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The Reluctant Accomplice and Temporary Psychopath

The stress of being an abettor can alter a personality.

Key points

  • Some criminal teams include accomplices who unwillingly comply.
  • To adapt to ego-dystonic behavior, they use distancing strategies that suppress prosocial emotions.
  • When the period of criminality ends, they might regain their former selves.
  • Counselors can benefit from understanding how this works.
Drawing by Author Katherine Ramsland
Source: Drawing by Author Katherine Ramsland

Some offenders who were unwillingly recruited into crime wondered afterward how they could have done what they did. They barely recognized who they’d been during that time. Theories that suggest they used a form of compartmentalization – or “doubling” – describe only the distancing strategy; they don’t explain the gritty mechanics. Few researchers have focused on the nuances of a submissive partner’s devolution. We know about the type of person who’s vulnerable, but we haven’t yet grasped the full process of moral melt.

Cognitive neuroscience offers some ideas. One study features the notion of a shared mentality or synchrony. Others identify the effects of duress that can suppress empathy. I’m keenly interested in those teams where individuals who weren’t inclined to be killers nevertheless participated in murder.

Here’s an example: Marie-Andrée Leclerc was an ordinary Canadian woman seeking adventure on the “hippie trail” in southeast Asia during the 1970s. She crossed paths with Charles Sobhraj, a con artist and thief. Falling in love, she became his partner in crime, which eventually included murder. Through a series of psychological capitulations, she kept a sufficient foothold in her former identity to believe she was not the kind of person who would do this. Perhaps she was coerced. She'd told one person she’d had no choice because Sobhraj had taken her passport and threatened to kill her. Regardless of her motive, she did behave in ways that would once have repulsed her. Afterward, she could barely believe it, as if she’d entered an altered reality.

Offenders like Sobhraj who recruit such accomplices are often charming and confident, even charismatic. They present themselves as the means to a better life while hiding their sadistic side until the target person is under their control. They seek those they can easily lead or persuade, usually someone who needs or seeks what the predator promises to provide.

FBI Special Agent Robert Hazelwood and Janet Warren, a professor of clinical psychiatric medicine, interviewed 20 women who'd been involved with sadistic sexual predators. All had known of their partner’s criminal acts, and several had participated in murder. Most had come to the relationship from a background of physical or sexual abuse. They’d been lured with attention, gifts, and the assurance of being special.

The predators had tested them for leverage before getting them into compromising positions. At first, they’d made the relationship seem normal. Eventually, they’d introduced a minor crime or sex act that drew the target beyond her comfort zone. Gradually, they’d isolated her from family and friends, even to the point of captivity. The final layer added threats, punishment, and attacks on self-esteem. Most accomplices had been so scared of losing the predator’s love or positive regard they’d adapted to his deviance. Some used distancing strategies to quell their moral concerns, especially if they were active in a murder or its cleanup.

In effect, the predators created the conditions for cognitive synchrony or mental assimilation. Professor of cognitive science Michael Spivey describes the connection, “A growing body of cognitive science research is showing that when two people cooperate on a shared task, their individual actions get coordinated in a way that is remarkably similar to how one person’s limbs get coordinated when he or she performs a solitary task.” That is, when an experience or object becomes part of a shared awareness between two (or more) people, the cognitions merge. In team situations, a certain fluidity can develop that gets the members in synch.

Predators achieve this fusion with reluctant accomplices by alternating positive and negative methods of control. Yet even with this mimetic attachment, accomplices can still be distressed over acting contrary to what they’d expect from themselves. In retrospect, they can’t grasp how they'd been so indifferent to the suffering they’d witnessed or inflicted. In their pre-crime lives, they'd have loathed such behavior.

Most of those in a Robert Hazelwood and Janet Warren study had been primed early. They’d learned in prior volatile relationships how to adapt. That’s what predators manipulate.

Psychopathy researchers find that adverse childhood experiences can elicit a form of reactive, or secondary, psychopathy. While the emotional void of a primary psychopath seems congenital, secondary psychopathy seems to develop in reaction to a hostile environment. It can manifest as rash, impulsive, and antisocial behavior, but it can also be an empathic detachment. It’s an acquired affective deficit, a survival mechanism.

It’s possible that if a criminal partnership produces a steady state of emotional stress in the accomplice, their brain will adopt protective measures. This can shift the personality from caring to calculating, especially when rewards for their antisocial behavior operate in tandem. Predators don’t have to be masterminds to understand this; they need only attend to how their threat-reward system is working.

In adolescents, the brain is more malleable, so these kids can be shaped more easily into criminal accomplices. Insensitivity can be trained into them as a practical indifference, especially if they’ve already learned this strategy from prior abuse. Under these conditions, they don’t connect or empathize. It’s learned psychopathy, associated with specific circumstances. That is, the person who acts in a psychopathic manner might not be a psychopath, because under circumstances that promote prosocial bonds, their sense of connection can be restored. The coldness that resembles a primary psychopath’s devoid affect had worked for a specific but temporary purpose.

This psychological maneuver doesn’t absolve those who participate in criminal acts, but it might help recovering accomplices and their counselors tap into the process to promote healing.


Dean, A. C., Altstein, L. L., Berman, M. E., Constans, J. I., Sugar, C. A., & McCloskey, M. S. (2013). Secondary psychopathy, but not primary psychopathy, is associated with risky Decision-making in noninstitutionalized young adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(2), 272–277.

Moreira, D., Sá Moreira, D., Oliveira, S., Ribeiro, F. N., Barbosa, F., Fávero, M., & Gomes, V. (2020). Relationship between adverse childhood experiences and psychopathy: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 53, Article 101452.

Ramsland, K. & McGrain, P. (2010). Inside the minds of sexual predators. ABC-Clio.

Spivey, M. J. (2022). The remarkable ways our brains slip into synchrony. The MIT Press Reader.…

Warren J.I., & Hazelwood R.R. (2002). Relational patterns associated with sexual sadism: A study of twenty wives and girlfriends. Journal of Family Violence. 17, 75-89.

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