How Psychopaths Manipulate: Signs and Tactics

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Have you ever encountered someone who seemed too good to be true, only to discover a darker side carefully concealed beneath their charming exterior?  In his groundbreaking 1941 book, “The Mask of Sanity”, Hervey Cleckley used the term “psychopath” broadly to describe individuals deeply lacking in empathy. This includes what we commonly label as narcissists, sociopaths, and manipulative bullies.  Understanding their tactics is crucial for self-protection. Cleckley outlined the core traits of a psychopath, traits which make them exceptionally dangerous manipulators.

The Facade of Charm and Sincerity

Psychopaths deliberately project an image of likability and trustworthiness. This superficial charm disarms their targets, making it harder to detect their true intentions. They may seem genuinely invested in you, but their interest is purely self-serving.

Self-Serving Lies and Deception

Psychopaths lie effortlessly to achieve their goals. They may fabricate stories, twist truths, or deny wrongdoing, even when faced with evidence. Their goal is to confuse you, so you begin to doubt your own perceptions.

Emotional Exploitation and the Absence of Empathy

Psychopaths lack genuine empathy, making them experts at weaponizing your emotions. They identify your vulnerabilities and twist them ruthlessly. They might seem genuinely supportive, then deliberately undermine you, leaving you feeling foolish for believing in them. Their goal is to undermine your self-confidence and leave you feeling dependent on their approval.

Grandiosity and a Need for Control

Driven by an inflated sense of self-importance, psychopaths manipulate to dominate others. They might use gaslighting to make you question your sanity, or isolate you from your support systems. Their aim is to break down your resistance, maintaining absolute control.

How to Protect Yourself

  • Trust but verify: Approach overly charming individuals with a healthy dose of scepticism. Watch for inconsistencies in their words and actions. Give much more weight to their actions than their words.
  • Guard your emotions: If you find yourself overly apologetic, constantly second-guessing yourself, or feeling emotionally drained, it’s time to take a step back. A healthy relationship should not leave you persistently insecure.
  • Set firm boundaries: Don’t be afraid to say no and prioritise your own well-being.
  • Listen to your intuition: If something feels persistently off or unsettling, don’t ignore it. Your intuition is often your subconscious picking up on subtle manipulation.
  • Seek outside help: If you suspect manipulation, confide in a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. They can offer clarity and help you regain your power.

Key Points

Psychopaths manipulate for their own gain, fueled by grandiosity and a complete lack of empathy. Understanding their tactics and the devastating impact they can have is crucial to protecting yourself. By prioritising your emotional well-being and setting boundaries, you can break free from their control.

Emotional Manipulation in the Workplace: A Survival Guide for the Sane

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The modern office, with its cubicles and passive-aggressive emails, is a Darwinian nightmare. Nowhere is this more evident than in the delicate art of emotional manipulation, a practice as commonplace in today’s workplaces as lukewarm coffee and pointless meetings.

From the whining victim to the psychopathic boss, every office has its share of emotional puppeteers. They guilt-trip you, gaslight you, and toy with your sanity, all in the noble pursuit of a fatter paycheck or a corner office. But fear not, there are ways to combat these cretins without resorting to throwing your stapler through the cubicle wall.

Spotting the Workplace Psychopath

These emotional parasites come in many noxious flavors, but the tell-tale signs are always there:

  • The Perpetual Victim: Their incompetence is everyone else’s fault. They whine and moan, transforming their every minor inconvenience into a Shakespearean tragedy designed to make you feel responsible for their failures.
  • The Tantrum Thrower: These emotional toddlers resort to theatrics, threats, and veiled hostility to bully others into doing their bidding. It’s like working with a spoiled brat who just discovered the word “no.”
  • The False Charmer: They heap on the praise and saccharine smiles, like a used-car salesman trying to unload a lemon. Beware: that flattery is a smokescreen for their relentless scheming.

