Reprinted with permission from the author’s book, Hostage/Crisis Negotiations: Lessons Learned from the Bad, the Mad, and the Sad, and with credit to the publisher, Charles C. Thomas.
The Antisocial Personality Disorder (It’s all about me!) Hostage-taker*
By Thomas Strentz, Ph.D., FBI (retired)
* * *
A few years ago, police in New England cornered a young man, who, after a long hot pursuit from an aborted bank robbery in Vermont entered a residence in Massachusetts, and took a deputy sheriff and his children hostage in their home. This individual, who said he had to rob the bank because his parole agent was demanding he repay the car loan that he lost gambling, met his father for the first time when they were in the same state prison. During protracted negotiations, he rationalized his situation and blamed others for his troubles. The siege ended when the deputy assaulted the subject and escaped out the window as the police entered the home. Typically, and due to his large ego, this hostage-taker acted as his own attorney. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 40 years in state prison. (Special Agent Liane McCarthy 2000)
It is easy to recognize an Antisocial Personality Disorder (asp**) hostage-taker by his glibness, his narcissism, his seemingly stress-free voice and attitude, his high verbal skills, and his constant use of rationalization and projection to justify his situation. His demands will be for money, escape, and other self-serving needs. Remember, “It’s all about me!” His demeanor will remind you of criminal informants with whom you have been involved. When one compares his chronological to his emotional age, he appears to many to be an Adult Adolescent. During the siege he will challenge the negotiator as if the life and death hostage siege is a game.
Over the years, the person now labeled as the Antisocial Personality by the American Psychiatric Association has had several other labels and has wreaked havoc on humanity for centuries. In colonial times, he was called Morally Insane, then the Constitutional Psychopathic Inferior, the Psychopath, the Sociopath, and most recently the Antisocial Personality. There may be other professional or more generic names, but these five come to mind and will pass the censors. The changing labels reflect a professional attempt to more accurately describe the typical behavioral pattern and perhaps explain this social pariah.
This disorder has been around for a long time. If you are familiar with the New Testament you will recall that Judas Iscariot, in addition to being an informant, was stealing money the disciples had collected for the poor. (John 12:6)
The best description of this disorder is in the excellent and well-titled text Without Conscience, by Dr. Robert D. Hare: “The Antisocial Personality, Psychopath, is a social predator who charms, manipulates, and ruthlessly plows his way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, he selfishly takes what he wants and does as he pleases, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.” (Hare 1993)
*Hostage-takers, and people with the Antisocial Personality Disorder, come in both sexes. Since most hostage-takers are males the pronoun he will be used in this article.
**The acronym asp, a snake, rather than APD will be used because asp more accurately describes the behavior of the person with an Antisocial Personality Disorder. He is a snake.
It’s all about me
If one were to create a continuum and move from normal to greedy, to self-centered, to self- indulgent, to a sense of entitlement, to dangerously narcissistic, then well beyond this beginning, one would find the Antisocial person who, according to Dr. Joyceln Roland, the lead psychologist for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office, views life as “It’s all about me! They are your friend as long as there is something in it for them. They are takers, not givers. All they ever give their associates and family are heartaches and hard times.” (Roland 2003)
Civilized society is based on trust. It is this trust that the asp manipulates, ignores, and violates to suit his immediate wants. When he sees something he wants, he takes it. In a word, he is impulsive. His attitude is that rules, regulations, tenants, commandments, and laws apply to others. Be it speeding in a car or boat or serial killing, he does not believe the laws apply to him. He is not crazy, but he knows that by some civil or criminal code, certainly not his, what he is doing is wrong; he just does not care. He does what suits him when it suits him, because “it’s all about me.” By any name, he is a social predator on the society that law enforcement and corrections officers are sworn to serve and protect. (Ochberg, 2003) The only good thing one can say about the asp is that for law enforcement and corrections personnel, he represents job security.
The Antisocial Personality Disorder
By way of introduction, the official label Antisocial Personality Disorder, though very descriptive, is on the surface quite misleading because, most typically, the asp can be very socially adept, quite engaging, and a very pleasant and charming individual. However, this thin veneer covers the monster that dwells within. An example is the handsome, charming, and gregarious serial killer, Ted Bundy, who killed dozens of young women from Tacoma to Tallahassee during the 1970's and 1980's.
The cause of this disorder remains a mystery. There is ample and yet inconclusive evidence of genetic influences as well as environmental factors. Perhaps it is an interplay of these two diverse influences that is the root cause. (Deitz, 2001) Some have suggested demonic possession.
