Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Good Liars? Or Just Practiced Diversion Artists?

Dr. Robert Hare tells us that psychopaths are not the good liars they are generally acclaimed as being. In his book "Without Conscience" in the chapter titled Words from an Overcoat Pocket he outlines the anomalies of the way psychopaths use language. More accurately, how they misuse language. And some really interesting reasons as to why.

Please don't be distracted by my referring to Hare's work with psychopaths. The character-disordered have one thing in common: they lie. A lot. Lying is pervasive throughout all their interactions with others. As I have highlighted before, Dr. Hare has established that all psychopaths have a pervasive narcissistic personality. So, even on their best day, a malignant narcissist has much more in common with the psychopath than with the rest of us. Also, I know that some of you who read this blog are dealing with someone who is closer to the psychopath than not.

I have observed before that the malignant narcissist prostitutes language to their own ends. They pervert the use of language in order to destroy true communication. The purpose of language is to communicate. Narcissists use language to do the opposite. Obscure, mislead, divert, confuse. This is perversion. By perversion I am using this definition: "To put to a wrong or improper use; misuse."

"Although psychopaths lie a lot, they are not the skilled liars we often make them out to be. As I discussed earlier, their speech is full of inconsistent or contradictory statements. Psychopaths may play mental Scrabble, but they sometimes do it badly because they fail to integrate the pieces into a coherent whole; their truth line is fragmented and patchy, at best..." Without Conscience, pg. 136

So why are we often fooled by the inconsistencies and illogic of their statements? Hare states,

"[Victims] might not notice the discrepancy, particularly if they are engrossed in the action." Ibid. pg. 137 Emphasis mine.

When we are stuck in the moment with the liar there is much which is going on. They are masters of distraction. Constantly scanning your face and body language for cues as to how they should be responding to you at any particular moment, they dance here and there and zig and zag in order to lead you to whatever conclusion works best for them.

What I found particularly intriguing in this chapter of the book was Hare's analysis of the hand gestures which accompany the words under the chapter subtitle "Watch Their Hands". After accounting for the fact that certain cultures use more meaningless hand gestures than others, he then describes how psychopaths use many more "beats" (small, rapid hand gestures which are "empty" of meaning) as they talk. We all use "beats" to help us connect our words to our thoughts. The harder it is to come up with a word to describe our thoughts the more we will employ these empty hand gestures. People who are not speaking in their native tongue will use many more "beats" as they search around for the right word.

"A high rate of beat gestures appears to reflect difficulty in converting thoughts and feelings into speech." pg. 135

"Recent evidence suggests that psychopaths use more beats than do normal people, particularly when they talk about things generally considered emotional..." pg. 136 [emphasis author's]

Hare follows up this statement with what can be inferred from this evidence. You can read the book yourself to see his second inference because you need the context of the chapter to understand it, but the first one is that "emotion is like a second language to the psychopath."

To quote Spock, "fascinating".

I have talked about my mother's ridiculously animated hand gestures before like here and here. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens consistently when she is "playing" to an audience. I almost wish now that I was still in contact with her so I could study her hand gestures in light of Hare's information. He offers this excessive use of hand gestures as a sign of possible psychopathy. It can be a signal that the person you're talking to is having a difficult time finding the right "emotional" words to use. Groping around like someone whose second language is English, this person is not at home using words which communicate an emotional punch.

Put this one in your tool box. When you see something beating the air with their hands it may simply mean this person is having a hard time finding the words for whatever reason. But if you are conversing with someone who consistently and excessively uses "beats", at least consider the possibility that you are dealing with a narcissistic and/or psychopathic individual. It is a piece of evidence. It only has significance as it correlates with other supporting evidence. In isolation it may be meaningless.

"Expansive hand movements and exaggerated facial expressions" are part of the "dramatic display" which can blind us to the nonsensical, the odd, the illogic of the conversant. It can divert and mesmerize the smartest person. Makes me think again of the killdeer. If you've ever stepped near their eggs or young you've seen the impressive display. They are suddenly and loudly calling with their piercing vocals while running, limping and dragging a wing. Between the vocals and gestures you are diverted from the truth: that their vulnerable young are near by. Once the perceived predator has been lured a safe distance from their young by the deceptive act, the adult killdeer bursts into flight off away from the direction of its young.

