matches up well with what those of us who have been in relationships with people having sociopathic or psychopathic traits have found. We experience the verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse frequently but most others cannot see it because our abusers are so good at controlling their behaviors around people who are not their direct targets of attack.
American Society Highly Narcissistic
We live in a society that is highly narcissistic. Media celebrities, mass media, and mainstream politics are replete with behaviors and language strongly influenced by narcissism. We have cults of personality built up around many major media, political, and religious figures. Often the people at the center of these cults have thousands or even millions of followers who are so enamored of their chosen idol that they seem oblivious to signs of narcissism and psychopathy.
38. Identifying Different Psychopaths
It is important for everybody to learn about narcissism, psychopathy, and personality disorders because people with these problems are all around us and society is often rewarding them with money, influence, and power.
Some narcissists are not psychopaths, but many psychopaths are narcissists. Narcissistic psychopaths often use their narcissistic behaviors to badly harm others as they continue to serve the only people they truly care about — themselves.
Sam Vaknin points out that by what he finds to be the lowest reasonable estimate, there are 8 million psychopaths living in the United States. He talks about how the main religion of the US, Christianity, was started by a man who would today be diagnosed as a narcissistic psychopath. In his view, many psychopaths have strong influences on their communities and nations and are able to lead what might ordinarily good people to do very evil things.
Financial Criminals Often Narcissists Or Psychopaths
It is not just psychopath politicians who are influential actors on the public stage. Financial criminals such as Bernie Madoff and Jeff Skilling managed to steal billions of dollars from their victims and caused many of those victims to take their own lives. Bernie Madoff still doesn’t understand what he did wrong with his Ponzi scheme. In his view, it is similar to the Ponzi schemes run by the US government and so why is he being singled out for punishment?
Quoted from Madoff: ‘Whole government is a Ponzi scheme’:
Madoff did an earlier New York Times interview in which he accused banks and hedge funds of being “complicit” in his Ponzi scheme to fleece people out of billions of dollars. He said they failed to scrutinize the discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information.
He said in the New York magazine interview the Securities and Exchange Commission “looks terrible in this thing,” and he said the “whole government is a Ponzi scheme.”
Politics Also Filled With Narcissists and Psychopaths
In 2008, Sam Vaknin discussed his views of Barack Obama as a narcissist before the man took the White House based in part on the surge of popular discontent with the politics of George W. Bush.
Given what Obama has done during his presidency, one might argue that Vaknin’s views on Obama the narcissist were more accurate than his detractors thought at the time. Just look at how Obama has continued to trample on the US Constitution, behaviors for which he and his supporters criticized George W. Bush and that he promised voters he would reverse. Lying is habit for politicians, and this makes perfect sense once you realize that so many of them are narcissists.
On the eve of the US Presidential election of 2012, voters would do well to remember that many of the politicians seeking office look like they are narcissists and psychopaths. In many election contests, voters often are forced to choose between mainstream party candidates who are both narcissists. This is why so many voters believe they are essentially just trying to vote for the lesser of two evils. It is also why third-party candidates are often much better choices than Republicans or Democrats who try to polarize the public into fearful groups that are so busy hating each other that they cannot see that their many of their leaders are narcissists and psychopaths whom no rational person should want in public office.