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The Amoral Maze
May 21, 2011 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Jon Ronson - How to spot a psychopath
posted by Artw (151 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obligatory shout out.
posted by Splunge at 1:39 PM on May 21, 2011


*consults checklist*

Well great.

Not only am I a psychopath, I'm an UNDERACHIEVING psychopath.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2011 [38 favorites]


Great article. I was glad to see a modicum of pragmatism in the UK's treatment and handling of psychopaths. Psychopathy is serious and rare enough that it results in individual attention for its sufferers, and individual attention is what people with mental disorders need--not policy.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:51 PM on May 21, 2011


There's a great interview this month in GQ quiet with Chainsaw Al Dunlop where he happily embraces each of these qualities. There's also a lovely description of his gold-plated house.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:52 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


If I'm not mistaken, you can hear Jon Ronson talk about "Tony" in act 1 of This American Life episode 385, "Pro Se."
posted by txsebastien at 1:53 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


His research on this was featured in episode 385 of This American Life and he recently appeared on The Daily Show.

He also did the documentary Stanley Kubrick's Boxes, previously on Metafilter.
posted by sharkfu at 1:53 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


I saw this guy on the daily show. He seemed to be using the word "psychopath" the way most people use the term "sociopath" these days.

Frankly, I think the whole thing is B.S. People want a way to distinguish themselves from people who do horrible things, so they make up this distinction, as if there was some hard biological dichotomy. People used to think the same thing about Autism/Aspergers and now we consider it a spectrum.

And the other thing is that it ignores conditioning. If someone is a soldier in the army and does something horrible at first they might feel awful about it, but later on they might start to feel less and less bad about it as time goes on.

Another example is with animal abuse, people get upset about dogs and cats being treated with cruelty and some people say that anyone who is cruel to an animal is a sociopath. But if you look at something like hog factories and other industrial agriculture, you see behavior that is incredibly cruel to the animals, so much so that if cruelty to animals was sociopaths, everyone working at these facilities would have to be a sociopath, which seems unlikely (Although, interestingly, Lindie England worked at a chicken factory).

We know from the Milgram experiment that actually most humans are capable of doing 'bad things', as well as the fact that 'psychological distance' matters. The less salient the effects on the victim are to the actor, the more bad things they are willing to do, which is why corporate CEOs engage in all kinds of unethical behavior in order to make money.
Obligatory shout out.
Other then the title, that blog doesn't seem to have anything to do with the content.
posted by delmoi at 1:54 PM on May 21, 2011 [10 favorites]


I see this article has a current date, but I'd swear I've read this before. On preview, it must be the TAL episode that txsebastien links.
posted by jepler at 1:55 PM on May 21, 2011


I love Jon Ronson. I love his voice and his delivery and his humility, and I love the humanity with which he broaches these terrible subjects. He's a ballsy and brave and humane guy, and I wish there were more journalists like him.
posted by Auden at 1:56 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


This has been an aspect of interest of mine for several years now and this is a fascinating article with a lot of information I didn't know.

The main take-aways? One is that there are enough psychopaths that you're sure to meet a few in your life, so you should be careful.

Another is that there are a lot more psychopaths in the United State than anywhere else - this book claims that 4% of the USA is psychopaths, compared to about 0.5% in China, Japan and Korea. (Martha Stout, the author, realizes that this is a pretty dramatic claim and has an awful lot of citations in the footnotes for this page...)

If this is so, it's unclear as to why. Professor Stout speculates that displays of selfishness and ego that are common to psychopaths are considered so deeply unacceptable in these group-oriented cultures that they are suppressed at a very early age. I'd think also that the United States has publicly attracted and rewarded psychopaths in the business field for generations now so deeply depraved and ambitious individuals naturally gravitated toward the US - I'd wonder what the rate of psychopathy would be in Russia now?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Then, disastrously for Hare, electric shocks were outlawed in the early 70s." Won't someone think of the researchers?

I have never been comfortable with the science behind it, especially when coupled with the "well, obviously, they're just hiding their psychopathy. Also, Goody Osborne appeared to me as a bat last night." Not much more complex than the Beck Depression Inventory, just some case history thrown in, yet you can restrict the freedom of someone for over a decade on it.
posted by adipocere at 2:08 PM on May 21, 2011 [11 favorites]


this book claims that 4% of the USA is psychopaths, compared to about 0.5% in China, Japan and Korea.

MSG, obviously.
posted by delmoi at 2:10 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


> He seemed to be using the word "psychopath" the way most people use the term "sociopath" these days.

Near as I can see these terms are not so well defined - there is a spectrum of anti-social thoughts and behavior - but at a certain point you are simply indifferent to the suffering of others.

> And the other thing is that it ignores conditioning. If someone is a soldier in the army and does something horrible at first they might feel awful about it, but later on they might start to feel less and less bad about it as time goes on.

This is completely different from being a psychopath. The psychopath would never feel bad in the first place.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:10 PM on May 21, 2011 [10 favorites]


Wasn't there an experiment (wish I could remember who it was now) that showed in the 60s or 70s where a bunch of non-mentally-ill researchers checked in and had a hard time getting out, and eventually they were able to get out and released a report on this and how the hospital couldn't tell that the "normal people" weren't mentally ill...

and the hospital(s) said "that wasn't fair - give us a warning next time and we'll be able to let the right people go" and so they did, and told the hospital that they had researchers checked in, and so the hospital let the researchers go, and said "SEE! We accurately found you out..."

and then they were told: "We never checked anyone in this time, idiots."
posted by symbioid at 2:13 PM on May 21, 2011 [47 favorites]


this book claims that 4% of the USA is psychopaths, compared to about 0.5% in China, Japan and Korea.

MSG, obviously.


Fluoride. We're psychopaths with healthy teeth and gums.
posted by steambadger at 2:19 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


I see this article has a current date, but I'd swear I've read this before. On preview, it must be the TAL episode that txsebastien links.

Ditto here. Until it got to the part about Tony's release, I was sure I had read it before. May have been the TAL episode, but I remembered it as an essay.
posted by brundlefly at 2:23 PM on May 21, 2011


This is completely different from being a psychopath. The psychopath would never feel bad in the first place.

I think that was the point of the example. If there's an explanation for psychopathic behavior, does it cease to be psychopathic? What's the difference between totally unmotivated psychopathy, and psychopathy due to childhood trauma? If a given traumatic experience causes person A to exhibit psychopathic behavior, but not person B, was person A a psychopath all along? The whole nature/nurture thing is always pissing in the soup of theory, dammit.
posted by steambadger at 2:25 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's obvious from my lifetime observations of some psychopathic and semi-psychopathic individuals that it IS a continuum of subtle differences. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, and every TV Talk Show host would score at least medium-high on the Hare test.

And just looking at the 20 factors on the test, I see evidence that it really is a combination of factors... I'd say that even being totally uncaring toward others isn't enough by itself to make you a psychopath/sociopath.

4% of the USA is psychopaths, compared to about 0.5% in China, Japan and Korea.

It's not MSG or Fluoride that causes it. I suspect it's The American Dream.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:26 PM on May 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is completely different from being a psychopath. The psychopath would never feel bad in the first place.

But see, that assumes that 'psychopath' is a scientifically valid concept to begin with.

Think about it this way. You can take a bunch of measurements of objects and statistically cluster them based on those properties, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there is a primary cause for that cluster, or that there is any 'real' division between the groups.

So think about it this way, you have a bunch of grapes, some of which have been left out in the sun for various periods of time, and so some of them are unquestionably raisins. Anyway, lets say you give these grapes to someone doesn't know anything about raisins and so they group all the grapes by size. Those are clearly defined groups and it's easy to sort grapes that way.

The problem is when you try to make predictions.

For example, if you did just group grapes/raisins by size someone might make a prediction like "oh, small grapes are more likely to be wrinkly and chewy". But that's obviously wrong.

So then you say something like "A sociopath wouldn't feel bad about killing people in the first place" is kind of like saying "a small grape will be wrinkly." There's no intrinsic reason why that's true, it's the result of poor statistical analysis, followed by dropping the math and taking "more likely to be" as meaning the same thing as "is"

Maybe there are multiple causes for anti-social behavior, in which case you can't say that one anti-social action (say, juvenile legal problems, or lying all the time) results in another (for example, not caring about killing people).
posted by delmoi at 2:28 PM on May 21, 2011 [11 favorites]


> If there's an explanation for psychopathic behavior, does it cease to be psychopathic?

I don't think there's any such thing as "psychopathic behavior" per se. Non-psychopaths do some pretty bad things.

When it comes down to it, psychopaths are "simply" people with absolutely no empathy for others - no more and no less.

People who don't have this specific issue can commit terrible crimes for other reasons and be evil and not be psychopaths, and most psychopaths never commit major crimes.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:28 PM on May 21, 2011


When it comes down to it, psychopaths are "simply" people with absolutely no empathy for others - no more and no less.
Empathy is only 1 out of 20 for Hare test, which includes: Impulsivity, Irresponsibility, Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, Promiscuous sexual behaviour, Lack of realistic long-term goals, Grandiose sense of self-worth. How are those related to 'empathy'?

Furthermore, how can you be manipulative without having empathy?
posted by delmoi at 2:35 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


delmoi: I really don't understand your objections at all.

Are you claiming that there aren't people who are completely indifferent to the sufferings of others, who have no empathy at all? Or that these people don't have undesirable behaviour that can be fairly easily categorized?

You can wave your hands about any non-quantized human endeavour at all and bring up the same objections "it's a continuum!" - and yes, some people are borderline everything! - but what is one supposed to do then, not ever use words to describe and categorize things?

So what are you proposing we should do? Such people exist, they commit terrible crimes, they need to be dealt with somehow...? Also, since these people are generally smart and good at hiding their crimes, don't show remorse and turn themselves in, humanity needs to be extra careful in dealing with them...

Have you ever read the writings of psychopaths? They are interesting and revelatory. A frequent theme is that they wonder why humans don't simply band together and exterminate them - as they would if it were the other way around.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:37 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wasn't there an experiment (wish I could remember who it was now) that showed in the 60s or 70s where a bunch of non-mentally-ill researchers checked in and had a hard time getting out

Rosenhan experiment although it's been much repeated since - remember a British journo doing it
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:39 PM on May 21, 2011 [27 favorites]


delmoi: re: empathy - yes, I read the article, and singled out what was in my mind the key feature that propels all the others, the lack of empathy - but yes, you seem to agree with me that there's a very characteristic cluster of deeply undesirable and dangerous behaviours that are characteristic of a small set of the population and not of others, so what's your point then?

It's like autism. You can certainly have doubts about some of these Asperger's Syndrome diagnoses, but if you've met some seriously autistic people, you have no doubt that a) something is deeply "wrong" with them because they simply cannot communicate with others b) calling the condition they have by the one name, "autism", isn't unreasonable.

If we had infinite resources we could treat each patient completely individually but as it is we have to group diseases into categories so we can study them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:43 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Related: I, Psychopath, about Sam Vaknin...