In a similar way we can become entranced and distracted by an animated display and led away from the truth. The diversion artist has once again evaded real communication and hidden the truth from view.
"Society runs on trust, and we ordinarily pay more attention to what someone says than to the accompanying nonverbal behavior--hand gestures, facial movements, smiles, eye contact. However, when the speaker is attractive and gives a really impressive nonverbal performance, the effect can be reversed--we watch the show and pay little attention to what is said." Without Conscience, pg. 145


Cathy said...

Fascinating. I have not read the book but it puts to words and describes the intimate experience that I have had with both my N mother and ex-husband, day after day, year after year. In fact a whole lifetime of it. I have been at the receiving end of what you have described so many times that I could be considered the "perfect victim" for the the N's distractions and diversions. Until I woke up.

You say that "this person is not at home using emotional words". That is precisely because this person is not "at home emotionally". They are devoid, void in the emotional realm . . . that which makes one "human" and capable of empathy for their fellow man. And so they have to play-act at it. Cover, create, pretend at something that is inherently available to the rest of us - our emotional realm and authenticity. In my opinion, part of the drama that then gets displayed is to convince you that their play-acting is indeed the authentic thing. They use "words" as a cheap substitue for something which is completely unavailable to them. Hence, the dramatic hand gestures as they are grasping to display something that is completely foreign to them - genuine human connection on an emotional realm.

But there are two things going on here, in my experience. At the same time that they are trying to convince you that they are "genuine", they are masterfully trying to distract you from whatever the "hot topic" was that you brought up that they want to avoid like a hot poker. And so, as you described, they are "masters of distraction", "diversion artists". Since the content is so emotionally charged for you, you miss the clues and get caught up in the drama, play-acting, and hand gestures and get led down rabbit trails that lead you far, far away from the original point that the N so desperately wants to avoid. Your head starts to swirl as you find yourself embroiled in the depths of defending yourself against some other related or unrelated emotionally charged distraction that has been thrown up as a decoy. You could go around in circles forever until you throw your hands up in exasperation and confusion. Which is exactly where they want you.

Until you are wise to it. When you begin to see what is going on and can step outside of it, it becomes comical to watch them. Truly. You wonder how you ever fell for it. You fell for it because you inaccurately thought you were dealing with a rational person.

Fortunately, I have extricated myself from the N's in my life. But what I found to be extremely successful during the times I DID have to nail them down on something was: COMPLETELY ignore all the tactics and keep repeating, like a broken record, the original point you are trying to make that they are trying to dodge. It is hilarious how many times you have to repeat it because they are immediately off with another tactic before you know it. Completely IGNORE the diversion, or say, "That's a good point, BUT . . . and repeat the original point. DO NOT ADDRESS THE CONTENT OF THE DIVERSION or they've got you embroiled into the mess they want you in. Keep repeating the original point. It is soooo funny to watch THEM then get exasperated and throw up their hands and tell you you are impossible and that there is no communicating with YOU!!! Bizarre, to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I have to confess....I just laugh at the picture of your NM waving her arms around. For some reason she sounds/looks stupid in my mind, like a partially deflated blowup doll on a windy day. Remember, I'm not laughing with her...I'm laughing at her.

But I have a worry. I think I use a lot of hand "breaks" myself. I think I do this because I am so use to being the "mirror" to my own NM and everyone else that I over think EVERYTHING. Including my next word to the cashier or bus driver. So much so that I worry about laughing at your sick and twisted NM would be considered rude. I'm sorry if it was.

Oh, my NM liked to use SAT quality vocabulary to mask her lies and treachery. She though it made her look smart while she could babble nonsense since she an under-educated dink in real life.

Anna Valerious said...


Thanks for the laugh! I'm laughing at her with you. I love your mental picture. Hilarious.

I wouldn't recommend you over-think how many "beats" you use. We all do it. I hope you'll get the book and read the whole chapter I was quoting from. There is a larger context to put the "beats" into. Like I said, it is only part of the picture with narcissists/psychopaths. It is the exaggerated use of facial and hand movements which may be serving to distract from what is being said.

Another concept Hare brought up with the "beats" is how they demarcate our "thought units".

