How to deal with a psychopathic hostage taker

Originally published in Jane’s Police Review, September 1, 2006

On July 14, 1966, student nurse, Corazon Amurao, answered the door to her South Chicago townhouse, to find 25 year old Richard Speck standing on her doorstep. Before she could react, Speck forced his way inside the house, taking Amurao and five of her housemates hostage. Over the next hour, Speck proceeded to systematically beat and rape the young women, capturing an additional three girls as they arrived home. After hours of torture, Speck finally went on a stabbing spree, killing all of his captives but Amurao, who escaped by rolling under a bed. Speck had lost count of his victims.

In films such as Psycho and American Psycho, popular media has created an enduring image of what it means to be a psychopath (usually axe-wielding) and what it means to come into contact with a psychopath (usually death). However, psychopathy is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon – a personality disorder unique in its effects and its resistance to change. The psychopath, with their complete lack of empathy for others, their almost stunning aptitude in manipulating others to their own ends and their staggering capacity to lie, can turn the world of those around them upside down – and with absolutely no desire to recover from this particular brand of disorder. Now imagine facing them as a negotiator, when the stress is up, tempers are frayed and lives are at risk.

Psychopathy statistics

Although the figures are sketchy, psychopaths are believed to make up approximately 1% of the general population. In a prison setting, however, psychopaths constitute around 16% of the total population. Psychopaths tend to be charged with a greater number and variety of criminal offences, they tend to show greater recidivism and they commit violent and aggressive offences at a particularly high rate. This means that, for any police officer, there is a good chance that they either have at some time in the past, or will some time in the future, come into contact with a psychopathic offender.

When it comes to the hostage negotiator though, these figures are all the more startling. In a study of prisoners charged with or convicted of unlawful confinement, kidnapping or hostage taking, around half of all such offenders qualified as psychopaths on the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (more on this later). Even more worryingly, 75% of all such offenders scored 23 or above on the checklist. This means that although they didn’t quite make the cut-off for a psychopathy diagnosis (30), another 25% of them were worryingly close, displaying clear psychopathic tendencies.

Dealing with a psychopath unwittingly can be catastrophic. Negotiation -especially in a fraught climate such as a hostage situation – rests on developing an understanding of the other party, a process that becomes all the more difficult when the various proclivities of the psychopathic personality come into play. The best negotiators can find themselves seriously back footed by the unseen manipulations, lies and seemingly bizarre reactions common to the psychopath.

Recognising the psychopath 

Identification then is the key. Traditionally though, this key was hard to find. The problem was that a diagnosis of psychopathy rested on the use of self-report measures, which required the subjects themselves to give a full and frank accounting of their own personality. Given the psychopath’s extraordinary gift for lying, this approach was always doomed to failure. Finally, Robert Hare, the renowned forensic psychologist and expert on psychopathy, developed the Psychopathy Checklist – or PCL – and later the PCL-Revised, an assessment tool, which relies upon an external rater to assess the psychopathic characteristics of the subject.

What are these psychopathic characteristics? Well firstly, psychopaths can be incredibly charming where they choose. Hare uses the terms glib and superficial. When it suits their ends, the psychopath can often seem pleasant, likeable, witty and knowledgeable. Ted Bundy, the prolific serial killer whose known victims added up to 37 women, was often described as a generally affable man who was able to entice women to their deaths with the power and appeal of his personality. To some, the psychopath can seem larger than life, charismatic and intoxicating. To others, they are shallow, delivering patter rather than anything of substances and professing knowledge of subjects that they, in reality, know little about.

The psychopath is often highly narcissistic, with a genuine – almost childlike – perception that the world revolves around them and that anything they want to do is permissible simply because they want to do it. Their self belief can be quite astounding and those who find themselves in the grip of the legal system will frequently choose to defend themselves in court, believing that they know better than their counsel.

As we have mentioned already, psychopaths lie with tremendous ease, often for no other reason than the joy of lying or ‘duping delight’. They also show a complete lack of empathy for others – perhaps the characteristic most commonly recognisable as denoting psychopathy. It’s not that they cannot understand another person’s perspective (in fact research has shown that they are actually very good at doing this), rather they just seem to be incapable of caring. In the general population, seeing another person in pain or grief prompts in us an actual physiological response, we literally feel bad. This doesn’t seem to happen in the psychopath.

This inability to feel empathy may explain the psychopathic tendency to show little or no guilt for the pain or harm that they have caused to others, with the psychopath often seeing him or herself as the true victim. That said, they will frequently use the word ‘remorse’ in order to increase their standing in the eyes of the legal system.

The psychopath is frequently highly irresponsible, often seemingly incapable of fulfilling promises or living up to obligations. They tend to have a profound need for excitement and impulsivity, although lacking the capacity to meet their goals. In addition it is common to see a history of poor behavioural controls and of antisocial behaviour during both adolescent and adulthood.