...it takes one to truly know one. In this intriguing documentary, Sam Vaknin, a self-proclaimed psychopath, goes in search of a diagnosis. In a scientific first, he allows himself to undergo testing to find out if he was born without a conscience. He knows he’s narcissistic and cannot empathize with others. By his own admission, he’s pompous, grandiose, repulsive and contradictory, ruthless and devoid of scruples, capricious and unfathomable… but he believes, he’s not a bad person. What he is is indifferent…he couldn’t care less. Unless, of course, the topic is himself.
posted by soft and hardcore taters at 2:45 PM on May 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


> Furthermore, how can you be manipulative without having empathy?

Lack of empathy doesn't mean that you can't model the behaviour of others - in fact, psychopaths can be particularly good at that. It means that the sufferings of others do not bother you. For example, if you saw someone step on a nail, you would wince "instinctively" - a psychopath would not. There are further examples of this in the article.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:45 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought psychopath AND sociopath were terms weeded out by psychology and even removed from the DSM or just classified under anti social personality disorders. I tried googling just now and just got a bunch of link farmy results on psychopathy vs sociopathy, and neither really linked to what I thought I knew about the common conceptions of either disorder. Can any one help demystify for me? I thought this article was quite beautifully written, nevertheless, and am going to give that TAL a listen.
posted by sweetkid at 2:46 PM on May 21, 2011


The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast had Jon Ronson as a guest earlier this month and they talked about psychopaths. It's a great listen, highly recommended.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:46 PM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Are you claiming that there aren't people who are completely indifferent to the sufferings of others, who have no empathy at all?


Maybe there are,

But three points:

1) how do you measure emapthy? (I think this can probably be done)

2) If you do measure emapthy, where do you draw the line? people with zero empathy only, people with 1% of normal empathy? 5%?

3) So, let's suppose we have a measure and a line. Is it true that people who who are in the 'psychopath range' of empathy measures display the other attributes of a so-called psychopath? It's not that clear at all. Why would someone with no empathy be impulsive and irrational? Why would they be sexually promiscuous? or compulsive liars?

And I don't just mean "can you think up a plausible just-so story to explain why a lack of empathy would cause X" there needs to be solid scientific data to prove the point. As far as I know, there isn't.

There is also some confusion of empathy and sympathy going on.
posted by delmoi at 2:48 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


sweetkid: I think you're quite right, officially these are all anti-social personality disorders today. The cluster of behaviours and ideations hasn't really changed though, they've simply moved things about a bit.

I do recommend the Stout book I reference above as a good start, mainly because it's a good read and will get you past the idea of psychopath == violent criminal. It won't make you like psychopaths any better though...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:53 PM on May 21, 2011


In as much as corporations are "people", they are psychopathic personalities
posted by jcruelty at 2:53 PM on May 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


I don't think there's any such thing as "psychopathic behavior" per se.

Psychopathic behavior is exactly what's being measured by the Hare test, isn't it? Not the criminal act, but the associated lack of remorse and empathy, etc. So my question still stands: if a subject scores a 35 on the Hare test, and it turns out he was conditioned to act that way, is the subject still a psychopath? If so, then "the psychopath would never feel bad in the first place" isn't a valid way of distinguishing between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. If not, then psychopathy becomes almost impossible to diagnose.
posted by steambadger at 2:55 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I absolutely accept that another personality disorder, the narcissistic type, exists - after encountering my first one as a colleague for a year. He had traits that I had never encountered in anyone in my middle aged life before, including a lack of empathy. I liked delmoi's question:

how can you be manipulative without having empathy?

The person I knew would tell lies, which is one way of being manipulative. But he was indeed unable to be manipulative in other ways that required empathy - he would have made a terrible advertising director, or even a good salesperson for example.

It was a strange and gruelling year, and I'm glad it's behind me. I coped in part by making notes of observations of this strange dude. I hope to tidy them up and post them some day...
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 2:58 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


delmoi: "Where do you draw the line?"

Sorry, that argument applies to any possible categorization of mental illness and most human endeavours. This is why we have courts, psychiatrists and that sort of things - and yes, I know there's a lot of shitfullness in those institutions but still, the argument, "Where do you draw the line?" is simply too broad.

I am very sorry I singled out lack of empathy as a single trait in one posting above, this is simply my own opinion (as I expressed) - the point is that there is a dramatic cluster of anti-social behaviours and thoughts shared by a small but quite similar group of individuals, and it is useful and important to lump these people together - if only because they wreak such great havoc.

After all, it's not like the psychopaths are out gathering daisies in the park while we plot against them. As the Stout book shows, even though the majority of "people with strong anti-social personality disorders" (aka psychopaths) don't commit major crimes, they all seriously "fuck up people's lives" at whim - and a sizeable minority does commit major crimes, terrifying crimes that the rest of us are quite right to spend a little extra time to try to prevent in future.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:00 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


(oops, a loose italic there - it reads like the end of an HP Lovecraft story...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:02 PM on May 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


1) how do you measure emapthy? (I think this can probably be done)

Hard to do, because psychopaths pretend to have empathy.

One experiment Ronson talked about on the SGU podcast was this: Warn someone that you are about to give them a painful electric shock. Then shock them. Then warn them again, and shock them again.

Normal people in this situation freak out a little bit. Their heart rates increase, they display physical signs of anxiety. The psychopaths remain eerily calm, even after being shocked once, even when they know how painful the shock they're about to receive is.

This experiment obviously doesn't measure empathy, but I would say that it's measuring a similar emotional response.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:02 PM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


In relation to psychopathy, the different parts of empathy.
posted by nickyskye at 3:03 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think "where do you draw the line?" becomes very specifically important if you can also detain someone for many years on that basis, if the claim is that they can never be cured, and if the additional portion of the claim is that you can and will hide your illness.

The standards must be higher because we do not treat psychopathy like other mental illnesses, so, yeah, that question might be applicable to other mental illnesses but it is so much more important here.
posted by adipocere at 3:04 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"My guess is that this would have been a more enjoyable experience within the context of a Palm Springs resort hotel than in a secure facility for psychopathic murderers."

Instant classic. Loved this article.
posted by zylocomotion at 3:04 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


> I think "where do you draw the line?" becomes very specifically important if you can also detain someone for many years on that basis,

Absolutely, but that doesn't mean that the entire idea of "being a psychopath" is invalid (which appears to be delmoi's point...?)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:07 PM on May 21, 2011


the point is that there is a dramatic cluster of anti-social behaviours and thoughts shared by a small but quite similar group of individuals

Is that true? I mean, in an actual mathematically sound, statistical sense is that actually true? I haven't seen any evidence that that's the case, just a bunch of word stew from people selling books.
Normal people in this situation freak out a little bit. Their heart rates increase, they display physical signs of anxiety. The psychopaths remain eerily calm, even after being shocked once, even when they know how painful the shock they're about to receive is.
Right, which has nothing to do with empathy. Maybe these people just aren't bothered much by pain and therefore assume other people aren't bothered either?
This experiment obviously doesn't measure empathy, but I would say that it's measuring a similar emotional response.
Obviously not. Actually, there was an AMA post on reddit a while back about someone who had no sense of pain. He talked about the horribly painful-to-other-people things that happened to him that he didn't notice because of his condition.

One point, made by his SO was that he didn't have any sense of empathy for physical pain, after all, how could he? The girlfriend said he understood emotional pain.

Anyway, if the electroshock test didn't have anything to do with empathy, how can you say "psychopaths are people who have no empathy, period" That's obviously not true.
posted by delmoi at 3:10 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Psychopath and sociopath are now used interchangeably—but whatever you call them, they fundamentally lack *emotional* empathy. They are fabulous at *cognitive* empathy.

Cognitive empathy is what people with autism have trouble with. You might say psychopaths know what other people think but don't care how they feel; whereas people with autism care but don't know (ie, they can't "mind read").

In other words, psychopaths are very good at "theory of mind," at understanding and predicting how other people will behave and manipulating that for their own ends. But they don't have the compassion part of empathy, the emotional part.

People with Asperger's, on the other hand, often have so much emotional empathy that it overwhelms them—so much that they can't respond compassionately because they are too distressed. This, of course, can look like lack of empathy or withdrawal, ironically: but it starts with reactions to the emotions of others.

And psychopaths are so far down on the emotional empathy spectrum that it's qualitatively different from normal behavior, just as severely autistic people are clearly disabled.

Psychopathic behavior *isn't* just situational— while it's true that you can get a large spectrum of people to "just follow orders" A LA Milgram and Zimbardo, you can't get large numbers of people to believe that hurting people is great fun and to have absolutely no concern for relationships. Psychopaths believe that "love" is something you fake to get sex—the vast majority of people, thankfully, are fully capable of loving others and being altruistic, even though they obviously have selfish aspects as well.
posted by Maias at 3:11 PM on May 21, 2011 [43 favorites]


Psychopathy, btw, is the extreme end of the curve of a personality disorder called antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen's new book on empathy, classes psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline into a group of "empathy disorders," in an interesting way.

Btw, if you're really, really interested in this stuff, my book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered, co-written with leading child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry, has lots of causes and consequences of problems with empathy, including chapters on psychopathy and autistic spectrum problems with cognitive empathy.

I'm going to be posting interviews with both Ronson and Simon Baron-Cohen in my Mind Reading column on TIME.com, as well.

(end self-promotion ;-)
posted by Maias at 3:17 PM on May 21, 2011 [26 favorites]


I'm guessing Simon Baron-Cohen did much of his work studying his brother Sasha?
posted by hippybear at 3:24 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Absolutely, but that doesn't mean that the entire idea of "being a psychopath" is invalid (which appears to be delmoi's point...?)
Well, my point is more that this 'broad' definition such that 4% of the U.S. population is a psychopath just seems ridiculous. If you're going to say that there is definitely a yes/no thing where there are no or very few people who are close to 'the line' then you have to prove that that's the case.

On the other hand, if it's a smooth gradient then really there's no good reason for drawing a distinction and saying, for example that people just on one side of the line will do X while people just slightly on the other side won't.
while it's true that you can get a large spectrum of people to "just follow orders" A LA Milgram and Zimbardo, you can't get large numbers of people to believe that hurting people is great fun
Again, though, is that really true? If you look at the behavior of soldiers in war I kind of suspect it's not.
posted by delmoi at 3:25 PM on May 21, 2011


Yes you can get lots of people to believe hurting people is great fun. I happened to watch these interviews with Congolese militants a few hours ago; modulo the juju stuff they sound no different to Nazi officers talking about their atrocities. Maybe there's a distinction to be drawn between sadistic pleasure and pleasure incidental to sadism, but that clearly doesn't touch on questions of empathy.
posted by topynate at 3:27 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing Simon Baron-Cohen did much of his work studying his brother Sasha?

Sasha is his cousin.
posted by sweetkid at 3:29 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wow, seriously? I was just being a smart ass. But hey, groovy for them!
posted by hippybear at 3:31 PM on May 21, 2011


On the other hand, if it's a smooth gradient then really there's no good reason for drawing a distinction and saying, for example that people just on one side of the line will do X while people just slightly on the other side won't.

Well, you have to draw the line someplace... And is it a gradient?

