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May 12, 2012 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath? Charming but volatile, L. quickly found ways to play different boys off one another. “Some manipulation by girls is typical,” Waschbusch said as the kids trooped inside. “The amount she does it, and the precision with which she does it — that’s unprecedented.” She had, for example, smuggled a number of small toys into camp, Waschbusch told me, then doled them out as prizes to kids who misbehaved at her command.
posted by Rory Marinich (194 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dunno about the terminology but it's definitely a very valuable area of research. Except perhaps to the industrial prison system, it might cut their profits.
posted by XMLicious at 3:26 PM on May 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


As with most mental health diagnoses, the critical issue is not whether the misbehaviors in question represent serious problems. Clearly they do. Rather, the issue is whether or not they should be conceptualized as mental disorders. Former generations would have used more conventional terms, such as delinquency, villainy, vandalism, crime, brutality, etc., to describe these kinds of activities, and as with ADHD, would for the most part have identified lax or inconsistent parental discipline as the proximate cause. By calling these misbehaviors a mental disorder, the APA is promoting an entirely different way of conceptualizing these problems, and in particular is promoting the notion that these kinds of problems need to be treated by psychiatrists and other mental health workers. The assignment of the diagnosis also implies that the problem is something inherent to the child, and downplays the role of the parents, or indeed of other factors.- Behaviorismandmentalhealth.com

My parent's bookshelves were full of "Strong-Willed Child" literature when I was growing up. If parents have a problem with their children, they should be reading "Shitty Parent" books.
posted by rebent at 3:28 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


If parents have a problem with their children, they should be reading "Shitty Parent" books.

Let me guess. You are not a parent yourself, I presume?
posted by Wordwoman at 3:29 PM on May 12, 2012 [59 favorites]


“Daddy! Daddy! Why are you doing this to me?” he begged, as Miguel carried him to his room. “No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy!”

“Miguel likes to think that Michael is growing and maturing,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I think that’s him developing a larger skill set of manipulation.” She paused. “He knows how to get what he wants.”

Scary. I hope that social services are keeping an eye on this kid, for his sake and everyone else's.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:30 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


If parents have a problem with their children, they should be reading "Shitty Parent" books.

Does this apply even when the behaviour patterns are caused by various types of brain injury, or is it the purely mental side of illness that you think can be changed by a form of parenting?

NB: I say this as someone who had one terrible parent, one great parent, and misbehaved in both places.
posted by jaduncan at 3:32 PM on May 12, 2012


I think JP Morgan's in the market for a new CEO ...
posted by chavenet at 3:32 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


I also have to say that a revealing moment was when Michael shouted "No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy", largely because it was presumably a learned strategy that has worked in the past. An untold background story, maybe.
posted by jaduncan at 3:35 PM on May 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


This article is a farrago of anecdata. If we're talking about a newly recognized psychological condition, where are the statistical measures and longitudinal studies? Why is a proposal to shift significantly how we conceptualize childhood deviance being presented in relation to a narrow set of extreme personal narratives? Most importantly, couldn't Jennifer Kahn or her editor bother to hunt down a dissenting voice to balance out this overwrought article?

Look, if this diagnosis leads to better and more compassionate treatments for kids with emotional problems, then I'm all for it. If, however, as so often happens with new child psychological diagnostic tools, it becomes a basis for displacing attention from parental responsibility in a child's ethical and emotional development, or a pretext for shoving chemicals where the hard work of parenting should go, then this is just more BoomGen psychobabble bullshit.
posted by R. Schlock at 3:36 PM on May 12, 2012 [15 favorites]


I have an acquaintance who is doing life in prison for the kidnap-rape-murder of a 12 year old girl, which crime he committed when he was 18. When he was 9 years old everybody was well aware something was seriously fucked up with that kid.
posted by bukvich at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


If parents have a problem with their children, they should be reading "Shitty Parent" books.

Let me guess. You are not a parent yourself, I presume?


Yeah, really rebent — I'm with Wordwoman. My 'ignoramus-horseshit-wtf' detector hit max on that remark. I have three children, two thriving and one seriously mentally ill. (Not with this, but serious enough.) It destroyed my family, and his illness continues to hurt him most of all. You need a little more wisdom, humility and compassion on this particular subject.
posted by namasaya at 3:39 PM on May 12, 2012 [78 favorites]


I also have to say that a revealing moment was when Michael shouted "No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy", largely because it was presumably a learned strategy that has worked in the past. An untold background story, maybe.

It's not untold. According to the reporter's account, the father then picks up the boy and carries him and then spends "the next hour . . . [trying] to calm him."

I don't think the parents are doing it consciously, but it sounds like their responses to the conflicts here might be reinforcing the behavior.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:57 PM on May 12, 2012


The intimacy, exhaustion, and the inappropriate nature of the viewer seeking information that does not belong to them, the ambiguity of the observer, is all found in Carucci's photo for the story. In fact, the photo is a lot more morally ambitious and socially difficult than the story itself, that happens more often than we would like to admit.
posted by PinkMoose at 3:58 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Bad Seed
posted by robbyrobs at 4:00 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oddly, most people are slow to accept that children are different, and often in denial when any child has difficulties because of an unspecified brain abnormality. People get defensive about it because it upends a comforting worldview of the "blank slate" theory of child development, which gives us a lot of satisfaction when we feel that goodness is cultivated in the uncorrupted brain of an infant. This fuels the pro-life movement. Why we want to take so much personal credit for passing on conforming cultural behavior is not certain, but I suspect it means we're just prideful primates at heart.
posted by Brian B. at 4:01 PM on May 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


I felt a bit uncomfortable with some of the reporting in this story - the article seems to presuppose that Michael is a psychopath and much of the language describing his behaviour is framed to consolidate that view.

I'm not saying the child is without problems - clearly, he is. But I'm unsure is the reporter really got a nuanced view of him and his behaviour, or more critically was interested in getting such a thing. For the ostensible subject of the piece, she didn't seem to spend much time interacting with him directly, or talking to his counsellors for their insights.

It's interesting, I was an after-school carer for five years, in addition to holiday caring, birthday parties etc etc. In that entire time where I was exposed to hundreds of different kids, I saw bullies, angry little warriors, manipulators and everything in between, but there was really only one kid who displayed the capacity for violence and attempts at manipulation portrayed in this article. And that poor little bastard and the most fucked up background imaginable. He didn't care because there was precious little anyone could do to him that hadn't already been done; he didn't care cause I'm pretty sure it was the only way for him to survive psychologically at some points. The only other kid who got close to him was one who was adopted, and had been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of his initial background.

I find the idea of a "psychopath camp" hilarious naive. Anyone who has worked with children can tell you that bad behaviour is infectious. Of course they all shared strategies and adapted when they got together.
posted by smoke at 4:08 PM on May 12, 2012 [18 favorites]


I mean, I think it's hard. I was a kid who did violence [in response to my violent and chaotic homelife where I generally felt afraid--I didn't hurt people, but I broke things and hurt myself because it was a way of striking out to assert control over my body and my life] and was characterized by my parent as being "crazy" for years. There are cycles of violence, and the language that this kid uses--the language that gets him characterized as a manipulative psychopath--seems modeled after a strict, possibly abusive adult:
From the bedroom, Michael called out: “He knows the consequences, so I don’t know why he does it. I will hurt him.”
So something makes me uneasy about this. As someone who was (supposedly) a "crazy" kid, but who has been able to break the cycle of abuse and violence and manipulation when removed from the situation.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:08 PM on May 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


Seems obvious to me that showing signs of being a psychopath is quite a bit different than being a strong willed child.

How it is diagnosed and what to do about it are certainly issues. But I have no problem believing that psychopathy is structurally based on brain (de)formation and can occur in a child. There is still the question of how much it is environmental and how much genetic.
posted by Bort at 4:14 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


From what I understand, even as infants people respond to novel stimulus differently. Some babies get really scared, and other babies are relaxed and unconcerned. There was a study done where they tested babies reactions, and then tracked them through life. There was an FPP about it. The basic result was that babies who were more likely to get nervous and/or scared were much more likely to stay that way throughout life.

The theory was it had a lot to do with the Amygdala which has to do with fear response, among other things. This was just a study about people who were nervous, not psychopaths/sociopaths.

But I think the studies that have been done about those kind of people suggest that they just have an extreme low levels of fear. The study that was done on sociopaths was, they would be told they were going to be given an electric shock. A "normal" person would flinch, and they would show up as being nervous through other sensors (like galvanic skin response)

But with a sociopath, they wouldn't be scared.

I think that could explain a lot about their behavior: It maybe not be that they simply don't care about other people, but because they don't experience fear and stress the way "normal" people do, they don't understand what the other people are going through.

This kind of thing is also thought to be related to the Amygdala as well, it may be these people just have really insensitive ones while normal people have normal sensitivity, and people who are really nervous and scared have hypersensitive ones.

But, if that's the case then the baby study into nervousness would probably indicate that it's something they're born with - and has nothing to do with parenting or whatever.

That said, I think a lot of the talk about sociopaths/psychopaths is just an attempt to "other-ize" people that someone doesn't like. If they engage in behavior they think is wrong or hurts people, they label them a sociopath, and that way (IMO) they can then put themselves into denial about how bad "normal" people may be, or become. It's also used in a really unscientific way most of the time, and I question the scientific validity. (The electroshock test can't be used anymore due to new ethical rules in psychology since the 1970s).

For example, there was a person claiming that Amanda Knox was totally a sociopath in a recent thread because she was "promiscuous" and "left a trail of broken lives" (which, of course, she didn't break). Thus the person concluded she was totally guilty, because killing a bunch of people is totally something a sociopath would do.

But anyway, if it is related to the Amygdala, then it's likely to be present in childhood. This girl might have that physiological issue. But there may be lots of people who have this and don't ever end up as horrible ax murderers, although they very well might be people who end up being rather unpleasant.

So who knows. I don't think all the science is in by a long shot.
posted by delmoi at 4:16 PM on May 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


From the bedroom, Michael called out: “He knows the consequences, so I don’t know why he does it. I will hurt him.”
Yeah that's the thing about the supposed scientific basis (which, as I said, I am skeptical about) The whole idea is that they don't feel fear, even if something 'bad' is immanent. So if you don't have a biological response to something that a normal person would be scared of, like an electrical shock, you won't have the biological fear response to punishment either. So punishment might not have much of a deterrent effect.

Would positive reinforcement work, on the other hand?
posted by delmoi at 4:19 PM on May 12, 2012


namasaya: "If parents have a problem with their children, they should be reading "Shitty Parent" books.

Let me guess. You are not a parent yourself, I presume?


Yeah, really rebent — I'm with Wordwoman. My 'ignoramus-horseshit-wtf' detector hit max on that remark. I have three children, two thriving and one seriously mentally ill. (Not with this, but serious enough.) It destroyed my family, and his illness continues to hurt him most of all. You need a little more wisdom, humility and compassion on this particular subject.
"

Hey, listen Namasay, I really don't mean to offend you, or anyone else, with my opinions. In fact, I would probably turn my nose up at things you do, based on my opinions and world view. But please don't take it personally. I don't know anything of your background and situation, and it's emphatically not my place to judge.

The only thing I can speak to is my own situation, and people who were raised similarly to me. It took me a really long time to accept that my parents had no idea what they were doing, and that it was their fault, not mine, for many of the things I was punished for. All these ideas they got from their books and bibles and prayer meetings; none of them were useful.

It's unlikely that they will ever acknowledge that themselves, except perhaps as an excuse, rather than a failing. I know they will never apologize to me for it.
posted by rebent at 4:22 PM on May 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


The only thing I can speak to is my own situation, and people who were raised similarly to me. It took me a really long time to accept that my parents had no idea what they were doing, and that it was their fault, not mine, for many of the things I was punished for. All these ideas they got from their books and bibles and prayer meetings; none of them were useful.
If psychopathy is biological, though then you can no more blame the parents for it then you could for autism, or being gay. Both of which were blamed on parents, at various points in time.
posted by delmoi at 4:25 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


killing a bunch of people is totally something a sociopath would do.

Not so sure of this. Sociopaths are all about the manipulation, aren't they?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:28 PM on May 12, 2012


The only thing I can speak to is my own situation, and people who were raised similarly to me. It took me a really long time to accept that my parents had no idea what they were doing, and that it was their fault, not mine, for many of the things I was punished for. All these ideas they got from their books and bibles and prayer meetings; none of them were useful.

Right, so, jumping in early on with a snarky comment based on your unique personal experience (which none of us know anything about) is probably the worst way to talk about this subject.
posted by hermitosis at 4:29 PM on May 12, 2012 [12 favorites]


I also have to say that a revealing moment was when Michael shouted "No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy", largely because it was presumably a learned strategy that has worked in the past. An untold background story, maybe.

It's chilling because it combines a brazen attempt to manipulate his father based on a real insight about his father's feelings with an ineptness of execution that is distinctly child-like.
posted by atrazine at 4:30 PM on May 12, 2012 [25 favorites]


Psycopath camp... I remember a book (or, I think I remember a book) wherein these kids were almost groomed as a military asset, a sort of get-it-done-no-matter-the-cost group of individuals (because there was no way in hell they'd form a unit short of Ork-ish strength-of-will rank assertion).

I don't think it was Ender's Game... was it?
posted by Slackermagee at 4:37 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sociopaths are all about the manipulation, aren't they?

Anti-social personality disorder (preceded by conduct disorder).
posted by Brian B. at 4:39 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Delmoi, my understanding is that what you've said about the amygdala is a bit of an oversimplification and a more boldly-stated thesis than we really have evidence for. The causal links are much more ambiguous than that, and we're really more at the stage of being able to even define these things, let alone pinpoint a cause.

With reference to what you're talking about, there is research that - broadly - identifies three "types" of babies: 1) "easy" babies; don't scare easily, accept strangers and change, and when they are upset rebound quite quickly 2) "challenging" babies; scare easily, don't like change, and upset tends to persist longer, and 3) "slow to warm up" babies; don't like strangers and change, but eventually adapt.

If anyone is interested in this kind of thing, I heartily recommend some of the Developmental Psychology lectures available at UC Berkeley I listen to the Introduction to Developmental Psychology course a few years ago - that particular lecture by Dr Lori Markson is no longer available, however I can't imagine the course content has changed that much as it is a first year course. I found it very interesting and educational. It will give you a very clear picture of what we currently can know about children, and what we don't. The amazing thing is mostly on the don't side of the equation.
posted by smoke at 4:42 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


Right, so, jumping in early on with a snarky comment based on your unique personal experience (which none of us know anything about) is probably the worst way to talk about this subject.

As someone who has been in a similar situation, it didn't strike me as a snarky comment at all. And the context was clear, regardless.

It can be really . . . world destroying when you're a kid and your parent decides you're beyond all hope. That's not to say that these situations don't have some source in biology--Michael's own father describes himself as a once-angry kid. But you can see the cycle of hopelessness in the article. This child is clearly more difficult than their other children, but he's given far less leeway and even positive developments are seen through an assumption that all of his behavior must be manipulative, sick. “Of course we were worried sick,” she added hastily. “But Allan is confident that way.” . . . Anne is a strict disciplinarian, she said, particularly with Michael, who she worries would otherwise simply run wild. Meanwhile, his younger brother provokes him and taunts him for crying and is characterized as "confident." His own father suggests that more lenient parenting might be the way to go, as someone who was once like this, but his mother rejects that: “Miguel likes to think that Michael is growing and maturing,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I think that’s him developing a larger skill set of manipulation.” She paused. “He knows how to get what he wants.”

I also know that abusive parents can seem charming and sane from the outside. Persuasive. I just don't think we know the whole story, and probably won't until Michael grows up and is able to articulate it for himself. As it is right now, I feel for him. It sounds like he's enduring constant behaviorial scrutiny and has a mother who finds being his parent "joyless" and I imagine that his world feels pretty horrible and out of control.

That's not to say that I don't empathize with parents who have difficult children. My sister was easier to raise for my mom, and in a lot of ways she didn't know what to do with me and was trying her best. But "her best" ended up pretty . . . terrible. And damaging. And certainly made the situation worse.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:46 PM on May 12, 2012 [34 favorites]


It's chilling because it combines a brazen attempt to manipulate his father based on a real insight about his father's feelings with an ineptness of execution that is distinctly child-like.

See I don't find that chilling the least, I have to say. Find me a child that doesn't attempt to play on parent off the other and I will eat my hat. In my opinion, kids are far more shrewd generally, and especially emotionally, than widely given credit for.

Naturally he's adopted the language used by a procession of counsellors and psychologists and probably parents; he's probably been encouraged to talk about his feelings, analyse his relationships and understands the cosigns of "seriousness" that go with such discussion.

posted by smoke at 4:47 PM on May 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


Psychopathy is an adult diagnosis, children with behavioral issues are frequently diagnosed with conduct disorder.
posted by Jernau at 4:55 PM on May 12, 2012


I feel it's important to see how a child turns out a few years down the road before jumping to the conclusion that a few acts of manipulation are evidence of psychopathy. As such, I'd diagnose the 9-year old with an anxiety disorder and prescribe medication if I were the treating psychiatrist. Most likely, a combination of medication and some form of therapy would be more than enough to address whatever issues the child has.
posted by lotusmish at 4:56 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


She had, for example, smuggled a number of small toys into camp, Waschbusch told me, then doled them out as prizes to kids who misbehaved at her command.

How blind do you have to be, how stupid do you have to be, not to to see that this is a self-conscious and quite witty parody of the very procedures these fools are using in attempting to control these kids who are just running rings around them?

The only person who made any headway with Michael was his father Miguel, who understood where he was coming from and addressed him as an equal.

Everyone else was merely trying to find some mechanism to get him to do what he was told, and let me tell you, that kid is way too smart for them.
posted by jamjam at 5:00 PM on May 12, 2012 [44 favorites]


“...[I]t takes a toll. There’s not a lot of joy and happiness in raising Michael.”

What a nightmare! I'm amazed they had the fortitude to expand their family by two more children, but I'm glad they can experience raising more typical kids.
posted by carmicha at 5:10 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


One can, obviously not, blame a parent for an inherited biological trait or other disability (except perhaps something like FAS), but there are god knows how many examples of really really bad parenting that has resulted in people growing up with a mental illness.


I wonder if psychopathy is the new schizophrenia (that is, the mental illness that gets used to describe everyone who may be mentally ill). And here is the spot I insert the obligatorily, but necessary, rant about how "sane" people cause so much more harm in the world than folks with mental illness (of any type).

Must be psychopathy day: TAL just reran the The Psychopath Test episode today.
posted by edgeways at 5:11 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who has studied risk factors for psychopathy in children for two decades, described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice.

How do you not notice that your child is amputating the family cat's tail? Wouldn't the blood be a bit of a clue? I'm not going to say that all disturbed and cruel behavior is the fault of the parents (though given how rampant child abuse, whether physical or emotional, is, and how many survivors of parental abuse have told their stories on here and the green, I would venture a high percentage) but these particular parents seem out to lunch and/or in severe denial.