Your Defence Against the Darkness

Remember, you are not their therapist, babysitter, or emotional punching bag. Arm yourself against their toxic antics with these simple strategies:

  • Trust Your Instincts: If their behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable or suspicious, pay attention. Your gut is often wiser than your guilt-ridden conscience.
  • The Power of “No”: Learn to say it. Practice it in front of the mirror if you must. “No” is a potent weapon against manipulators, who thrive on agreeable sheep.
  • Don’t Feed the Beast: Emotional explosions and crocodile tears are meant to hook you. Disengage. A calm, rational response will short-circuit their histrionics.
  • Document with Bloody-Mindedness: Keep a record of questionable interactions – the gaslighting, the veiled insults, the sob stories. This isn’t petty, it’s self-defence.

A Final Word of Warning

Psychopathic manipulators erode office morale, destroy trust, and leave a trail of collateral damage in their wake. Don’t be a casualty in their war against sanity. Stand up for your right to a workplace where hard work and actual talent are what get you ahead, not a well-timed meltdown or expertly faked back pain.

What if parenting doesn’t change who your kids are?

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In 2021, a group of researchers set out to determine whether parenting style had any effect on the personalities of their children.  They wanted to know whether it mattered if you show physical affection, whether you are consistent, whether you are predictable, whether you are encouraging and attentive or whether you are more likely to be scolding and controlling. They were shocked to discover the answer was a resounding – no.  When it came to the most well known and widely used model of personality type, parenting style made no real difference.

The study used data from almost 4,000 students in 99 German schools who first undertook personality testing in year 5 and were then followed up for each of the next three years.  Their parents also answered questionnaires designed to categorise their parenting style. The personality trait measure used was the Big Five model, the most widely accepted personality theory in psychology today.

The Big 5 personality traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (often remembered using the acronym OCEAN). Each trait represents a continuum between two extremes, such as introversion and extraversion.

Openness emphasises imagination and insight the most out of all five personality traits. People who score high on openness tend to be curious, creative, and adventurous. They enjoy trying new things and learning new skills. They also have a broad range of interests and are not afraid to express their opinions. People who score low on openness tend to be conventional, practical, and conservative. They prefer routine and familiarity over novelty and change. They may also be more sceptical and critical of new ideas.

Conscientiousness describes a person’s ability to regulate impulse control to engage in goal-directed behaviours. It measures elements such as control, inhibition, and persistence of behaviour. People who score high on conscientiousness are organized, disciplined, detail-oriented, thoughtful, and careful. They also have good impulse control, which allows them to complete tasks and achieve goals. People who score low on conscientiousness may struggle with impulse control, leading to difficulty in completing tasks and fulfilling goals. They tend to be more disorganized and may dislike too much structure. They may also engage in more impulsive and careless behaviour.

Extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion. It reflects how sociable, outgoing, energetic, and assertive a person is. People who score high on extraversion are friendly, talkative, enthusiastic, and enjoy being around others. They seek stimulation and excitement from social interactions. People who score low on extraversion are reserved, quiet, thoughtful, and prefer solitude or small groups of close friends. They seek depth and meaning from their experiences.

Agreeableness refers to how people tend to treat relationships with others. Unlike extraversion which consists of the pursuit of relationships, agreeableness focuses on people’s orientation and interactions with others. People who score high on agreeableness are kind, cooperative, compassionate, trusting, and helpful. They value harmony and avoid conflict at all costs. People who score low on agreeableness are suspicious, uncooperative, competitive, distrustful, and manipulative.

Neuroticism often involves sadness or emotional instability as well as anxiety or nervousness about various aspects of life such as health or work performance . People who score high on neuroticism experience negative emotions more frequently or intensely than those who score low on neuroticism . They also tend to be more sensitive to stressors , criticism , or rejection . People who score low on neuroticism are calm , confident , resilient , optimistic ,and emotionally stable.

Your position on the scale for each of these five main traits can help you figure out if you have other additional personality traits. These other traits are usually divided into two groups: positive personality traits and negative personality traits. Positive traits include being creative, friendly, co-operative, humble, optimistic, insightful and thorough. Negative traits include being aggressive, arrogant, deceptive, egotistical, intolerant and judgemental.

Using this model other researchers have found that most people fall into one of four personality types.

