They say a vampire does not prey upon its victim unless he is invited. Narcissists, sociopaths, con men and the power they possess to create destruction in the lives of others rests within their ability to win your trust. Like a Trojan Horse their success depends on winning your trust in order to bypass your defenses. It is only after the cloak is removed and the disguise is revealed that the full force of their predatory nature and intent is likely to be unleashed.
What is a “Trust Vampire”? The Grifters:
A “trust vampire” is anyone who exploits your willingness to take a risk or expose a vulnerability. In the world of commerce and consumerism a grifter is someone who exploits your gullibility to purchase whatever he is selling you. As described in The Distinctly American Ethos of the Grifter, by Ligaya Mishan, The New York Times, September 12, 2019, the cultural ethos of the grifter in the United States for example is fostered by an economic system that promises social mobility and limitless possibility that is, unfortunately, confined by a disillusioning reality beyond which a meritocracy alone cannot take you. According to Mishan, our society ostensibly endorses an ethic of meritocracy while cultivating a culture of opportunism and disavowing the advantages privilege affords to achieve success. Hence, its populace is “grifted” into endorsing a deceptive “social contract” that, with the exception of those either with an a priori economic advantage or who are highly adept at exploiting others, is highly unlikely to pay off. When it doesn’t pay off, blame is cast on those who either were persuaded and failed (too stupid?) or simply failed to invest (too lazy?) in its promise, the “so-called” American Dream. This “bait and switch” ploy followed by gaslighting is one of the hallmarks of the “trust vampire.” To make matters worse, in a world dominated today by social media and highly politicized news platforms, the divide between reality as it is presented and reality as it is has become evermore present and problematic. Who can we believe and who is truly blameworthy?
The Narcissists and Sociopaths:
At a more personal level, we associate those who prey on our trust as having character traits of narcissism or sociopathy. These are clinical terms thrown around loosely today that generally refer to people who are self-serving, exploitative, and lacking in empathy. While there is much overlap between these two types there are important distinctions as well. A narcissist is a person who seeks attention and needs to feel superior or entitled. A pathological narcissist is someone who possesses these qualities at the expense and well being of others. In other words, he or she might disparage you or minimize your qualities or achievements because, like a zero-sum game, your assets are judged by adverse comparison to their own. Because of the importance they give to self-image, they are vein and very sensitive to criticism. On the other hand, many narcissists are very charming and use flattery to win you over until, mission accomplished, their true colors show through. Narcissists, paradoxically, can be very generous, until, that is, your interests are at odds with theirs. For a narcissist, it eventually always boils down to a philosophy of “Me First!” For this reason, narcissists can indeed be cruel and uncaring.
A sociopath, unlike a narcissist, is driven not by a mission to validate the self so much as simply to gratify the self. Here self-centeredness arises from a more primitive way of being, a world in which survival is paramount and therefore no one can be trusted. Survival depends in turn on power through force or deception. Rules, morals, and laws serve only to constrain the guileless and weak.
In his YouTube series, “The Dark Triad,” psychologist, Todd Grande, describes a third type of “trust vampire,” called the “Machiavellian,” named after a famous 15th century author who wrote a book about power and how it is used. Machiavellians, like narcissists, are driven to achieve power and status, but like sociopaths, they use guile and deception, particularly emotional manipulation, such as playing on your guilt and plying your weaknesses to get what they want. A Machiavellian is likely to be shrewd, cunning, and scheming, and thus more subtle and, for this reason, often more successful than the narcissists or sociopaths for whom these qualities are not so predominant.
The Cult Leaders:
Perhaps the most malignant of the group because of the magnitude of destruction they can foment, cult leaders stand at the top of the list. These people are the Antichrists, those who promise a paradise to the masses but deliver hell instead. They are invariably very charismatic and possess what can be a ruthless lust for power. At a national level, these are the dictators masquerading as populists whose message is to convince their followers of their deep convictions about the plight of the common man, the dejected, and the oppressed.
In popular culture, some of us may remember Jim Jones and the infamous Jonestown where an entire “colony” of followers were persuaded to drink the fatal “Kool Aid” for the sake of a better world in the afterlife, David Koresh who preyed on girls and young women, known as the Branch Davidians, whose compound was destroyed and members incinerated in a botched invasion by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, and more recently Keith Raniere, of NXIVM, the founder of a sex cult masquerading as a personal development organization in upstate New York for whom a recent television series was broadcast. In all cases, these are pathological characters who prey on the trust of people who are susceptible to their gift for grift for a variety of reasons, vulnerability at a certain time in life, disillusionment or disappointment, a broken home or marriage, seeking something or someone to believe in, a person who seems to care enough to listen to their troubles.
What Creates a “Trust Vampire”?
No one knows for sure. Statistical research suggests that as with most aspects of who we are, both physiologically and psychologically, there appears to be a fairly even split between nature and nurture. There are among us those more talented at reading other people, planning and executing strategies. Some of us are more prone to take risks. Life experiences and opportunities shape these talents and predilections accordingly to make us who we are. Exploitative behavior may also arise from trauma and neglect, a lack of good role models or the prevalence of bad ones, and the quality of our education and community in which we grew up; all play a role in the degree to which we cultivate empathy and responsibility toward those among us. Who we care about depends on who we identify with and who we identify with depends on our families, our community, and our society, the extent to which we are loved and esteemed as well as the responsibility we are assigned to others when we are youth.
Many who are exploiters are able to inflict harm without compunction because of the primitiveness of their psychological defenses. In his book, Being of Two Minds: The Vertical Split in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (1999), author Arnold Goldberg paints a clinical picture of individuals who lead double, often Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, kinds of existences, a feat enabled by the more “primitive” psychological defenses such as denial, disavowal, and splitting. In my clinical experience with individuals with Cluster B personality disorders, the “dramatic” types, who invariably include those who prey on the trust of others, their psychological defenses resemble those with addictive disorders. Rationalization, denial, projection, and minimization are used to enable their transgressions. For example, when someone calls them on their misbehavior, they might disavow it while simultaneously accusing their accuser of jealousy or the same qualities of which they are both guilty and fail to see in themselves. Many rely on a victim mentality to justify their actions, some a cynical philosophy of life.
How Do I Deal with a “Trust Vampire”?
Vampires of trust are clever and charming so while at first you might not be able to identify them, they soon begin to reveal their true character. Here are some signs to watch out for:
Robert Hamm Ph.D