Here's a quote: "Beats may also tell us something about the size of the 'thought units', or mental packages, that underlie speech. A thought unit can vary from something small, simple, and isolated--a single idea or word, a phrase, a sentence--to something larger and more complex--groups of ideas, sentences, or complete story lines. The ideas, words, phrases, and sentences that comprise large thought units are likely to be well integrated, tied together in some meaningful, consistent, or logical fashion to form a script. Beats appear to 'mark off' these thought units. The greater the number of beats, the smaller the units."

Hare goes on to tell us that psychopaths use more beats than normal people most particularly when talking about things which are generally considered emotional. It is like they are speaking a second language.

There a a lot packed into this one chapter of the book. I honed in on the distracting facial and hand movements...but, like I said, it is only a clue. A piece of a puzzle. No one is suggesting diagnosing anyone based on this alone. But if you find yourself in the presence of someone who has left you dazzled but you can not recount what they actually said then there is a red flag that you are dealing with a disordered character.

Anna Valerious said...

I should say, "it may be a red flag that you are dealing with a disordered character."

Anonymous said...

really, really cool!

Doesn't this mean that an N (or psychopath) should much, much prefer talking face to face than phone conversations, or heaven forbid, email or letters?

I had already figured out that my sister and mother didn't like to be nailed down by having put something in writing. (Not that that stops their denial.) I won't even start on my BIL. I pray I never talk to him in person again... but if I do, I can analyze his hand movements to distract myself from what a pathetic, scummy, manipulating, charming liar he is.

Anna Valerious said...

"Doesn't this mean that an N (or psychopath) should much, much prefer talking face to face than phone conversations, or heaven forbid, email or letters?"

In my experience, yes. They much prefer face to face. The phone is better for them than writing is. It doesn't take long for them to figure out that writing doesn't work well for them. They can't get the same effect on people with the naked words. Especially if you start hanging them with their own words. I highly recommend getting a N forced into a position of having to write in order to communicate with you (generic "you"). You will get all the proof you need of their distorted thinking. This can make certain decisions one needs to make more clear. Like the necessity of getting the hell out of Dodge.

Anonymous said...

Not that I would want to seek out a conversation with my N mother, but I think there really might be something to this. She does do this weird thing with her hands, especially fluttering them infront of her face. I think this is an interesting pattern.

I swear...N's sometimes really put the order in Disorder don't they?

Cassandra said...

Hello Anna,

Very intersting essay. This is something that I was only vaguely aware of but after reading your essay, my brain suddenly made everything jump into place.

I remember watching a "mathemagic" display by a sociopath. He attempted to prove that $20 + $50 = $40, the $40 being what he owed someone. I sat and watched gobsmacked as his hands danced in the face of his creditor, while he launched into a convoluted series of additions and subtractions.

Going on a different track, my hands cannot help but move when I sing, but in this case, they move slowly and feel more like an extension of my heart. Is there anything in the book about this kind of thing?

Anonymous said...

I am the anonymous of the "Red Dress" comment on the "When Paul Newman Saw My Mother" entry.

I think hard about all the entries on this blog. Sometimes I think the entries are over the top, as in "I am truly sorry" ... and then that gets dissected as "Obviously they are not truly sorry at ALL", particulary when, at no contact, no other means of making amends are possible. So what's to expect? I'm not sure what constitutes reparations.

That said, I'm not sure what constitutes reparations in my life, either. Hence my identification. Basically, I'm just tired of dealing with the entire slew of my side of my family. As for my husband's family, they are awesome, and I have been 20 years plus in their fold.

My side of the family is like bad teeth. They are not well kept to begin with, one goes bad, there is a flurry of attention, it's "fixed", then another one goes .... and then you are down the chute.

I have done well. My financial situation is secure. I do worry about my family coming to me about loans, etc. It's been hinted at, and I just can't deal. I feel like I climbed my way OUT of their financial pit to be well off, and now they are trying to drag me back in.

I will hold strong, thanks to this awesome website. Because of this website, I can feel angry, and not guilty. thank you.

Anonymous said...

Reparations vs no contact. One of those choices will result in relief with an N, the other just frustration and waiting.

I use to think there was a valor in believing that my N mother had the capacity to be kind and loving - that my "hope" somehow made me a better person.

I still have a boat load of "hope" but now it's in the ability for me to live a fulfilling life and not wasted on something that will drain such a valuable emotion.