I hesitate to label a very young child a "psychopath" (especially if they are driven to the behavior by abuse, which happens all too often) but the idea that some young children might have more of a "callous-unemotional" wiring might be something to look at. Are the children born this way? Brought up to be this way? Can they be taught compassion and empathy? I've read Born for Love, by the authors of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Maia Szalavitz is "maias" here on MeFi) and it makes me think that many of these children probably could be helped.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:12 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


rebent: "It's unlikely that they will ever acknowledge that themselves, except perhaps as an excuse, rather than a failing. I know they will never apologize to me for it."

I totally get where you're coming from - I was raised in a similarly religious household, and I know how weird an upbringing that can be.

However, I think what people were reacting to was your near-assertion above that if people have problems with their kids, they are "shitty parents." I really don't think that's true; I have a friend whose parents are good people, kind people, and moreover they worked hard to be the best parents they could - and yet their son, my friend's brother, turned out unbalanced from an early age, killing my friend's cats, torturing her dogs, destroying her toys, threatening to poison her, and generally being as cruel as possible. This almost tore their family apart, and to this day they have to carefully limit contact with him. Sometimes that just happens, I think, and there's nothing anyone can do. I don't think very many kids are that bad, but every awesome, wonderful parent reaches a moment where they have no idea what to do with their child. At that moment, I don't think they are suddenly "shitty parents."

But it's possible I misunderstood what you mean.
posted by koeselitz at 5:37 PM on May 12, 2012 [15 favorites]


It is sadly possible -- likely, even -- that this kid has both a biological issue AND crappy parents. It happens. The two points are not mutually exclusive.

Dad has a better bond? Trust me, the kid didn't independently learn the meaning of the word "bond" and then apply it in context and to his advantage out of the clear blue sky. He heard his parents say it to each other, probably repeatedly, and he's using their weakness as a wedge, and they're not able to adjust.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:39 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?

You can call a 9-year-old a turkey, but you can't diagnose him with psychopathy. Here's why:

Psychopathy/sociopathy is not a recognized diagnosis in the DSM or the ICD.

Anti-social personality disorder is the closest recognized diagnosis available. It is an adult disorder; children cannot be diagnosed with ASPD. In general, those with psychopathy are people who most likely have ASPD and have a history or pattern of criminal behavior. Not everyone who has ASPD is a psychopath.

Conduct disorder is the childhood disorder that can precede ASPD. Most children "grow out" of CD; only about 30% (the range varies but is generally 25-50%) of children diagnosed with CD are later diagnosed with ASPD as adults. The article talks about CD, but dismisses it right off the bat due to its lack of callous-unemotional traits. This makes me think that the author didn't do his research, as the DSM work group has recommended that the callous-unemotional traits are added to the criteria for diagnosis of CD in the DSM-5. Also, the child's father self reported that he was also a troubled child in similar ways, being labeled as "the crazy one", but that he grew out of it as he became an adult. This is, as stated above, very common in children with conduct disorder. CD has a fairly high heritability factor when a parent was also diagnosed with conduct disorder, as well as documented brain abnormalities in patients with CD vs. normals.

I think this child could be diagnosed with Conduct disorder, and I'm surprised that he's been to 8 therapists (not clinical psychologists presumably, who would actually diagnose CD) and everyone has missed the diagnosis. None of the child's past diagnoses mentioned in the article make any sense.

Furthermore, Dan Waschbusch is not a clinical psychologist but a research psychologist and is therefore not qualified to diagnose mental disorders. I take his "diagnosis" with a pretty huge grain of salt.

Also, there's this:

“A kid like Michael is different from minute to minute,” Waschbusch noted. “So do we say the impulsive stuff is A.D.H.D. and the rest is C.U.? Or do we say that he’s fluctuating up and down, and that’s bipolar disorder? If a kid isn’t paying attention, does that reflect oppositional behavior: you’re not paying attention because you don’t want to? Or are you depressed, and you’re not paying attention because you can’t get up the energy to do it?”


which is pure madness to me. That is very much not how it works.

Please let me know if you'd like citations for any of this! I'd be happy to provide, but right now I'm lazy.
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:59 PM on May 12, 2012 [27 favorites]


She had, for example, smuggled a number of small toys into camp, Waschbusch told me, then doled them out as prizes to kids who misbehaved at her command.

Without the context of the rest of the story, this quote is awesome.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:04 PM on May 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Not so sure of this. Sociopaths are all about the manipulation, aren't they?
"sociopath" and "psychopath" are basically synonyms, as far as psychology is concerned. From Wikipedia
There is no consensus about the symptom criteria for psychopathy, and no psychiatric or psychological organization has sanctioned a diagnosis of "psychopathy" itself.'[5]
And they are listed as subtypes of Antisocial personality disorder
So really making a claim about what sociopathy/psychopathy is "all about" isn't scientifically sound. One of the things that annoys me about the whole discussion is that people really just seem to be talking about stereotypes they hear about on TV crime dramas or something, it's all this urban legend stuff.
Delmoi, my understanding is that what you've said about the amygdala is a bit of an oversimplification and a more boldly-stated thesis than we really have evidence for. The causal links are much more ambiguous than that
Sure, I was trying to make it clear that I didn't know for sure, and that it wasn't really that well understood. But the electroshock thing was done by Hare , who was the main guy driving the whole psychopath/sociopath thing, from what I can tell. I'm not an expert or anything But it would show why, if true, it wouldn't have much to do with parenting and would probably show up in early childhood.

But like I said I am skeptical of the whole idea in general - it tends to get used all the time in "popular culture" to describe just about anyone the person talking doesn't like. Like there are people who are totally sure Mitt Romney is actually a sociopath now because he had been a bully in highschool. There were people calling Amanda Knox a sociopath because of the way she was looking around a room.

On the other hand, there are obviously people who are pretty messed up.
posted by delmoi at 6:17 PM on May 12, 2012


Everyone else was merely trying to find some mechanism to get him to do what he was told, and let me tell you, that kid is way too smart for them.

Exactly. Here's a situation: take any adult involved in this story as a parent, journalist, editor, reader, super-smart internet commenter... and put them in the custody of a randomly chosen newly married American couple who have their "best interests" at heart but also a clear view of how the dependent should behave, what their goals should be, how to measure their success and appropriate behavior, self-chosen rules and punishments which get modified based on the self-help books they read, etc.

Leave for a year or two and come back, and see how that adult is behaving. The assumption is, "respect mah authoritah" or else you have some sort of hard-wired mental disorder. Please. Maybe your authority is just bullshit. It is very easy for this to turn into a "one flew over the cuckoo's nest" game of one-upmanship and bad faith between the two sides, but the implicit assumption of legitimacy of the parent's total authority is one I can almost guarantee Michael does not share. Have you ever been to a house with people whose dogs constantly misbehave? Do you think that's always some genetic/neurological problem with the dog?
posted by crayz at 6:39 PM on May 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


More to this than meets the eye possibly, for all the money they've spent, they could have had max von sydow down for a quick house sprinkle.
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:51 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


My parent's bookshelves were full of "Strong-Willed Child" literature when I was growing up. If parents have a problem with their children, they should be reading "Shitty Parent" books.


A halfway decent book on Asperger's syndrome would have spared my mother and myself some grief. But it was the late 1970's, and if I had been labeled as such, she would have been labeled as the refrigerator-mother causing it.

Fuck that.

You have a kid. You roll the dice. Sometimes they come up snake-eyes.
posted by ocschwar at 6:59 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


Everyone else was merely trying to find some mechanism to get him to do what he was told, and let me tell you, that kid is way too smart for them.

Leaving the store without buying a new toy or dessert does not constitute a parental demand, and shouldn't be confused for somehow causing the child to destroy property or hurting themselves. This socially harmful behavior was always about the child's peer and sibling manipulations, concerning themselves and other parents or teachers.
posted by Brian B. at 7:05 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I swear I feel like I read a different article from most of you. I found it chilling and felt nothing but sympathy for the parents. I just can't see how anyone could read that article and think the parents are doing something wrong. Parenting is hard work and you often aren't on the same page as your partner...this is standard. Learning to compromise is one of the major hurdles of a marriage that involves children and I expect my husband and I will be debating how to handle things for the rest of our lives.

I get the impression that many folks had tough childhoods and/or crappy parents. That sucks, but having a child with issues doesn't automatically make you a crappy parent. And being worried (or even convinced) that something is wrong with your child doesn't make you a crappy parent. I have a child on the autism spectrum. Attempting to get a diagnosis for a behavioral and/or neurological condition can be scary, frustrating, time-consuming, confusing and expensive. No parent wants this for their family or their child.

I guess I'm just confused at the hostility towards the parents, doctors and even the writer. If most psychopaths are shown to have certain behaviors as children...why wouldn't we want to try to identify those kids as early as possible for intervention. Is it the stigma? Is it that so many of you were considered difficult children and you worry that this kind of diagnosis would have been applied to you in error? I'm genuinely curious because I found most of the comments so different from what I was expecting and so hard to understand given my reaction to the article.
posted by victoriab at 7:10 PM on May 12, 2012 [42 favorites]


Anyone remember the murder of James Bulger? He was two years old. Two ten year old boys kidnapped him from a shopping mall, tortured him, and then killed him.

"Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" You can call 'em anything. And you could be right, too. Those two boys certainly were.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:14 PM on May 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


>>Furthermore, Dan Waschbusch is not a clinical psychologist but a research psychologist and is therefore not qualified to diagnose mental disorders. I take his "diagnosis" with a pretty huge grain of salt.

Yes, he is a clinical psychologist. He has a degree in clinical psychology from SUNY. There is no such thing as a "research psychologist." Clinical psychologists conduct research, or do applied work (usually therapy), or both. Mental health assessments are done in research AND in applied work, so it is a skill that clinical psychologists are expected to be an expert in regardless of whether they do research or applied work. Many (if not most) clinical psychology faculty are required by their departments to be license-eligible (meaning that they have been certified as able to do therapy in their state), and many faculty actually have licenses. One of my supervisors is a clinical psychologist (she does research, not therapy, but she is licensed) who is an expert in psychopathy- I would have much, much more confidence in her ability to accurately assess someone for psychopathy than your average joe/jane clinical psychologist working in a private practice here.
posted by quiet coyote at 7:16 PM on May 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Exactly. Here's a situation: take any adult involved in this story as a parent, journalist, editor, reader, super-smart internet commenter... and put them in the custody of a randomly chosen newly married American couple ... Leave for a year or two and come back, and see how that adult is behaving. The assumption is, "respect mah authoritah" or else you have some sort of hard-wired mental disorder. Please.
Yeah, here's the thing though: how many of us would be cutting the tail off a cat?
posted by delmoi at 7:16 PM on May 12, 2012 [15 favorites]


I think this child could be diagnosed with Conduct disorder, and I'm surprised that he's been to 8 therapists (not clinical psychologists presumably, who would actually diagnose CD) and everyone has missed the diagnosis.
...
Furthermore, Dan Waschbusch is not a clinical psychologist but a research psychologist and is therefore not qualified to diagnose mental disorders.


This was the best joke in the thread, and no one laughed! Come on, guys!
posted by Jpfed at 7:18 PM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, he is a clinical psychologist. He has a degree in clinical psychology from SUNY.

I'm sorry, his Ph.D. is from Pitt. He researches callous-unemotional traits, which makes him an expert in psychopathy. It doesn't say whether his doctorate is in clinical psychology, but considering that "research psychology" is not an actual degree in the US as far as I know, it's probably not that.
posted by quiet coyote at 7:21 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm just confused at the hostility towards the parents, doctors and even the writer. If most psychopaths are shown to have certain behaviors as children...why wouldn't we want to try to identify those kids as early as possible for intervention. Is it the stigma? Is it that so many of you were considered difficult children and you worry that this kind of diagnosis would have been applied to you in error?

I have to said that I have every sympathy for the parents here. Childhood disorders are especially difficult in so many ways.

That say, if you read my comment, I make it pretty clear that this child could have a very real, diagnosable, treatable disorder for which his parents should take him to a clinical psychologist to get tested/diagnoses/treated. Conduct disorder is NOT one caused, necessarily, by the way parents raise their children, but by a series of complex factors including genetics, biology, and social, community, and family environments.

Yes, he is a clinical psychologist. He has a degree in clinical psychology from SUNY. There is no such thing as a "research psychologist." Clinical psychologists conduct research, or do applied work (usually therapy), or both. Mental health assessments are done in research AND in applied work, so it is a skill that clinical psychologists are expected to be an expert in regardless of whether they do research or applied work. Many (if not most) clinical psychology faculty are required by their departments to be license-eligible (meaning that they have been certified as able to do therapy in their state), and many faculty actually have licenses. One of my supervisors is a clinical psychologist (she does research, not therapy, but she is licensed) who is an expert in psychopathy- I would have much, much more confidence in her ability to accurately assess someone for psychopathy than your average joe/jane clinical psychologist working in a private practice here.

No, he is not a clinical psychologist. The profile you are referring to is William E. Pelham, Ph.D., who is, in fact, a clinical psychologist and received his Ph.D. from SUNY. Dan Waschbusch received his non-clinical (experimental) psychology Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. I am well aware of the difference between experimental psychology and clinical psychology. Among other things, I work in the experimental psychology field in a psychology lab, and we specifically contract a clinical psychologist to conduct tests that we, as non-clinical psychology researchers, don't have the expertise to conduct ourselves.

I think this child could be diagnosed with Conduct disorder, and I'm surprised that he's been to 8 therapists (not clinical psychologists presumably, who would actually diagnose CD) and everyone has missed the diagnosis.
...
Furthermore, Dan Waschbusch is not a clinical psychologist but a research psychologist and is therefore not qualified to diagnose mental disorders.

This was the best joke in the thread, and no one laughed! Come on, guys!


Note that I merely said that I think he could be diagnosed with this disorder. Not that it's my professional opinion that he does have it, as my professional opinion is meaningless because I am not a clinical psychologist, merely a student and researcher of psychology/neuroscience. The literature stands, and I would be happy to provide you with some papers for your reading enjoyment.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:33 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


I swear I feel like I read a different article from most of you. I found it chilling and felt nothing but sympathy for the parents. I just can't see how anyone could read that article and think the parents are doing something wrong.
I've written out partial comments to this thread and deleted them twice now. We'll see if three's the charm.

PhoB's comment here said a lot of it for me. It's not so much that I'm reading it and thinking "his parents are doing it wrong" as I'm reading it and thinking "I wonder what Michael thinks about himself."

How aware is he that his mother thinks of being his mother as "joyless"?

We just don't know the whole story here, you know? So although the article's author went to great pains to sort of cast this kid as this force of nature destroying his parents' lives, I wonder how much love he feels?

I mean, kids are different, and some kids can be in a really safe, loving home and still be very close to the edge all the time. There's some hinting at some of the thoughts about stuff like this in the article, things like how they're kind of always riding that fight or flight response. When he's really screaming and pitching a fit and breaking toilet seats, that sucks for him too, you know?

I watched my nephew, who's 8, really fight with his parents over this one school project this year. It was awful for him and awful for his parents. My boyfriend watched some too and said he recognized some of the kind of spiraling into emotional states he experienced as a kid.

So I guess that's my problem, is that we're kind of talking about how, oh, psychopathy is the absence of empathy and yet the label is often used as a reason to withdraw empathy. I think it was withdrawn in the writing of this article, and that made me pretty uncomfortable.
posted by kavasa at 7:40 PM on May 12, 2012 [18 favorites]


Note that I merely said that I think he could be diagnosed with this disorder. Not that it's my professional opinion that he does have it, as my professional opinion is meaningless because I am not a clinical psychologist, merely a student and researcher of psychology/neuroscience.

I retract my snark. I misunderstood your use of "the diagnosis" to mean "the diagnosis of conduct disorder, which he should be given" as opposed to what you probably actually meant, "the diagnosis of conduct disorder, which I previously mentioned".
posted by Jpfed at 7:42 PM on May 12, 2012


Michael will be right at home in law school. That is the current finishing school for most sociopaths.
posted by reenum at 7:44 PM on May 12, 2012


this child could have a very real, diagnosable, treatable disorder for which his parents should take him to a clinical psychologist to get tested/diagnoses/treated

Have you read the article? Here you go:

Over the last six years, Michael’s parents have taken him to eight different therapists and received a proliferating number of diagnoses. “We’ve had so many people tell us so many different things,” Anne said. “Oh, it’s A.D.D. — oh, it’s not. It’s depression — or it’s not. You could open the DSM and point to a random thing, and chances are he has elements of it. He’s got characteristics of O.C.D. He’s got characteristics of sensory-integration disorder. Nobody knows what the predominant feature is, in terms of treating him. Which is the frustrating part.”

Then last spring, the psychologist treating Michael referred his parents to Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University. Following a battery of evaluations, Anne and Miguel were presented with another possible diagnosis: their son Michael might be a psychopath.

posted by Wordwoman at 7:47 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I retract my snark. I misunderstood your use of "the diagnosis" to mean "the diagnosis of conduct disorder, which he should be given" as opposed to what you probably actually meant, "the diagnosis of conduct disorder, which I previously mentioned".

No problem! Most importantly, I think it's possible that he could have a disorder, but psychopathy is most definitely not it. Conduct disorder does fit many of his behaviors and personality traits, but it would take a clinical psychologist to correctly test, diagnose, and treat this disorder. This is not to minimize the effectiveness of therapists (a profession I am considering!), social workers, and researchers, as I think they all have very, very important roles in treating mental health disorders. It's just that conduct disorder is really, really tough, as the article illustrates. Of course, we must rely on the author of the article. This situation could be vastly different than what is presented to us.

Have you read the article? Here you go:

Have you read my comment in its entirety?
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:52 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Have you read the article? Here you go:

Have you read my comment in its entirety?

I mean my original comment.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:54 PM on May 12, 2012


That say, if you read my comment, I make it pretty clear that this child could have a very real, diagnosable, treatable disorder for which his parents should take him to a clinical psychologist to get tested/diagnoses/treated.

Yep, I read it. What makes you think this child hasn't been to a clinical psychologist?
posted by Wordwoman at 8:00 PM on May 12, 2012


I swear I feel like I read a different article from most of you. I found it chilling and felt nothing but sympathy for the parents.

If I'm the parents, I'm scared shitless this kid is going to hurt one of the younger kids. As in, not like push or swat or usual childhood stuff.

Joyless? Yeah, that'd be a pretty joyless way to spend your days.
posted by kgasmart at 8:08 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yep, I read it. What makes you think this child hasn't been to a clinical psychologist?

Because, in general, therapist does not necessarily equal clinical psychologist. But again, I'm getting this information from the author of the article, which could be wrong. Also, it's possible his parents don't understand the difference, or don't care to make a distinction, between clinical psychologist and therapist, in which case he may have been to a clinical psychologist. And again: Waschbusch =/= clinical psychologist and psychopathy =/= a diagnosis.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:11 PM on May 12, 2012


Then last spring, the psychologist treating Michael referred his parents to Dan Waschbusch

I refer to this sentence.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:13 PM on May 12, 2012


"Then last spring, the psychologist treating Michael referred his parents to Dan Waschbusch"

I refer to this sentence.