I have to say, I find the whole "this is what the guy is wearing in the photo illustration" paragraph a bit jarring at the end of the article. How often does the Guardian use their accompanying photographs to market clothing?
posted by hippybear at 3:35 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, you should read the literature, but the point as I interpreted it at least is that there really isn't a smooth gradient between "psychopath" and "non-psychopath", and that there really aren't so many "borderline psychopaths" - but rather there are a lot of violent, insensitive people who aren't in fact psychopaths at all, and a lot of people who never commit acts of violence or even serious crimes who are in fact psychopaths.

I compare it again to autism. Yes, there are people who are borderline autistic, yes, every such qualitative thing has degrees and stages, but there are a cluster of symptoms that make it very clear you have the disease, whether or not you are functional in your life or not.

Now, IF this cluster is reliable, then people who have it are extremely dangerous, because they're amoral, willful, malicious and capricious - but also apparently untreatable.

So it's essential to figure it out - partly to free people like Tony in the article but partly to make sure we are able to recognize these people and, well...

The Stout book had some stories from her years of clinical practice that were absolutely horrifying, particularly since none of them had to do with murder or violence and a lot of them were petty but very destructive.

In one case, a doctor in a psychiatric institution would gaslight patients, causing terrible relapses and worse, until she was exposed on TV as not only doing this serially, but not even having a degree (a lesser offense but sort of proving the whole thing). She was allowed to resign without charges, and "moved somewhere else" - the writer of the book later getting a reference check for her for the job of "psychiatric nurse" (shudders).

The reason I've been studying psychopaths is that we all see that only a tiny number of people are causing all of this havoc we see around us - and my theory is that many of them are in fact psychopaths. I think that the US government in specific has people that you'd describe as "high functioning psychopaths" working at all levels from top to bottom, and that the highest powers in America have absorbed the psychopathic mentality and worship it as a virtue.

If you recall the movie "The Corporation," the premise was that if you treated a corporation ethically the way you treated a human, based on their behavior which is in turn derived from the laws that govern them you'd be forced to conclude logically that a corporation was in a psychopathic human.

If the psychopathic nature of the corporation has rubbed off on the country that worships them, why should we be surprised?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:10 PM on May 21, 2011 [23 favorites]


Psychopaths=mad (as in mentally ill)
Sociopaths=bad (as in amoral)

Its really simplistic, but it's an easy way to remember.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:23 PM on May 21, 2011


Yes you can get lots of people to believe hurting people is great fun. I happened to watch these interviews with Congolese militants a few hours ago; modulo the juju stuff they sound no different to Nazi officers talking about their atrocities. Maybe there's a distinction to be drawn between sadistic pleasure and pleasure incidental to sadism, but that clearly doesn't touch on questions of empathy.


Psychopathic behavior is very clearly something that starts in childhood (often with a horrifying combination of abuse/trauma and there seem to be some genes that predispose to a lack of fear of punishment/lack of memory of punishment as well).

To have a diagnosis of ASPD (necessary to psychopathy), one must have a childhood that provokes a diagnosis of conduct disorder, in fact. Children with tendencies in this direction (and there's no absoluteness to this: many of them grow out of it) tend to do things like torture & kill pets, wet their beds and commit arson. If you find a child who does all three of those things, the likelihood of them turning out kind, gentle and warm is not high. Further, those are the types that tend to *start* genocides.

It is true that you can get people to behave like Nazis via social pressure—but most people actually have extreme inhibitions against killing others (that's why you need boot camp to make soldiers) and they react physiologically with distress to doing harm to others, unlike psychopaths. It's easier to get people to behave genocidally, however, if you beat them, humiliate them and neglect them as children—and that's also the best way to make sure that genes for psychopathy get expressed.

The bottom line is that empathy is a capacity like language—we're all born with this capacity, unless we have some type of brain problem—but if we're not exposed to enough empathetic behavior in early childhood, the capacity will not be expressed to its fullest potential. Same is true if you don't expose a baby to language.
posted by Maias at 4:25 PM on May 21, 2011 [13 favorites]


People want a way to distinguish themselves from people who do horrible things, so they make up this distinction, as if there was some hard biological dichotomy.

So...we're ignoring neurological research now?
posted by DU at 4:25 PM on May 21, 2011


actually, hal c on, that distinction has now been completely elided. it may have used to exist, but the terms are synonymous now.
posted by Maias at 4:26 PM on May 21, 2011


R u f'in kidding me, maias?

Well, time to throw away that 2001 criminology degree. Hell, one of my classes was about differentiating psychopathic and sociopathic behaviors.

Stupid knowledge, changing all the time.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:34 PM on May 21, 2011


delmoi: “I saw this guy on the daily show. He seemed to be using the word "psychopath" the way most people use the term "sociopath" these days. Frankly, I think the whole thing is B.S. People want a way to distinguish themselves from people who do horrible things, so they make up this distinction, as if there was some hard biological dichotomy.”

I haven't seen that Daily Show piece, but at least I read the article.
posted by koeselitz at 4:40 PM on May 21, 2011


*shrug*

I'm really not sure what classifications like 'psychopathy' or 'narcissism' add over 'good', 'bad' or 'selfish'. Especially since it doesn't seem to help to avoid or predict much of anything.
posted by eeeeeez at 4:41 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, you should read the literature, but the point as I interpreted it at least is that there really isn't a smooth gradient between "psychopath" and "non-psychopath"
Well, the question is whether that literature is based on sound empirical data, or based on the desire to sell books. Let's see the data.
, and that there really aren't so many "borderline psychopaths" - but rather there are a lot of violent, insensitive people who aren't in fact psychopaths at all, and a lot of people who never commit acts of violence or even serious crimes who are in fact psychopaths.
Okay but if there are violent, destructive "neurotypicals" and non-violent psychopaths then what is the value in the distinction?
Psychopaths=mad (as in mentally ill)
Sociopaths=bad (as in amoral)

Its really simplistic, but it's an easy way to remember.
Except for the fact it's not based on anything at all. Right now the new version of the DSM calls the extreme end of the anti-social personality a 'psychopathic type' while 'sociopathic' is not defined at all, whereas in the last version neither term was defined. So while that may be easy to remember, it's not, you know factual in any sense.
So...we're ignoring neurological research now? -- DU
Cites please. I'm not aware of any proven neurological basis for the supposed difference between psychopath and 'normal' people, just speculation.
Well, time to throw away that 2001 criminology degree. Hell, one of my classes was about differentiating psychopathic and sociopathic behaviors. -- hal_c_on
Okay so according to wikipedia the term 'psychopath' was removed in the DSM-III in 1980, and it never contained the term 'sociopath' as far as I know. The new DSM, version will have a 'psychopathic type' of anti-social personality disorder but that won't be published until 2013.
posted by delmoi at 4:44 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not that people should take the DSM as a bible.
posted by delmoi at 4:47 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm really not sure what classifications like 'psychopathy' or 'narcissism' add over 'good', 'bad' or 'selfish'. Especially since it doesn't seem to help to avoid or predict much of anything.--eeeeeez

I wouldn't agree with that. A person can be bad or selfish and yet have empathy and have no grandiose thoughts. Such people will feel bad about what they did. There's an enormous difference. And knowing the distinction makes it much easier to predict whether such a person will do bad things in the future.
posted by eye of newt at 4:48 PM on May 21, 2011


you can't get large numbers of people to believe that hurting people is great fun

I object; through history there have been socially sanctioned venues for sadistic voyeurism. We've just migrated from the Roman arena and bear pits to slasher horror films, where the violence isn't "real," and NFL football, where it is quite real but no blood is shed (intentionally, anyway). Granted, the viewers don't do the hurting themselves.

Normal people may also exhibit psychopathic behavior in narrowly defined social contexts, such as the "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" phenomenon, fraternity binge drinking parties, middle school, etc.
posted by bad grammar at 4:51 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


So...we're ignoring neurological research now? -- DU

Cites please. I'm not aware of any proven neurological basis for the supposed difference between psychopath and 'normal' people, just speculation
. -- delmoi

Google searching turned up quite a bit of research on this issue.
posted by eye of newt at 4:51 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: the world's first ever marathon nude LSD-fuelled psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.
posted by Scoo at 4:55 PM on May 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


Cites please. I'm not aware of any proven neurological basis for the supposed difference between psychopath and 'normal' people, just speculation. -- delmoi

There's lots of research on this— there's about as good (or bad, depending on your perspective) evidence for this as there is for differences in depression or addiction. I.e., there are some pretty consistent findings but nothing is found in 100% of cases.

What's pretty consistent is issues in the orbitofrontal cortex and a reduced galvanic skin response to fear and pain, I believe. Also, amygdala stuff.

Btw, the encounter group study with LSD he cites— this is one of numerous studies which show that forced confrontation and humiliation do harm and make people worse. In every group that has been studied, this has been shown to be the case. And yet, we continue to use confrontation and humiliation in addiction treatment (where, I might add, people with antisocial personality disorder and probably psychopaths though that's not as clear are overrepresented).
posted by Maias at 5:04 PM on May 21, 2011 [12 favorites]


I thought this would be a useful "in-character" seminar from that guy on Parks & Recreation.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:23 PM on May 21, 2011


The brain structure stuff is interesting, and it wouldn't surprise me if the amygdala played a role in some of this stuff, but like I said I suspect you would find a gradient rather then some kind of cutoff and I would bet that amygdala dysfunction isn't directly predictive of being a horrible person.

I'm not saying that I don't think there are some people out there who are horrible, but rather the idea of a distinct dividing line between 'them' and 'us' is just wishful thinking, IMO.
posted by delmoi at 5:43 PM on May 21, 2011


delmoi: “I'm not saying that I don't think there are some people out there who are horrible, but rather the idea of a distinct dividing line between 'them' and 'us' is just wishful thinking, IMO.”

I agree. But wasn't that kind of the whole point of the article?
posted by koeselitz at 5:49 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I tend to want to break things and kill when it comes to the misuse of 'then' and 'than'.
posted by a non e mouse at 6:01 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


delmoi One point, made by his SO was that he didn't have any sense of empathy for physical pain, after all, how could he? The girlfriend said he understood emotional pain.

I think the take-away of the shock experiment is that the psychopaths were not scared of pain. They felt it, they were aware of it, their nerves were working correctly. They just didn't give a fuck.

In Ronson's SGU interview he talks about how his attitude changed over the course of research for writing the book. At the beginning he took a very similar view to that being argued in this thread: Pyschopathy is an artificial condition invented by psychologists, without biological basis. And then he met and interviewed so-called psychopaths, and I'm not sure it totally changed his mind, but it had an impact.

(I don't have an opinion either way)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:19 PM on May 21, 2011


Here's a theory that psychopaths have a fear deficit.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:33 PM on May 21, 2011


It's a great book, The Psychopath Test. One little test that comes up repeatedly is showing people a gruesome photograph when they aren't expecting it. Most people wince and push it away in disgust or close their eyes, but psychopaths get intrigued by it, like it's a puzzle for them.
posted by acheekymonkey at 6:57 PM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's a great book, The Psychopath Test. One little test that comes up repeatedly is showing people a gruesome photograph when they aren't expecting it. Most people wince and push it away in disgust or close their eyes, but psychopaths get intrigued by it, like it's a puzzle for them.