  • Average – the most frequent type, marked by high levels of extroversion – friendliness and enthusiasm – and neuroticism – nervousness and anxiety – and low levels of openness – not open to new experiences)
  • Self-centered – Self-Centered people score very high in extraversion and below average in openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. These are people you don’t want to hang out with.
  • Reserved – emotionally stable, but not open or neurotic. They are not particularly extraverted but are somewhat agreeable and conscientious.
  • Role models – low in neuroticism and high in all the other traits. These are people who are dependable and open to new ideas. They are good people to be in charge of things. Life is easier if you have more dealings with role models.

The parents were asked to rate their involvement in the child’s school on a 4 point scale with questions like “I have enough time and energy to get involved in my child’s school.” They also had to rate their level of structure and cultural stimulation with questions like “I make sure that my child does his homework at fixed times every day,” and “How often do you go to a museum with your child?” Lastly they were asked to rank their parental goals from 1 to 17 from a list that included “order and discipline”, “intellectual curiosity”, and “righteous and helpful behaviour”.  The questionnaires also included controls for the parent’s socioeconomic status and where each of the parents rated in the Big 5 model themselves.

After the data was in and some serious maths was performed the results were, well, surprising. In short the relationship between parenting style and children’s personality types “were not statistically significantly different from zero.”  Being a supermum (or dad), hugging the kids constantly, turning up to every parent teacher night, helping them with their homework, being encouraging, not scolding, would not change the type of kid you raised.  If they were a self-centred brat at Year 5, they still were by the time they hit Year 8.  And the same was equally true of parents who didn’t get involved with the school, didn’t encourage their kids to experience culture and had no particular parenting goals.  The kid will be who they are going to be regardless of parenting style.

This study didn’t look at the extremes of parenting.  There are definitely types of parenting which are more about chaos and neglect which would seriously affect the way a kid grows up, but even so, this study suggests that we are who we are wired to be from birth and whether our mum helps us with our homework or not is unlikely to change that.

Excerpt from Taming Toxic People

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Imagine for a minute that you are carving your way, machete in hand, through impenetrable jungle in some terribly exotic place. You happen upon a clearing when suddenly you notice you are not alone. On the other edge of the glen, a stone’s throw from you, stands a tiger. He is staring intently at you. Assessing you. He doesn’t care whether you love your mother, what your favourite colour is or even that tomorrow is your birthday. To him, you are one of just three things: a meal, entertainment or too nasty to bother with.

The tiger will test you. He will growl, bare his teeth, or make an imperceptible, but swift, movement in your direction. These are all tests. He is probing you. Monitoring you for signs of strength or weakness. He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch.

You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth. If you manage that, he will turn and walk away without a backward glance. If you can’t, your goose is cooked. Well, eaten.

The tiger’s cold assessment of your meal-worthiness is the same as the one your psychopathic boss, workmate, relative or lover performed on you within the first few seconds of meeting you. This is a book about convincing the tiger you are more trouble than you’re worth. And if you are really brave, it is a book that can tell you how to catch and tame the tiger. After all, who wouldn’t want a pet tiger?

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter a large number of psychopaths. No, I don’t work in a psychiatric unit or a prison. I’ve run across these people in all manner of benign social and work settings. None of these people would satisfy a test for overt criminality. But many skate very close to the edge. Their skill is obtaining a benefit – using criminal or at least, immoral, means – without ever exposing themselves to the force of the law.

I’ve been thinking about writing an easy to understand guide to dealing with psychopaths for a long time. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about the ideas in this book. Every single one (and I mean Every. Single. One.) of those people, often complete strangers, knew exactly what I was talking about. Every single one of them had worked for, been related to, been taught by, been married to or been in a relationship with someone who they felt to be a psychopath. Every one of those people had been profoundly damaged by the experience and most wanted to share their stories as a warning to others and never speak of it again. I didn’t seek out people affected by psychopaths. These were just people I chatted to after giving book talks or interviews, or people I ran into at the coffee shop. The truly amazing thing is that once I described how I believed a psychopath behaved, not a single person could say they had never experienced it. Many did not know that they were describing a psychopath, but believe me, if you have been, or are, a psychopath’s victim, you are not alone.