In many cases, the asp begins to exhibit this disorder at a very early age, usually by age six or seven. There is anecdotal evidence of this disorder evidencing itself in children who are just learning to speak, when according to their parents, they engage in constant lying about everything. The term “psychopathic liar” is also used to describe the asp. A youthful triad of behaviors has been seen in male subjects since the Spanish Inquisition. These three behaviors -- enuresis, arson, and cruelty to animals -- are discussed in some detail under the classification of Conduct Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, IV-2000, of the American Psychiatric Association. (DSM IV 2000, pp. 85-91)
Many young boys wet the bed. Although most respond to therapy, the budding asp does not. As a group, normal children play with matches more than normal adults. However, the child who starts a fire under his parents’ bed or sprays lighter fluid onto another and then ignites his victim is another matter. Children, as a group, are not as kind to animals as are adults. However, the youthful asp is more than unkind to pets; he tortures and often kills them. Some say he really wants to torture and kill people, but he is not yet big enough, so he is taking his wrath out on pets that most children love and cherish.
By way of example, this personality type has been the subject of many movies. He was well- portrayed by Robert Mitchum in the 1940's, and more recently by Robert DeNiro, as the charming and chilling killer in “Cape Fear” (MCA Universal, 1991). The serial killer and seductive character portrayed by Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” (LE Studio, 1992), the seductive and manipulative character portrayed by Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat” (Warner Brothers, 1981) were entertaining, as was the lethal con artist portrayed by Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (Paramount, 1999). More recently, there was the less-than-lethal con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can” (Dream Works, 2002). A more humorous example, was the character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (Republic Pictures, 1975).
Each of these characters portrayed a person who engaged in a variety of crimes. Perhaps the best example of this criminal behavior is seen in the quote from an interview conducted by Supervisory Special Agent, Robert K. Ressler, of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit. During a prison interview he asked one asp, Mr. G. Daniel Walker:
Ressler: “How long is your rap sheet?
Walker: I would think the current one would probably be about twenty-nine or thirty pages.
Ressler: Twenty-nine or thirty pages! Charlie Manson’s is only five.
Walker: But, he was only a killer.” (Hare 1993)
What Walker meant was that while Manson may have specialized in murder, he, Walker, was a criminal of enormous versatility, a fact of which he was quite proud. He boasted of having committed more than three hundred crimes, for which he had not been caught. (Hare 1993)
Infamous examples, like those of serial killers Ted Bundy, Angelo Bono, and Kenneth Bianchi, may be extreme, yet they depict people whom every law enforcement and corrections officer has dealt with time and time again. Each of us has been conned by this person who can and has turned many a professional into a very cynical person.
American Psychiatric Association (APA)
The APA publishes a reference book entitled The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that is now in its fourth edition. This text lists and describes the many mental diseases and disorders the APA recognizes, much like state Penal Codes list and describe violations of the law. It lists about 100 disorders. Among them are 11 specific Personality Disorders that are generally described as enduring patterns of behavior that deviate markedly from the expectations of one’s culture, are pervasive and inflexible, have onset in adolescence, are stable over time, and lead to distress or impairment. Of the 11, this was the first one identified by the APA. (Ochberg, et.al. 2003) Briefly, it is a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. (DSM- IV 2000 pp. 649)
The specific diagnostic criteria for the asp listed in DSM IV 2000, pages 649-650: (The bold emphasis is that of the author and not to be found in DSM IV.)
A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults (5) reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another
B. The individual is at least 18 years old.
C. There is evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15 years. (This includes, but is not limited to arson, cruelty to animals/adults, the use of a deadly weapon, and sexual assault.)
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of Schizophrenia or a Manic Episode.
Note the use of the adjectives “repeated, reckless, and consistent.” Many normal people engage in some of this behavior from time to time. It is the consistent pattern that generally triggers this diagnosis. In addition, most adult asps with whom I have dealt had a Conduct Disorder or, more commonly, were juvenile delinquents in their younger days. (DSM IV 2000, pp 85-91)
Their involvement in criminal activity is well documented and discussed by Dr. Marvin Wolfgang, in his famous “Philadelphia Cohort Studies”, that showed a small percentage of the criminal population was responsible for most of the crime. In other words, some people commit one or two crimes. The asp commits dozens. Briefly, Wolfgang followed 9,945 boys born in the same year for twenty years. He found that 6.3% of these boys, about 596 of them, committed well over half of the crimes for which this age group was arrested. (Wolfgang, et.al. 1972)
Like most mental disorders, the asp is found in every race, color, creed, and civilization. According to Hare (1993) they represent about 2 to 3 percent of our population. Thus, in the United States, with a current population of over 350 million, their numbers are around six to eight million. Certainly enough to keep law enforcement busy and our correctional institutions full for decades to come.