Wouldn't that be true for people with a number of disorders? Or reconstructive surgeons?
posted by gjc at 7:03 PM on May 21, 2011


I would also say you can never reduce any person to a diagnostic label.
I don't know what delmoi is responding to, but it's certainly not Jon Ronson or Anthony Maden.
posted by muddgirl at 7:04 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sorry, if it's not clear - that blockquote is from the article.
posted by muddgirl at 7:05 PM on May 21, 2011


An exceptionally good article: Prisons, Psychopaths, and Prevention by Dr. Elliott Barker
posted by nickyskye at 7:06 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


What is the thinking on empathy, as far as reaction to it goes? If empathy is defined as being able to imagine what another person might be thinking or feeling, it seems like there are two different ways a lack of empathy can manifest. In the first, someone simply cannot (or chooses not to?) conceive of it. In the other, they are capable of it and simply ignore it. Or even enjoy it, in the case of people who like to create suffering.
posted by gjc at 7:17 PM on May 21, 2011


Aren't there moments when we do have empathy, and moments when we don't? I have had an experience recently in which a friend excused some really insensitive, rude and antisocial behavior with lengthy descriptions on the depressive state she'd been in, and I was/am so blinded by my disgust for her behavior, and the fact that I only wanted an apology, that I had no empathy for her depressive state, even though I'd been a main supporter of her during other times of her illness and have supported others through similar situations. Does that make me a temporary sociopath, because I feel no empathy in this particular situation, because my concern for how *I* was treated seems to trump my thoughts on her actions?
posted by sweetkid at 7:39 PM on May 21, 2011


Sweetkid - no. The insult is a primal emotion, the empathy for her condition is a congitive response. Of course the monkey-brain is going to feel much stronger. But... you recognize that you should have felt empathy, and feel remorse that you did not.

Which is to say, our headmeats is all messed up, and we fail at this interpersonal emotion stuff all the time, and I mean epic fail at times - but we have instincts like hindsight and remorse for those occasions. Psychopaths do not.

That said, there's likely a gradient - just as someone with depression could either be sad and morose, or self-destructive and lazy. When it comes to the human mind, one size never, ever, ever fits all. We can just do our damndest to identify trends and spectrums.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:54 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Psychopathy is a diagnosis that can be used to sort people into groups that do or don't have a particular set of traits that we consider problematic.

That's all it is, because that's all a diagnosis can ever be. We continue to say that people have the flu, even when the virus has been through new mutations every year. Likewise, the causes and effects of psychopathy can vary quite a lot without changing what a psychopath is.

Of course the definition is arbitrary; might it also be useful for finding and dealing with this type of person? I guess that depends on what you want to do with them.

Do you just want to avoid associating with psychopaths? I guess having a method to determine who you want to avoid is helpful.

Do you want to segregate psychopaths in order to prevent them from doing harm before they really do? For that, you need more information: Who are you trying to protect? Will removing the most skilled manipulators from their presence remove the threat, or will that just create a power vacuum?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:57 PM on May 21, 2011


So ungrateful, someone has to protect the neurotics from the psychopaths.
posted by clavdivs at 8:09 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you recall the movie "The Corporation," the premise was that if you treated a corporation ethically the way you treated a human, based on their behavior which is in turn derived from the laws that govern them you'd be forced to conclude logically that a corporation was in a psychopathic human.

Yes. This is precisely the problem with "corporate personhood". If corporations are people, they should pretty much all be in jail or psychiatric care.
posted by mstokes650 at 8:11 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Regarding the 4% of Americans thing (which I suspect of being hooey) ... I read an article years and years and years ago, and not online, (and I will be super-impressed if Metafilter can find it!), that talked about how the US is basically full of the dregs and rejects from other countries -- criminals, religious fanatics, economic failures, general nutjobs -- and Europe (the author said) should therefore not be surprised when after dumping all their criminal and religious fanatics and "undeserving poor" over in America, America turns out to have irritating foreign policy driven by lunatics. He was apparently working on what was basically a "See also: Australia." Anyway, if that guy had any actual research -- and while the article was just a provocative trolling, more or less, he claimed to have research -- that seems like it might fit in to any attempted explanations of why more Americans are psychopaths, if that is indeed true.

I do always think of this article when European friends complain about Americans being too religious and too given to crazy types of religion. Well, you DID export all of your particularly insane religious fanatics over here, what did you THINK would happen? Death in the wilderness? If you mail all your crazy to another continent, you can't then act surprised when that continent is full of crazy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:33 PM on May 21, 2011 [15 favorites]


I'm mostly joking about that last bit in the tiny type. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:33 PM on May 21, 2011


Interesting article; if anyone is interested in some in-depth reading on the subject, one ofm the seminal works on the subject is The Mask of Sanity, written by the same psychiatrist who wrote The Three Faces of Eve. It is now out of print, but a PDF of the 1988 edition can be found here. The diagnostic criteria Dr. Cleckley outlines in his book formed the basis for anti-social personality disorder in the DSM.
posted by TedW at 8:37 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


They are interesting and revelatory. A frequent theme is that they wonder why humans don't simply band together and exterminate them - as they would if it were the other way around.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:37 PM on May 21


Except they are humans, whatever their mental issues may be. Interesting, because in the NPR interview I heard today w/ this author, he said that one problem was that after classifying someone as a psychopath, he had a hard time not seeing them as an other, not as a human being.

But much as we might not want to admit it, there but for a quirk of genetics and upbringing we each could go.

The older I get, the more I understand nothing could be further from true than any sort of competent and logical design of the human brain. Everything in us that works, works by accident, and we have tons of traits that persist simply because they don't interfere with surviving/reproducing, despite all the other problems they do cause. We're like very complicated versions of the ancient TV consoles that sometimes died but came back to life if you thumped them good and hard on the top.

Maybe our descendents will figure out how to fix themselves, if our various delusions don't snuff us all out first.
posted by emjaybee at 8:46 PM on May 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


Which is to say, our headmeats is all messed up, and we fail at this interpersonal emotion stuff all the time, and I mean epic fail at times - but we have instincts like hindsight and remorse for those occasions. Psychopaths do not.
See this is exactly the kind of B.S. that drives me nuts. "We have remorse, psychopaths do not". Now, there may well be people who genuinely don't feel remorse, or whatever but where the hell is the actual scientific data that shows that anyone who ever displays some traits labeled as 'psychopathic' (like not being afraid of upcoming shocks, or having that amygdala anomaly or whatever) also don't have any remorse for feeling that way?

You're going from a few supposed statistical correlations to making predictions about a persons character.

If there is some underlying biological cause, where is the evidence that the biological cause removes a sense of remorse?

So much of the discussion about this is totally unscientific. People just make stuff up and say "ooh, psychopaths are like this" It's exactly the kind of 'us vs. them' stuff I'm talking about. If it was a gradient you couldn't say that everyone on one side of some line would never feel remorse while people on the other side always would.
Psychopathy is a diagnosis that can be used to sort people into groups that do or don't have a particular set of traits that we consider problematic.
If you know someone has a trait that's problematic, then that's all you need to know, you don't need to give people a label as well, or pretend there is something 'different' about them other then having that trait. You don't need a label to avoid someone is a pathological liar, on the other hand why would you want to avoid someone who is sexually promiscuous? (both of those are questions on the Hare test)
that talked about how the US is basically full of the dregs and rejects from other countries -- criminals, religious fanatics, economic failures, general nutjobs -- and Europe (the author said) should therefore not be surprised when after dumping all their criminal and religious fanatics and "undeserving poor" over in America, America turns out to have irritating foreign policy driven by lunatics.
Well, that's quite a difference from America's self-perception of having the worlds most industrious and go-gettingist people, the ones who were willing to risk everything for a brighter future as opposed to the ones who just wanted to stay at home and accept what they were given.


Hmm, I missed this:
A frequent theme is that they wonder why humans don't simply band together and exterminate them - as they would if it were the other way around.
Yes, lets administer a psychological test and execute everyone who fails. OBVIOUSLY that would make the world a better place! Especially since this probably isn't genetic so we'll have to kill 1-4% of everyone's children every generation. That certainly sounds like a greatly improved world to me!
posted by delmoi at 8:50 PM on May 21, 2011


No joke, Eyebrows - on the other hand, it also worked in our favor. Look up Roger Williams sometime - dude is the Governor of the colony, a to-the-death Baptist, and his response to Quakers setting up shop in his colony is to... row a boat down the bay to debate theology for four days straight.

The power to believe as your conviction tells you and to speak as you wish, is compelling and revolutionary in the course of human events, and one of the things I cling to when I'm otherwise ashamed of my nation.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:54 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, lets administer a psychological test and execute everyone who fails. OBVIOUSLY that would make the world a better place!

Note that this was the recommendation of a self-described psychopath. Not of, say, some body of psychologists.
posted by muddgirl at 8:56 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I read a book a while ago that was called "How Psychotherapy Works" and one of the points the author made that stuck with me is that therapy is for the willing, and doesn't work on certain populations, even if they do have mental pathologies. The example he used was sociopaths -- obviously they have reason for treatment, but they don't see anything wrong with their behavior, so they are not willing to seek treatment.

I also saw long ago on some show about how we developed from cavemen that empathy was a trait that we developed to survive from an evolutionary perspective --empathy, concern for each other, mourning our dead, kept us bonded into family and social groups that helped us survive in ways that we could not alone.

So do we call lack of remorse and empathy a pathology because people with these characteristics don't share this feature of evolution? Because it seems from the common descriptions of sociopaths in some of the books linked and other reading on the topic, that the ones who are not committing violent crimes or getting committed to psych wards, actually have made things a bit good for themselves -- they scheme for themselves and get their own rewards, get the jobs, the nice trappings of life, all while charming the rest of us into thinking they do care. As abhorrent as it seems at an emotional level that these people don't have genuine concern for others, what they're doing doesn't always read as a clear pathology to me.
posted by sweetkid at 9:02 PM on May 21, 2011


I also saw long ago on some show about how we developed from cavemen that empathy was a trait that we developed to survive from an evolutionary perspective --empathy, concern for each other, mourning our dead, kept us bonded into family and social groups that helped us survive in ways that we could not alone.
Empathy isn't a uniquely human trait, lots of mammals have it, and I'm pretty sure it's present in chimps, bonnobos and so on, and even small monkeys have Mirror neurons, so evolutionarily empathy most likely developed long, long before our ancestors became cavemen.
posted by delmoi at 9:10 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Well, that's quite a difference from America's self-perception of having the worlds most industrious and go-gettingist people, the ones who were willing to risk everything for a brighter future as opposed to the ones who just wanted to stay at home and accept what they were given."

It could be both, you don't exactly hop in the hold of a boat for three miserable months with a high risk of death to move to a place with uncertain food supplies where you know no one because your life back home is AWESOME. It takes a combination of some kind of git-up-and-git and desperation/conviction/insanity ... or just getting exported for being a criminal or slave. Either method works.