Creating The Perfect World for Psychopaths

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We didn’t mean to do it, but we have created a perfect world for psychopaths. If I were to sit down with the express aim of designing a society where psychopaths could flourish, it would be almost identical to any modern capitalist society, or at least, where most are heading very quickly. There would be almost no communal property. Government would have been reduced to a tax collecting rump, tasked mostly with providing bare minimum services to the destitute. Almost all government assets would have been liquidated in search of the ‘efficiencies’, not to mention the money offered by business operators. The power system, the ports, the railways, the banks, the post office and even core services like health and unemployment would have all become partially or full privatised.

All communal services would be delivered on a largely user-pay basis, and the concept of community assets, like the public pool or public transport would cease to be fashionable. The interests and rights of the individual would trump any consideration of the collective good at every turn. Institutions that previously reinforced community values, such as businesses, religious groups and families would wilt under the sustained economic pressure to maximise individual gain. Increasingly business and government agencies would internally restructure in a way that rewarded individual and competitive economic performance rather than satisfying community expectations. Bullying and domestic violence would accelerate as the community standards which held them in check decayed. Honesty would become something to which we all paid lip-service whilst desperately trying to get away with as much as we could. We would come to expect the same levels of almost-honesty from our political representatives and become inured to their flexible relationship with the truth. It wouldn’t make us love them but we would know where they were coming from. We would no longer trust our leaders or public institutions. Indeed we would quickly learn the only people we could trust were ourselves and whoever Uber rated with 5 stars. In the race to compete with others narcissistic behaviour becomes so common that barely anyone notices it as being unusual. Everyone would be expected to self-promote at every possible opportunity.

The society I have described is highly individualistic. Every day in every way, the members of that society compete with each other for scarce resources. Co-operation and trust are almost non-existent and honesty is a vague and flexible concept. In that society humans have no need for empathy, trust, co-operation or a moral code which enables communal living. In that society all that matters is individual self-interest and getting the most for you without regard to anyone else. In that society, having a brain with a socialisation circuit upgrade is a significant impairment. You will have qualms about breaking the law. You will try not to exploit others as much as you can. You will try to avoid dishonesty unless it is really necessary. In that society, empaths are the sub-normals. And being a psychopath is a distinct advantage. Having a brain unfettered by moral constraints or empathy makes you a winner and probably even the President.

An Extract from Taming Toxic People

Surviving the Family Psychopath at Christmas

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Christmas is a time for good will to all, for giving and receiving and, for getting uncomfortably close to people we’ve spent the rest of the year avoiding like the plague.

Toxic people. You might call them bullies, or micromanagers, or narcissists, or sociopaths.  I don’t feel particularly charitable towards them, so I go with psychopath.  But whatever you call them there common feature is a complete lack of empathy.

They see human feelings as an opportunity for manipulation.  They see our concern for our fellow travellers as a ‘weakness’ they neither suffer nor desire.  But they know they can use our feelings to torment us, sometime for gain but mostly for their pleasure.  So there is no better time of year than one when we have no choice but to be in their company.

Psychopaths want to be the centre of attention at all times.  Their birthday is a terrific celebration for exactly that reason, it’s all about them.  They are the focus and the receiver of all things.  They feel the world should be like this every day.

Psychopaths don’t experience human feelings.  They are not elevated by the company of others.  They have no idea why we are so obsessed by getting together and celebrating not-them.

Christmas, rather like other’s people’s birthdays, has the potential to be the opposite of a good time to a psychopath.  Luckily there are compensations.  People who go out of their way to avoid contact with the psychopath are suddenly forced to share a meal with them.  And they have to play nice.

In any room full of people making nice, there are loads of little surface tensions just waiting to be magnified with an appropriate bit of manipulation.  Oh the fun that can be had scratching everybody else’s little emotional itches until they openly bleed.  Puppet masters by nature, you will not know where the bullets will come from.  Psychopaths are experts at lighting a fire in others and sitting back to watch the show.  Pass the popcorn – the entertainment is endless.