Or I could wait for those forty acres and a mule. :)

Anna Valerious said...


Interesting story about the sociopath and his "mathemagic". Great term.

As for your hand movements during singing? Music is emotional...and expressive hand movements during music is simply another form of dance. It doesn't distract from the music; it augments.

Anonymous said...

I use to think there was a valor in believing that my N mother had the capacity to be kind and loving...
I think that's gut wrenching: giving up the hope that a family member (esp. a mom or dad) ever gave selflessly of themselves or ever will. It used to raise my hopes when my N mother 'appeared' to be kind and loving. Now it's salt in my wounds. I get it.

For her anyway, she's not deliberating lying or faking good will. She believes herself totally. She has her fantasy world where she is wonderful and she is in total control of that world. She can act the part of wonderful mother IF it's part of her fantasy AND she remains in control.

I am fortunate that she wants to be alone and isn't interested in me. The 'fantasy me' she has created is apparently very different from the 'real me'. She can maintain her illusion if we speak on the phone, but not if she sees me.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Anna, this is a fascinating window you have opened. I have had to separate my family from my n mother due to what I consider her dangerous abuse of prescription medications. Likewise I have refused to be on the phone with her, as I am tired of her calling with slurry words, all hopped up and talking a mile a minute, or, usually, just calling to pick a fight about something. Anything.

Anyway, we have gone to "email only", my terms being that I would continue this contact with her if she agreed to keep things simple. Basically she considers there is nothing wrong on her end, that I am the one with the problems ... yet she is the one who keeps seeking me out, continuing to try her case at every opportunity.

The whole thing about diversions and distractions is so on point. I stay on script, tell her what happened on Halloween, and her response is to tell me about the costume I begged for when I was 8 years old, which she had to "cut money from the grocery budget" to buy, and then the next day I left it on the floor so that the cat could pee on it. Holy crap, all I did was tell her that we went trick-or-treating!

I agree, the best way to manage the situation is never to respond right away - stand back, take a deep breath, and stay on the subject. Don't get distracted by the bait that N's consistently toss in to get your goat.

Thanks, Anna, for another great blog entry.

Sister said...

Do I stay, do I go?

I would love to "get the hell out of Dodge." But, the cumulative effects of society's "rules", Nmom brainwashing, biology, and Christianity keep me in relationship with this poisonous creature.

It's almost as if there has to be a paradigm shift, like over the past few decades with divorce. It used to be that people stayed together at all costs because keeping the family unit intact was paramount. It was ALWAYS considered better to keep the family together. It was believed that everybody's best interests would be served if only the family stayed together.

But, there is a price that is too high to pay.

My therapist has said that a healthy family is one where the interests of the family unit do not run roughshod over the individuals. This runs counter to EVERYTHING in me. In my constructs, the whole is greather than the sum of the parts. In fact, the parts are NOTHING without the whole. The parts have no rights outside of the whole. I am trying to unlearn that the purpose of my very existence is to support the family-- at all costs. Where my personal interests, needs, desires, dreams,etc. run counter to the family's, they have to be set aside, demolished--- die. I have to die.

I have to die because I am not allowed to exist outside of the family. The further layer of sickness in my family is that the family is not actually paramount. Nmom is. And we all have to exist to service her.

Sorry if this comment runs a bit off on a tangent. Here is a bit of humor that stays on the subject: My Nmom has said many, many times that talking with you hands is a sign of intelligence.


Anonymous said...

Yikes. Another post that helps things make more sense. The moment I turn 18 I am out of here lol. I am sick of living with a three year old that can't take the idea of her being wrong. The hand movements are quite frankly annoying and while she is driving dangerous.

Because she is my parent she assumes that she can control every aspect of my life and has every right over me. It drives me nuts. Also I start a topic generally about how she could be a little bit nicer if just did not do this and this. Boy she changes the topic fast and then insists what she is talking about is right and that I am missing the point!

Now I use the same thing if I bring something up. You missed the point stay on topic for goodness sake. She kind of just stops talking more often now. Ignoring me. I like it much better this way.

Anna Valerious said...

You are very blessed to be as young as you are and having this kind of knowledge of NPD and your mother. It can save you years of trouble and anguish. All the best as you flit to freedom when you turn 18.