/derail

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:23 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


>... to make sure that genes for psychopathy get expressed.

To pick a bit of a nit, I think this is overly determined, mais. Gene expression is mechanistic; a syndrome like psychopathy would involve a wide number of highly interrelated genetic events, almost impossible to trace backward, as well as a ton of brain chemistry and other glandular processes which could affect any genes in question. Even if 'psychopathy' is a valid description of a physiological condition (I think it probably is), it's not as simple as the 'expression of genes'.

>I'm really not sure what classifications like 'psychopathy' or 'narcissism' add over 'good', 'bad' or 'selfish'. Especially since it doesn't seem to help to avoid or predict much of anything

Realizing that you have encountered a person who is unable to relate to human beings in the way that most of us do, is very very helpful. I didn't know what was going on with the guy I had to work with, and reading up on NPD helped me get through an extremely difficult year. This was way beyond 'good' and 'bad' (terms I don't find much use for, as it happens). It was like realizing that the person you just invited to a game of ping pong is completely blind.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:42 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


The word "sociopath" is widely used in popular discussions, but doesn't have any clinical definition, nor is it used clinically.

The article is interesting as a feature story, but if you want your Hare straight from the horse's mouth, get a copy of his book, Without Conscience.

Several years ago, I read up on it as background on a story I was working on. One of the people involved was described as a psychopath. I read up on it, got Hare's book and interviewed a psychiatrist with expertise. The guy I was investigating probably was a clinical psychopath.

He had a very peculiar behavior when telling lies. If he sensed that he wasn't convincing, he would change his story, sometimes in mid-sentence, to what he thought would be more believable. It was very strange because the rapid self-contradictions were a dead giveaway of the lies if you were paying attention. But he just rattled on, so absorbed in his attempted manipulation that he was oblivious to whether or not he was making sense. The people who were fooled were fooled completely.

The impression I got from this guy was no inkling of consequences of his actions. And, since he is a successful embezzler who's never been charged and managed to get the whistleblower who caught him fired, there are no consequences for him.

Hare's book mentions fMRI studies that show distinct differences in psychopaths' brain activity, but the research was not regarded as complete when he wrote about it, just suggestive.
posted by warbaby at 9:47 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Empathy isn't a uniquely human trait, lots of mammals have it, and I'm pretty sure it's present in chimps, bonnobos and so on, and even small monkeys have Mirror neurons, so evolutionarily empathy most likely developed long, long before our ancestors became cavemen.

I'm a little out of my depth here, but the point of that part of the show was to say something like that homo erectus or some earlier variant of humanity *didn't* have social empathy or mourn for their dead, and it was specifically homo sapiens that developed it, which is why we survived other variations on our kind.
posted by sweetkid at 9:56 PM on May 21, 2011


Thinking about the purported neurological bases of psychopathy, it's interesting to juxtapose the studies in the article cited by eye of newt, which found higher PCL-R scores correlated with lower amygdala volume and activity, with the recent study that made the rounds a few days ago, which found that highly conservative people had a significantly higher amygdala volume than centrist or liberals.

I have no particular theory to propose, though I do wonder about the degree to which behavior/environment might be able to affect the size of different brain parts in adults.
posted by chortly at 10:00 PM on May 21, 2011


You don't spot one you just feel it.
posted by pianomover at 10:04 PM on May 21, 2011


You don't spot one you just feel it.

On seeing mefites: You don't spot one you just feel it.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:18 PM on May 21, 2011


If you mail all your crazy to another continent, you can't then act surprised when that continent is full of crazy.

NEVER GIVE CRAZY A CONTINENT!
posted by en forme de poire at 10:36 PM on May 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


One might read all these comments, substituting the word "terrorist" for the word "psychotic" and see if it suggests anything.
posted by carping demon at 11:42 PM on May 21, 2011


but the point of that part of the show was to say something like that homo erectus or some earlier variant of humanity *didn't* have social empathy or mourn for their dead
First of all, how would they know? Second of all, chimps do mourn their dead and so do elephants, at the vary least.
posted by delmoi at 12:32 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Empathy isn't a uniquely human trait, lots of mammals have it, and I'm pretty sure it's present in chimps, bonnobos and so on

I think this is sort of not right. As far as I understand, it is more accurate to say that we're not sure if empathy is a uniquely human trait or not. Certain animals exhibit some behaviors some of the time which are similar to behaviors in humans we consider demonstrations of empathy. But there are a lot of caveats.

For example, it has been widely publicized that rats will demonstrate something like empathy for cage-mates experiencing pain. Hey, empathy, right? Maybe not. Those same rats will not demonstrate this response to stranger rats in pain. If a human displayed no reaction to another person being tortured, you would consider them a sociopath even if they love their brother or whatever. So is it fair to call that "empathy" in rats when they react to familiar rats being hurt but not unfamiliar ones?

And while it is true we sometimes see behavior in chimps which seem to suggest mourning the dead, we also see behavior which we would clearly consider desecration and extreme disrespect bordering on psychopathy. Playing with the corpses of dead babies and so on.

So we should be careful about anthropomorphization. Animals aren't automatons, they clearly feel something but empathy is a pretty sophisticated human construct and I don't think we can say that animals feel empathy as we understand it. Nor that they don't, of course. But I think the comment I'm responding to was overstating the situation.
posted by Justinian at 1:21 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like Jon Ronson too. Interesting read, and I really enjoyed that little gleeful side dig at AA Gill 'who had always been very rude about my television documentaries and had written a restaurant column in which he admitted to killing a baboon on safari. "Item 8 Callous/lack of empathy," I thought, and smiled to myself.'. I remember that story very well.

By the way, if you follow the link, he'd said the reason he killed the baboon was "I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger." Now, sweet revenge aside, I wouldn't say that is enough to lock him up, he's just an asshole and was being extremely honest about being an asshole, fair play to him - if only every asshole in the world was that sincere! - but you know, isn't that exactly the line you can draw, about empathy?

I really cannot picture having THAT kind of curiosity. On a purely theoretical level maybe. Fictional level, even. Like in a scene from a movie. But for real? Even with an animal, and one that is so close to humans on the evolutionary scale?

But yeah, fascinating, the whole discussion on where to draw the line. I don't think definitions and labels matter as much, or rather, they're supposed to be just convenient tools - tools that can indeed be abused, but courts and criminal psychiatrists do need some reference, else how could they justify their decisions? The possibility for abuse doesn't mean the tools themselves can be discarded. It's up to individuals who use them to make the best possible use of them. Laws can be abused too, democracy itself can be abused. We don't just throw the whole system out of the window because it can be and is regularly abused. We can rediscuss its elements, refine it, and put more guarantees in place, and condemn the abuses, but we don't give up on having a system, do we?

I think the article does a good job of showing the potential for both - how the definitions and tests and tools risk being interpreted too strictly, and on the other hand, how the people responsible of using those tools to decide must evaluate case by case a lot of other factors. I really want to read more of the book now.
posted by bitteschoen at 1:47 AM on May 22, 2011


^ "The older I get, the more I understand nothing could be further from true than any sort of competent and logical design of the human brain. Everything in us that works, works by accident, and we have tons of traits that persist simply because they don't interfere with surviving/reproducing, despite all the other problems they do cause. "

It's possible that the biological components for this type of behavior are simply very difficult to weed out of the reproductive base of humanity due to the effect of the carriers' skillfulness in manipulating and procuring mates. It may also have some undiscovered biological link to a desirable trait(s).

"We're like very complicated versions of the ancient TV consoles that sometimes died but came back to life if you thumped them good and hard on the top."

Now I'm slightly worried that when I encounter someone who isn't making sense, I'll manipulate their ears, continually readjust their head's inclination, and thump them repeatedly on the noggin, all the while muttering curses about stupid half-baked ATSC implementation.

posted by Fiberoptic Zebroid and The Hypnagogic Jerks at 4:49 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


As far as I can see, the problem with the current enthusiasm for finding psychopaths, as with the fascination for personality disorders in general, is that for all the talk about how empathy is what distinguishes 'us' from 'them', the label is most often used as a way to cut off our own empathy, to restrict it to an ingroup of 'normal' people. We are told to fight our urges to care too strongly about these others, to remember that what we need to do rather is to protect ourselves from them. And indeed this can be tremendously helpful, can make things a lot easier.

I know how double-edged these things can be because someone in my family displays a lot of narcissistic traits, and I'm always aware of the possibility that he's just incapable of responding in the usual way, that what I should be trying to do is protect myself and the rest of my family from him, and that being forgiving or trying to connect to him is at best futile and at worst dangerous. I see this all the time in AskMe, where people will encourage askers to show a kind of toughness towards others who sound like they might have a personality disorder, to protect themselves first and foremost and not get involved in the other person's problems. I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, I'm just acknowledging how tempting it is and also how worrying, because it's really this kind of ingroup/outgroup thinking that has led to the worst atrocities, far worse than all the actions of all the psychopaths there have ever been.

A frequent theme is that they wonder why humans don't simply band together and exterminate them - as they would if it were the other way around.

This is what scares me - I know a psychopath said it, but if you really believed everything that this Hare guy says about psychopaths it would be difficult to argue against except on strict principle, and rejecting it would be something like Batman's repeated refusal to kill the Joker, a glorious moral irrationality, deontology in extremis, the kind of scruple pragmatic, effective types like Jack Bauer would sweep away in a heartbeat.

One of the things I really like about Jon Ronson's article is that he acknowledges the seductiveness of this way of seeing things, neutrally observes it happening in himself. The little dig about AA Gill works because it's at the same time quite convincing (that incident with the baboon was, as others have noted, bizarre) while acknowledging Ronson's own satisfaction in attributing Gill's criticism of him to a psychological disorder. I do like the way Ronson uses irony in his writing for more than just humour, to create a sense of uncertainty, a tension between two different interpretations of what he's describing.
posted by Acheman at 5:27 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


it was specifically homo sapiens that developed it, which is why we survived other variations on our kind

I thought it was that homo sapiens killed all the competing variations.
posted by fullerine at 6:08 AM on May 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


but the point of that part of the show was to say something like that homo erectus or some earlier variant of humanity *didn't* have social empathy or mourn for their dead
First of all, how would they know? Second of all, chimps do mourn their dead and so do elephants, at the vary least


It said that they knew because they had found evidence of burial rituals that they hadn't found in earlier specimens. Also, they didn't say no other species mourned their dead, or that it was the ONLY reason homo sapiens survived, just that it was something homo sapiens developed as a survival mechanism. My point though, whether all those specifics are true or not, is that I wonder if so much of our reaction to people who lack empathy, remorse, etc is from some native primal drive to care for each other as a survival mechanism rather than a moral or even psychopathological issue -- Richard Dawkins also talks abou this.
posted by sweetkid at 6:51 AM on May 22, 2011


Dee Dee on the bus.

I recently realized that my internal monologue is a lot like Dee Dee's.
posted by Xoebe at 7:47 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Doesn't look so bad.

The taglines in some of the images are...excellent.
posted by Xoebe at 8:03 AM on May 22, 2011


You know, you could form an entire political party out of people who are absent empathy and have a clear public disdain for it, if not outright hostility.