Negotiating with the psychopath

Understanding the psychopath is key to a negotiation. I would highly recommend Robert Hare’s WITHOUT CONSCIENCE and Paul Babiak & Robert Hare’s SNAKES IN SUITS, books about psychopathy in the general population – both fascinating.

It’s worth reiterating what we have already said about the psychopaths tendency to lie. A study found that those rated higher on the Psychopathy Checklist were significantly better at deceiving naive judges than were non-psychopaths. Many people who should have known better (including forensic psychologists) have found themselves fooled. It’s always worth double-checking anything you are told when dealing with someone you suspect to be a psychopath. Talking with a psychopath can also be confusing. They will frequently use self-contradictory statements that can often seem completely illogical. For example, when asked if he had ever committed a violent crime, a man serving time for theft answered “No, but I once had to kill someone .”

The physical presence of a psychopath can sometimes be quite overpowering. A study looking at communications between a psychopath and non-psychopath showed that the psychopathic partner would tend to lean forward, thereby closing the distance between them and increasing their physical presence. Similarly, they would maintain eye contact for longer periods, therefore making their partners distinctly uncomfortable and often prompting inadvertent ‘retreat’ behaviours from the non-psychopath. It’s worth taking into consideration the effects that this is likely to have on the negotiator in any face-to-face negotiation. Other studies have shown that psychopaths tend to make greater use of hand gestures and facial expressions – essentially creating a show to distract the listener from what they are actually saying.

This may mean that the use of phone comms would be the most appropriate option as this would immediately eradicate these visual effects. Also a second negotiator who is not in direct communication with the hostage taker is more likely to be able to coldly assess the contents of the speech rather than becoming invested in the performance of it.

Good advice for anyone, but particularly those faced with entering into a negotiation with a psychopath, is know who you are and what your weak spots are. Although psychopaths are seemingly incapable of feeling empathy, their ‘Theory of Mind’ (that is their ability to understand the mental states of others) has been shown to be intact. This means that they may well understand what you think or feel – they simply don’t care.

Mealey (1995) described this as ‘callous empathy’. And not caring provides them with an excellent opportunity to use that information to manipulate you. We all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. As a negotiator, it is important that you know what these are so that you can identify when they are being played on. The challenge that this brings is that, when someone hits a ‘hot spot’ or particularly vulnerable topic, the way our brain is designed means that the emotional centres process and so react to this intrusion far more quickly than do the rational centres. This means that you may find yourself in the midst of a full blown emotional reaction before you know it. It is worth considering, therefore, the value of the negotiation team – alerting your team mates to topics that are likely to be difficult for you means that they will be able to see when the hostage taker is homing on these vulnerable areas and warn you of a potential manipulation in progress.

It is also important to be aware of the types of criminal behaviours that psychopath are involved in as this may well impact upon your negotiation. Studies of offenders have shown that psychopaths show far higher rates of repeat violent offending than do non-psychopaths. Whilst their crimes tend to be especially violent, psychopathic motivation for hostage taking tends to be mainly sexual or material in nature – meaning that the act is an instrumental one designed to help the psychopath reach some end. Similarly, the violence of the psychopath is often callous and cold-blooded but seemingly without the attendant emotion that we would generally expect to see in someone driven to violence. This means that the psychopathic hostage taker may well follow through with threats of violence, without necessarily feeling the elevated stress and emotional levels normally associated with such an act. Additionally, we need to remember that psychopaths tend to show little response to distress cues from others, which means that they are unlikely to be swayed by the pain or grief of their victim. This also means that we shouldn’t expect to see Stockholm Syndrome – particularly from captor to captive – taking place. Despite this lack of response to distress cues, the psychopath’s response to threatening stimuli is quite normal, so they will quickly perceive and react to any danger to themselves.

Focus on the psychopath

An additional factor that is likely to impact upon the psychopathic hostage taker’s response to negotiation is their ability to process new information. Research has shown that psychopaths tend to display ‘response perseveration’ – that is, they will tend to continue responding in the same way in the hope of reward in spite of punishment or changing circumstances that make the chosen course less effective. This may make it more difficult to negotiate down demands or move deadlines.

In negotiating with a psychopath or someone with psychopathic tendencies, it is crucial that you remember that, as far as they are concerned, they are the centre of the universe. They are all that matters to them. To that end, third party intermediaries laying their case are unlikely to be effective.

Focusing on the hostages and attempting to create sympathy is unlikely to help, whereas maintaining the focus at all times on the psychopath may provide them with the attention that they craved so reduce the risk that they will perform a spectacular, such as killing a hostage, in order to regain the spotlight. If the hostages are to be released, the psychopath must be convinced that it is to his or her own benefit to do so. Finally, they will need a face-saving out, some way of walking away without looking like they are backing down.

Hostage-negotiations are always challenging. But never more so than when the hostage taker is a psychopath. Knowledge, in this situation, is everything. Equipping yourself with an understanding of these people, what they can do and how to deal with them is critical for a successful resolution. Understand them and understand yourself.

-Emma Kavanagh