I absolutely do not mean this as a personal insult, but I think you are failing to grasp the difference between the terms psychologist and clinical psychologist. I am a psychologist. I am NOT a clinical psychologist (see third paragraph). Clinical psychologist are psychologists, but not all psychologists are clinical psychologists. Does that make sense?
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:19 PM on May 12, 2012


When I was eight-ish, I actively wanted to poison people. I was prevented primarily by the lack of concentrated malice, lack of focus/ability and of course little access to materials. I also did horrific things to insects and wanted to run a crime empire. I don't think I'd de-tail a cat, but I did get up to plenty of unkind hijinks including bullying and paying other children to bully. My childhood is a catalogue of viciousness, towards me from my peers and back out towards them.

The empathy that means I don't do that sort of crap anymore was growing in during that period. Faganism isn't the only reason why we apply laws less stringently; kids are expected to have a lousy concept of consequences, especially abstract ones.

It's possible the kid is a sociopath- impulse control problems are a huge part of that, but I suspect there's a lot more going on, and it's not completely useful for predicting adult behaviour.
posted by Phalene at 8:53 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it that so many of you were considered difficult children and you worry that this kind of diagnosis would have been applied to you in error?

Well, it's partially this. It's not just that I was "difficult"--angry, really. It's not just that I think, well, I'm sure glad I wasn't sent to some Lord of the Flies psychological study filled with manipulative, similarly violent-tempered kids (because that sure sounds like something no kid should be subjected to). Though that's true, too.

For me, it's the knowledge that my anger and violent tendencies--kicking holes in the wall, slamming doors until the door handle broke the plaster, slamming drawers until they broke, hitting my head against the wall over and over again--were a specific reaction to abuse, verbal and physical, as well as a general reaction to the chaos of my household. And yet I was told, repeatedly, that the problem was with me. I was sick. I was crazy.

But I wasn't. I was ten, and I was miserable, lonely, and scared shitless. The labeling was something I've later recognized as gaslighting. I know that such gaslighting is common with abusive parents. I also know that abusers often look like upstanding citizens from the outside.

I'm not saying that the parents here have ever laid a finger on their child. However, it is possible to fail to meet a child's emotional needs despite having the child's best intentions at heart. The behavior described here as psycopathic could easily be seen as not completely unusual markers of difficult childhood (throwing or breaking things, stating you hate your little brother) combined with being very very bright and steeped in a culture of emotional processing. A lot of the language he uses which his parents label manipulative and the comments on the article mark "creepy" are right out of the language of therapy--the analytic approach to his feelings and his relationships with others. But his mother, particularly, seems very attached to the notion that he is, in fact, manipulative and psycopathic--even when her husband views the kid more optimistically*. She's also a strict disciplinarian, who treats him differently than her two other children who do not exhibit this behavior. All of this suggests to me that we're only getting one side of the story. It's Michael's side of the story I'm most interested in, but the article seems fairly intent on not viewing him as a person. So.

*This is what I found most poignant in the article: “Sometimes when Michael does things, I know exactly why,” he said with a shrug. “Because I’ve done the same kind of thing.”
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:16 PM on May 12, 2012 [23 favorites]


Maybe I'm missing something, so perhaps someone could clarify this for me. The article spends a lot of time detailing Michael's emotional outbursts, his uncontrollable rage, his anger pushing him into hours-long fits during which he kicks holes in doors and breaks toilet seats. When his brother unpauses the Pokémon video, he responds emotionally, reacting with violence and more rage. Then there's this description:
“These kids, they take offense easily and react disproportionately. The same is true for grudges. If one of the kids scored a goal on him” — the smolderer — “he would be furious. He would be angry at that kid for days.”
And yet, these kids are described as "unemotional." The article goes on to explain how psychopaths lack the ability to feel discomfort, which is why negative feedback is not effective. What is Michael experiencing that causes him to fly off into a rage? Is that really his best calculated move? And if these kids are so immune to negative feedback, what is it that fuels that smoldering need for revenge after losing a point in a game?
posted by buriednexttoyou at 9:18 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Skipping comments to react, will return and read: This seems terribly unhelpful. It may be that there are children who don't conform or attend or care properly due to some stroke or combination of nature-nurture-poverty-genetic-utero-factor-etc. And maybe some tiny tiny subset of these kids / later adults with troubles exhibit truly gruesome behaviors. But many most just need some help to survive and this type of story only reinforces / enhances the barriers.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:26 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, here's the thing though: how many of us would be cutting the tail off a cat?
posted by delmoi


I presume you realize Michael is not the subject of that anecdote. I almost missed that myself the first time through.

And that brings me to what I think is the most glaring inconsistency in this account for anyone who wants to conclude that Michael is a psychopath: his brothers-- his little, vulnerable, annoying brothers--are not terrified of him. In fact:
When I asked Anne if she worried about Michael’s behavior taking a psychological toll on his brothers — Allan, in particular, seemed to worship Michael — she seemed surprised by the idea. Then she told me that the previous week, Allan had “run away” to a friend’s house, located more than a mile from home. “Of course we were worried sick,” she added hastily. “But Allan is confident that way.”
Far from being a child who has been terrorized by a psychopathic older brother, Allan is actually much more confident and sure of himself than average. Here is the ending of the most problematic interaction between Michael and Allan:
“What you saw, that was the old Michael,” he continued. “He was like that all day long. Kicking and hitting, slamming the toilet seat.” But he also noted that Allan had provoked Michael, at one point taunting him for crying. “He loves to poke at him when he can,” Miguel said.

From the bedroom, Michael called out: “He knows the consequences, so I don’t know why he does it. I will hurt him.”

Miguel: “No you won’t.”

Michael: “I’m coming for you, Allan.”
In answer to “He knows the consequences, so I don’t know why he does it. I will hurt him” I might have laughed (it is funny) and said something like 'Allan thinks that's how you express your love for him' which I believe is pretty close to the truth. Not the healthiest form love can take, to be sure, but there it is, the thing itself.

Anyone remember the murder of James Bulger? He was two years old. Two ten year old boys kidnapped him from a shopping mall, tortured him, and then killed him.

One of the most horrifying crimes of my adult life. Those boys are out now, or will be soon, and as I understand it, Britain has made it impossible for officialdom to track them. ... *shudder*
posted by jamjam at 9:32 PM on May 12, 2012


I would be scared shitless if that was my kid.

We can talk in circles about clinical psychologists vs research psychologists, the shitty parenting vs the biased reporter, whatever. The fact is that psychopaths do exist, and maybe just maybe they can be born into a totally regular family and there isn't too much that can be done about it once the kid is there. You can't drug people into having a conscience. If my kid (I know it wasn't the one in the article) was cutting the tail off a cat, or doing any other scary bullshit that is a warning sign for becoming a future serial killer (cruelty to animals is a huge red flag- more than just the usual backyard frog chasing/ant burning)....I would be terrified.

Everyone wants to think "oh with the right diagnosis from the right person with the right medication" or "if only his parents spoke to him like this" or "if only we weren't so quick to judge" etc etc.

Scary shit happens. That James Bulger story is absolutely a case in point.
posted by bquarters at 9:44 PM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


I believe there are children out there with serious mental illness that was not caused by their parents and could not be solved even with the most loving, engaged family in history. The problem I have with this article is that collecting reasons why your child is 'different' and 'evil' and 'inherently bad,' assigning meaning and significance to everything from how they cried at age 3 to how they looked at you during a conversation, and taking them from doctor to doctor for validation is ALSO a symptom of serious mental illness.

I'm with rebent on this. It seems irresponsible to assume the former without addressing the possibility of the latter.
posted by Gable Oak at 9:49 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


The article goes on to explain how psychopaths lack the ability to feel discomfort, which is why negative feedback is not effective. What is Michael experiencing that causes him to fly off into a rage? Is that really his best calculated move? And if these kids are so immune to negative feedback, what is it that fuels that smoldering need for revenge after losing a point in a game?

Excellent points! I think that the callous-unemotional traits, in general, not necessarily in Michael's case, refer more to the child's lack of empathy toward others and their tendency to not show their true emotions. In the situation that you bring up, I think that, in the first part when they mention that "these kids" react disproportionately, he's displaying impulsiveness and aggression, as well as a lack of empathy for others and a lack of appropriate emotion. Simply put, that kid who scored a goal on him is meaningless, and the likely reason for his aggression/rage is that this kid made him look bad or embarrassed him and he now wants revenge. One can be impulsive yet calculating and/or manipulative. These traits are observed in BOTH conduct disorder/ASPD and psychopathy.

Here's a study done with young girls who have conduct disorder. In the study, they found that "Girls with the CU [callous-unemotional] subtype of CD had higher levels of externalizing disorder symptoms, bullying, relational aggression, and global impairment than girls with CD alone."
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:54 PM on May 12, 2012


Personally, my sense is that a big part of the problem with all this is the desire — individually and in our shared culture — for this underlying question to have one or the other easy answers. That is, that it's all about the parenting or all about the innate psychology of the child. Different groups have strong predispositions for one view of the other (often depending upon their own experience as children or parents) and, culturally, there's been an evolution from a position that doesn't hold parents responsible for anything to a position that holds parents responsible for everything.

I think all this is terribly simplistic and it's children and parents all of us who suffer for it. If we deny the possibility that some children can have severe behavioral and psychological problem in the absence of bad parenting, then we're going to fix blame where it doesn't belong and we won't be able to help those children because we won't understand what's going on. If we deny that environment, including bad parenting and abuse, is implicated in a lot of childhood behavioral and psychological problems, we also will fix blame where it doesn't belong and we also won't be able to help those children because we won't understand what's going on.

It seems obvious to me that there must be a continuum and which, worse, regardless of the initial causes from whichever end of the spectrum they originate, becomes a complicated interaction between nature and nurture. Also, the whole idea of blame, as much as it is important to those of us who have survived abusive parents, is actually not socially helpful with regard to really solving the problem and making children's lives better. Our cultural need to moralize and punish is getting in the way of treatment and improved lives because we get sidetracked onto it and it gets extremely divisive and threatening. The degree to which parents and children will be judged and punished when there's a problem child is the degree to which the family will avoid getting help and it's the degree to which any treatment that is received will be distorted by assigning or deflecting blame.

Personally, I'm inclined to believe that abusive parents or otherwise damaging environments is an order of magnitude more common as a cause of severe child behavioral/psychological problems than is something innate to the child. But that means that if there are ten million such abused children, there's the other million who have problems which are not the result of environment. Maybe the ratio is more lopsided. But I don't think it's so lopsided that there are not appreciable number of such independently disturbed children. And those children need and deserve help. They're not going to get it if we insist that it's their parents' fault.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:26 PM on May 12, 2012 [12 favorites]




I hope that social services are keeping an eye on this kid, for his sake and everyone else's.

Well if Florida's Social Services people are on it, we can all rest easy!
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:06 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


And that brings me to what I think is the most glaring inconsistency in this account for anyone who wants to conclude that Michael is a psychopath: his brothers-- his little, vulnerable, annoying brothers--are not terrified of him.

Somebody has just cited the example of the two ten year old kids who abducted, tortured and killed two-year old Jamie Bulger upthread -- Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

Their siblings weren't scared of them either. If anything, both kids were the runts of the family litter.

Two years ago, the 27 year old Venables had his parole licence revoked for the alleged possession of child pornography.

So was the ten year old Venables a 'psychopath' or not?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:14 PM on May 12, 2012


Ack, I'd intended to link to the James Bulger wikipedia article.

The case is something that resonates with me because I grew up less than a mile from where those kids lived, I also played on the railway track where they killed James Bulger, and I work in a building next door to the shopping centre where they abducted him from.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:25 PM on May 12, 2012


The idea that conduct disorder in children must come from bad parenting (not genetically, but influentially) is a little strange when one considers that such children can come from good parents, and good children often come from "bad" parents. There is the case of severe neglect of a child leading to problems, but yet reactive attachment disorder can appear as overly social, clinging to strangers for attention. Then there is the nagging fear that peers have more influence over children anyway. The "bad parenting" theory also ignores potential brain injuries during fetal development such as poor nutrition, exposure to drugs, toxins or viruses in the womb and afterwards, lack of oxygen at birth. There are cases of respiratory viruses causing severe mental retardation while the mother was pregnant. Perhaps the worst problem for the bad parenting theory is that the same logic leads to the conclusion that parenting somehow teaches kids how have autism, or depression, or anxiety, or epilepsy, or intermittent explosive anger with facial tics. The point is that the brain is very complex, and just because we don't know a cause to a disorder that is at times more subtle than autism or depression doesn't automatically make the parents culpable by default while experts can't yet determine the cause.
posted by Brian B. at 11:50 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


But I don't think it's so lopsided that there are not appreciable number of such independently disturbed children. And those children need and deserve help. They're not going to get it if we insist that it's their parents' fault.
I don't really think that's happening here?

Basically what I'm wondering is: if indeed Michael has some innate issues, doesn't it seem possible that his relationship with his parents, especially his mom, might be worsening them? Consider this:
Joyless? Yeah, that'd be a pretty joyless way to spend your days.
How much worse than "joyless" might be the way that Michael is spending his days?

Again, we don't know, but this article has taken pains to render Michael as unsympathetic and frightening as possible.

I just found the viewpoint taken very troubling. The researchers in the article have said that they don't have a valid sample size, they don't have the basic research questions answered. And yet we're already asking "should we be labeling some kids psychopaths?"

Does the application of the label even help anyone?

From a CNN profile of the various people in the Bulger case:
Thompson, known as Child A during his and Venables' 1993 trial, was one of seven children from what reportedly was a dysfunctional family suffering from abuse, alcohol, unemployment and an absent father.
Venables, known as Child B during the trial, was described as a weak, if willing, follower. One of three children, his mother and father were separated but were described as caring and involved parents.
And that's just what CNN knew. Apparently the investigators thought some sort of sexual stuff had happened to the toddler, and then later one of the killers gets picked up for child pornography - you don't think maybe that kid was a victim himself? Maybe he wasn't, sure, but it seems distinctly possible to me that he was.

Some of my niece's most common justifications for misbehavior are things like "I like to do it" and "because I wanted to." She (rarely!) does things like kicks the dog, or more commonly will break or destroy things, sometimes on accident, sometimes not. I often try to reason with her along the lines of "would you like it if I came into your room and snapped your harry potter wand, or threw away your lego stuff?" And she says "NOOOO" etc. And when I ask her again why she thought it would be ok to dig up one of her nana's plants or something, she still responds "because I like to."

I've also watched her really viciously snub another little girl at daycare and be totally unconcerned with the tears she caused.

Is she a 'psychopath'? Or is she just a little kid, mostly devoid of empathy in the way that kids kind of are?

If you asked me if I thought maybe some kids had more issues than other kids, for a variety of reasons, I'd say yes. If you asked me if I thought maybe some parents needed help with their kids, I'd say yes. If you asked me if I thought resources should be available for those parents, again, I'd say yes.

If you asked me if I thought we should link those resources to specific diagnostic labels, I'm pretty sure I'd say no.
posted by kavasa at 11:50 PM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


I feel for his parents.

There's an interesting semantic/emotional thing at play here.
- Young children are by definition not really culpable for anything. We chastise them but it's the adults responsibility to prevent anything bad from happening.
- Parents have a strong urge to be optimistic about the future of their child. Because a child will have to take on the world not matter what. And it's how the parent copes in life. It's a good emotional stance even though not always factually correct.
- young children deserve unconditional empathy
- (mentally ill) criminals have forfeited their empathy from society to a large degree. With normal criminals this involves the punishment of taking their physical freedom away. With the dangerously mentally ill we judge them not culpable and not deserving of punishment (in Dutch law at least). But there it's the need to protect society from them.
- this article reminds us that (maybe) some children are genetically geared for violence. That suggests a measure of 'destiny' or 'fate' that is at odds with the optimism that we cultivate towards children.
- it's hard to feel empathy for a psychopath since they don't reciprocate. They break a fundamental social contract

In society we have categories that are contradictory: f.i. either you are a person with the right to live or you are not. But persons come into existence at some point and cease to exist at some point. It's hard to have a shared understanding of where a person changes from one category to a contradictory one if the process is gradual.

That's why discussions about if a child can/should be called psychopathic are unavoidable and largely pointless.
posted by joost de vries at 11:58 PM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


How aware is he that his mother thinks of being his mother as "joyless"?

Well, in our house, our oldest son (currently 9) is quite aware of this label placed on him by his mother.

He was always...difficult. Being our first child, we were somewhat confused that he never seemed to calm down like we saw other kids doing, or like other parents or books described. He was very "fussy", needing to be tightly wrapped to sleep as an infant. As he got tired, he wouldn't snuggle up and lay down his head; he'd just get more and more punch drunk until, mercifully, his body just couldn't keep up.

As he was growing up, he tended to alienate friends. We've been effectively "kicked out" of playgroups--ostracized, really. And I couldn't really blame the other parents, since he would just get louder and louder, and wilder and wilder, and eventually do something like smack someone (accidentally, more often than not). He was labeled as a wild kid; as his parents we bore the blame. We've always been strict with him, since we would frequently have to step in and remove him from situations just to try to calm things down (not usually anger, even).

It's a joy watching him learn--he's quite bright--but I gotta say that bit about the "Nobel Prize winner or serial killer" is crazily accurate: my phrase is usually "scientist or supervillian". He can be ruthlessly manipulative. He lies disturbingly often, often for no fathomable reason (as in, he didn't do anything remotely wrong but lies about it anyway). At times he flies into rages: I believe my wife called the police on him when he was six or so. She had said that he couldn't do something he wanted to do, and he just started coming after her trying to hit her. We had a newborn (a month or so old) at the time, and my wife was also still recovering. She managed to get him barricaded in his room, but after throwing things violently at the door he went out on the balcony and broke the glass door into the adjoining room, crawling through the glass to get back at her. Between protecting herself and the other kids (I was still trying to get home), she called 911. Things finally settled down by the time I got there, but there have been other violent incidents. He came after me with a broom handle maybe six months ago.

We're on our second psychiatrist. The first one spent little time with him/us. The second one is better, but we wish we could get his behavior better controlled. Yes, "controlled". It took us over a year of therapy before finally resigning to the fact we'd need to medicate him, the constant losing of friends that finally pushed us over. We're not sure what the diagnosis is: ADHD, OCD, ODD, autism, Asperger's, or even the article's CU or psychopathic tendencies. At times, he seems to not notice lots of social cues. Luckily, I guess, he is usually quite capable of accurately identifying what people are thinking/feeling in a certain situation if he's pulled aside and asked, or if we're reading together and talk about it, or the like. It's just that he gets caught up too often in the heat of the moment. So it seems that ADHD at least fits pretty well.

I would be scared shitless if that was my kid.

We are, we are. You have no idea. We're frantic at times--there are clear signs of what is essentially a criminal mindset; just constant scheming, manipulating, callousness. Yet, there is clear tenderness there sometimes, too. His baby sister tends to calm him down. He can be quite thoughtful--and not just for show (but--yes--sometimes for show). One large reason we homeschool him is that he would just be hell on a classroom, and we don't want to inflict him on others. When he's bored (and he's bright, so boredom is likely), bad things happen. Another reason we homeschool him is to try to get his behavior under control (and another reason is, of course, so we can work at his pace).