I should write all this down and then post. Last one, really, I mean it.
posted by Xoebe at 8:14 AM on May 22, 2011


To pick a bit of a nit, I think this is overly determined, mais. Gene expression is mechanistic;

Um, no it isn't. Ever heard of epigenetics? This is the way that the environment shapes which genes will be made into proteins, ie, expressed. It's very relevant to empathy, in fact because some of the most interesting work has been done looking at what happens when you have harsh mama rats "adopt" the babies of nurturing ones.

When you do this (or vice versa) the babies given to the harsh moms will be less smart (except under high stress, where they will be superior) and they will also *parent the same way they were parented*, not the way their genetic mothers did. (How do you tell which rats are nurturing? They lick their babies more and do more "arched back nursing").

So, it's a Lamarckian form of inheritance that is absolutely relevant to whether psychopathy genes make someone into a horror or into someone who might just be a bit cold. (Alternatively, perhaps affected by socioeconomic status, whether they make the person into a serial killer or a CEO).
posted by Maias at 9:25 AM on May 22, 2011


Psychopathy can be thought of as treating human relations like they're a game. A psychopath uses strategy and cunning to manipulate the emotions of others with as little care as they'd take in moving a pawn on a chess board. Human interaction is given a very mechanical, emotionless quality. But, in making a numbered test for psychopathy, you're sort of doing the same thing. You're stripping a person's behavior of its context and emotion, and looking at humanity as something that can be scored -- itself a psychopathic act. It's weirdly self-reflexive. That's what I like most about this article: Ronson's ability to recognize how his new knowledge affects his own life.

Also, psychopathy can be useful too, can't it? People mention Gates or Clinton being likely to score highly on the Hare test, and if they really are psychopathic types, then they were able to bend their will towards productive ends. It makes you wonder how powerful people through history would score.
posted by codacorolla at 9:48 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


My issue with calling people psychopaths is this idea that psychopathic behavior is forever, they can't be "cured", and must be stored away forever in the loony bin.

I can guess that my teenage behavior might have qualified; I was a delinquent, I was promiscuous (by their standards, which is to say more than one partner), I was a thrill seeker. But I got better. I don't drive cars at speeds that would kill everyone if I hit something, I don't walk the razor's edge of stupid stunts, and I haven't run away from home in decades...although I tell ya, there were moments during Child's terrible twos ...

And just yesterday I was accused of having no empathy. I was informed that someone had died, and I laughed and said "Well, that *is* good news." Because I hated that guy. Even dead, I still hate that guy. I don't believe in hell, and I wish I did, because I want to think of that guy roasting over an eternal flame.

What the people who looked shocked didn't know was that when I worked for the guy, and refused to sleep with him, he tried to destroy me. He went out to the cast area during show hours, gathered all my shit, burned most of it, pissed on the rest, and then stole a bunch of money from one of my friends and told everyone he saw *me* do it. That night, when I was trying to find my cat so I could just get the fuck out of Waxahachie, TX, he and his friend held me down and raped me, telling me that it would have been so much easier if I had just fucked them when they asked. The police wouldn't do anything, because at the time, the show was the biggest tax event the county had, and there was no way they were going to let an attack like this become public.

I lost my friends, my job, my dignity, my reputation and a little bit of my sanity. 25 years later, and I can still smell his breath, I can feel his hands, and I want every molecule of his existence to be burned from the planet. I want his memory excised from the cultural zeitgeist. I want him to have never-been.

I plotted that guy's murder in my head for years. And his little friend too. That the universe did it for me...well, that was just nice of the universe, really. And yesterday, when I saw his little friend, I looked at him, smiled with my best cheerleader head tilt, and said "Oh, I do hope you're next. Have a nice day."

I never told anyone about the attack, after the police refused to take me to the hospital for a rape exam. In fact, this post may be the second time in my life that I've ever said anything about it...I didn't even realize how much anger and hate and tears I was still carrying around with me. I'm glad he's dead, I wish I had killed him, and if I knew where he was buried, I would drive there and pee on his grave.

Psychopathic? Perhaps. Certainly to an outside viewer, it would appear that way. I'm still shaking, my heart is racing and I feel sick to my stomach. But hearing about Dennis's death made me happier than I could possibly have imagined.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 9:49 AM on May 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


I found The Sociopath Next Door to be a helpful guide for picking up on manipulative but subtle behaviors very often concealed by charisma.
posted by yoga at 10:26 AM on May 22, 2011


So it seems I haven't been exaggerating when describing a few CEOs I've worked for as psychopaths...
posted by mimi at 10:58 AM on May 22, 2011


SecretAgent, Jesus, that's horrible. Hating their rapist doesn't make anyone a psychopath in my book.
posted by emjaybee at 11:25 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Right, emjaybee, and that's why teenagers can't be diagnosed as psychopathic or even ASPD. You have to have had conduct disorder as a child and it has to persist into adulthood for the diagnosis. However, most of the teens who will go on to have psychopathy weren't just that way as teens—they were that way as little kids, when their peers were not behaving similarly.

Immature, risk-taking behavior that is often careless of its effects on others practically diagnoses adolescence itself!

Nonetheless, as noted above, there are some people with persistent issues from early childhood into adolescence who won't have lifelong problems. And the vast majority of risk-taking, defiant teens will grow up perfectly normal, which is why putting teens into situations with high numbers of deviant peers and labeling them "bad" as is done in many residential treatment centers for teens is usually a bad idea and can turn a transient problem into a lasting one.
posted by Maias at 1:20 PM on May 22, 2011


Psychopathy means different things to different people. Hare's checklist, like so many personality inventories, favors the detection of a certain kind of psychopath and misses others.

As a theory based description, psychopathy is the presence of drives without limitations. They exist and operate in total existential freedom. When you do something bad, or out of character, and get away with it, you still feel like you did something bad and out of character. They don't.

Intelligent ones who intuit that they must somehow function in a society will create artificial rules for themselves to substitute for the internal superego they lack. So they overvalue state laws, or religious rules. Or explanations: I could never kill a child because they're innocent." (Why do you need a rule like that?) They feel something is lacking inside, so they lock on to something they know is "good" and hope it sticks. Many times it does, and phew.

It's that specific focus on the internal rules, the superego, that differentiates a psychopath from the other constructs like sociopath, antisocial, etc. Certainly aggression is the most obvious manifestation of a psychopaths lack of internal control, but a person may be the greatest guy in the world and have never done anything "wrong" and still be a psychopath; the key is the lack of internal (not external) rules keeping down that primitive aggression.

If you stray from your church, you usually don't become a worse person than you were, you don't go around hurting people just because you now say there's no God. But if the church is all that was keeping you in line, and you lose your religion, look out.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 1:43 PM on May 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


If you stray from your church, you usually don't become a worse person than you were, you don't go around hurting people just because you now say there's no God. But if the church is all that was keeping you in line, and you lose your religion, look out.

Interestingly enough, this is exactly what a lot of churches teach. That that only thing standing between a man acting with conscience and him being a complete psychopath is fear of God, and if you aren't part of a church, then you rape puppies and cook babies and steal candy from old people. It's one of the biggest stumbling blocks to being a non-church-goer and having any kind of real discussion with someone who does attend that kind of church. All they can do while you talk to them is furtively dart their eyes about to make sure their family and property are safe and try to find an exit to the conversation.

I wish I were exaggerating about this.
posted by hippybear at 1:51 PM on May 22, 2011


"That that only thing standing between a man acting with conscience and him being a complete psychopath is fear of God, and if you aren't part of a church, then you rape puppies and cook babies and steal candy from old people."

I actually ask my students this (in the unit on whether God exists): What would you do differently if you found out FOR CERTAIN that God didn't exist? Many of my students come from a particular fundamentalist sect.

The most common answer is -- I kid you not -- "Get a tattoo." I say, "You wouldn't run around raping and murdering people?" "Of course not." "So why would you assume others would?" They think about it and usually decide not believing in God isn't a stumbling block to being a moral person (just to going to heaven). Some want to keep going to church because they like it even if it's "just" a community now. But most are pretty happy with their morality, God or not, and wouldn't change much except for a tiny handful of acts considered "rebellious."

So then I ask the atheists the same thing, if they knew FOR SURE there was a God, and they mostly think they'd probably go to church on Sunday. A couple (usually ex-members of this particular sect) say they'd probably drink a little less. But that's about it.

They're often surprised to discover how close their moralities are and that they're all basically good people following basically the same moral code and that wouldn't much change.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:01 PM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


They're often surprised to discover how close their moralities are and that they're all basically good people following basically the same moral code and that wouldn't much change.

Well, you haven't heard some of the sunday sermons I've heard, then. I once heard a pastor spend 30 minutes expounding on some verse or other which said that good things are only found in God, and by the time he was done, he basically said that anyone who didn't walk through the doors of HIS particular church building at least once a week should never be looked upon even as being fully human and should not be trusted to do anything but affect harm upon you if you met them anywhere. (And those who only attended once a week were suspect -- best make sure you get in there for the mid-week bible study sessions just in case you might be led astray during Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday daytime.)
posted by hippybear at 3:20 PM on May 22, 2011


I think this is sort of not right. As far as I understand, it is more accurate to say that we're not sure if empathy is a uniquely human trait or not. Certain animals exhibit some behaviors some of the time which are similar to behaviors in humans we consider demonstrations of empathy. But there are a lot of caveats. -- Justinian
Here's what wikipedia says:
Recent studies have shown that chimpanzees engage in apparently altruistic behaviour within groups,[22][23] but are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members.[24] However in the wild it has been shown that chimpanzees have adopted an orphan chimpanzee, sometimes ones that come from other unrelated groups. And in some rare cases even male chimps have been shown to take care of abandoned infant chimps of an unrelated group, however in most cases they would normally kill the infant.[citation needed]
Evidence for "chimpanzee spirituality" includes display of mourning, "incipient romantic love", "rain dance", appreciation of natural beauty such as a sunset over a lake, curiosity and respect towards wildlife (such as the python, which is neither a threat nor a food source to chimpanzees), empathy toward other species (such as feeding turtles) and even "animism" or "pretend play" in chimps cradling and grooming rocks or sticks.[25]
Also:
And while it is true we sometimes see behavior in chimps which seem to suggest mourning the dead, we also see behavior which we would clearly consider desecration and extreme disrespect bordering on psychopathy. -- Justinian
Remember the video posted on metafilter the other day of a little girl playing with a dead squirrel? Humans don't do those things because they're socialized not too. I think if you found 'wild' humans out somewhere they would be much more likely to engage in those behaviors. Keep in mind that the #1 cause of death among early humans was homicide. Those behaviors have been socialized out of humanity, IMO.

In fact, if you go back and look at the behavior of troops in war, they used to mutilate the bodies of the people they killed and so on. All kinds of awful stuff by today's standards. The thing is, and what a lot of what people are missing is that sociopathic behavior is really behavior that's a serious transgression against societies norms. So you go back in time people might consider pacifists to be sociopaths, and indeed people used to get thrown in jail for it (for example, Bertrand Russell).

