Can I Spot a Rapist?

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Reader’s Question

What’s a common psychological problem among kidnappers and rapists? Are there give-away signs to look out for?

Psychologist’s Reply

Predicting dangerous behavior is one of the most difficult challenges psychologists face. When used in the context of a full psychological evaluation, many valid psychological tests exist to help determine if an individual has the propensity for such violent behavior. It would certainly make things easier if a single psychological problem predicted the likelihood of such horrific behavior, but the reasons “why” are complex and vary between individuals and situations. The flip side of this is also true: although an individual exhibits the trait, they are not necessarily prone to such violent behavior. For example, a scale exists on the MMPI-2 called “Psychopathic Deviate (Scale 4).” Both criminals and law enforcement officers score highly on this scale (as well as some clinical psychologists)!

With that caveat in mind, there is one psychological construct that tends to be very low among individuals who commit such aberrant acts: empathy.

Not having the ability to understand one’s actions from another’s perspective can at times lead to small, harmful acts. Sometimes, once someone gets away with a small harmful act, they might begin to engage in a cycle of ‘thinking errors’ (e.g., “I can do anything I want without getting caught” or “I deserve to take what I want“) that may escalate to riskier and more harmful behaviors. To read more about empathy and aggressive behavior, please see Dr George Simon’s recent article Budding Psychopaths or Immature Characters? on our sister site.

As mentioned above, just because an individual exhibits low empathy does not mean that they would kidnap or rape someone. Many individuals score low on empathy but do not engage in violent behavior. Furthermore, our culture’s collective idea of a ‘typical’ rapist or kidnapper (such as a shadowy figure leaping from the bushes) is not the case in the majority of incidents. Roughly 3 out of 4 victims know their perpetrator, which tends to disarm potential victims by placing them at ease. Many aggressors can be charming, or may find themselves in a situation that goes beyond their own expectations or limits. In several instances of rape (particularly among college students), drugs and alcohol can impair inhibition and judgment on the part of the aggressor as well as the victim.

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If you or someone you know has been the victim of a kidnapping or rape, there are many support systems available. RAINN offers many resources that may be helpful. If you or someone you know has had thoughts of kidnapping or raping others, please call a crisis hotline such as 1-800-273-TALK (in the U.S.) to talk about the thoughts and get help before events escalate.

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