If I can put a positive spin on our experience it is that I am *far* more sympathetic of parents with difficult children. "You're too strict." "You're not strict enough." "You're overmedicating." "He's just being a kid." "You need to get him under control." We've heard it all. Hell, maybe I'm abusive, somehow. I don't think so, but I'm willing to consider otherwise if it can help our son. I've spanked him; I've yelled at him; I've taken away most every toy, little by little, after repeated disobedience. I don't like doing any of those things (and we're not spanking/yelling going forward). I never thought I'd be doing those things, but at times we're sitting there racking our brains about what a reasonable consequence needs to be.

It's so frustrating; there'll be people reading this (if they make it this far) that are *sure* they have the answer. "Oh, you should do more *positive* reinforcement!" (We do, thanks. Random frequent prizes and praise when catching good behavior). "Just spend more time with him!" (He's homeschooled. Lots of time, way more than most kids). "He needs more 'socialization'!" (Between a homeschool social group, neighbors, siblings, and other hobbies he's probably doing just fine). We've sent him to an outpatient children's program at a psychiatric hospital, which was only slightly helpful (and eye-opening for him). At this point, the opinions we get, and the therapists we talk to, and the books we read--they're all just pretty much saying the same things. And we've been doing those things. We're desperate for good ideas, but it's easy to look closed-minded when you're just simply hearing the same things again and again.

So forgive this poor woman, please. "There, but for the grace of God, go I," and all that. It's pretty depressing when you've exhausted all the avenues you know about and every day looks like an endless fight against your kid.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:04 AM on May 13, 2012 [139 favorites]


Phalene: Faganism isn't the only reason why we apply laws less stringently; kids are expected to have a lousy concept of consequences, especially abstract ones.

I'm not familiar with this term and Google doesn't seem to be much help. What is it?
posted by dhens at 12:11 AM on May 13, 2012


I'm thinking Phalene is talking about Faginism, after Fagin from Oliver Twist. It appears from googling to be a UK term for adults preying on children, usually by taking advantage of criminal acts committed by the child.
posted by winna at 12:29 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Let me put out something more specific than the vague "They must be bad parents if they have a 'bad' kid." I think the author intentionally hand-waves it away to play up the, "Oh god, it could happen to me!" angle. Obviously, one possibility is that there is a young boy who needs help from the very edge of mental health research. Another possibility is that a young boy AND his entire family need help from a different edge of mental health research and it could present to us outsiders as exactly the same.

Randy Kreger (of Stop Walking on Eggshells fame) describes splitting. NPD and BPD are extremely difficult to treat, even with a cooperative, willing patient and their children rarely make it to adulthood unscathed.

Having an 'all bad' child and other 'normal' children is often presented as evidence the one child was born different. It's not. Maybe scapegoating doesn't fit in with the common image of an abuser (maybe the alcoholic dad with a belt or the strict disciplinarian) but you can imagine the mental health consequences for a child whose whole self-image has been defined that way for them since before their earliest memories. In the parent's head, everything wrong with themselves or with the family can be linked back to the 'all bad' child. 'Normal' kids acting up? They must be reacting to something the 'all bad' one did. Irritable at work? It's so stressful having this problem child. Maybe they imagine themselves as the devoted martyr, the super-parent reading books and going from doctor-to-doctor desperate to find a 'cure' for the child. The last doctor was bad, just like all the others. The new doctor is the only one who can save them.

So skepticism doesn't mean "This kid would be totally fine if they just did XYZ" or "They must be bad parents if they have a 'bad' kid." It means this article is bad and I feel bad reading a nonconsensual partial story about this child's private medical care where his behavior is so casually conflated with child murderers and cat maimers and Ted Bundy.
posted by Gable Oak at 12:57 AM on May 13, 2012 [15 favorites]


Faganism

faginism
posted by Wolof at 1:22 AM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


What i got from that article was the mother is pretty cold and has already given up on her child.
posted by timsneezed at 1:41 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Conduct disorder is NOT one caused, necessarily, by the way parents raise their children, but by a series of complex factors including genetics, biology, and social, community, and family environments.

? What is "family environment" if not "the way parents raise their children?"

I dunno, I'm really confused by the other comments here debating whether parenting is a cause of children's mental illnesses and/or problematic behaviors. Isn't it obvious that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't??

I have an anxiety disorder. There is no question in my mind that I, personally, have an anxiety disorder because I got hit pretty much every day of my childhood. You wouldn't generally say "anxiety disorder is caused by bad parenting." But in my case, it is.

And in other people's cases it's not. Why is this controversial in this thread?
posted by cairdeas at 1:55 AM on May 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Does the application of the label even help anyone?

The label is just lazy shorthand for a collection of traits and behaviours. One of the irritating things about this thread is how people are identifying the moderate versions of those things and identifying with these children. "Yeah, that was me, that."

I bet it wasn't.

Unless we can identify children who display those traits and behaviours, we can't actually study them and learn anything about how to help them, so yes, I think it is helpful -- but only over the long haul -- a point that the article makes.

Apparently the investigators thought some sort of sexual stuff had happened to the toddler, and then later one of the killers gets picked up for child pornography - you don't think maybe that kid was a victim himself?

The rumours locally involved the insertion of batteries into the infant's rectum, and some mutilation of the child's genitalia.

I don't think there's ever been any suggestion that Thompson and Venables were seeking to sexually gratify themselves with Bulger.

As for whether he's a victim or not -- I've no idea. It's probably a factor in some cases and not in others.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:15 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


My mother was a kindergarten teacher for more than 30 years. At that time, many special needs children were schooled with the other kids, so she had to deal with extreme cases, like the 4-year old Hulk who could tear a drainpipe off a wall when he was angry, or the one who spent his recesses licking the ground. Of the 1000 kids who went through her class, only one really scared her, and he was very similar to the one described in the article: smart, manipulative, scheming, alternatively cold- and hot-tempered, and very, very cruel to the other kids. My mother was sure that he'd become a serial killer. I just looked up his name and he's now a successful real-estate agent with a very public profile: this doesn't mean much but at least he did not drive off the road. On the other hand, one of her "average" pupils became a jihadist and died in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004.
posted by elgilito at 4:41 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


So forgive this poor woman, please. "There, but for the grace of God, go I," and all that. It's pretty depressing when you've exhausted all the avenues you know about and every day looks like an endless fight against your kid.

What sets my alarm off big time is Anne can worry that Michael is capable of murdering Allan but is surprised when the reporter suggests this may all be taking a psychological toll on the younger boys? She's got a degree in psychology and can't connect those dots? And the murky parallel narrative about the dad being crazy but "growing out of it"? ... Sorry, something amiss with this family.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:53 AM on May 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's something amiss with nearly every family, honestly. And I'm a little concerned that we are so eager to rush to judgment of the mother. It reminds me of the "schizophrenogenic" theories that were rampant when I was a kid. We attribute huge influence to mothers, and punish them for everything, and being "evil mothers" is one of the two or three ways that women are able to have power in an unequal society (others are "witch" and "siren").

The article was clearly slanted, of course, because the writer was trying to tell a compelling story; the thing that caught my attention in the story was how much the father identified with the kid and seemed to be almost an interested spectator--and a nurturer of the boy's emotional state--sometimes. Again, we don't know how accurate or close to the "facts" the "story" is. This kind of "evil child/bad parent" story is terribly popular with us, and gives us a focus on which to blame something - our own childhood sorrows, the state of the world, the bad behavior of other people's children.

Kids are indeed born with personalities, and they are indeed vulnerable to environmental influences, and birth order matters. And we can blame everything on pesticides, electromagnetic fields, fluoridation, vaccination, neighborhood, mothers, fathers, school, media, brain chemistry, or psychological inclination. And then we do the best we can.
posted by Peach at 6:03 AM on May 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


It seems kind of attention-seeking for the parents to have invited a reporter from The New York Times into their home to ask the "journalistic" question "Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" With all the problems they're having with their family, this seemed like a good use of time and resources, and like something that would help their kids? I really wonder if the family wanted to be anonymous, or if that was an editorial decision.

I'm reminded of another well-publicized family drama, which has resulted in concerned strangers paying the rent of the poor, tormented parents of the problem child, and, of course, a book deal. For all the scrutiny on Michael's behavior and motivations, did Jennifer Kahn not think to ask what the parents were getting out of their interaction?
posted by Scram at 6:11 AM on May 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, of course, Peach. And it's Mother's Day and I'm a mother and understand profoundly the complexities and singularities of "mothering". I didn't "rush to judgment" or imply anything evil. With such powerful, long-standing, deeply-entrenched mental illness, the family dynamic grows around it, and the narrative they create protects the child (one hopes) and this very serious thing that sets them apart, quite naturally. I'm simply hoping the younger boys are being protected, too. With the army of therapists around them, I hope they are paying attention to the whole family, not just Michael.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:16 AM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


This has been a really difficult thread for me. For anyone who hasn't experienced life with a child who has challenging behaviors - it's hard. It's really really very hard. And a lot of what makes it hard is the judgment from pretty much everyone that when a kid has challenging behaviors it is necessarily and only the result of bad parenting. I recognized a lot of my son in this article, and I would never consider him a psychopath. He has autism, which means that he's developmentally behind in a lot of ways. He's 9, but empathy-wise he might as well be about 2. He's also behind in terms of emotional regulation and perspective taking, which means that those violent rages do happen. He takes three medications, which help some, but he still needs to be in a self-contained special ed class instead of mainstream. There have been days where I've feared for my own safety, and every day I fear for his future. But parenting him, while sometimes filling me with despair, is on balance anything but joyless. It makes me sad to see people leaping towards diagnoses such as "psychopath" which basically seems to imply "incurable, irredeemable, just write this kid off." Kids can and do progress and grow, even if it's at a different rate from typical development.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:20 AM on May 13, 2012 [13 favorites]


I swear I feel like I read a different article from most of you. I found it chilling and felt nothing but sympathy for the parents. I just can't see how anyone could read that article and think the parents are doing something wrong.

I tell you one reason for my reaction to the article. These kinds of pieces about kids give me the creeps. I don't completely condemn the parents, but they can choose to be portrayed in these articles, or not. To see this kind of horribly negative description of a nine-year-old really makes me kind of sick. Yes, their names and identities are somewhat obscured. But really, what is the point of this lengthy portrait of Michael? He'll probably read it someday. I don't know what I would do as the parent of a troubled (difficult, sick, whatever) child but I would not expose them, and the rest of my family, to this.
posted by BibiRose at 6:27 AM on May 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


Those boys are out now, or will be soon, and as I understand it, Britain has made it impossible for officialdom to track them. ... *shudder*

This has already been indirectly refuted, but I'll do so directly. They were released on lifelong parole in 2001. Venables is in prison (since 2010) having been convicted on a child pornography charge. The only sense in which it is impossible to track them is that the tabloids haven't found their new identities. Which doesn't mean they haven't tried.

(The handling of the new identities is interesting, in a way. Thompson has seemingly disappeared into a typical life, which was the idea. But the decision to name Venables as Venables when he returned to prison means he was treated differently to some random bloke charged with possession of child pornography, who presumably would have been named under their current identity. There are competing social impulses--one to name people possessing child pornography and one that desires that children who commit murder be irredeemable.)
posted by hoyland at 6:36 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


A few things I've learned from reading the comments on this article:

1) If you say the parents are to blame, you'll get yelled at, but honestly, the parents are probably to blame. After all, his mother said raising him was "joyless" and that is probably a huge factor.

2) The psychologist in the story is unqualified and doesn't know what he's doing, but apparently there are a horde of experts he could call on here.

3) There clearly isn't anything REALLY wrong for Michael or it's not as bad as it's made out in the article and he's just being set up as a psychopath from the word go and we don't know the whole story because, I don't know, all kids are great?

4) The parents are the real monsters here though that's kind of not fair to say but they are.
posted by Legomancer at 7:25 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


She's got a degree in psychology and can't connect those dots?

It's a BA, so I would be cautious about assuming a lot of insight came from that. It is, I think, the most popular major in liberal arts environments, and kind of a default for many people who aren't sure about a disciplinary direction. It's possible to complete your eight courses or so without really delving deeply into developmental psychology or any other single area of psychology. It was an interesting mention, but graduate-level psychology is an entirely different animal than undergraduate psychology, which is often about as demanding as business or English as a degree program.

I'm not judging these parents at all. They're in an extremely difficult position. The fact is that while they may have failings as parents and people, as all parents and people do, the vast majority of children don't develop such extreme problems.

As a kindergarten teacher I had one student who was very much emotionally disturbed, an anger-and-rage child who definitely terrified his peacenik parents. He was so distinctly different in affect from other children that there was no mistaking the unusual qualities of his wiring. I'm not sure that this kind of disorder can be solved, and the treatment in the article does sound clumsy and exhausting, but as with so very many neurological conditions, we are just still in the Dark Ages about how to manage it. That doesn't help the parents or the siblings, to whom my heart goes out.
posted by Miko at 7:26 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Psychopathy is real. If you've had the misfortune to know more than one or two of these people (I've had five as acquaintances) you eventually learn that there really is something wrong with them, and it is very consistent. As for what causes it my money is on some kind of neurotransmitter pathway defect; there is a study that suggested oxytocin might be the culprit. It is probably some kind of fetal development error rather than genetic because it seems to arise randomly rather than being passed down through generations.

It gets renamed from time to time because while not all psychopaths become criminals, a huge proportion of criminals are psychopaths, and whatever the term du jour is eventually becomes associated with a collection of grisly cirmes. Because it's so annoying and can't be treated a diagnosis is incredibly stigmatic, and the DSM-IV leans so far in the direction of political correctness trying not to stigmatize people that way by mistake that the definition of Antisocial Personality Disorder is nearly useless and flatly contradicts much of what has been written about psychopathy since Philippe Pinel identified the syndrome.

Psychopaths can be charming, witty, intelligent, and feign the emotions they are not feeling very effectively. The surest diagnosis is a pattern of behavior featuring random betrayals motivated by idle curiosity or boredom and not inhibited by guilt or consequences.

The article does not really give us enough information to tell whether Michael is a psychopath or the victim of some kind of gaslighting abuse by his parents. My experience is that the first warning sign, the hours-long barely provoked uncontrollable tantrums, is not characteristic, but that could be an individual quirk, "the decision to be out of control." The issue is greatly clouded by all the therapy and institutional probing; the "stronger bond' quote is indeed quite creepy but could be therapy leakage. One article I read hinted that therapy made sociopaths worse by educating them on what they were doing wrong when feigning emotion to manipulate people.

There really is a tension between identifying psychopaths, because they certainly exist and are dangerous, and stigmatizing people with a label that will surely ruin their lives. This tension is even greater with children, because there is a greater possibility that the behavior is something the child will grow out of, or learn to deal with; as noted above, some psychopaths are merely annoying and do not end up in prison. But as incidents like the Bulger case show there certaily are child psychopaths who are capable of murder.

The question isn't whether such people exist. It's whether we can identify and protect ourselves from them without ruining the lives of people who aren't dangerous by falsely identifying them. I think at the moment that is probably the greater danger.
posted by localroger at 7:59 AM on May 13, 2012 [15 favorites]


And it's probably not a real popular opinion, but I think it isn't a defect as such but rather one of many genetic "hail Marys" that our genome has in order to ensure there's some sort of personality available to fit every sociological niche. It

I'm on the high side of the empathic spectrum and while I can certainly see the value of having more empathy, there's also some value in having people with little or no empathy, just because it's a shitty, shitty world. My main worry with humanity isn't that we'll survive, it's just wondering how grisly our future will become when/if resources become much more scarce; empathy won't be such a useful trait then.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:17 AM on May 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


To see this kind of horribly negative description of a nine-year-old really makes me kind of sick. Yes, their names and identities are somewhat obscured. But really, what is the point of this lengthy portrait of Michael? He'll probably read it someday.

I see your point, and I sympathize. I've had similar misgivings about, say, Dr. Phil guests. In this case, is have to say that there's some desperation involved. Perhaps they think that maybe someone reading the article can help.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:23 AM on May 13, 2012


localroger: "Psychopathy is real."

With respect, this is not the issue. I don't see many people in this thread denying that psychopathy is real. The question is whether psychopathy is real in children, and that's an issue over which there is some debate even among clinical psychologists. Many psychiatric diagnoses cannot be made of people who are not adults; there are even strictly medical diagnoses that it's hard to make of children. Children change so quickly, and still have so much formation to do, that I wonder if it makes any sense to call a child a psychopath.
posted by koeselitz at 8:26 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Interesting article on the topic of psychopaths that I found: 10% of Wall Street employees are clinical psychopaths compared to 1% in the general population. Also: Is Your Boss a Psychopath? which notes that "corner offices may be full of them [psychopaths]."

If psychopathology or sociopathology or "callous unemotional" and "thrill seeking" traits are partly inherited (which is plausible), does US capitalist culture select for them? I bet many of the wealthy male "sociopaths" have a string of multiple marriages and children by several marriages behind, thus having larger families than the norm. So would some of their children inherit the traits and follow Daddy into big business, thus continuing the genetic legacy down the line? (Yes, there are definitely female sociopaths but because most top executives and Wall Street types are men, women's sociopathology gets expressed on a smaller scale, unfortunately mostly in their families and relationships; at least that is how I see it).

Or if the particular callous-unemotional, thrill-seeking temperament we call "sociopathology" or "psychopathology" is useful for success in business and/or politics, might it tip some merely "difficult" kids over the edge because sociopaths might look like admirable achievers to emulate, from a child's eyes?

I wonder what the incidence of such "difficult" children is in other countries? We've seen the example of Venables and Thompson in the UK, but how common are such kids there? What about Canada, Nigeria, or China?

I'm opposed to calling young children sociopaths (unless they chop off cats' tails, because that just pushes all my buttons) because I don't think slapping such a permanently stigmatizing label on a young child is a good idea. I think it's worthwhile, though, to look at the callous-unemotional and thrill-seeking traits that seem to be at the bottom of this disorder, and whether our particular hyper-capitalist, devil-take-the-hindmost society might select for and/or encourage this. I wonder if such children are the harvest of the dragons' teeth we've sown?
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:34 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


God in heaven. ::Exasperation:: Of course the author shied away from the narrative that it's all the fault of the parents! That's the dominant narrative. There's nothing interesting or compelling about that, at least not lately.

This isn't to say that a lot of problems with children aren't the fault of their parents. Children come from parents no matter what, so what you're saying is both tautological and self-evident. Assuming that bad children can't come from good parents is a much more robust form of determinism than assuming that all bad children come from bad parents.

Someone is trying to identify something new, that's all. With a new diagnosis, comes the possibility of treatment. That treatment will start as archaic, and providing more success than failure, might help some people. Or it might not.

Addressing the unfairness with which Michael's parents are being treated: You have one article, which is being carefully manipulated to present a certain point. How can you be so presumptuous as to assert that those people are bad parents? Because the article says they might not be? That's not contextual analysis, that's oppositional.

Everyone's parents fuck them up. Philip Larkin said it better. One shouldn't read this with their own parents in mind.
posted by Arquimedez Pozo at 10:15 AM on May 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


The article goes on to explain how psychopaths lack the ability to feel discomfort, which is why negative feedback is not effective.

Okay, one problem is that humans aren't very good at describing feelings properly. It's the same sort of axis on which that they say women are the 'emotional' ones, even though most male mefites will attest to having emotions, or the flat affect stereotypical of an aspie gets described as 'emotionless', even if, true to stereotype, (s)he just bored your ear off about their one true passion, species of arthropods. The emotions of a sociopath are supposed to exist, indeed they're a component of the impulse control problems they're infamous for.