Even better old and new targets will be much more open to the psychopathic charm.  The festive spirit dulls their victims’ memories of just what an utter prick they can be.  The opportunities for emotional torment of past victims and of the harvesting of new ones are endless.  Maybe Christmas isn’t so bad after all.

Every family has at least one of these toxic people.  They are the ones you wouldn’t have in your home if you weren’t obliged to by a sense of family responsibility.  They are the guest that is guaranteed to sabotage the bonhomie and leave a trail of ignited emotions and crumpled self-worth in their wake as they trample through the goodwill of Christmas.

And yet, we will have them at our table every Christmas without fail.  Because we care about how other humans feel and it would be mean to leave them out at that one time of the year.  Leaving them off the guest list doesn’t really affect them.  They are not harmed by ‘missing out’ on Christmas. But ditching them will probably more trouble than its worth.  They will use their exclusion as a weapon to divide the family into for and against (you) camps and you will pay for it a thousand times over.

Short of ‘forgetting’ to invite them, there are other defences against the family psychopath.  You cant change them, but you can change how you and others react to them.

Be well mannered, light hearted and Teflon coated.  Feel the power of knowing your enemy.  Be ready to stand up to any attempts at manipulation.  Push back hard and publicly on any jibe, but stay unemotional and unmovable.  Do not respond to innuendo designed to get a rise out of you. The more you remain implacable in the face of provocation, the less you will have to do it.

But most importantly, do not believe or act on anything the psychopath says about anyone else.  It is probably a lie and at the very least exaggerated and out of context. The more people in the room who are signed on to your plan, the less likely any of you will be manipulated.  Solidarity beats a psychopath every day of the week and twice on Christmas.

If it’s not your party, you could just not go.  Yes that’s extreme, but if the alternative is guaranteed emotional turbulence it’s got to be an option.  Why not simply arrange to see the bits of the family you can stand at another time.  Pop over for Christmas Eve or catch up on Boxing Day perhaps?

If you do go, you could do a flyer.  Breeze in, drop off the presents, give dear old Aunt Flossy a kiss, have a slice of Pav and hit the road before anyone can land a punch.

None of this is easy, but if you can manage it, Christmas might actually be fun for a change.

North Korea: Why dealing with Kim Jong-un is like managing a psychopathic boss

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It is possible to avoid war in Korea but only by doing the one thing Donald Trump will find near impossible: building trust.

According to classic deterrence theory, the only way to convince a nuclear-armed opponent that you will use your nukes is to have them believe you value the targets they can threaten.

If they can directly target your homeland then, the theory goes, you will retaliate if it is attacked. But it is significantly harder to be convincing when it comes to your allies.

Would Americans really risk San Francisco if Seoul — or Darwin — was threatened? This is exactly the strategic calculus going on in North Korea today.

The decades of peace created by the Cold War showed us the way to deter opportunistic aggression is to create a tight-knit community of your allies, such as the US did in Europe after World War II.

To accomplish this, the US should ensure complete unanimity of message and purpose.

There should be nothing unpredictable about their reactions for either their enemies or their allies. There should not even be the slightest hint the US can in any way be decoupled from them.

If the US believes this, and their allies believe this, then it is likely their enemies will not be prepared to risk attacking an ally for fear of retribution from the US.

Mixing paranoia with power

Clearly Donald Trump is marching to the beat of a different drum.


His Twitter tantrums accusing South Korea of “appeasement” combined with his demands that allies pay for their own defence are telling the North the US can be — and even wants to be — separated from its allies.

It is also telling the allies they cannot trust the US.

This is exactly what Kim Jong-un wants.

His end game, for now, is to force the US to trade South Korea for a threat against US soil.

At some point, he will force the South to surrender to him to avert nuclear disaster and the South will capitulate because they think the US will not risk its own cities to save theirs.

In short, Mr Kim is behaving exactly the way psychopathic dictators always do.

Psychopaths do not fear punishment. They cannot be threatened into submission. They can only be destroyed, held at bay or directed down a path of greater reward for them. They are motivated only by paranoia and reward.


Kim Jong-un is paranoid the US will do to him what it did to Saddam Hussein and Moamar Gaddafi.