So we should be careful about anthropomorphization. Animals aren't automatons, they clearly feel something but empathy is a pretty sophisticated human construct and I don't think we can say that animals feel empathy as we understand it.
You also have to be careful about assuming things are properties of "humans". Years ago people mostly thought of all animals as automatons and didn't believe at all that animals could understand language or communicate or whatever.
So, it's a Lamarckian form of inheritance that is absolutely relevant to whether psychopathy genes make someone into a horror or into someone who might just be a bit cold. -- Maias
Oh god. Epigenetic is not 'Lamarckian' It mostly has to do with methylization of DNA. Epiginetics is something that happens at the cellular level but it's been talked about recently by people the same way "quantum" is used as an explanation for various woo nonsense. Take a look at the Wikpedia article:
in biology, and specifically genetics, epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, hence the name epi- (Greek: επί- over, above) -genetics. Examples of such changes might be DNA methylation or histone acetylation, both of which serve to suppress gene expression without altering the sequence of the silenced genes.

These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations. However, there is no change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism;[1] instead, non-genetic factors cause the organism's genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently
It's a big field of research right now but you can't go overboard about what it means. It's not about, like, parents being mean to their kids and then their kids being mean to their grandchildren and stuff like that.

And second of all 'psychopathy genes'? First of all I don't even think it's a valid scientific concept, there certainly isn't any science pointing out a genetic basis or anything else. Not everything relating to our personalities is inherited (either through genetics or epigenetic)
Psychopathy means different things to different people. Hare's checklist, like so many personality inventories, favors the detection of a certain kind of psychopath and misses others.

As a theory based description, psychopathy is the presence of drives without limitations. They exist and operate in total existential freedom. When you do something bad, or out of character, and get away with it, you still feel like you did something bad and out of character. They don't.
-- TheLastPsychiatrist
Talk about unscientific bullshit. *rolls eyes* How can a scientifically valid term mean different things to different people? Obviously, it can't. No one would say global warming "means different things to different people"
It's that specific focus on the internal rules, the superego, that differentiates a psychopath from the other constructs like sociopath, antisocial, etc.-- TheLastPsychiatrist
Nevermind that the DSM doesn't even list sociopath as a term, and that 'psychopathic' is just listed as a type of extreme anti-social personality disorder. Why bother using the actual science when you can just make shit up?
posted by delmoi at 3:55 PM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Here's what wikipedia says:

But even in the part you quoted it is pointed out that chimpanzees are usually indifferent to the fate of unrelated chimps and usually kill unrelated infants. That once in a while an unrelated chimp will take care of an infant instead of the much more common infanticide isn't very good evidence of empathy.

I mean, if I found a crashed school bus with 10 kids in it, murdered 9 of them and adopted the 10th, would I be considered to be displaying empathy or sociopathy?

Maybe they feel something like empathy. Or maybe there's something we don't understand going on. I just don't think you can point to exceptions in behavior as evidence that they have the same kind of empathy as humans, nor do I think you can write it off completely as socialization.
posted by Justinian at 4:44 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


"you haven't heard some of the sunday sermons I've heard"

Oh, I've heard it all, and many of my students come from that sort of sect, but when you ask them to actually think about it *for themselves* and *in relation to themselves* they typically come to more nuanced conclusions.

(And again, they generally think the non-believers are still going to hell, but not that they're necessarily bad people. Which one student actually wrote on my faculty assessment one year: "I never thought I'd learn so much from someone who was hellbound!")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:03 PM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


So TheLastPsychiatrist, you're saying that the difference between a normal and a psychopath is that the normal's motive for following social norms comes from a part of him that he doesn't see as 'self', i.e. the superego, whereas a psychopath's motive comes from the belief that following explicit rules, which he is perfectly well aware of at the conscious level, is better for him?
posted by topynate at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2011


So TheLastPsychiatrist, you're saying that the difference between a normal and a psychopath is that the normal's motive for following social norms comes from a part of him that he doesn't see as 'self', i.e. the superego, whereas a psychopath's motive comes from the belief that following explicit rules, which he is perfectly well aware of at the conscious level, is better for him?

If I was going to take a stab at answering this question, it would be that the psychopath never *learns* empathy. I would posit that a tribe of normal human toddlers would eventually learn empathy. Sure, they'd start out hitting each other and laughing like many toddlers, but then they would mature a little and most of them would figure out that hitting hurts and start to be able to read each other's emotions. Where the psychopath would never figure this out. Or maybe they would figure it out, but it would map into their minds in a different way. "Don't do these things because they have consequences, and those consequences get in my way."

It is sort of starting to look like psychopathy is just a form of narcissism. Narcissism + anti-social.
posted by gjc at 8:03 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


A frequent theme is that they wonder why humans don't simply band together and exterminate them - as they would if it were the other way around

Fascinating. Where's this -- in the Stout book?
posted by tangerine at 8:06 PM on May 22, 2011


I mean, if I found a crashed school bus with 10 kids in it, murdered 9 of them and adopted the 10th, would I be considered to be displaying empathy or sociopathy?
So first of all sociopathy isn't a scientific term so I have no idea what you even mean by it here. Second of all empathy simply means feeling what other people feel, or at least being able to tell how other people feel given a situation. It doesn't prescribe an actions based on that feeling, you can be cruel and have empathy. It sounds like your confusing empathy with compassion or sympathy or something.

Secondly while the chimps ignore chimps outside their group, they don't usually ignore in-group chimps.
posted by delmoi at 12:16 AM on May 23, 2011


I don't know if I agree with you delmoi but thank you for questioning the authority of psychiatry here--I think it's exactly what the article is talking about.

Why do we have to categorize people based on guesses about their innate mental capacities. Can't we just look at their actual behavior?

Sometimes I feel strongly about others, and sometimes I don't give a shit and just want to get what I want. I assume everyone has some degree of these traits at different times as well.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:28 AM on May 23, 2011


I would posit that a tribe of normal human toddlers would eventually learn empathy. Sure, they'd start out hitting each other and laughing like many toddlers, but then they would mature a little and most of them would figure out that hitting hurts and start to be able to read each other's emotions.

Actually, toddlers are born with the capacity for empathy, it's not so much learned as it is, like language, prepared and requiring appropriate stimuli to develop properly.

For example, if a toddler sees an adult reaching for something that the child can reach but the adult cannot, the child will help the adult get it. Without being asked!!!

Now, a tribe of toddlers would be an abnormal situation for the development of empathy (though orphan babies raised in bare cribs without much adult attention do band together to stimulate and nurture each other; they nonetheless are at risk for severe problems without getting adult attention soon). But the idea that people are naturally "savages" is based on a misunderstanding of development: we're naturally nurturing to the "in group," basically.
posted by Maias at 7:54 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interestingly enough, this is exactly what a lot of churches teach. That that only thing standing between a man acting with conscience and him being a complete psychopath is fear of God, and if you aren't part of a church, then you rape puppies and cook babies and steal candy from old people.

Actually, Christian writings almost from the very beginning have noted the existence of a "natural law," independent of any particular religious belief, that's expressed through the workings of the human conscience. I'm sure various sects differ as to the limits of that law and the precise ways in which the dictates of conscience should be balanced with church doctrine, but to my knowledge most mainstream denominations would absolutely not agree that non-believers are likely to become conscienceless psychopaths.

Saying that "this is exactly what a lot of churches teach" (as evidenced by some sermons one's heard, plus one person's experience with her students) feels a little bit to me like saying "this is exactly what a lot of Asians think," or "this is exactly what a lot of gay people think"-- and then citing that one time you were at a gay bar, or had a class with a lot of Asians in it. And we all know how productive those discussions tend to be.
posted by yersinia at 8:48 AM on May 23, 2011


his is exactly what a lot of churches teach

vs.

this is exactly what a lot of Asians think

Two things: Christian religious organizations in the US form the religious, cultural, and social majority.

Second, there is a false equivalency between the two statements - one is a statement about the public teachings of a majority organization, which can be sourced, compared and verified. The other is an unverifiable stereotype of a minority group.
posted by muddgirl at 9:15 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


muddgirl: I think I was trying to comment on the logic of the statement, not its political implications. It was my impression that it's generally unproductive to make reductive blanket statements about large groups of people based on very limited evidence, not because we should be nice to minorities, but because (human diversity being what it is) such statements are almost certain to be false.

one is a statement about the public teachings of a majority organization, which can be sourced, compared and verified. The other is an unverifiable stereotype of a minority group.


Christian churches in the U.S. are so far from being an ideologically monolithic "majority organization" that it's difficult to think of a single belief (except maybe the existence of Jesus?) on which they uniformly agree. That's not to say we can't discuss them collectively; just that a conversation up to Metafilter's intellectual standards deserves considerably more nuance and precision when it does so.

In this case, using personal experience of one or two churches as a basis for what "a lot of churches teach" produced a statement that was demonstrably inaccurate as regards the majority of mainstream Christian denominations. If the statement had been "a lot of [SectXites] teach...," and then gone on to cite the writings of the founder of SectX, then that would have been a totally legitimate and interesting contribution. The point has been made a couple of times earlier in this thread, as well: human beings are a complex and diverse bunch, and we have nothing to lose by trying to avoid sloppy categories and hasty generalizations.
posted by yersinia at 9:52 AM on May 23, 2011


By making unnecessary comparisons to minority groups who have historically and currently faced persecution in the US, you muddied your point. It creates a false equivalency where Christians become a group that has a special claim on cultural sensitivity.

it's generally unproductive to make reductive blanket statements about large groups of people

The claim wasn't about people, it was about institutional prejudices against non-believers. "A lot of churches teach that non-believers are amoral" is more equivalent to "A lot of companies preferentially hire men over women." Probably not allowed in Debate Club, but then again Metafilter isn't Debate Club.
posted by muddgirl at 10:09 AM on May 23, 2011


@yersinia: "one person's experience with her students"

Well, that, and my two degrees in theology. I certainly did not say "Christians think." I noted it was a particular fundamentalist sect to which many of my students belong. (Specifically, "Many of my students come from a particular fundamentalist sect." and then again in my second response I was careful to reiterate it was not universal: "many of my students come from that sort of sect.") Which I did not name because I don't really think it's relevant or needs to be attacked and reviled. But you go right on insisting I generalized to "all Christians" from my statement about a particular fundamentalist sect. (Speaking of reductive blanket statements, geez!)

And yes, their sect, which is a smallish, fairly local, and non-mainstream one, certainly does teach that you cannot be a moral person unless you follow Jesus. The sect does not believe in the idea of "natural law" because they teach that the universe is too corrupted by the Fall for humans to be able to learn any lessons of morality from it. Sorry if their existence, or my awareness of their existence, bothers you in some way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:25 AM on May 23, 2011


using personal experience of one or two churches as a basis for what "a lot of churches teach" produced a statement that was demonstrably inaccurate as regards the majority of mainstream Christian denominations.

Okay, first of all, my experiences are only a small slice of the pie when it comes to the number of churches which actually do teach this. Whether they expect their congregants to take that teaching literally or not, there are certainly more than a tiny number of churches which preach this regularly. "A lot" indicates nothing about how large a proportion of the total number of churches which do this, it only indicates that it isn't a tiny number.