What the article is trying to reference is that people who fit the profile of sociopathy (deficient empathy, manipulative, impulse control problems) do not respond well to training them via doing uncomfortable things to them. A neurotypical average person will be motivated by the proverbial stick while the diagnosed sociopath doesn't like it, but it doesn't make them unable to feel pain, they just don't learn from it. That's why sociopathy is a handicap, one does not imagine the boy in this article is a happy person.

A lot of the problems come from fuzzy vocabulary choices like 'empathy'. Empathy is used both to mean your ability to perceive things from other's perspectives (action X elicits external to my consciousness person's feeling of Y and/or action of Z) but also sensations like guilt or mirrored emotions. My empathy, that developed fully with puberty, to be frank, contains a component of negative feedback, such that I feel a shot of -disgust-worry-discomfort- around things like not reuniting people with lost cell phones and that developed concurrently to brute forcing my way into a rough understanding of social dynamics. If I was incapable of learning from feeling like poo, I'd be unable to use my empathy and probably pretty angry all the time from people making me feel like poo. Understanding people made me act like a manipulative (but inept) wanna be super villain, getting bashed with the inborn guilt stick, made, as a hobby, would be power tripping a non-starter.

Now I'm on the autism spectrum, so I'm both no stranger to people telling me I have no emotions (gee, way to otherize me, motherfucker!) and everything social is still a puzzle. I'm not a sociopath, that I'm aware of, and my worst displays of impulse control are generally in terms of making myself late for crap by reading mefi or eating to many cookies, but I'm still coming from the sadistic little monster who thought reenacting something out of "Wasp Factory" was good summer fun. From this i mean that to some degree being a nasty little creature, much like small amounts of speech distortion and being unable to draw anything remotely recognizable, are all things in kids that need watching when they don't grow out of them but are normal. The kid in the article is a particular parenting menace not because he's a bad seed who'll grow into a baby eating fiend, but because of hurricane like tantrums. He could be a sociopath, if he can't develop impulse control but it's too early to tell if it's a lifelong condition.
posted by Phalene at 10:26 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


The destructive, Axis II Cluster B personality disorders (NPD, BPD, HPD, ASPD), which include Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD or APD) are usually pretty fixed by age 6. Over the next 9 years, until the child is 15, other traits of other disorders, such as chronic sadism, may become co-morbid, depending on the child's environment or other issues. Between 15 and age 21, additional issues may come into the psychological-social picture to solidify what's already there, make it better or worse.

By 21, a destructive personality disorder is considered rigid, all pervasive and stuck for life. By age 18 - or has been until now - it is when, legally, a person may typically be diagnosed with a destructive personality disorder by the insurance company or the legal system if the number of the person's traits accumulate to the point when it is no longer a matter of having traits alone but having enough traits to be called a full blown destructive personality disorder. This is usually after a child has a long history of conduct disorder.

Some of the traits may be treated, such as depression, compulsiveness, criminality, addiction, self-mutilation, sadism, pathological lying etc. But after the age of 21, if the person has the number of requisite traits, the core narcissism is stuck, rigidly, enduring for life.

A destructive personality disorder is on a continuum, so some people with a destructive personality disorder have high-functioning capabilities and less overt abuse, while others on the malignant end of the continuum may end up in prison, serial criminals (or as CEOs of multinational corporations pillaging the global community, malicious military businesses or as political leaders).

When a child has sociopathic/psychopathic traits, this may arise from environmental issues, such as severe abuse or it may be genetic, and typically both but sometimes only one or the other. Children with sociopathic/psychopathic traits are/have been born or created all over the planet, especially when there is economic poverty, throughout history. (However, some may be born with the genetic tendency and neurological deficit and not end up a sociopath.) The first century of the Caesars is an excellent example of a combination of genetic tendencies and environmental issues that created a lineage of sociopaths, as colorfully depicted in the marvelous BBC series, I, Claudius.

The problem arises about what to do with a kid with these issues. There is another issue. Plenty of kids and teens act out their anger in destructive ways or are not what their parents want them to be (or the parents are sadistic). Children who are not sociopaths get stuck in boot camps and punitively 'therapeutic' boarding schools all the time, ie in a World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools or Behavior Modification Facilities, many of which have become known for institutionalized child abuse.

However, if a parent does, actually, have a child who is a sociopath, those traits will definitely be exhibited by age 6, and get worse, more manipulative, more devious and malicious over time. It's a hard place for a parent to be to have a child like that and keeping a child like that may ultimately be not only exhausting but dangerous to any member of the family, especially other children. Sometimes parents adopt a child sociopath, without knowing it, a child with severe reactive attachment disorder (RAD). So the only recourse is, to the best of my knowledge, to put the kid into some kind of facility to 'contain' them and treat as many of the traits that are treatable. Although it has been shown that sociopaths get more devious, more manipulative, when they are in therapy. Basically, the core sociopathy cannot be treated but some of the traits, connected with antisocial personality disorder can.

The parents of a child with many sociopathic traits need to make an informed and compassionate decision for their child and for their family. Possibly, then the kid may come out of the facility at the end of their teens and not become a malignant in society but 'merely' somebody unable to love or receive love.
posted by nickyskye at 11:57 AM on May 13, 2012 [61 favorites]


Repeated for emphasis, since it should be obvious but as far as I can see had not been previously noticed by anyone else:
Archimedes Pozo: Someone is trying to identify something new, that's all. With a new diagnosis, comes the possibility of treatment. That treatment will start as archaic, and providing more success than failure, might help some people. Or it might not.
And from the same source, something else that should probably have gotten noticed a lot more:
You have one article, which is being carefully manipulated to present a certain point. How can you be so presumptuous as to assert that those people are bad parents? Because the article says they might not be? That's not contextual analysis, that's oppositional.
posted by lodurr at 12:06 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Damn, nickyskye, that must have taken a while to put together. flagged for +value & thanks for the effort.
posted by lodurr at 12:10 PM on May 13, 2012


Thanks lodurr, I appreciate your compliment. It's a topic of interest to me on a number of levels and didn't take that long, since I've written a lot about the subject before, including here on the blue, and have a website to help adult children of narcissists and sociopaths.
posted by nickyskye at 12:22 PM on May 13, 2012


For me, it's the knowledge that my anger and violent tendencies--kicking holes in the wall, slamming doors until the door handle broke the plaster, slamming drawers until they broke, hitting my head against the wall over and over again--were a specific reaction to abuse, verbal and physical, as well as a general reaction to the chaos of my household. And yet I was told, repeatedly, that the problem was with me. I was sick. I was crazy.

But I wasn't. I was ten, and I was miserable, lonely, and scared shitless.


Just wanted to say how much I appreciate this comment, PhoB. Pretty much the exact same thing happened to me, and I was 10 as well. In my case, it wasn't anger and violence but rather panic attacks and a severe eating disorder. But was still easier and more comfortable for my parents to bring me to a psychiatrist and decide that there was just something wrong with my brain (or, on other days, that I was just "attention seeking"), than to just, you know, stop hitting me and screaming at me every day.
posted by cairdeas at 12:25 PM on May 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've been talking with my wife about this. She's doing her PhD work with an eye toward developing trauma-aware educational practices; her adviser is a clinical psychologist who's done most of her research on trauma. My wife informs me (with the caveat that this may not be how it is canonized in the DSM at this point in time) that sociopathy and psychopathy are not the same thing at all, and are in fact regarded (at least by the authorities she's reading) as being opposite in some regards. Sociopathy is regarded as treatable and most likely environmental in origin (and especially well-correlated with complex trauma), and is often characterized by a low response threshold; whereas psychopathy is regarded as almost untreatable (psychopaths respond to treatment by learning to be better psychopaths), probably heritable, and characterized by really high response thresholds (and so not responsive to negative or even positive reinforcement). Sociopaths can be taught have or at least care about empathy; the best people currently expect from psychopaths is that they can learn to fake empathy.

"Smart psychopaths end up in charge, and stupid psychopaths end up in jail," is one phrase she's used.
posted by lodurr at 1:15 PM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


With respect, this is not the issue. I don't see many people in this thread denying that psychopathy is real. The question is whether psychopathy is real in children
Eh, I question it. I mean, I don't question that there are some people who act out violently and don't seem to understand why it's a problem. And Obviously there are people who lack empathy or whatever - but am not at all sure that they are all caused by the same biological condition. Stuff like the statement that 10% of wallstreet bankers are 'clinical' psychopaths. These guys aren't out there axe murdering people, yet calling people "psychopaths" makes no distinction between a typical serial killer and a typical CEO.

It especially annoys me when people label behavior they don't like as being the result of psychopathy/sociopathy.

From a scientific standpoint, it is not very well defined at all - the DSM does not even list it as a separate condition, but rather a "type" of narcissistic personality disorder.
posted by delmoi at 1:36 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just want to make sure I understand what you're saying. You're saying that you think that:
  1. There are people who act out violently and don't understand why that's a problem;
  2. there are people who lack empathy;
Is your claim that 1 and 2 aren't observed in the same individuals, or that when they are, they aren't caused by the same underlying condition?

If your claim is the latter, would you speculate about what the results of lacking empathy would be, and give some examples to illustrate?
posted by lodurr at 1:59 PM on May 13, 2012


delmoi, most psychopaths, sociopaths, or whatever we're calling them this half-century aren't necessarily violent. They can be, because they aren't inhibited in the ways most of us are, but they can also be calculating enough to realize that violence usually doesn't maximize fun.

I would say that regardless of your level of education, if you have never had an acquaintance or, if you're in medicine, a patient with the syndrome, you have no idea. The hardest thing about learning to recognize it is convincing yourself that a person can be that way at all. Once you get that, it's quite straightforward (though time-consuming, if you want to be accurate) to spot them.

Spotting psychopathic children is a problem because of all the other things that look the same but don't have the same untreatability problem. But I have no doubt that they exist, because I think there's something really wrong with these people and I don't think it suddenly goes wrong at puberty.

I also don't think it's heritable because none of the way too many psychopaths I've known had parents like themselves.
posted by localroger at 2:01 PM on May 13, 2012


About the nature vs. nurture thing, I'm also reminded of this story, which showed up on MeFi recently. Akian was an autistic boy who had begun having violent outbursts at school. After his father sent him to school wired, he found out that Akian was having outbursts because his teachers were yelling at him, taunting him, and calling him vulgar things like "bastard."

It stands to reason that Akian would have had outbursts in response to being treated that way even if the people doing so were his parents, rather than his teachers.

It is a balancing act. We have to be sure that parents are not being unjustly blamed in an automatic, knee-jerk way when children have problems. But we also have to be careful not to swing all the way back in the other direction and get defensive at the idea that these problems can be caused or worsened by things parents are doing. And make it this culturally verboten thing to suggest. Both have happened and both are possible - parents have been unjustly blamed, and parents have caused terrible problems.
posted by cairdeas at 2:12 PM on May 13, 2012


lodurr, am stimulated by your comment.

Please thank your wife for her work. It is my hope that people, such as your wife, put more energy into preventing children from being traumatized, so there is less chance of sociopaths being created due to environmental stresses. Or that there is adequate, appropriate treatment for children who have been traumatized, so that they do not devolve into being sociopaths from the wounds they received. This would be, in my thoughts, truly a Happy Mother's Day gift to the world.

It is my opinion that there are two types of sociopaths and then there are psychopaths, who may have many or all the traits of a sociopath and, on top of that, more extensive brain deficit than sociopaths. All are on a continuum, although I'm not sure there is a "mild" form of psychopathy, or if there is I have never learned about it, yet.

I think of sociopaths in the following two categories.

1. Poverty related (secondary) sociopaths, who are violent narcissists anywhere on a continuum of 1 to 100 in severity, bullies, who may or may not be serial criminals. They may or may not be pedophiles. Typical examples might be violent, serially corrupt cops, serial rapists, people who use their military position to commit violence on others. They may or may not ever be caught and may get away with murder or murder by proxy and/or mayhem their entire lives.

2. The non-poverty related, primary sociopaths (remorseless bastards and bitches anywhere on a continuum from 1 to 100 in severity), who may or may not be overtly violent but create extensive, repeated suffering around them in others. They may be the type described in The Sociopath Next Door. Examples might be CEO Dick Fuld of the Lehman Brothers corporate greed scams, the Enron gang, Bernie Madoff. On the 'low' end of white collar sociopathy/malignant narcissism would be a lot of CEOs knowingly victimizing others on a large or especially heinous scale and justifying it for corporate profits.

3. Then there are the psychopaths, who are, in actuality quite rare. Prevalence studies suggest that up to 70-80% of prison inmates meet criteria for ASPD but only 20% display elevated psychopathic traits (Hare, 1998). renowned for serial murder, the cannibals, the horror stories, the stuff of nightmares and the ones that Hollywood makes mega-millions depicting (which unfortunately takes the focus off the more routine monsters of the world, often in great political or corporate power, but who often have superb social manipulation skills among the rich and famous).

As Prof. Hare is fond of pointing out, most psychopaths are antisocial but not all antisocial personalities are psychopaths.

This is one theory I found very useful, The Origins of Violence: Is Psychopathy an Adaptation? by Ian Pitchford Ph.D. CBiol MIBiol

"In Mealey’s terminology primary sociopaths are biologically contraprepared to learn empathy and consequently demonstrate psychopathic behaviour at an early stage, whereas secondary sociopaths encounter a combination of risk factors such as a large number of siblings, low socio-economic status, urban residency, low intelligence and poor social skills.

These variables contribute to the development of secondary sociopathy in a two stage process involving initially parental neglect, abuse, inconsistent discipline, and punishment as opposed to rewards. In the second stage children may be at a social disadvantage because of poor social skills and may therefore interact primarily with a peer group comprised other unskilled individuals, including primary sociopaths.

Mealey hypothesises that ‘antisocial behaviour may then escalate in response to, or as a prerequisite for, social rewards provided by the group’ (1995, p. 534). According to Mealey primary sociopaths are ‘designed for the successful operation of social deception and… are the product of evolutionary pressures which… lead some individuals to pursue a life strategy of manipulative and predatory social interactions’ (Mealey, 1995, p. 524). Primary sociopathy is thus a frequency-dependent adaptation, but secondary sociopathy is a facultative cheating strategy."

Another controversial opinion of mine is that sociopaths and psychopaths do have empathy, often exquisitely attuned to the other person's or persons' vulnerabilities. How else would a sociopath or psychopath know how to best manipulate/hurt the other person? However, it a partial empathy. The vulnerability of the other person or persons is observed and the sociopath/psychopath can perceive what it would feel like in the other person's shoes but, their response is not one of caring sympathy, it is perceiving the vulnerability as a target, a place into which the knife, the verbal jab, the financial weakness, to social shaming/scapegoating, the sadistic whatever, may be used skillfully to cause suffering.
posted by nickyskye at 2:46 PM on May 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


I've really tried to stress that I'm not blaming or judging Michael's parents, especially not on the basis of one article.

What I'm trying to get across is that, even if we say they were the best possible parents and always did everything exactly right, they've reached a point where their relationship with Michael seems like it's pretty damaging for him. Further, I worry that the application of labels like these is extremely prone to turning them into self-fulfilling prophecies.
posted by kavasa at 2:49 PM on May 13, 2012


FWIW my childhood was not at all abusive and I have a very close relationship with my parents to this day.
posted by kavasa at 2:50 PM on May 13, 2012


With respect NickySkye, I think you're making a number of huge assertions with a lot of dubious or orthogonal sources.

Linking to the wikipedia page for Monsanto or the Hersheys does not prove psychopathy, and neither, do a lot of the... "hobbyist" pages like "humannature.com", "sociopathworld.com", you've linked to, either.

Assertions like this: "The first century of the Caesars is an excellent example of a combination of genetic tendencies and environmental issues that created a lineage of sociopaths..."

Are neither known, nor knowable, and really should not be voiced with such glib confidence. It does a great disservice to the work of historians and the discipline of history to be so reductive, and it makes me question some of your other claims that I am less knowledgeable about.

I'm not disagreeing with everything you're saying but there's a lot of chaff in that wheat, and I don't think those generalisations should be made with such assurance.
posted by smoke at 3:23 PM on May 13, 2012 [14 favorites]


Unfortunately, I have to agree with smoke. Your very first paragraph, nickyskye, is blatantly wrong. I've talked with a few clinical psychologists, who work with kids and young adults, about this topic and the reason teenagers are not given a diagnosis of ASPD or BPD is because it would encompass a huge swath of functionally "normal" kids. The designation of some of the Axis II disorders would essentially lose their accuracy and utility if we started applying them to kids.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 3:42 PM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Linking to the wikipedia page for Monsanto or the Hersheys does not prove psychopathy, and neither, do a lot of the... "hobbyist" pages like "humannature.com", "sociopathworld.com", you've linked to, either.

Monsanto's heinous harm in the world, such as tens of thousands of suicides in India among farmers whose lives were ruined by Monsanto's scams in the last decade, knowing full well what they are doing, and continuing doing what they are doing is, in my opinion, sociopathic behavior.

Hershey's using child slaves, indentured servitude of 200, 000 children knowing that is going on, enabling and endorsing it covertly for a decade, is, in my opinion, sociopathic behavior.

Remorseless, long-term, sadistic abuse of humanity, lacking moral and social conscience (definiting traits of sociopathic behavior) are exemplified by the corporate behavior of Monsanto and Hershey's in these two instances.

There is an excellent documentary on this topic: Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, in which the corporation itself, as an entity, is depicted as a type of sociopath.

The link to sociopath world above referred to the movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley. This psychiatrist's opinion is that the Talented Mr. Ripley is an example of antisocial personality disorder.

The article quoted on the Human Nature site is by Ian Pitchford, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Clinical Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychopathology, Department of Psychiatry, Creighton University School of Medicine, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, a PhD in Evolutionary Developmental Psychopathology. While it does not prove anything, it expresses his opinion.

Your very first paragraph, nickyskye, is blatantly wrong.

Of which comment?

Ah, you think that ASPD is not used as a diagnosis for kids under 21? As I stated in my first comment, it says, By age 18 - or has been until now - it is when, legally, a person may typically be diagnosed with a destructive personality disorder by the insurance company or the legal system if the number of the person's traits accumulate to the point when it is no longer a matter of having traits alone but having enough traits to be called a full blown destructive personality disorder. This is usually after a child has a long history of conduct disorder.

This is not about mere traits. ASPD is given as a diagnosis when there are enough traits, over time. and it can be legally used in court and/or by the insurance companies by the time a child is age 18.

Or maybe you are referring to the idea that personality disorders are known to gel by age 6 and then solidify until the child is age 21?

Here, from Mental Health.com: The diagnosis of Antisocial Personality requires that there was evidence of delinquency (Conduct Disorder) with onset before age 15 years. This is in contrast to the (non-DSM-IV) diagnosis of being a psychopath which does not require a prior diagnosis of Conduct Disorder.

Conduct Disorder is the term given to children under the age of 15. Indeed, the disorder is often seen as the precursor to antisocial personality disorder.
posted by nickyskye at 4:17 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the whole thread yet, but I've read the article and anecdotally... I've lived with a child sociopath. My younger step-brother absolutely fits the diagnostic criteria for being an actual sociopath and reading about this boy, Michael, is like taking a walk down memory lane.

