How to spot a villain06/02/18


I am surprisingly slow to spot villains, despite the fact that delving into peoples’ minds is my life’s work. So I wrote this article for myself as a reminder and a warning. A wise friend said to me recently, ‘Nobody sees himself as the villain in his own story!’ I think that is mostly where the confusion begins.

The problem with villains – and psychopaths – is that they don’t usually believe that they are wrong or bad. This is deceptive because even when you catch them out and challenge them, they can masterfully argue their way out of the naughty corner. Villains are, for the most part, extremely likeable! They can be friendly, sweet, generous, kind and on the face of it they seem like really nice people. They tell you what you want to hear. But when you scratch the surface or if you hang around them for long enough, you’ll start picking up red flags.

Warning signals

What I’ve noticed about the villains who’ve crossed my path over the years is that a pattern of dishonesty starts to emerge. You can feel like you’re wrong or mistaken or mad at first, but over time you start to realize that the person you trusted has very little regard for the truth. The person you liked and saw as a friend or partner or colleague or boss is actually a liar. That’s a massive warning sign.

For the most part, villains don’t look evil at all. Even if you think you know them quite well, they don’t always seem to be bad, ugly or dangerous. Quite the opposite in fact. Often the most dodgy characters are the ones who look the most attractive and appealing on the outside. They use their good looks as part of their strategic plan to get what they want. It is easy, especially if you’re inclined to rely on first impressions or external appearances, to mistake a villain for a good guy or girl. Oscar Wilde described so beautifully in his masterpiece, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, how the horrifying truth of the state of your soul can be hidden away – out of sight. What the outside world sees is the cover up: Beauty, glamour, wealth, and the relentless pursuit of pleasure no matter what the cost.

More than 50 shades of grey

The lines between good and evil (black and white) are not as clear as I wish they were. Villains often feel – and probably sometimes are – misunderstood and unfairly judged. ‘Because you Love to Hate me: 13 Tales of Villainy’ edited by Ameriie is a wonderful collection of stories about villains, often leaving the reader feeling great empathy and support for the villain and hoping for their grand escape. One of the truths those authors reveal is that while heroes want to save the world, villains want to rule it! What’s common to them both is the quest for power.

Our perceptions of what makes someone a villain can be poles apart. What is unacceptable to you might be quite admirable to me, and vice-versa. It depends on our unique interpretations, based on so many factors like who we are as people, our past experiences, current circumstances, our loyalties, priorities, values, ambitions and world-views. Villains are extremely good at pulling people into their web of deceit and corruption. They are masters at creating ties with and gaining loyalty and support from previously innocent acquaintances. They do this by offering financial gain, love, sex, friendship or status – or the promise of these things. If that fails, they’ll dig up dirt on you and draw you in or at least shut you up that way.

What should you do when you spot a villain?

That’s complicated and there’s no easy answer. Disentangling yourself from your villain might be hard, if not impossible, especially if you are married or blood relatives. Luckily for me, each time I’ve eventually spotted a villain, I’ve been able to make a dash for it and get away – not unscathed or unhurt – but relatively intact. So perhaps that’s the best advice I can give. Try to preserve whatever is left of your integrity and be careful of revenge attacks, because hell also hath no fury like a villain exposed. I have respect for villains – as I do for psychopaths – because I know that they can outwit me. And I also know they are capable of cruelty that is way beyond my own radar. But nobody in this world is without a dark side.

The villain within us

Almost all of us have a capacity for evil and this has been proven over and over again by researchers. Milgram’s studies on conformity and Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiments are just two examples of how regular, ‘normal’ people can find themselves doing terrible things when they are placed in particular contexts. There is a villain inside each and every one of us. Some environments are more benign but others will bring out the villain in almost everyone, including you and me. This brings us back to our starting point, ‘Nobody sees himself as a villain in his own story.’ There will be a thousand mitigating factors, excuses, unavoidable and unforeseeable circumstances that made you do those bad things. Psychological defenses like denial can help you to hide from your own evil. In time and with a dose of self-reflection though, the inner villain can step into plain sight. It’s dreadful to face your own internal demons. But sometimes, for the sake of your soul, you’ve just got to look evil straight in the eye and say, ‘Hey, bru! I know you. You’re the villain and in this case right now, you are me!’

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