Typically the asp is impulsive. Immediate gratification is his norm. When he sees something or someone he wants, he takes it or them. He makes excessive use of two common Psychological Defense Mechanisms: Projection and Rationalization. An example of Projection is that of blaming others for his situation. I interviewed a person, diagnosed as being an asp, who had stabbed his victim three dozen times. But, it was not his fault, “the knife went out of control”. An arsonist may claim that he did not burn down the building, “the fire did”. The rapist may claim that he did not sexually assault his victim, “she wanted rough sex”. A killer may say that the victim “should have done what he was told” or should not have looked at him that way. Another common Projection is that “if he did not want to be assaulted and robbed, why did he carry that much money in this neighborhood?” The key here is that he really believes what he is saying. In his mind, it really isn’t his fault. He is always O.K. “It’s always about me!”
Rationalization is a defense mechanism many people use on a daily basis. However, the asp rationalizes almost hourly in order to excuse criminal behavior. A drug dealer will excuse his crime by saying, “If I don’t sell them drugs, someone else will.” I interviewed one serial killer who said, “People are born to die; all I did was speed up the process.”
In 1965, as a Master’s Degree in Social Work student, I did an internship at Atascadero State Hospital for the Sexual Psychopath, located on the Central Coastal of California, where I met and attempted therapy with many young men who had a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder.One young man had been incarcerated for shooting and killing his grandparents because he said, “I always wondered what it would feel like to kill a person.” (Remember, its all about me.) He provides an example of the truly dangerous asp.
He was a member of an adolescent group that met with me on Tuesdays and Fridays. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with me, he placed himself in the role of “junior therapist” and gathered the group on Monday and Thursday. Each morning, as I entered the hospital, he would meet me at the front door and walk with me to my office. During this stroll, he would tell me of the progress he was making with the group and with himself, “thanks to your brilliant insight, Dr. Strentz.” Each time I corrected him on my title, he would respond with a statement to the effect that I should be a “doctor, because I was so insightful and effective with the patients.”
During this time he was exhibiting or, more accurately, “faking”, some “success” in his treatment. He had stopped fighting, was making his bed, began to take responsibility for his crime, and worked well in various assignments around the hospital. Eventually he had his own office with a coffee pot, a perk and certainly a real status symbol within the hospital, especially for a patient. As an intern, I shared my office with three other interns. We had no coffee pot.
Just before the end of my internship, he stopped meeting me at the door and ceased playing junior therapist. I made some inquiries and determined he learned I would be leaving in February, months before his annual status hearing. Since I would not be at his hearing and thus could not do him any good, he dropped me like a bad habit. Since I could not help him, he moved on to someone he thought could and would. Again, “it’s all about me!”
As an epilog, after about 10 years, he was released from the California Department of Mental Health and remanded to the custody of the California Department of Corrections. Contrary to the recommendation of the staff at Atascadero, they decided to place him on parole in the care and custody of his mother. He is now back in prison. Within a year of his release, he began killing and sexually assaulting young girls he picked up along the highway. He eventually killed his mother and her friend. In his mind, according to one of the videos he made, these homicides were not his fault; his victims were the cause of the crimes. The young girls should not have been hitchhiking and his mother should not have tormented and harassed him. As for her friend, well, “that was too bad”. He killed her because she was the one person most likely to miss his mother and he needed time to get away. “It’s all about me!”
In my opinion the two most difficult types of hostage-takers encountered by law enforcement are the Antisocial Personality Disorder and suicidal subjects. The suicidal person is dangerous because he wants to die. He may want the police to kill him, he may try to force their hand, and may not care how many people he takes with him.
Similarly, the asp may take chances, make threats, and issue demands that sound suicidal. He may challenge the police. It may appear that he wants to die but, unlike the suicidal person, he does not. Typically he is convinced that he is smarter, stronger, and has other virtues that will allow him to escape from the scene, regardless of how unrealistic his plan may be.
Negotiating guidelines and their rationale
This person is most likely to be encountered as a hostage-taker in a robbery that has gone bad, a workplace incident, or as a perpetrator in a domestic dispute who is holding his “significant other(s)” hostage. To the asp, the snake, they are “insignificant others”.
The following are recommended guidelines for negotiating with the asp:
1. Do not share sensitive or personal information. While this tactic can be effective with the person who is considering suicide, the asp will try to learn about you so he can use this information against you. The negotiation process is a game to him. He does not believe he will ever die.