Oh, my parents tried to get help for my brother. Everything was done for him. None of it mattered. Predictably, he ended up in prison. And from there, predictably being in prison didn't bother him at all - he acted like it was a set-up, nothing was his fault, and talked about ways that he was using the system to his advantage.

Had I not grown up with him and lived with him, I probably wouldn't believe that some children - regardless of parenting - just are sociopaths. But I did. And I do. It's truly impossible to describe what it's like to live with someone who is flat out incapable of any kind of empathy. It very much needs to be seen to be believed. When I say things like "He was expelled from school for attempted murder" that's not hyperbole.
posted by sonika at 5:13 PM on May 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


Judging by the comments, this article, more than most, seems to be serving as a Rorschach test for its readers.

For my part, I thought

>He stopped dead, in the middle of the screaming, turned to me and said in this flat, adult voice, ‘Well, you didn’t think that through very clearly then, did you?’ ”

>“No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy!”

aren't things to be dismissed as merely-pragmatic learned responses.

Ultimately, I'd be surprised if there wasn't the kind of low-inhibition proclivity that's labeled as psychopathy hardwired, or at least predisposed, within a tiny subset of the population; having a steady supply of rare outliers with randomly extreme behaviors (albeit behaviors that are in most cases anti-social) probably confers some long-term evolutionary benefit for a population group.

Behaviors that are wildly maladaptive in one context, or even most contexts, can be super-adaptive in others.
posted by darth_tedious at 5:15 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


She laughed awkwardly, then shook her head. “I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer.”

Told that other parents might be shocked to hear her say such a thing, she sighed, then was silent for several seconds. “To them I’d say that they shouldn’t judge until they’ve walked in my shoes,” she said finally. “Because, you know, it takes a toll. There’s not a lot of joy and happiness in raising Michael.”


This especially rings true for me. I've heard exactly this said by my own parents w/r/t my step-brother. Only substitute "President" for "Nobel Prize Winner." And yes, it was said about him the first time when he was absolutely no older than nine.
posted by sonika at 5:19 PM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't really have the time to go back and forth on that, nickyskye, but it looks to me like you're being a bit reductive with the diagnosis'. The thing is that it's hardly ever A + B + C = D. When you're talking about a diagnosis the description is rather simple and therefore is rather simple to shovel people into them, but in reality when dealing with an actual person you're talking about a whole myriad of things that the label simply helps to focus the attention on. A person could be subject to all kinds of trauma but come out the other side all right due to a number of protective factors, but others are not as resilient and yes some people are just born assholes. There isn't any cut and dry labeling system. Now, I will admit I don't know you, but personally I would take an opinion of someone who has worked with the specific population I was talking about over someone who hasn't. I don't mean to be offensive in saying that and perhaps you have worked with that population, but some of your assertions look to be a bit askew from the professionals I've spoken with. Not that your statements are the first ones in this thread that I thought were incorrect.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 5:46 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just want to make sure I understand what you're saying. You're saying that you think that:

1) There are people who act out violently and don't understand why that's a problem;
2) there are people who lack empathy;

Is your claim that 1 and 2 aren't observed in the same individuals, or that when they are, they aren't caused by the same underlying condition?
There may be some with one or the other, or both. I do think there are certainly people who lack empathy but aren't violent for whatever reason, perhaps because they realize it wouldn't do them any good, or because they have no interest in it in the first place.
If your claim is the latter, would you speculate about what the results of lacking empathy would be, and give some examples to illustrate?
Here's the thing: I could speculate all day, but that's not how science works. Earlier in the thread I did speculate that it might have something to do with the amygdala, since people who tend to be nervous and scared a lot tend to have 'thinner' walls, sociopaths or people who lack fear/empathy.

But, there is a difference between "Speculation" and actual facts. And right now when it comes to psychopaths/sociopaths people have a tendency to make all kinds of claims about things that are not clearly scientifically proven.

Someone is a "clinical psychopath" if they get a certain score on a personality test. But what does that tell you about anything else? It was originally developed for criminals, and the people who scored high on the test tended to be the worst.

And, IIRC the old test with the shocks and measuring apprehension was at least objective. The current test seems to have a lot of subjective criteria, which makes it very "unscientific" in my personal view. Things like having a "Socially deviant lifestyle", a need for stimulation/being bored, impulsiveness, juvenile delinquency, and so on are used - but they all seem very subjective to me.

The idea that you could conclusively say all these subjective traits are caused by the same underlying biological issue seems kind of unlikely to me.

And that test isn't even recognized by the DSM as a specific diagnosis, rather a subtype of a personality disorder.

But when you apply the test elsewhere, you find lots of "high functioning" people, like bankers, CEOs, etc. So it's not clear that the test actually means anything. The other thing that annoys me is the flip side of assuming that "normal" people aren't capable of doing anything horrible.

I think this is especially not true when it comes to doing harm from a great distance, where you don't actually see the results. So for example, a lot of these corporate crimes are done in board rooms, simply by making decisions about numbers in spreadsheets. One thing we do know about normal people is that "empathy" goes down as the other people become more distant and more abstract. So someone who would never bash another person's head in with a rock might sign off on unsafe mining techniques that that result in mine collapses that cause the same thing, ultimately.

So for example the stuff about Monsanto or Hershey's: Just because it's bad doesn't mean the people responsible would have been tested as clinical sociopaths.

And then you have people running around claiming person X or Y is totally a sociopathy based on their feelings towards them, it just becomes even more psudo-scientific.

Clearly there are people who are violent, people who are dishonest and manipulative, people who lack empathy, and so on. But lumping all of these people together based on some subjective criteria does not seem very scientific to me.

It's possible to speculate on various things that might cause some aspects of this - but I don't think you can say everyone who you think might be "sociopath" has the same neurological condition. And I think many of the people who do "bad" things are probably "normal", especially when they are doing bad things from a 'distance' and don't directly see/experience the results.
posted by delmoi at 5:52 PM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think I experienced the whole gamut of typical responses to this story, but you know, I'm intrigued why Michael erased the recording of him saying he hates his little brother.
posted by thylacinthine at 7:11 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Upon reading the thread, I feel it should be noted when I speak about living with a sociopathic child (my step-brother), I know that 100% without a shadow of a doubt that he was not abused. Whatever faults our parents collectively had, they were not abusive. Just to make that clear. Sometimes children (like adults) are mentally ill without a precipitating event.
posted by sonika at 7:28 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm no expert, but I've worked with kids (both neurotypical and on the autism spectrum) and lived with a sociopathic kid, so I'll try to point out some of the differences:

- A non-sociopathic (from here on it, "normal" because it's shorter to type) kid will act out. Will become violent sometimes. It happens. Kids are aggressive and have anger management issues. Most "normal" kids have violent outbursts immediately following some kind of provocation - whether that be an event, a thought, whatever. There's almost always a certain A then B pattern, even if the root cause isn't obvious to an outside observer.

- A sociopathic kid plots. My brother snuck a lead pipe into summer camp - at age eight - and beat his *best friend* in the hand with it so hard that he broke bones. Needless to say the other kid's parents didn't let them have nay more play dates. He didn't just hit the other kid with what was available. He planned it. He brought the pipe solely for the purpose of hitting this one specific kid for reasons passing understanding. Later, when he was 12, he snapped one of those serrated metal bars from a cabinet lock in the nurses's office, smuggled it in his backpack, and tried to slit the neck of one of his fellow students. Whether he was intending on actually *killing* the kid is unclear, but it is clear that he thought about this quite a while in advance and figured out the best method for his plan. This is the attempted murder for which he was expelled. (The other kid was fine - the bus driver stepped in in time.) He was obviously smart enough to know he'd get caught with a knife and thought hard about his alternatives in the weapons department. Most "normal" kids don't do that.

- "Normal" kids lie for any number of reasons. Self-preservation tops the list.

- A sociopathic kid lies because the sky is green. It doesn't matter what you're asking, the answer is a lie. You could ask my brother his favorite ice cream flavor and it would be a lie. He will lie for not only no reason - but for reasons that are completely baffling. His lies are often entirely counter-productive and he'd very often have gotten into less trouble in his life if he'd occasionally told the truth.

- A "normal" kid manipulates their parents to some extent. It happens. Some kids are really good at this and otherwise pretty well adjusted.

- A sociopathic kid manipulates his parents in ways that would boggle your mind. My brother repeatedly stole from my parents - including stealing jewelry from my mother and then selling it - and then would lie about it in the craziest ways to evade punishment. He would play them off of each other to get them to fight amongst themselves - sometimes for his benefit, sometimes just for the joy of watching them fight. He played his father (my step-father) against his mother to avoid having to go to schools he didn't like or to get access to better drugs (he started abusing his prescription Adderall at age 9 and that was just the first step to bigger and better things). Eventually, being angry with his mother for moving in with a new partner - he beat his mother's partner badly enough for her to be taken to the emergency room. (Yes, his mother is a lesbian.) His mother had to issue a restraining order against him. My own mother fears for her safety when he shows up.

Which isn't really the hard part. The hard part is when the sociopathic kid turns on the charm. The hard part is watching the sociopathic kids get all A's one semester to earn a reward and once the award has been achieved going back to failing each and every class as if to say "Yep, I COULD do it, I just WON'T." And so on. When the kid *acts* loving and you wonder what he's trying to get from you. When you don't trust a single kind word from his mouth because you know he has an ulterior motive.

And where did this manipulative, aggressive kid end up? He's 25 and living on the West Coast. His girlfriend just left him because he's an alcoholic. He's also on probation for breaking and entering and assault - he drunkenly stabbed a man (non-fatally) while robbing him of his car stereo. This event occurred during a year when he was homeless and addicted to drugs, moving around the country by exchanging sexual favors for rides.

We grew up in the same house. We had the same privileges and the same parents. While we also went through shitty divorces, he had enough therapy to sink a battleship and a very wealthy and caring mother who put him into very good private schools. His parents truly did their best with him, but there was only so much they could do. My mother had been predicting since he was six years old that he'd end up in prison someday and was heartbroken when it happened before he was even legally old enough to drink.

I've had conversations over and over and over again that there are no such things as children who are born sociopaths. Or that if there are, it doesn't show up until adulthood. And it's so hard to describe what it's like living with a kid who truly, truly has no capacity for empathy whatsoever. The first time I read the DSM entry for Antisocial Personality Disorder, it was such a spot on description of my brother that I shuddered.
posted by sonika at 8:10 PM on May 13, 2012 [26 favorites]


Sonika, and earlier in the thread, RikiTikiTavi, thank you for sharing your stories--probably the most on-point posts in the thread. So very sorry that you have had/are having these painful experiences, and I truly do hope for help and change for your loved ones. :(
posted by torticat at 8:38 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Other mental or emotional illnesses are diagnosed according to the impact the illness has on the person experiencing the illness. However, the thing is that a significant aspect of the destructive personality disorders - possibly the most significant thing - is that they are context dependent.

This means that people with destructive personality disorders impact those around them, society. The traits defining the Axis II Cluster B disorders are - in large part - about the effects on the people around the one with the disorder, their social behavior.

For example, on the Hare Psychopathy Check List, the traits defining whether a person is a psychopath or not, are what actions they do to others. The following are those social behaviors/traits of psychopaths:

Factor 1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"
Glibness/superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Pathological lying
Cunning/manipulative
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
Callousness; lack of empathy
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Factor 2: Case history "Socially deviant lifestyle".
Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Parasitic lifestyle
Poor behavioral control
Lack of realistic long-term goals
Impulsivity
Irresponsibility
Juvenile delinquency
Early behavior problems
Revocation of conditional release

Traits not correlated with either factor
Promiscuous sexual behavior
Many short-term marital relationships
Criminal versatility
Acquired behavioural sociopathy/sociological conditioning (Item 21: a newly identified trait i.e. a person relying on sociological strategies and tricks to deceive)


These are the traits used to define a sociopath:

Diagnostic criteria for 301.7 Antisocial Personality Disorder

(DSM IV - TR)
A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

B. The individual is at least age 18 years.

C. There is evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15 years.

D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course ofSchizophrenia or a Manic Episode.


The behavioral traits, listed in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual IV, are/have been what psychiatrists use to diagnose these disorders. This diagnosis, based on these traits is used to prescribe medications, paid for by the insurance companies, paying for the psychiatric evaluation of the patient - or prisoner. Or it is used in court as part of the background understanding of a criminal's actions.

People with sociopathy or psychopathy are not forthcoming about their internal, psychological processes. They almost always do not consider anything is wrong with them and do not want to be treated. It is usually in a court, dealing with criminal cases that sociopaths and psychopaths are diagnosed.

Nor is their illness curable. Some traits may be treatable or diminish over time for some sociopaths and psychopaths, but the core problem is, at this time in history, not fixable. It is society and the victims of sociopaths, their children, spouses, employees, the ones they fleece of trillions of dollars, the families of those murdered who are left to cope with the monstrous damage sociopaths and psychopaths commit.

It is meaningful to know the traits of sociopaths, not just as a clinical diagnosis, but as a human being in a society in which there is a 1% to 4% of people with this disorder committing crimes.

It's important to be able to recognize sociopaths if one is dating. (You would not want a sociopath as a spouse or parent.) It is important to recognize sociopathic behavior in politicians, CEOs and not be duped by them or to know that the societal trajectory of sociopaths is to rise to great heights and then crash and burn, often taking down the innocent people around them.

Like assessing anything, some assessments are wiser than others, even when the experts do the assessing.

Yes, science is very important but human psychology is not reserved just for scientists. Like language, math, art, design, philosophy non-scientists use this skill in their everyday lives, all the time, sometimes skillfully, sometimes not. It is part of the human ability to assess people around us. For the last few thousand years humans did not have the tools to comprehend sociopathic leaders and easily became victims. Now this information is available to non-scientists, as well as to scientists, about these socially impacting traits of sociopaths and psychopaths, I think this is an important tool for humanity's greater safety and sanity.

It's not about judging people harshly, or rashly, it is important for humanity to know about this illness, prevent sociopathy from being bred in children if/when it happens due to trauma, to know the traits and protect itself.
posted by nickyskye at 8:44 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


As for examining the traits of historic persons as sociopathic or not. A geneticist created a website called: European Royalty: Inherited personality traits | Genetic character types of kings, queens...and other famous people Personality Typing Based on Mendelian Genetics© A.M. Benis, Sc.D., M.D. I learned to examine historic figures - such as the Imperial Roman family of the first century - with destructive personality disorders from this geneticist. :)
posted by nickyskye at 8:49 PM on May 13, 2012


And I reiterate, Nicky, that speculation along those lines makes for fun afternoon conversations but have no business being referred to as fact, least of all bolstered by someone with no formal background in either history, genetics, or psychiatry (he appears to be a cardiologist), and whose "research" in this area consists solely of self-published books and websites built from of 80+ year old empirically shakey psychoanalysis research. No papers, no organisational links, nothing.

I'm sorry, I can only criticise the areas I know something about, but if this is your standard for research about psychopathology in general (as opposed to this specific thing), it's so lacking as to be completely irrelevant to discussion about this article and mental illness in general - much like linking to The Corporation ffs.
posted by smoke at 9:41 PM on May 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


I am not a psychologist or psychiatist. I have little knowledge of what a formal diagnosis (if that is even the right word) of pyschopathy actually entails.
I can only speak from personal experience.

My personal experience is that I am one of four children to intelligent, well educated, privileged parents and all four of us had a privileged, well educated and frankly, wonderful childhood.
And yet, one of my siblings, who had the very same upbringing as I, seemed from the very earliest days to have come from another planet - he seemed almost entirely composed of hate and fear and boiling rage, at times erupting without cause, at times cold and calculating and quietly seething.

When the topic is raised (which is rarely because it is so awkward and disturbing) my spouse will look at me with disbelief and say "just what went so wrong with (name withheld)?"

After many years asking myself the very same question, ruminating over the terror this sibling has put the family through, and as an adult still does, the only answer I have is that;

"Some people are just born bad."
posted by Plutocratte at 9:42 PM on May 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


I've had the dubious fortune of coming across at least 2 psychopaths back when I worked in psychiatric halfway houses. They happened to intellectually impaired to varying degrees (the psychopathic genius trope really annoys me) and it was pretty obvious to me when they were trying to get over. The creepy thing was that because they weren't so good at manipulating people, it was more than obvious that they were willing to use violence if they thought they could get away with it.

The first was a guy who had served 6 years in prison for sexual assault or as he put it, "some bitch said I raped her". He was in the house for no more than 3 weeks before he was removed for trying to rape another resident. Unfortunately, I was the counselor on duty that day and had to confront him about what had just happened. I had not spoken more than 3 words to him before he said, "You better not make me mad, you won't like what happens when I get angry". I told him that he was welcome to take a swing at me because I would have no problem whatsoever with filing charges against him. He backed down but the assessing look he gave me before he did was chilling, as if he was trying to figure out how much damage he could do to me before someone called for help.

The second guy was in many ways more sinister. He was smarter than the other guy, good looking and quite a bit better at manipulating people. I won't go into all of the details but while I was there he escalated from voyeurism, relating disturbing sexual fantasies about staff to his peers (the other residents wouldn't tell me what the fantasies were, just warned me to watch out for him), sweet talking a underage girl to come home with him and then manipulated/coerced her into participating in sexual acts that she found degrading (I had to sit in on the police interview for that one ... not fun) and finally inviting a resident from another halfway house to come home with him only to lock her in his room until she screamed for help. After that he was sent to a locked facility that specialized in sex offenders.

The crazy thing was how my some of fellow staff members seemed to think that he was getting better. I stopped believing in the sincerity of his attempts to make progress pretty early on. It was the eyes - his mouth would be saying all of the right things, he had all of the appropriate facial expressions, but his eyes seemed dead.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:49 PM on May 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nickiskye, the "diagnoses" from the over 20 year-old website you linked to are hardly in-depth analyses. The site even includes this disclaimer:

Disclaimer:  The material herein is presented for purposes of information only.  The diagnosis and treatment of behavioral disorders should not be attempted without the personal involvement of a licensed health care professional.  The NPA character types of famous individuals given on this site were deduced from a variety of sources and have not been verified by any definitive tests.

posted by misha at 11:00 PM on May 13, 2012


The part about Damien having second thoughts about over sharing on tape and as deft as James Bond navigates the menus to the file manager and deleting the recording isn't just precisely illustrative but so conveniently undisprovable.
And the Parents consented to this wired reporter following their kid around all day? Really??
So be afraid.
Media scare pieces as a genre just keep getting better all the time.
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:59 AM on May 14, 2012


Navigate the menus to the file manager? What kind of tape recorder are you thinking of? I'm pretty sure journos use the little handheld ones, or an app on a smart phone. All you'd have to do is hit rewind for a bit then record so the new recording goes over the top of the old one.
posted by harriet vane at 3:30 AM on May 14, 2012


smoke, if this is your standard for research about psychopathology in general

Anthony Benis' is a well credentialed scientist. He may have been a physician (Director of the Cardiothoracic Surgical Intensive care unit at Mount Sinai) but he also has been a researcher for decades: As it says on his bio page: he studied for a M.S., and a Sc.D. in chemical and nuclear engineering. ...His postdoctoral work was finally completed at Columbia University in 1970, followed by a two year term as an assistant professor of chemical and bio- engineering at Columbia...Over his time as a student and researcher, Benis became the recipient of awards and honors, including the Regional Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, membership of the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society, the French Government's Fellowship Award ([DGRST]), and the NIH's Career Development Award. He also produced numerous [publications] regards seminars and other written works pertaining to chemical engineering and medicine.

