I’ve been enamored with a dramatic series on Starz called Boss with Kelsey Grammer and Connie Nielson among an extraordinary and equally brilliant cast. Grammer makes a radical departure from a lifetime career as Dr. Frasier Crane from Cheers and then the popular Frasier series. He is Tom Kane, Mayor of Chicago, and if ever there was a required character study on power, corruption, and psychopathy in politics, Kane is the man.
It’s hard to proceed here without an all-out review of the the series. Just watch it and you’ll have context to what I’m about to write.
There are real-life contexts where deep-seated lying takes no prisoners; interpersonal relationships, corporate boardrooms, cocktail parties, pulpits, press conferences and professors’ offices. These are the nutrient-dense feeding grounds of psychopathic liars, intensely focused sharks built for speed, narcissism and consumption, and belief is their staple.
The psychopathic liar’s competency is embedded in a place where the conscience should be. Dr. Robert D. Hale has dedicated much of his life and research into defining psychopathy creating the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, of which Mayor Tom Kane is the poster child.
Psychopathy is a mental disorder where conscience-driven responses like compassion, empathy, guilt, grief and remorse don’t exist. The Hare PCL-R defines specific characteristics of psychopathy or personality expressions including manipulative charm, narcissism, amorality, parasitic living, remorselessness, feigning emotion, the incapacity to empathize, promiscuity, entitlement, inability to sustain relationships, no goal-orientation, and, of course, pathological lying.
These characteristics are what can make detecting the psychopathic liar so difficult. This personality can be immediately endearing and credible, charismatic to the point of interpersonal conversion. We like this person. They appear funny, brilliant, deep, or insightful not because they are inherently, but because they know how to use their well rehearsed arsenal of lies and have no remorse in doing so.
Some lie detection depends on the body’s physiological response to the ethical faux pas of lying. When one’s ethical or moral agreement prohibits deception, when they lie the body produces tells, physical responses upon which polygraphs determine veracity.
Anxiety from the fear of being detected or the breach of one’s moral code manifests in increased respiration, elevated blood pressure, perspiration, and/or a rapid heart rate because the conscience is a very powerful psychological driver when it comes to the dissonance created by breaking moral agreements. Psychopaths succeed so well here nonverbally because they don’t have those drivers. Their bodies don’t know they’re lying.
The flip side to this charisma is semantic aphasia, another tell of psychopathy. Where psychopathic liars succeed in reducing nonverbal or physical tells, their speech can be more betraying.
Semantic aphasia is a breakdown of meaning, usually due to meaning’s hasty construct in lying, or the contradictions that emerge when the lie is confronted. Ask someone you suspect is lying to recount their story backwards. Truth needs no construct.
Semantic aphasia is evidenced in contradictory or rambling disclosure as well. As if it were a diversionary tactic, this psychopathic slight-of-hand takes the believer down a different road.
Take Bob Costas’ interview with Jerry Sandusky. Look at Sandusky’s disintegrating syntax:
Costas: “Innocent? Completely innocent and falsely accused in every aspect?”
Sandusky: “Well I could say that, you know, I have done some of those things. I have horsed around with kids. I have showered after workouts. I have hugged them and I have touched their leg without intent of sexual contact. So if you look at it that way, there are things that would be accurate.”
Costas: “Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?”
Sandusky: “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys? Sexually attracted, you know, I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. But no, I’m not sexually attracted to young boys.”
The semantics, the meaning, falls apart in Jerry’s rambling and his incredibly brash vagueness.
The modal verb “could,” in his response is used to indicate possibility, but not probability. When he says “…some of those things,” he’s using distancing language diminishing the sexual offense, along with “…horsed around.” Notice the disagreement in plurality in “…touched their leg.” Sandusky’s brain is struggling, the aphasia is seeping through.
Sandusky’s recitation of Costas’ question is a solid tell of deception, the epitome of semantic aphasia; Jerry’s not using his own words at this point and is stalling.
Try the above analysis with Herman Cain.
You won’t see this with Mayor Tom Kane. His character has been written and interpreted as brilliant. He, along with a host of characters in Boss, are seasoned, rehearsed, high self-monitoring sharks who are so convincing, even to the series audience, that when they bite the flesh off the truth we’re left slack-jawed and bleeding.