Personality Disorders] [Home] [
following sets out typical traits of a personality disordered person. This is the
type of suspect individual that law-enforcement professionals come into contact with most
often while investigating criminal cases. That is not to say that all
have personality disorders, but it is certainly true that the behaviour of personality
disordered persons is often anti-social and either borderline or fully criminal in nature
and effect. Investigating such individuals can bring about the absolute height in
frustration and consternation.
personality disorder characteristics seen in clinical settings:
1) An inclination to be demanding and non-compliant (actively
or passively). For some of the personality disorders, this is apparent early in treatment;
for others the non-compliance is evident only after early success in the therapeutic
process (e.g. an individual with a dependent personality disorder, for whom
continuing positive change would result in termination from therapy, who is unable to
initiate or sustain self-responsible behaviour).
2) A tendency to engage in over or under valuation of self as
well as over or under of others. Individuals with personality disorders often
alternate between extremes (e.g. idealizing and then villainizing a spouse or therapist,
or feeling superior to and then inferior to or unworthy of others).
3) A propensity toward manipulativeness with significant
corresponding interpersonal dishonesty (e.g. suicidality in the service of binding a
caretaker and preventing abandonment).
4) Difficulties in developing non-pathological attachments
(e.g. seeking in a significant-other the "good parent," a shield against a
hostile world, a caretaker who will make functioning as an adult unnecessary, a "you
and me against the world" alliance).
5) A failure to accept and/or process corrective environmental
feedback with an inclination to frame reality around self and self-needs without
considering the reality of others. This behaviour can leave others both bewildered
and enraged as the personality disordered individual fails to receive, understand, or
respond appropriately to feedback.
6) A lack of awareness of impact on others with a
corresponding failure to assume responsibility for self. When confronted, personality
disordered individuals will deny, minimize, distort, or counterattack in the face of
criticism or demands for appropriate behavior.
7) Affective dysregulation, e.g., irritability, instability,
Mind of the Spy
By Dr. Mike Gelles
U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service
The US government has made a
considerable investment in studying behaviors associated with the risk of
espionage. In one inter-agency project, a team of federal agents and government
psychologists and psychiatrists interviewed many individuals who had been
arrested and convicted of espionage. The interviews focused on the spy’s
motivation, their perception of security policies and procedures, and the means
by which they committed their crimes.
This project sought to understand
the behavior, motivation, personality, and mindset of the spy. The goal was to
gather behavioral information that could be used by security and
counterintelligence professionals to improve the early identification and
handling of employees at risk of committing serious offenses. The project
generated a lot of data and many insights that have since been incorporated into
security policies, training, and publications.
Security professionals have known
for many years that the principal espionage threat to classified information
does not come from clever and devious foreigners. It comes from
"insiders" -- Americans working in a position of trust within the
government or defense industry. These are Americans who, after thorough
investigation, have been granted a security clearance that authorizes them to
have access to government secrets, but who then go bad and betray their employer
and their country.
Of the 98 Americans arrested for
espionage during the past 20 years, almost all were trustworthy and loyal
Americans at the time they were investigated and first approved for security
clearance. They changed over time. What is most surprising is that a large
majority of those who became spies volunteered their services to a foreign
government. They were not enticed, persuaded, manipulated, or coerced into
betraying their country.
Through interviews with arrested
spies, we have tried to understand why and how a loyal employee turns into a
spy. To say that it is greed, that people spy for money, is too simplistic and
doesn’t help us identify who is at risk. Most of us either need or want more
money. What is it that distinguishes the few spies from all the rest of us who
experience financial need or greed but remain trustworthy and loyal?
Selling secrets is seldom the
result of a sudden, uncontrolled impulse. It is usually the last act of a
long-simmering emotional crisis. In many cases, the symptoms of this crisis have
been observable, identifiable, and even treatable before the damage was done.
Typically, however, the potential significance of the "at-risk"
behavior has not been recognized or reported at the time by coworkers or
Spies are not "crazy,"
but they usually are emotionally disturbed or suffer from one or more
personality disorders. A personality disorder is recognizable as a pattern of
behavior that is poorly adapted to the circumstances in which it occurs, leading
to conflicts in relationships, difficulties at work, and periodic emotional
shifts. Behavior can become self-defeating and sometimes self-destructive.
Of the personality disorders found
in spies, the two most common are antisocial personality disorder and
narcissism. These two disorders have some characteristics in common and are
sometimes found together.
A person with antisocial
personality disorder tends to reject the normal rules and standards of society.
(Antisocial, in this sense, is a technical term in psychology. It has nothing to
do with not being interested in making friends.) The hallmark of people with
antisocial personality is a lack of any feelings of guilt or remorse when they
do something wrong. The values that in most people inhibit illegal behavior are
Antisocial personalities are
usually manipulative, self-serving, and seek immediate gratification of their
desires. They are oriented toward what they can get now, with little interest in
the future and no interest in learning from the past. They have little capacity
to form attachments, or to develop a commitment to anyone or anything. This
suggests that their ability to develop any degree of loyalty is seriously
Many people with antisocial
personality disorder have criminal records that make them ineligible for a
security clearance. However, many with milder versions of this disorder are
eligible and do receive clearances. On the job, they press the limits of rules
and regulations to see how much they can get away with, or bend or break the
rules when it serves their self-interest. They often have the con artist's
ability to talk their way out of trouble.