His genetic research was based on working on principles of persona set out by Karen Horney; namely the personality traits Narcissism (N), Perfectionism (P), and Aggression (A), Benis put together the NPA theory.

Karen Horney was a renowned psychiatrist/psychologist/psychoanalyst, whose personality theories are very much part of the foundation of what shaped the presently used theories about the pathologies of sociopaths and psychopaths.

Benis' research into the personality types of historical figures prompted me eleven years ago to look at history with new perspective.

As you can see from the links in my first comment, what I've said about sociopaths/psychopaths is based on well known psychological information, well researched, well founded. If there is any specific thing I've said that you disagree with, please let me know and I will be happy to discuss it with you here on the blue or in email.
posted by nickyskye at 8:51 AM on May 14, 2012


misha, my focus is and has been for the last eleven years on helping those impacted by the abuse, particularly the adult children of sociopaths/pathological narcissists.
posted by nickyskye at 9:17 AM on May 14, 2012


Psychopathy has been an interest of mine since I was in college. Even when I graduated, I continued reading academic works on the subject and seriously considered getting a graduate degree in forensic psychology. One phrase sticks out in my mind even after all of these years, "psychopaths are known for 'snatching defeat from the jaws of victory' ". A psychopath will put a considerate amount of time and effort into elaborate and complex schemes to accomplish something that would be far simpler to achieve by honest means.

One of the most interesting cases of psychopathy I've ever heard comes from my mother's hometown in Ireland and happened when she was 11 years old. In 1941, Bernard Kirwan murdered his brother over a dispute about the family farm. Brendan Behan wrote a play based on the Bernie Kirwan's execution for the crime, The Quare Fellow.

Long before the crime took place Bernie had established a reputation for being impulsively violent for seemingly no reason. One of my mother's cousins would often find himself drinking with him at the local pub. On the walk back home, he made sure that he walked on the side of Bernie that was furthest from the creek or the roadside ditches for fear that Bernie might push him in. Before the event in question, Bernie had spent time in prison for robbing the local mailman, a man who was easily able to identify him. When his brother went misssing, Bernie played a cat & mouse game with the local police. Before going to the gallows, Bernie balanced a glass of water on the back of his hand to show his fellow prisoners that he was not nervous about his impending death. Afterwards, my cousin's husband's family bought the farm and tore down the house to discourage morbid curiosity seekers.
posted by echolalia67 at 11:39 AM on May 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


The amount of amateur psychologists on this thread is astounding. Thank you Sonica and RickiTickiTavi for sharing pertinent, credible information. Some of you need to remember this is an article from the NY Times, not a dissertation or research paper. And judging someone as a parent from one comment? Geez, go hand out in the breastfeeding thread above this one.
posted by Kokopuff at 11:52 AM on May 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Credible? *sigh* I'm just going to go ahead and link to the book How to Think Straight About Psychology, and would suggest that one should read that before they spew off half wrought anecdotal evidence about psychological maladies.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 2:56 PM on May 14, 2012


An excellent and interesting article: Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. I don't think it was linked above. A few of the points it makes:

A striking feature of much of the antisocial behaviour shown by individuals with psychopathy is that it is mostly instrumental in nature, i.e. goal-directed towards achieving money, sexual opportunities or increased status ( Cornell et al, 1996). This suggests that the pathology associated with psychopathy interferes with socialisation.
***
Socialisation involves aversive conditioning and instrumental learning.
***
The amygdala is thus involved in all the processes that, when impaired, give rise to the functional impairments shown by individuals with psychopathy. It is therefore suggested that amygdala dysfunction is one of the core neural systems implicated in the pathology of psychopathy ( Patrick, 1994; Blair et al, 1999).
***
There are some controversial points, like the following, which says there is a difference between sociopaths (people with antisocial personality disorder) and psychopaths. Only one third of those who are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder meet criteria for psychopathy ( Hart & Hare, 1996). Moreover, a diagnosis of psychopathy, unlike antisocial personality disorder, is informative regarding a patient's future risk ( Hare, 1991).
***
... although it appears clear that there is no generalised frontal cortical dysfunction in individuals with psychopathy there is one region of the frontal cortex that could be impaired, i.e. the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).

The OFC, especially the medial OFC, receives extensive projections from, and sends extensive projections to, the amygdala. Moreover, the medial OFC is involved in instrumental learning and response reversal — both of which functions are impaired in individuals with psychopathy ( LaPierre et al, 1995). In addition, there have been attempts to link the disorder of psychopathy with the neurological condition of ‘acquired sociopathy’ following lesions of the OFC ( Anderson et al, 1999).
***
And this is a fascinating speculation about chronic amphetamine use in relation to psychopathy.

It is important to make one final point. The lifestyle of the individual with psychopathy may exacerbate any neurobiological impairments. One feature associated with psychopathy is substance misuse. This could be contributing to apparent impairments. For example chronic amphetamine misuse has been shown to lead to disturbance in functions mediated by the OFC ( Rogers et al, 1999). In this context, it is interesting to note that although performance on measures thought to require amygdala involvement is impaired substantially in both adults with psychopathy and children with psychopathic tendencies, performance on measures thought to require the OFC is impaired substantially only in the adults ( Blair et al, 2001). This, of course, could reflect the developmental course of the disorder. However, alternatively, it could reflect the lifestyle of the individual with psychopathy where substance misuse has interacted with the fundamental pathology to produce additional OFC pathology.
posted by nickyskye at 6:15 PM on May 14, 2012


Credible? *sigh* I'm just going to go ahead and link to the book How to Think Straight About Psychology, and would suggest that one should read that before they spew off half wrought anecdotal evidence about psychological maladies.

I'm not a psychologist or expert of any kind. I do not claim to be making any kind of diagnostic statements about my brother or anyone else. However. I've made myself exceptionally vulnerable here sharing very intimate details about what it's like to live with an abnormally difficult child and would appreciate if you would at least deem me "credible" to speak about my own family, thanks.
posted by sonika at 7:33 PM on May 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


That early comment about "shitty parent books" really poisoned the well. There's potentially discussion to be had about whether the parents are an unfortunate mix for this child, just given that their approaches are so different -- the dad tending pretty far toward identification, soothing, understanding (and even caving -- he said "uh-oh" when he heard his son approaching and quickly tried to hide the fact that the little brother had touched his video -- quite a role reversal); the mom toward strictness, exasperation, alienation. I mean, lots of parents have different strictness levels, of course, but while most kids will do fine with a wide range of acceptable parenting methods, there are also a few kids whose problems will be magnified by small weaknesses like this "divided front" problem.

But a reasonable discussion is pretty far from just concluding that only shitty parents create difficult children. I freely admit that I would have no clue what to do with a kid like Michael, and that my above observation could be easily turned to suggest the opposite: that a child like this will create such giant parenting challenges that any small weakness will seem to be evidence of parental shittiness. If a child's temperament requires perfection in parenting to remain functional, then it's pretty much the same thing as saying that he has an inherent problem that wasn't caused by parenting, because ... no one's going to get perfect parenting.
posted by palliser at 8:31 PM on May 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sonika, I'm honestly finding your approach here to be "puzzling" (to put it nicely). You obviously were attacking my statement about the normalcy of children with a bunch of assumptive statements about what's "normal" (which a lot of were falaciously wrong by the way), mixed in with personal anecdotes (which I always appreciate seeing from mefites) and topped it with "I'm not an expert". Now with the finger wagging? Ugh. Are your statements about "normalcy" above reproach? Apparently. Did I ever specifically attack your personal experiences? No, I didn't and i find the assertion that I did ugly. Like I said I appreciate it when people share and normally I would apologize for stepping on toes as such but your use of personal anecdotes to protect your argument as quite appalling.

I have found most of the comments here interesting and worthwhile, including yours and nickyskyes, even though I believe some of them to not be not quite right and I'd appreciate it if you some framing what I say as if I don't. But then again I'm not an expert either, so please apply caveats and all that, thanks.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 10:33 PM on May 14, 2012


. You obviously were attacking my statement about the normalcy of children with a bunch of assumptive statements about what's "normal" (which a lot of were falaciously wrong by the way), mixed in with personal anecdotes (which I always appreciate seeing from mefites) and topped it with "I'm not an expert"

No, I was sharing my experience of what it's like to live with a child like the one described in the article. It had absolutely nothing to do with your comments or anyone else's in the thread. That I chose to write in terms of contrasting potentially sociopathic kids with more normal kids was simply to highlight that it's very different, not attacking or responding to any previous comments. Had I been responding to your comment, I would have addressed you personally.

I'm not making an argument that needs to be protected by anecdotes. I'm sharing a difficult experience and absolutely in no way trying to make any larger "point." Perhaps now you could see fit to apologize for stepping on my toes because I have no argument that needs protecting, I am sharing personal anecdotes simply to say "I've been where this article is talking about and this is what it was like."
posted by sonika at 4:47 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]




I never specifically addressed my comment to you either and yet here we are. If you really felt personally attacked then a simple personal MeMail would've been a great way to suss out the matter, but if you feel you need to continue to publicly bully me into submission then there's always Meta. Sorry for the derail folks.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 9:39 AM on May 15, 2012


If you really felt personally attacked then a simple personal MeMail would've been a great way to suss out the matter, but if you feel you need to continue to publicly bully me into submission then there's always Meta.

I was in no way intending to publicly bully anyone. I was responding to comments left in the thread directed first at those who had shared anecdotal experience and second at me personally. I have not used any kind of ad-hominem language or otherwise attacked you as a commenter. I do not believe that MeTa is necessary, nor did I feel like a personal MeMail was the way to respond to a public comment.

I do see that you are changing the rules of engagement with each comment - first calling anecdotal evidence not credible, second telling me that I'm using my experience to prove a point, and third telling me that my responses are bullying - and as such have trouble believing that anything would be gained from either MeMail or MeTa.
posted by sonika at 11:58 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm very comfortable saying that kids like these are different in quite significant ways from other kids. I'm less comfortable saying that we fully understand what psychopathy is - it seems like it's still quite a blunt diagnoses. But if it's neurologically based, or at least begins with a neurological dimension and it looks like it is and does based on this highly recommended read about the studies of Dr. Kent Kiehl, I would not be a bit surprised that it can be diagnosed in children, once we have a clearer idea what to look for.

The business/psychopathy angle has been well explored here in a long string of articles, even as early as 2001 with How Can You Tell If Your Boss is a Psychopath?

Many more MeFi discussions here.

Basically, we all have opinions on the quality of psychological diagnosis and treatment, but I don't think we're able to solve the larger issue here. We are simply living in a time of emerging science and masses of incomplete data, testing leeches vs. surgery. We aren't going to find our answers today or in this story.

But, as always with human behavioral and emotional issues, seems best to me not to blame personality factors when biological and physical factors should be investigated first. I've met enough kids whose wiring is truly and evidently divergent to know that soft factors aren't necessarily the cause.

"Wait and see what we figure out, we're gradually getting it" is not a helpful answer to these parents, but at least part of the reason it seems like more of a problem now is that our family expectations are so different now. A hundred years ago, kids like this who were never able to pull themselves together were abandoned or kicked out or ran away, or died violently in fights, or otherwise sat out on the margins of society. Those who did pull it together functioned, either with malevolent intent or with decent intent, once they figured out how to use their intellectual powers in alternative ways.

But the parents in the story and in our anecdotes here don't live in those shrug-and-move-on times. They don't expect to have to sacrifice one child to preserve the other two. Surely there is help, isn't there? They are trying anything in their power to live up to the expectation that they raise, love, teach and control their children, and finding that they don't have the kinds of children that will respond to normal, appropriate strategies.

And though their strategies may not be perfect, parenting actually should not require perfect strategies - only "good enough" ones.

It is possible, in fact, to critique any parents, even far more than "good enough" ones, for the human failings we all have. The non-critical failings of parents are not perfect predictors of the failings of children. Otherwise things would be far more fucked up for most of us than they actually are.

Barring the actual pathology of abuse or neglect, which yes we know does produce lasting emotional and intellectual effects and which definitely falls short of "good enough," good-enough parenting produces healthy-enough children, unless something else in the child's developmental world is going quite wrong.
posted by Miko at 12:03 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Smoke: With respect NickySkye, I think you're making a number of huge assertions with a lot of dubious or orthogonal sources.

Linking to the wikipedia page for Monsanto or the Hersheys does not prove psychopathy, and neither, do a lot of the... "hobbyist" pages like "humannature.com", "sociopathworld.com", you've linked to, either.


Misha: Nickiskye, the "diagnoses" from the over 20 year-old website you linked to are hardly in-depth analyses. The site even includes this disclaimer:

Disclaimer: The material herein is presented for purposes of information only.  The diagnosis and treatment of behavioral disorders should not be attempted without the personal involvement of a licensed health care professional.  The NPA character types of famous individuals given on this site were deduced from a variety of sources and have not been verified by any definitive tests.


Nickiskye: misha, my focus is and has been for the last eleven years on helping those impacted by the abuse, particularly the adult children of sociopaths/pathological narcissists.
___


Nickiskye, I appreciate that your interest in all of this is one of helping people cope with their traumatic childhoods. I know you are a compassionate person who wants to do a good thing.

However, you are not, and never have been, a therapist. You are a street vendor.

An earnest desire to help others, while admirable, does not make you an expert on psychopathology. You are not trained to make these kinds of diagnoses. You are not qualified to diagnose anyone; no, not even if you have spent years compiling articles on the internet.

I'm sorry, but that's the truth of it, and that is the only problem I have with your contributions in this thread. You speak as if you know where you can only speculate.
posted by misha at 12:55 PM on May 15, 2012


misha, you are using the term diagnosis to mean by a medical diagnosis in which a procedure is then part of the treatment plan.

I have no interest in treating sociopaths, narcissists or psychopaths.

There is a non medical definition of diagnosis: (from ancient Greek διάγνωσις = discernment) is the identification of the nature and cause of anything. Diagnosis is used in many different disciplines with variations in the use of logics, analytics, and experience to determine the cause and effect relationships.

Every single opinion I express about sociopathy, psychopathy or pathological narcissism is backed up with research, done by professional scientists, psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists. In all my comments, unless I posit what I state is a controversial opinion, I back it up with citations, references to research I've done.

A person may be knowledgeable about something without it being their profession. And I happen to be knowledgeable on this topic.

You are free, as is any person here, to ask me any specific about this topic and should I not know about it, I am very comfortable saying I don't and I can also I can offer you well researched, science based information about most aspects of this illness.
posted by nickyskye at 2:34 PM on May 15, 2012


I do see that you are changing the rules of engagement with each comment - first calling anecdotal evidence not credible, second telling me that I'm using my experience to prove a point, and third telling me that my responses are bullying - and as such have trouble believing that anything would be gained from either MeMail or MeTa.

Right, because it's easier to berate me in this forum about things I didn't do. Let's move on from the whack-a-mole game here and onto discussing the content shall we?

To be clear here, I do think there are some kids who have psychopathy at work beyond the range of other aberrant behavior and you experience obviously bears that out. Although, the fact remains, there are huge problems with making these types of diagnosis as I noted above. I first made the statement about functionally "normal" kids easily falling under the diagnosis of BPD and ASPD. Which is invariably true. I then made another statement about the importance of actual practical work and professional opinion on the matter.
You made a comment a short while later stating your lack of experience and then made a series of contrasting statements about "normal" kids and anecdotes of your own. So, you say you weren't addressing me, but I find that a bit odd in light of the fact that you were directly addressing my concerns. Whatevs. Also, anecdotes are not reliable evidence to back up scientific claims, and that is what I was speaking to all along. Maybe you thought I was calling you a liar but I assure you that wasn't my intent. My questioning of "crediblilty" was speaking to your assertions about what constitutes normalcy and what is sociopathy. Here's the problem with your assertions, "normal" kids will:
- compulsively lie
- torture and kill animals
- plot to and even possibley kill others
- manipulate to an exceedingly large degree

Now that's not to say that some of these things are not pathological or possibly lead to one, but it just simply isn't true that the distinctions are plainly clear cut. That is why I simply would rather rely on a professional opinion when I am measuring credibility.

Last, I've spoken about how I do enjoy reading about experiences a couple of times, and I don't appreciate you continually insisting that I attacked you on that matter. And yes, you are trying to "bully me into submission" by continually reframing my position and requesting an apology in an open forum. Again, puzzling, because if that's what you really wanted you certainly could've MeMailed me instead of crudely berating me for what I've stated multiple times wasn't my intent. I hope that clears things up for you and if not, my MeMail still works.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 5:05 PM on May 15, 2012


Here's the problem with your assertions, "normal" kids will:
- compulsively lie
- torture and kill animals
- plot to and even possibley kill others
- manipulate to an exceedingly large degree

Now that's not to say that some of these things are not pathological or possibly lead to one, but it just simply isn't true that the distinctions are plainly clear cut..


I really can't agree with you there. Those behaviors, especially as you've characterized them ("compulsively," "torture,") really aren't normal for children. Especially not as patterns. Manipulation, yes. "To an exceedingly large degree," though without examples, I'd have to say no. There's a normal degree of manipulation by kids, but if it's "exceedingly large" you've left the "normal" realm. These excesses of compulsion, torture, excessiveness really do point to pathology - which, of course, isn't normal.

Really, to use the term "normal" is to describe an absence of pathology.

I can agree that kids experiment with some of these behaviors or express some of these behaviors even if they are temporarily in crisis and even if they end up fine. But I can't agree that they're normal, because the vast majority of kids really don't experience any of them to the serious degree you indicate. And even in moderation, they're not an indication of normalcy, they're an indication of an actual problem.
posted by Miko at 5:19 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Seconding Miko's thoughts on this, wholeheartedly.

Rocket Surgeon, I would like to ask you for citations/links/books, anything, backing up your assertions/opinons that those things are considered normal in children and in particular if more than one of those behaviors, for example if three of those traits, co-exist in an emotionally healthy child.
posted by nickyskye at 5:29 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, no, obviously if several of those traits existed at the same time you would have a "problem". But children can and do take part in many of those behaviors and may well not be in crisis or traumatic situations. We can go back and forth on what constitutes normal but as I said before, if you went through the checklist for ASPD or BPD and grabbed any 16 yr old off of the street, you probably would find that a lot of them could easily fall under those headings. If you head over to a detention center for young kids, you would find pretty much all of them would fall under those designations. The problem is trying to treat them according to that pathology, when there is probably other central pathologies to concentrate on like PTSD. So, there certainly are plenty of functionally "normal" kids producing aberrant behavior, with and without pathology. But this whole discussion rests upon the idea on where those lines are drawn for youth people. I certainly don't have an answer for you, but everything I've read and heard makes it clear it's not cut and dry as some of the comments make it out to be. I've seen perfectly normal little angels manipulate their parents to an excessive(yes excessive) degree, but since the parents don't make note of this it isn't a problem until they deal with interpersonal relationships on a larger scale. The thing is, most kids just grow out of it, but it's not an inherent sign of pathology or a problem. That's what people do in the process of growing up, adapt.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 6:01 PM on May 15, 2012


I'm only speaking for myself, but a) I don't consider any of those behaviors "normal" in any sense; but b) I don't think that all such children displaying those behaviors are biologically pathological. Nor even that, for those whom it's environmentally triggered, they will necessarily be pathological in the longer term. But some of those children I feel certain are inherently pathological — as Miko has said, there's a lot of accumulating science that indicates that this is sometimes the case. But certainly not that all such pathological behaviors have such origins. Nor that it's necessarily a permanent condition. I'm sure that it sometimes is. Sometimes it's not.