The nukes are insurance against that and a threat that can get him the jewel he desperately seeks — a unified Korean peninsula under his control.

As with all psychopaths, bellicose threats are water off a duck’s back.

His strategy is to fan the flames of distrust between allies that should be standing shoulder to shoulder against him. And so far, Mr Trump has done nothing but help.

Like dealing with a psychopathic boss

There is absolutely no difference between this approach and the one employed by your psychopathic boss. And the solution is exactly the same: solidarity.

One of the proven strategies for immunising a workplace (or any group of humans) against a psychopathic boss is to ensure all members of the team trust each other.

When all communication is honest and open and the team cooperates to attain a shared goal, there are no levers and wedges for the workplace psychopath to use. Trust and cooperation will always defeat psychopathic manipulation.

Exactly the same is true at the national scale. Kim Jong-un must believe South Korea, Japan, Australia and the US will act as one if any of them is threatened. More importantly, we must believe it too.

Mr Trump must immediately stop destroying the trust allies have in the US. Every trust-draining tweet does nothing more than further embolden Mr Kim.

He must immediately commence a process of unification of purpose in that alliance. It will be hard for him. He attained power using exactly the strategy being deployed by Mr Kim — divide and conquer.

Trust, cooperation and unity are alien concepts to Mr Trump and the opposite of what has worked personally for him so far. His gut reaction to any threat is to blame others and his impulsivity means this is often communicated in the heat of the moment.

But if the world is to have any chance of avoiding nuclear war, he must build trust. And if he can’t, America must find a way to do it without him.

Not doing this guarantees war on the Korean peninsula. Doing it will guarantee peace. It won’t be a rainbows-and-lollipops kind of peace — it will be a teeth-grinding, edge-of-the-seat peace that is constantly tested.

But at least nobody dies.

Also published at ABC News.

Excerpt from Taming Toxic People

By | Psychopaths | 20 Comments

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Imagine for a minute that you are carving your way, machete in hand, through impenetrable jungle in some terribly exotic place. You happen upon a clearing when suddenly you notice you are not alone. On the other edge of the glen, a stone’s throw from you, stands a tiger. He is staring intently at you. Assessing you. He doesn’t care whether you love your mother, what your favourite colour is or even that tomorrow is your birthday. To him, you are one of just three things: a meal, entertainment or too nasty to bother with.

The tiger will test you. He will growl, bare his teeth, or make an imperceptible, but swift, movement in your direction. These are all tests. He is probing you. Monitoring you for signs of strength or weakness. He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch.

You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth. If you manage that, he will turn and walk away without a backward glance. If you can’t, your goose is cooked. Well, eaten.

The tiger’s cold assessment of your meal-worthiness is the same as the one your psychopathic boss, workmate, relative or lover performed on you within the first few seconds of meeting you. This is a book about convincing the tiger you are more trouble than you’re worth. And if you are really brave, it is a book that can tell you how to catch and tame the tiger. After all, who wouldn’t want a pet tiger?

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter a large number of psychopaths. No, I don’t work in a psychiatric unit or a prison. I’ve run across these people in all manner of benign social and work settings. None of these people would satisfy a test for overt criminality. But many skate very close to the edge. Their skill is obtaining a benefit – using criminal or at least, immoral, means – without ever exposing themselves to the force of the law.

I’ve been thinking about writing an easy to understand guide to dealing with psychopaths for a long time. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about the ideas in this book. Every single one (and I mean Every. Single. One.) of those people, often complete strangers, knew exactly what I was talking about. Every single one of them had worked for, been related to, been taught by, been married to or been in a relationship with someone who they felt to be a psychopath. Every one of those people had been profoundly damaged by the experience and most wanted to share their stories as a warning to others and never speak of it again. I didn’t seek out people affected by psychopaths. These were just people I chatted to after giving book talks or interviews, or people I ran into at the coffee shop. The truly amazing thing is that once I described how I believed a psychopath behaved, not a single person could say they had never experienced it. Many did not know that they were describing a psychopath, but believe me, if you have been, or are, a psychopath’s victim, you are not alone.