As far as mainstream denominations go, I've heard sermons on the topic in Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist congregations, as well as what I would regard the usual suspect denominations for that kind of teaching: Southern Baptist, Assembly Of God, and Church Of Christ.

If you think I was denigrating the entire Christian faith with my statement, you're welcome to think that even though it wasn't what I said or meant. But I hold by what I said -- a lot of churches teach this thing.
posted by hippybear at 10:31 AM on May 23, 2011


Oh, for pete's sake. Eyebrows, hippybear-- my intention was absolutely not to accuse either of you of denigrating all of Christianity, or to object to your sharing your experience with sectarian beliefs regarding the operations of consciences in non-Christians.

What I was trying to do (seemingly poorly) was to point out (a) that there actually is a really ancient, well-established and robust tradition of Christian thinking about natural law and conscience, and (b) that standards of discourse at Metafilter generally encourage (rightly, imho) more precision than simply saying "a lot of Xes believe Y" based on personal experience, as hippybear originally did. I agree that the original statement made no explicit claims as to the size of its data-set, but I've certainly seen Mefites be quick to critique as stereotyping similar statements about what "a lot of women think" or "a lot of Hispanic people believe"-- and legitimately so, because the phrasing inevitably gets read as referring to "most" or "very many" members of the group in question, not "these 10-20 I happen to have encountered." I think the fact that the very next poster responded by re-emphasizing the idea of Christianity as a big, uniform "majority organization" suggests that the more general reading was fully present and available. Honestly, I only intended to offer a plea for more nuance, not any sort of attack.
posted by yersinia at 11:07 AM on May 23, 2011


Um, epigenetics *can certainly be Lamarckian* and there's lots of research on what I cited about the nurturing and non-nurturing rat moms. Check out Michael Meaney who has led much of the work on rats that I cited.

I happen to have, um, written a book on this!!!
posted by Maias at 3:52 PM on May 23, 2011


oneswellfoop: "Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, and every TV Talk Show host would score at least medium-high on the Hare test."

I'm really not seeing that for Gates.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:48 PM on May 23, 2011


SecretAgentSockpuppet, wanting revenge against and feeling relief at the death of an abuser and rapist does not represent psychopathic behaviour.

If you had spent the past 25 years slowly working your way to a position of power over the man, using coercion, emotional manipulation and blackmail, callously discarding anyone who was an obstacle to this end and destroying their lives without conscience or concern, in order that you could derail his life to the point that he begged you to end it, then I might consider your behaviour to be psychopathic. Either that, or you were a character in a Jeffrey Archer book. Who is also a sociopath.

Delmoi - The thing is, and what a lot of what people are missing is that sociopathic behavior is really behavior that's a serious transgression against societies norms.

That can be an aspect of sociopathic behaviour, but it is not the only aspect.

If there are people who have never met a person who exhibits behaviours on the anti-social disorder spectrum, good luck to you, you haven't missed out! That such people exist and are often the bane of a healthy society is not really open to question, IMHO.
posted by asok at 4:25 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nice long chat with Ronson on the Little Atoms podcast about this - it's interview 4 on that page.
posted by Grangousier at 5:13 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I never thought I'd learn so much from someone who was hellbound!
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:48 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


By way of an update, Jon Ronson Tweeted today:

So the news as of today is that 'Tony' (from The Psychopath Test) has had an absolute discharge. No strings.
posted by penguin pie at 1:07 PM on May 24, 2011


Actually, toddlers are born with the capacity for empathy, it's not so much learned as it is, like language, prepared and requiring appropriate stimuli to develop properly.
Actually you can measure empathy in infants (to a certain extent). It's clearly an innate part of human beings (not something learned), which is why I think it's probably something that exists in other animals (but perhaps not to the same extent) as well.
Um, epigenetics *can certainly be Lamarckian*
Um, a google search is not a valid citation. I'm actually familiar with the starving rats thing, but a couple of points: it's possible that an epigenetic response to certain stimuli could have evolved in the regular way, so a certain response to starvation that includes DNA methylation that effects future generations could be coded into DNA, if population with this response survive better then populations that don't. That's not really Lamarckian. Secondly unless you can actually show a molecular cause/effect it's not really epigenetic. So like I said parents being mean to their kids causing those kids to be mean to their kids isn't really an example of 'epigenetics', although some people use the term that way. (Claiming that epigenetic is any hereditary trait not controlled directly by genetic code is 'epigenetic')
If there are people who have never met a person who exhibits behaviours on the anti-social disorder spectrum, good luck to you, you haven't missed out! That such people exist and are often the bane of a healthy society is not really open to question, IMHO.
I never said assholes don't exist. I just don't think that there is some binary distinction that can be drawn between "normal humans" and "psychopathic monsters" and if you just avoid the second type, you'll be fine. I think there is A) A gradient, and probably lots of different dimensions and B) normal/average humans are capable of doing some pretty awful stuff (particularly if they believe what they are doing is in the best interests of the segment of society they care about or identify with)
posted by delmoi at 12:48 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Delmoi, the epigenetics as Lamarckian inheritance thing is widely accepted, which is why I cited the Google search. And even if Meaney's research and all the follow ups to it could be explained by traditional genetics, it still demonstrates Lamarckian inheritance in what actually happens: the baby rats still behave like their *adoptive* not their genetic parents and they pass this behavior on to the next generation via methylation changes that are affected by the environment, as it affects the genes. The fact that you don't like using the term epigenetic in this way doesn't change that other people do actually use it that way.

It's pretty clear that the point of this stuff is to make genes responsive to the environment—but that doesn't mean its not Lamarckian, ie, changes made by the environment that are passed down to the next generation.

There's also no clear gradient on any psychiatric illness and on many physical disorders (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. can be defined downwards and are being, the cutoffs are arbitrary to some extent).

So, are you arguing we shouldn't define diabetes or depression or psychopathy at all—even though people on those extremes clearly are demonstrably different from others in ways that are unhealthy and in some cases, dangerous?

What would be the point of *not* doing this? It wouldn't help people with the disorders, nor would it help society. It's true that psychopathy is probably the most stigmatizing of all diagnoses—but if you simply define it as evil rather than sick, that leaves it beyond research and help.
posted by Maias at 12:55 PM on May 25, 2011


Talk about unscientific bullshit. *rolls eyes* How can a scientifically valid term mean different things to different people? Obviously, it can't. No one would say global warming "means different things to different people"

It's that specific focus on the internal rules, the superego, that differentiates a psychopath from the other constructs like sociopath, antisocial, etc.-- TheLastPsychiatrist

Nevermind that the DSM doesn't even list sociopath as a term, and that 'psychopathic' is just listed as a type of extreme anti-social personality disorder. Why bother using the actual science when you can just make shit up?
Sigh. The frustrating thing about this is that I don't disagree with your overall opinion, but what the way you arrived at your conclusions is... not great.

"Scientifically valid" means what, in this case? The term is reliable, but it isn't valid. Hare's checklist detects something, and we call it psychopathy, and that's valid, but there are plenty of "psychopaths" who we (let's say, five forensic psychiatrists) would agree are psychopaths, that wouldn't be detected by his checklist. Yet that assessment is equally valid. Are you saying that Hare's list is the only way to do this? Nor is psychopathy a form of extreme antisocial. Some people think it is, but other people don't. Hare himself doesn't think it is. So?

And relying on the DSM for which terms we are allowed to use or for scientific rigor is just silly. What "science" are you talking about? The fmri studies? The use of equipment does not make it science. Measuring things over and over isn't science. For 50 years they called psychoanalysis a science because it was systematic, which it was. So?

I cannot say whether psychopathy is primarily a genetic phenomenon, or mostly learned, or what. But whatever the cause, the outcome is the same: "no rules but mine." No guilt. Despite this being pretty wishy washy, semantic stuff, it's considerably more valid and reliable indicator of psychopathy than the amygdalas lighting up. Which is exactly the problem with all of this.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 2:55 PM on May 25, 2011


In other words, psychopaths are very good at "theory of mind," at understanding and predicting how other people will behave and manipulating that for their own ends. But they don't have the compassion part of empathy, the emotional part...

The bottom line is that empathy is a capacity like language—we're all born with this capacity, unless we have some type of brain problem—but if we're not exposed to enough empathetic behavior in early childhood, the capacity will not be expressed to its fullest potential.


Maias, say a person was raised in a loving environment and not an abusive one. Now say this person grows into an adult who obviously does not evince the 'compassion part of empathy', as you put it. There would seem to be no category for that person. Does that mean that never happens?

Does ASPD only occur in kids that have not been shown empathy, and that's why they go around doing things like torturing cats, etc?

Or can someone grow up in a perfectly loving home, not go around torturing cats--and yet not have empathy as an adult?
posted by misha at 5:03 PM on May 25, 2011


Misha, there do seem to be some people who become psychopaths despite being raised in loving homes. They seem less likely to be violent psychopaths than those raised with violence—more likely to do nonviolent crimes like cons or white collar crimes. But they do exist—there seems to be some genetic basis to what are known as "callous unemotional" traits. And presumably, those can come about genetically due to new mutations that occur in the egg, sperm or fetus—just like can happen with other genetic conditions.

People with these traits are detectable during childhood but some of them do grow out of them. Lots is just not known about how or why.
posted by Maias at 5:24 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


P.S. healthy adults do not suddenly "come down with" psychopathy or callous/unemotional traits. those who have these traits have had them since childhood. that's why the ASPD diagnosis requires childhood conduct disorder.
posted by Maias at 5:26 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Delmoi, the epigenetics Lamarckian inheritance thing is widely accepted
Widely accepted by who? I doubt most molecular biologists would agree with you on this. Most of the links frame it as a question "Epigenetics: Was Lamark partly right?" that kind of thing.
It's pretty clear that the point of this stuff is to make genes responsive to the environment—but that doesn't mean its not Lamarckian, ie, changes made by the environment that are passed down to the next generation.
"Scientifically valid" means what, in this case?
Well, that it means only one specific thing, for one thing. Not different things to different people.
And relying on the DSM for which terms we are allowed to use or for scientific rigor is just silly.
It's better then just making shit up, which seems to be what a lot of people seem to want to do.
posted by delmoi at 3:20 AM on May 26, 2011


No one is claiming that epigenetics proves Lamarck right in every instance — when they say it's Lamarckian, it's a contrast between direct genetic inheritance and inheritance of DNA marks that are not changes in genes but can be affected by the environment and passed down to the next generation. This is getting to be silly semantics—molecular biologists agree that epigenetics has a Lamarckian aspect, that's what I said and meant and backed up with Meaney's cites.

Don't know who else you're responding to there, but obviously the DSM is the best we've got at the moment and should be used, while recognizing its clear drawbacks till we come up with something better.
posted by Maias at 12:04 PM on May 26, 2011


To take a break from arguing, NPR has been running a series of stories about psychopathy, including a similar story to "Tony" in the OP, but from an American Perspective:
Full Text and Audio Here
posted by codacorolla at 5:01 PM on May 27, 2011


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