2. Keep him busy. He needs psychological stimulation and challenges. They have a powerful need to be in control. Further, when occupied with decisions and discussions, they are less likely to injure hostages.
3. Keep him involved in the negotiation process. Use expressions like; “Certainly a person as intelligent as you understands that”... Or “I know you are smart enough to realize that...”
4. He must be convinced that the safe return/release of the hostages, as well as anything else he does, is to his personal advantage. While doing this, be careful not to place social or personal value on the hostages. He certainly enjoys the suffering of his victims. Do not let him know you are concerned about them. He will use this against you.
5. Do not attempt to put the asp on a guilt trip: the snake has no conscience. An attempt at a guilt trip strategy will tell him what you value. That is information about you that he can, and certainly will, use against you in his game of manipulation and intimidation.
6. Negotiations must be “reality-oriented”. Remember, the asp enjoys taking risks and is stimulated, not frightened, by the danger of this situation. He is not suicidal. He is very egocentric and wants to survive. Typically, he loves himself too much to die.
7. It is unlikely that good rapport will develop between the asp and the negotiator or any of the hostages. They do not experience the Stockholm Syndrome. However, because of the asps’ charm and manipulative nature, their hostages may experience identification with aggressor. They trust and may adore him. The asp does not reciprocate these feelings.
8. Like other Personality Disorders, the asp is impulsive.
9. His stress level is very low. What frightens others delights him.
10. He makes excessive use of projection and rationalization.
11. He probably has a criminal record. Do not lie to him about the criminal justice system or process. He knows the system and the process. He may try to trick you into telling him something that is not true so he can mock you and play his game of “Gotcha”.
12. Non-police negotiators will be of marginal value because they are more easily conned by this person or have experience on a personal level with him that prevent them from being objective.
13. Play the rationalization game with him. Taking hostages is no big deal, it is not even listed in the penal code. Others have done it. What choice did he have?
14. Understand and play into his use of projection. Remember, in his mind he is O.K.; others are the cause of his troubles. He just intended to rob the store. The police responded too quickly and forced him to take hostages as an act of self defense. Similarly, any shooting he did was also in self defense.
15. Minimize what has happened. As Robin Williams says in the movie “Cadillac Man”, “You did not shoot a police officer, you shot a foot.”
Psychologically, there is no known cure for this malady. The aging process tends to slow them down physically. But, until we learn the cause, the cure will continue to elude us. In the mean- time, they remain a menace to the society we are sworn to serve and protect. Perhaps the best single explanation for this disorder was given to us by a University of California Psychologist, Margaret Singer Ph.D. who said, “They may simply be evil.” (Singer, 1999)
Remember, for the Antisocial Personality Disorder, “It’s all about me!”
American Psychiatric Association: (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, IV 4th ed. American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C.
Deitz, P., M.D. AMad or Bad, presentation to the California Association of Hostage Negotiators, Annual Training Conference, June 1, 2001, Hyatt Hotel, San Diego, CA.
Hare, R.D., Ph.D. (1993) Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the Psychopaths among us. The Gilford Press, London.
McCarthy, L. FBI Special Agent, ASalem, MA Corrections Officer Hostage Incident, presentation to the California Association of Hostage Negotiators, Annual Training Conference, June 2, 2000, Hyatt Hotel, Monterey, CA.
Roland, Joyceln, Ph.D., Assessing the Hostage Taker from A Mental Health Professional=s Perspective, presentation to the California Association of Hostage Negotiators, Annual Training Conference, May 28, 2003, Hyatt Hotel, Long Beach, CA.
Singer, M. Ph.D. AThe Antisocial Personality, Presentation at the CAHN Northern Regional Training, in Alameda, April 22, 1999.
Woflgang, M.E., Figlio, R., & Sellin, T. (1972) Delinquency in a Birth Cohort, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Jeff Thompson is a certified international mediator. He is also a law enforcement detective in New York City. He is currently a Research Fellow at Columbia University Law School researching crisis and hostage negotiation as well as other conflict resolution topics.
His law enforcement work includes a being a communication and conflict specialist, interfaith dialogue, developing and implementing community engagement programs, social media projects, and designing training workshops.
Jeff is also currently a PhD candidate researching nonverbal communication and mediation at Griffith University Law School. He also received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Creighton University School of Law. Jeff has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally and has been published and featured with numerous international media organizations. He currently also writes at PsychologyToday.com.
(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions as a mediator and not that of any organization.)