One of the biggest misconceptions about psychopaths and malignant narcissists who have psychopathic traits is the idea that they are lashing out from pain when they engage in aggressive behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. The defining characteristic of a psychopath is their tendency to engage in what is known as instrumental aggression (Glenn & Raine, 2009). Instrumental aggression is deliberate aggression waged against a victim for the purpose of fulfilling an agenda or getting some sort of reward. This type of aggression, also known as proactive or predatory aggression, is planned, premeditated, and often unprovoked by their victims; it is controlled, purposeful, and used to achieve personal gain, usually an external goal like money, social status, fame, drugs, the maintenance of their self-image, the fulfillment of grandiose fantasies, or even sadistic pleasure derived from the act of inflicting pain.
Research has found that psychopathic criminals are more likely to engage in predatory instrumental violence, while non-psychopathic violent criminals are more likely to engage in reactive violence – violence in response to a perceived threat. Psychopaths are also less likely to experience emotional arousal during their crimes than non-psychopaths (Woodworth & Porter, 2002). In fact, a psychopath’s crimes demonstrate an excessive level of gratuitous and sadistic violence in comparison to the crimes of non-psychopathic criminals, suggesting that their predatory nature works hand in hand with their sadism (Porter, et al., 2003).
In contrast to the claim that psychopaths and malignant narcissists are simply “acting out” due to some sort of trauma, or reacting out of fear, psychopaths exhibit emotional poverty and show a reduced response in their amygdala, the area of the brain associated with emotions and the fight or flight response. Brain scans have revealed a reduced gray matter volume of the amygdala in psychopathic individuals and several fMRI studies have shown reduced amygdala activity during the processing of emotional stimuli as well as during fear conditioning, where people would normally learn from experiencing aversive consequences regarding how not to behave in order to avoid punishment (Birbaumer et al., 2005; Viet et al., 2002). This isn’t surprising, considering psychopaths generally are insensitive to fear of punishment and do not appear to learn from consequences as non-psychopaths do. They also tend to show a reduced startle response to aversive stimuli.
Studies have also shown reduced amygdala functioning in psychopaths during tasks related to moral decision making and emotional moral dilemmas (Glenn, Raine & Schug, 2009). Given this, dysfunction in the amygdala may contribute to the deficits in moral behavior that we’ve seen in psychopaths, their lack of care regarding the harm they cause to others, their ability to manipulate and engage in callous, aggressive behavior, and their inability to empathize with others.
Instrumental aggression is not driven by a strong emotional reaction to something, whereas in reactive aggression, there is an emotional impetus (though certainly not a justification) that causes impulsive violence or aggression – for example, aggression in response to threat or provocation in a heated argument. Unlike individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or even borderline personality disorder who might show an exaggerated response in their amygdala, psychopaths are not “reacting” to something they perceive will harm them when they commit transgressions – they are enacting elaborate mind games of sabotage and going out of their way to provoke and get a response out of their victims.
While psychopathic individuals can appear to engage in both instrumental and reactive aggression, it’s their propensity toward instrumental aggression that distinguishes them from other antisocial individuals; any reactive aggression they do appear to engage in is more likely to be linked to their frustration of not getting a reward or a challenge posed to their grandiose self-image, not fear. Malignant narcissists and psychopaths lack remorse, are sadistic, and often react to what is known as “threatened egotism” – which in their case, is any perceived slight to their false sense of superiority (Baumeister et. al, 1996). This is seeming reactive aggression not in response to fear or trauma, but rather an aggressive response to maintain their own self-concept.
Such egosyntonic aggressive responses are not the same as reacting aggressively due to being emotionally dysregulated by suffering, pain, low self-esteem, or legitimate danger. Rather, these responses stem from their excessive sense of entitlement, a false sense of superiority, pathological envy, a need for revenge (even when no revenge is warranted), and callous self-centeredness. As researchers Goldner-Vukov and Jo Moore (2010) note, malignant narcissists in particular “are deeply envious of people who have meaningful lives… [they] have a tendency to destroy, symbolically castrate, and dehumanize others. Their rage is fueled by the desire for revenge…the paranoid tendencies in malignant narcissists reflect their projection of unresolved hatred onto others whom they persecute.” Malignant narcissists persecute others deliberately in order to fuel their grandiose self-image and for the pleasure of taking those who surpass them down; like psychopaths, they go out of their way to harm innocent people to fulfill their own sadistic goals without regard for the rights of their victims or the sanctity of human life.
The next time you are tempted to rationalize a psychopath’s malicious behavior, remember the nature of their disorder according to research and realize that you do have a right to protect and defend yourself against their manipulation. You no longer need to deny, minimize, or justify their violations against you out of the idea that they are in agony or need to be “nursed” back to emotional health. Primary, low-anxious psychopaths lack remorse, shame, and are callous individuals. They are not in pain when they harm you – they harm you to derive a sick sense of satisfaction from your pain.
Birbaumer, N., Viet, R., Lotze, M., Erb, M., Hermann, C., Grodd, W., et al. (2005). Deficient fear conditioning in psychopathy: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(7), 799−805.
Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review,103(1), 5-33. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.103.1.5
Glenn, A. L., & Raine, A. (2009). Psychopathy and instrumental aggression: Evolutionary, neurobiological, and legal perspectives. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry,32(4), 253-258. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2009.04.002
Glenn, A. L., Raine, A., & Schug, R. A. (2009). The neural correlates of moral decision-making in psychopathy. Molecular Psychiatry, 14, 5−6.
Goldner-Vukov, M., & Moore, L. (2010). Malignant narcissism: from fairy tales to harsh reality. Psychiatria Danubina, 22(3), 392-405.
Porter, Woodworth, M., Earle, J., Drugge, J., & Boer, D. (2003). Characteristics of sexual homicides committed by psychopathic and nonpsychopathic offenders. Law and Human Behavior,27(5), 459-470. doi:10.1023/a:1025461421791
Viet, R., Flor, H., Erb, M., Hermann, C., Lotze, M., Grodd, W., et al. (2002). Brain circuits involved in emotional learning in antisocial behavior and social phobia in humans. Neuroscience Letters, 328, 233−236.
Woodworth, & Porter, S. (2002). In cold blood: Characteristics of criminal homicides as a function of psychopathy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology,111(3), 436-445. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.111.3.436