Some sadists are good people

Psychopathy: When sadism leads to incredible cruelty

The test subjects know what to expect: when the countdown has expired, from twelve to zero, there is suddenly an almost painfully loud noise and a dazzling light flashes at the same time. During the countdown, sensors measure several physical reactions, including the frequency of the heartbeat.

The volunteers take part in an experiment that psychologists use to study how people react in anticipation of an embarrassing experience. Again and again, in different variations, researchers have set up this experiment in recent years.

And, unsurprisingly, found that the knowledge of the impending shock impulse triggered a physical fear reaction in almost all test subjects - the heartbeat accelerated, the sweat glands on the skin produced more fluid.

In all of these experiments, however, the scientists were always able to measure atypical physical changes in a few test subjects: in these participants, the fear reaction was largely absent. Apparently they felt no anxiety about the uncomfortable moment.

At first glance, fearlessness seems positive

After all, the ability to react calmly in the face of danger is often seen as the epitome of heroism and bravery. In fact, as psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists have discovered in recent years, unusual fearlessness is one of the central characteristics of a personality disorder that can be particularly dangerous and destructive: psychopathy.

The image of the classical psychopath is mainly shaped by seemingly diabolical outsiders: by political mass murderers such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong; by serial killers like the Russian Andrej Tschikatilo, who murdered more than 50 people; by impostors like the US investment fraudster Bernard Madoff, who deprived thousands of their money with a pyramid scheme.

And last but not least by cold-blooded sadists, who are edified by brutally torturing and killing other people. As in the recently known case of a man and a woman from Höxter in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Wilfried W.

Over the course of several years, the two - the now 46-year-old Wilfried W. and his ex-wife Angelika - repeatedly lured single women into their home with the help of personal ads and cruelly abused them. At least two of the victims died in the torture, which sometimes lasted for weeks.

The women who were held captive in Höxter experienced unspeakable tortures: They had to spend the nights partly on their faces and tied up in a bathtub in the basement. Wilfried W. evidently took a liking to twisting the prisoners' fingers, tearing their hair out, beating them, kicking them, choking them, scalding them.

Investigators suspect that the violence originally came from him. Because he apparently also tortured his emotionally dependent wife, threatened her and ultimately made her an accomplice through years of oppression - at least that was what she said to the police.

The 47-year-old is accused of attempted murder and assault in several cases, one of the victims tortured her with a stun gun and stuck a wooden chopstick into her vagina.

As early as the mid-1990s, Wilfried W. is said to have violently abused a former partner, burned her with an iron, tied her up, and raped her with a baton. Even then, a court ruled: "Expressions of emotion such as pity seem alien to this defendant."

Wilfried W. supposedly wanted to control other people to the maximum and to live out his perverted power fantasies through physical abuse. And yet he must have exuded a certain charm: there is hardly any other explanation why so many women fell for the perpetrator.

Charm is a hallmark of many psychopaths

Such a "manipulative charm" characterizes many psychopathic personalities. Even more: most of them even leave a very likeable impression at first.

To diagnose psychopathy, experts use a procedure that the Canadian criminal psychologist Robert Hare developed around 1980 and which (somewhat revised) is still considered the standard today.

During an intensive questioning of the person concerned, a doctor uses a checklist to check 20 different character traits that are associated with psychopathy (e.g. excessive self-esteem, indifference, irresponsibility). Depending on the conspicuousness of the respective feature, it awards zero, one or two points.

"Clinical" psychopaths are people who achieve at least 25 of the possible 40 points. Their proportion among prison inmates is around 15 to 20 percent, and in the general population it is probably less than one percent.

But values ​​of more than 20 points are already considered elevated, so those affected tend to have psychopathic traits.

Psychopathy has many different facets

When evaluating thousands of such checklists, the experts recognized, among other things: Psychopathy is characterized by various facets, which mostly appear in a bundle, but not with the same intensity for every person affected. Sometimes they also appear individually.

In addition to the pronounced fearlessness, a lack of natural compassion is one of the most important factors. Experts argue that those who hardly feel fear themselves can only insufficiently empathize with the fear of others.

However, psychopaths are very capable of registering other people's emotions. By virtue of their brains, they know perfectly well that someone is sad or afraid. This so-called "cognitive empathy" is not disturbed in them in contrast to autistic people.

Precisely because people with psychopathic tendencies generally do not experience deep feelings, it is particularly easy for them to recognize the weaknesses of others in a crystal clear manner, to win over their victims and to exploit them.

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