The hallmarks of a narcissistic
personality are unwarranted feelings of self-importance
or self-esteem (grandiosity), a sense of entitlement, and a lack
of empathy for others. Many successful over-achievers have narcissistic
tendencies, commonly known as a large ego. The need to live up to their own high
self-image may be what drives them to be successful.
A security concern arises only
when a person's view of their own abilities or importance is so grossly out of
line with reality that they are destined for disappointment rather than success.
Such persons may be unable to accept criticism or failure, because it threatens
their inflated self-image. When criticized by a supervisor or if they feel
devalued by the organization, narcissists may react with anger, a temper
tantrum, or extensive written appeals. A narcissist's relationship with others
may turn rapidly from love/admiration to hate, or vice versa, depending upon
whether the relationship supports or undermines the narcissist's compelling
emotional need to validate a grandiose self-image.
Narcissists who feel undervalued
by their supervisor or their organization generally need to defend themselves
against feelings of inadequacy. They may respond in ways that are rebellious,
passive-aggressive, or vindictive. They may also seek out some other source for
validation and affirmation of their self-perceived abilities or importance. In
some cases, they have turned to a foreign intelligence service to fulfill their
emotional needs, gaining satisfaction from working as a spy and outsmarting the
organization that devalued them.
Both the antisocial personality
and the narcissist may engage in deliberate behavior that violates routine
security rules and regulations, but they do this for different reasons. The
antisocial personality rejects the rules. The narcissist accepts the rules but
believes he or she is so special that the rules don't apply; they only apply to
This is why any deliberate
security violation such as taking classified reports home or giving classified
information to an unauthorized person is a serious security concern even if no
real damage is done. Any deliberate violation is evidence of an unwillingness or
inability to abide by the rules that can have broad implications.
Although antisocial tendencies or
severe narcissism are associated with increased security risk, they do not
necessarily lead to serious offenses. Three critical factors will usually have
to fall into alignment before a previously trustworthy and loyal employee
commits a serious crime.
First, there must be a
personality or character weakness, such as antisocial tendencies or
narcissism, that causes a predisposition to maladjusted, counterproductive
Second, a personal, financial,
or career crisis puts an individual with these weaknesses under great
stress, triggering more obvious counterproductive behavior often observable
by friends, coworkers, or supervisor.
Third, the friends, coworkers,
and supervisor fail to recognize the signs of a serious problem, decide they
don't want to get involved, or assume that someone else will take care of
it. As a result, no one intervenes to help resolve the problem, and the
individual's behavior spirals out of control.
Most of us possess one or more
character or personality weaknesses to some degree, but that does not mean we
are a security risk. All security judgments are based on the "whole person
concept" -- which means looking at a person's strengths as well as their
weaknesses. A number of positive characteristics are commonly associated with
individuals who are reliable, trustworthy, and loyal, and these strong points
often counterbalance the weaknesses.
Positive characteristics include
ability to take criticism without becoming defensive, ability to express anger
and frustration in an appropriate manner, being compassionate and considerate
towards others, respectful of the rights of others, able to cooperate and work
as a team with others to achieve a common goal, and being part of a strong
social support system.
Other positive characteristics
include self-discipline in delaying immediate gratification of desires in order
to achieve a longer-term goal, being dependable in following through on
commitments, and recognition that life doesn't owe one anything -- one has to
work for whatever one gets.
Anyone who possesses these
positive characteristics in good measure is unlikely to engage in betrayal
despite some obvious weaknesses and no matter what stresses or temptations they
encounter in life.
The following are some additional
observations of general interest from our interviews with incarcerated spies.
There was no single motivation for
espionage. The true motivation was always deeper than what commonly appeared on
the surface – money, ideology, or revenge. For example, spies value money not
just for what it can buy, but for what it symbolizes – success, power, and
influence. It is a balm for injured self-esteem. People commit espionage not
just for money, but in a desperate attempt to fulfill complex emotional needs.
Money received for espionage was
spent, not saved. Most spies were not paid enough for unexplained affluence to
be a potential problem. The few who did receive lots of money still spent it
rather than save it, and unexplained affluence was a factor in their detection.
One thing that most spies have in
common is inability to accept responsibility for their own actions. They always
blame others for their problems, and minimize or ignore their own mistakes or
One example of blaming others was
the frequent complaint that stealing information was too easy, because physical
security was too lax. Perpetrators argued that if tighter security had been in
place it would have been more of a deterrent, and they might not have gotten
into trouble. In other words, they blamed the organization for their problems
because it didn’t do enough to protect the information.
Surprisingly, espionage subjects
tended to tell trusted friends about what they were doing. Sometimes this was
for emotional support; often it was an effort to impress or to try to involve a
friend in the espionage activity.
The spies felt no guilt about
their betrayal while they were conducting espionage, and sometimes not even
after they were arrested, because they engaged in self-deceptive
rationalizations. They rationalized that the information they passed was
unimportant. It was just a business transaction, not betrayal of country. Or
they felt that their incompetent supervisors were the ones who were really to
blame for their problems.
In summary, people change as they
face the stresses of broken personal relationships, financial crises, or career
disappointments. We need to be aware of our colleagues who are having difficulty
dealing with these problems in an appropriate and effective way. Intervention by
concerned friends, coworkers, or supervisor can often help prevent these
problems from spinning out of control.
Dr. Mike Gelles
U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service