I have a hard time believing that anyone here is unconcerned with the obvious problems that will arise from diagnosing children as psychopaths, nor the inherent uncertainty about any such diagnosis, given that they're uncertain with adults and it's obvious that this is triply the case with children.

But a lot of people have a strong investment in denying the sorts of experiences that sonika and others have here attested. There's various reasons for this. Some of them very understandable and virtuous — sadly, in many cases, saying that someone has some sort of unrepairable cognitive disability has meant we give up on them, cast them aside. But doing the opposite isn't helpful when it involves attempting to help in ways that don't address the problem. If we deny that some children have some inherent psychopathy, we won't know how to help those children, either. Or their families. Or their present and future victims.

This argument is just another manifestation of the nature/nurture argument where there's a lot of people on opposing sides who fear that granting the opposing point-of-view any legitimacy at all risks a total sacrifice of what's protected and important in their own position. So everyone polarizes. And besides how much this frustrates me from a more scientific perspective (which is "a lot") it frustrates me because there's a whole bunch of vital real-world problems we're trying to solve that are frustrated from this unnecessary polarization.

"But children can and do take part in many of those behaviors and may well not be in crisis or traumatic situations."

They may not be in crisis or traumatic situations if they're psychopaths. If they're not psychopaths, they're in crisis or traumatic situations.

I'm having a lot of trouble understanding how you can be claiming that compulsive lying, or torture and killing of animals, or attempted murder of other people, are examples of behavior that is within the norm for children. I can understand manipulation (though you make this difficult with your "excessive", just as you make the more reasonable frequent lying less reasonable with your inclusion of "compulsive"; a psychiatric term, by the way), but I can't understand your inclusion of torturing and killing of animals and attempted murder. You are seriously confused about what is and isn't normal.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:20 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Really? You didn't have the friend who was unusually cruel to animals when you were younger? That's not uncommon at all, and no it is not just the deeply disturbed kids who do that. Yeah, there's obvious caveat for murder but again not uncommon for just about anyone, not just kids, to think about killing someone. These types of thoughts are not relegated to psychopaths at all. I think you're seriously confused on how I'm using the term normal.

They may not be in crisis or traumatic situations if they're psychopaths. If they're not psychopaths, they're in crisis or traumatic situation.

Not according to the clinical psychologists I know. The ones with the Dr. In front of their names that have worked and treated kids for years.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 6:46 PM on May 15, 2012


if you went through the checklist for ASPD or BPD and grabbed any 16 yr old off of the street, you probably would find that a lot of them could easily fall under those headings.

That's why "we" don't grab kids off the street and apply the checklist. To do that with any reasonable authority, you need to have seen and worked clinically with hundreds if not thousands of kids, so that you are able to develop the frame of reference to distinguish the relatively normal from the pathological.

Really? You didn't have the friend who was unusually cruel to animals when you were younger? That's not uncommon at all,

I did run across such kids. None of them were kids who didn't have some other serious problems in themselves or in the family. Not one. Also, thinking about killing someone is quite different from, in your words, "plotting" to kill someone.

I generally stand up for the idea that kids do a lot of things adults find beyond the pale, and those things are normal for kids. Kids are not as good as adults at predicting consequences, so they can do some things that seem callous or bizarre to us, and they are often as surprised as we at the outcome. But I'm having trouble following you where you want to go - that the kinds of behaviors you're wanting to categorize as "normal" really are quite common and not worthy of concern. As a lifelong educator, I just can't agree with you there.

I think you're seriously confused on how I'm using the term normal.

Perhaps you should define your own variation, but the one I'm using is the classic social-science rubric: the middle 80% of the bell curve when you take an entire age cohort or demographic into account on any single dimension or behavior (such as animal torture), basically.

If by "normal" you mean "not all that rare," then I understand where you're coming from, because trauma and pathology are not all that rare, and 20% of people falling outside the majority still means a lot of individuals. But I would caution you that being "not rare" isn't the same as being "non-pathological." So if by "normal" you mean "not an aberration worthy of note and concern," then no, I don't accept that definition.
posted by Miko at 7:12 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Really? You didn't have the friend who was unusually cruel to animals when you were younger?

I didn't. And I never heard of anyone I knew doing that either, even the bullies and assholes. And I also don't think that is normal or common. If you had friends like that in your environment, it makes sense that you would see it as normal or common, but I don't think it actually is.
posted by cairdeas at 7:19 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Last, I've spoken about how I do enjoy reading about experiences a couple of times, and I don't appreciate you continually insisting that I attacked you on that matter. And yes, you are trying to "bully me into submission" by continually reframing my position and requesting an apology in an open forum. Again, puzzling, because if that's what you really wanted you certainly could've MeMailed me instead of crudely berating me for what I've stated multiple times wasn't my intent. I hope that clears things up for you and if not, my MeMail still works.

I have in no way been crude, berated you, reframed your position, or bullied you. I have responded to each of your comments civilly. I have asked once for an apology on the basis that you yourself said you "usually" apologize for stepping on toes.

I feel no need to take this privately if your public opinion of me is so poor. I have made now five comments to you, total, which is four more than I would have made had you never addressed me personally. That is not continual by any stretch of the imagination and given that they were all defending myself from your accusations, they can not be reasonably justified as attacks.

If you continue to address me in this thread, I will not respond as this is clearly not about me or the substance of my comments, but about something going on with you where you feel that someone simply responding to you is akin to bullying.
posted by sonika at 7:20 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Meh.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 7:26 PM on May 15, 2012


Once you have had the misfortune to be close to a few psychopaths (the clinical term would I suppose be "to interact with") you will have absolutely no doubt when you meet another one. It does take a few encounters; sometimes normal behavior can seem psychopathic, but not for very long. It is the depth and consistency of behavior, particularly random assaults and betrayals motivated by boredom and uninhibited by consequences, that reveals the problem.

The DSM-IV is severely broken with regard to sociopathy. I've never known a young child with the problem but it's obvious that the adults I've known didn't grow from spores, and a couple of them told tales on themselves that reveal the kind of childhoods hinted at here.
posted by localroger at 7:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


R. Schlock: "it becomes a basis for displacing attention from parental responsibility in a child's ethical and emotional development, or a pretext for shoving chemicals where the hard work of parenting should go, then this is just more BoomGen psychobabble bullshit."

Yeah, hi. I am one of those people who would have been called "misbehaving" two generations ago but fortunately was diagnosed with ADHD in my youth. My parents read a lot of books on how to be effective parents, and unless I suppose you believe corporal punishment is an effective tool for shaping behavior, they did pretty much everything right, and tried every other treatment, from convention to totally not conventional, to deal with the specific problems my ADHD created. It was really only when we started treating the ADHD with "chemicals" that I started actually being here.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:29 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


For those who are not clinicians or doctors, Dr. Hare, the renowned expert on psychopaths and sociopaths, came up with the P Scan.

The P-Scan provides a useful tool for developing a hypothesis for a particular person of interest, with respect to Psychopathy, and for managing risk for antisocial, criminal, and violent behavior.

The Hare P-Scan: Research Version is a nonclinical tool that serves as a rough screen for psychopathic features and as a source of working hypotheses to deal with or manage suspects, offenders, or clients. It is designed for use in law enforcement, probations, corrections, civil and forensic facilities, and other areas in which it would be useful to have some information about the possible presence of psychopathic features in a person of interest.


It consists of 120 characteristics, 30 for impressions about interpersonal traits, like grandiosity and lying, 30 for impressions about affective traits, such as lack of remorse and shallow emotions, 30 for impressions about lifestyle features, such as impulsivity and stimulation-seeking, and 30 for impressions about antisocial behaviors. So we have four components that match the new factor structure of the PCL-R. The P-Scan involves scoring items that are simple descriptive statements, like 'His presence makes me feel uncomfortable,' or low-level inferences, such as 'Seems unable to understand the feelings of others.' You don't have to be a clinician, you just have to have some experience with the individual. We've developed a computer program so qualified professionals can access it on the Web, through Multi Health Systems. The P-Scan report provides a hypothesis about the extent to which a person of interest might have the interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial features of psychopathy. The information may be helpful in dealing with the individual, but in some cases it will be an impetus for getting a clinical opinion from someone trained on the PCL-R.
posted by nickyskye at 10:20 PM on May 15, 2012


Rocket Surgeon, Yup, I thought you would not find info/links backing up that assertion.

On the Psychopathy Check List for youths (PCL-YV):

These two items were used (among others) to score the PCL but we provide them to researchers due to their independent utility as indicators of risk.

Has the subject ever hurt an animal on purpose [C0_PCL060]

Is the subject a bully or does he/she ever threaten other people [C0_PCL061]


You said:
if you went through the checklist for ASPD or BPD and grabbed any 16 yr old off of the street, you probably would find that a lot of them could easily fall under those headings.

There is something it seems you do not understand about how - and when - a personality disorder - such as ASPD - is diagnosed, in particular in the case of children. There are a list of traits, for example in ASPD, let's stick to that one since it is partially the topic of this thread. (The actual topic of this thread is about issues related to child psychopathy.) The person being diagnosed with ASPD must have three of the traits at the same time and be over the age of 18 for that diagnosis to be legal, used by the insurance companies for payment or in a court.

A child - or an adult - may have any two of those traits listed under the heading of ASPD - however not the ones you listed. But not an accumulation of more than two traits and not before being first diagnosed with Conduct Disorder, if they are below the age of 18, which is what I said above in my first comment.

The pre-cursor diagnosis for ASPD is Conduct Disorder. A child as young as 5 may be diagnosed as having Conduct Disorder.

The median age of onset for this disorder has been found in the 8 to 10 year old range. Most boys had an onset before the age of 10, while girls had onset ranging from the age of 14 to 16 years.

The definition of the disorder is (emphasis mine): Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is described by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (DSM-IV-TR), as an Axis II personality disorder characterized by "...a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood."

Even in a stable home environment, a small number of preschool-aged children display significant irritability and aggression that results in disruption severe enough to be classified as CD.

There is another term used for chronic destructive behavior in children below the age of 15 and that is Oppositional Defiance Disorder. It requires that 4 of the traits/behaviors be present at one time. Antisocial behavior in younger children may be diagnosed as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)

The DSM lists 8 diagnostic criteria indicative of ODD. At least 4 of these behaviors must be present for at least 6 months in order to diagnose a child with ODD:

1) Frequently loses his/her temper
2) Frequently argues
3) Frequent defies or refuses to comply with rules and requests
4) Frequently annoys people on purpose
5) Frequently blames other people for mistakes or poor behavior
6) Is frequently very sensitive to other's comments, or is easily annoyed by others
7) Frequently angry or resentful
8) Frequently cruel or retaliative


All that said, there is a controversy in the world of diagnosing personality disorders about whether a sociopath (a person diagnosed with ASPD) and a psychopath are the same. My opinion sides with Hare, who says they are not the same disorder.

Labeling a child as a psychopath has legal implications for that child in court.

ASPD can be legally diagnosed when a child is 18, with the precursers typically being Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. However, it seems that a child is a psychopath when diagnosed as that by a psychiatrist. Dr. Hare recommends the diagnosis be performed by two people rating the psychopath, using the Psychopath Checklist-Revised. Hare states this rating system has been used to diagnose (rate) "adolescent offenders". Hare has also come up with the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV).

Because of the stigma from labeling a child a juvenile psychopath, rather than has having ODD or CD, then at 18, ASPD, it seems like for the moment - as of 2001 - children are not being given the psychopath label. But maybe that will change when brain scans come into the picture?
posted by nickyskye at 10:45 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]




Rocket Surgeon :Really? You didn't have the friend who was unusually cruel to animals when you were younger? That's not uncommon at all, and no it is not just the deeply disturbed kids who do that.

In my immigrant community it was not uncommon nor was it unusual for adults to dismiss it cruelty to animals by children. Most of my peer's parents had grown up on farms and had a less than empathic view of domesticated animals.
30 years later, I look back and think that it was a big mistake on the part of the adults. A lot of those kids did not end up well. A lot of the kids who "turned out okay" are only okay on paper - delve a bit deeper into their personal lives and the chaos and emotional wreckage becomes apparent.
The rest? Yes, they readily admit that they were little shits back then and are ashamed of the cruelty they engaged in. Usually, they're trying to do things differently with their kids.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:01 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Mental Illness That Gets Little Sympathy

My controversial opinion is that psychopathy is not a mental illness, because the person who has it - or any of the other destructive personality disorders (NPD, BPD, ASPD, HPD) -knows the difference between right and wrong, ie is not legally crazy, is usually far more intelligent than most people, in a neocortical kind of way, far more shrewd, often has an unusually gifted memory, is often extraordinarily perceptive.

Most of the people with these illnesses are often brilliant at social manipulation, have astounding abilities to find loopholes, wriggle room, are amazingly convincing liars or wearers of false personalities attuned to every situation. They may make brilliant actors, politicians, bankers, doctors, nurses, scientists, military leaders. Many navigate life until quite a ripe old age.

So I don't see this as a mental illness but as an emotional illness.

People with autism may not be able to read others' emotions. However, people with the Axis II Cluster B disorders are typically brilliant at reading others, not in terms of knowing others but perceiving vulnerabilities, ways in which people can be manipulated,as predators. Mentally astute but emotionally malevolent.

People with autism do not typically - or ever that I've heard about - act out of malice. I don't know if people with autism are even capable of malice. But people with the Axis II Cluster B disorders operate routinely out of malice. All around the people with the destructive personality disorders are ripples of misery caused in others, they leave a wake of misery behind them. It's no wonder that these Axis II Cluster B disorders do not garner sympathy.

Compassion can be felt for a rabid dog, but that doesn't mean one should get close to one, or put one's life in harm's way. It's possible to feel compassion but steer clear.

My hope is that more people become aware of the Axis II Cluster B disorders and try to understand what causes them, how their mindset works, so as to better, sanely, wisely navigate living in a world in which there will likely always be some percent of society with these destructive illnesses.
posted by nickyskye at 5:10 PM on May 17, 2012


nickyskye, I understand that you are distinguishing between clinical and non-clinical diagnoses now, and that you feel laymen can and should make non-clinical diagnoses of psychopaths/sociopaths/ASPD (it was confusing because you cite many clinical indicators). I don't necessarily agree with that contention, but I see the distinction.

May I say that I think your reasoning is flawed in your assessment that psychopathy is not a mental illness, though? You say that psychopaths are intelligent--what of that? Many people with mental illnesses are intelligent.

You argue that they know the difference between right and wrong. That is only relevant in that, by today's legal standards, true psychopaths (which are rare, making up only 1-2% of the population) don't meet the legal definition of insanity. Not being insane is quite different from not being mentally ill! One can suffer from any number of mental illnesses, and not be legally insane.

You also feel that they are emotionally ill because they lack empathy and manipulate others' emotions. Where do emotions come from, though? You have noted differences in the brains of people with these tendencies. Don't those differences correlate with mental illness?

Besides, why wouldn't emotional illness also be mental illness? Think of depression--that's an emotional illness, surely, that we recognize as a mental illness.

"Mentally astute but emotionally malevolent" is a nice turn of phrase. Psychopaths certainly act in ways we would consider emotionally malevolent. I imagine that psychopaths do not have the same point of reference we do. They would likely comprehend THAT we consider an act malevolent, but not understand WHY we do.

We can see, for example, that a particular crime is especially "heinous" or "cruel and unusual". To us, that crime is more deserving of strict punishment (like life sentences or the death penalty). To the psychopath, I wonder if that distinction is even comprehensible? They must know that a victim is suffering. Modern wisdom says they view their victims like lab rats in an experiment, feeling nothing when they see them suffer, though.

Why does the suffering even matter to them, if they really feel nothing? Why do they want to inflict pain on people, malevolently, if pain is not something they can truly understand?

It's an interesting paradox.
posted by misha at 6:53 PM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think it's a false paradox. There's no difference between what we call mental illnesses and what we call emotional disturbances. They originate from the same kinds of causes and are treated in the same kinds of ways.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on May 17, 2012


Miko, obviously, I agree.
posted by misha at 7:21 PM on May 17, 2012


I know. I'm endorsing your view.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on May 17, 2012


Enjoyed your comment Miko, thanks for the conversation. It helps to have a good dialogue to think things through. :) Yes, it IS an interesting paradox!

Here is a fascinating comment made by TheLastPsychiatrist, which I found very insightful. It was made in regard to a person saying they "have" a personality disorder.

No one "has" it or doesn't have it. It's not a disease, it doesn't have physical pathology. It's a construct, a heuristic-- a description. A description of someone by someone else.

And it exists only in relationship to someone else, to society. It is context specific-- emotionally and situationally.


That is not the case with any of the other mental illnesses.

In hoping humanity gets to know more about sociopathy, its causes, mindset and impact on humanity, what comes to mind at this moment is this analogy. When a person is driving down the highway, it isn't necessary to be a car mechanic to be aware of reckless drivers. The thing is that reckless driving can and does happen without malice, it could be simply an accident. But if one were driving and there were a set of drivers who deliberately drove recklessly, it would be handy to recognize them and literally steer clear. Sociopaths are reckless drivers in society. They are remorseless and sadistic. It seems wise to be able to discern them. Not to be punitive or to merely sling labels, but to able to navigate through life being less ripped off, less raped, less murdered, less conned, less lured into war, less nuked.

You said:
You say that psychopaths are intelligent--what of that? Many people with mental illnesses are intelligent.

Yes, that's an excellent point. But usually mental illness disables social skills to some degree with mood instability and other neuro-functional problems, for example a person suffering from Cyclothymia (manic-depression of one kind or another) wouldn't have control over their mental faculties under the sway of the illness in a social context because of neurological/biological issues.

Sociopaths have a facility with social manipulation. Their neocortical intelligence - whether of the shrewd variety or the academic - drives their illness. One of the traits of sociopathy is pathological charm. They are cunning, another of the traits.

There's no difference between what we call mental illnesses and what we call emotional disturbances.

It's an interesting point. Mental and/or emotional. I do think emotions inform probably most - if not all - thought processes.

However, I think of sociopaths as limbically (neurological emotional center) handicapped.

In court, the inability to know right from wrong is considered grounds for being considered legally insane. It lets people off the hook legally in some sense. So sociopaths, for example, are not considered insane, crazy, mentally ill, in the sense that they are not able to function mentally and a huge percent, 70% to 80% - of the people in prison are considered to be sociopaths. They are not put in hospitals for the criminally insane. They are 'simply' behind bars.

Originally sociopathy was considered "a character disorder", it was not thought of as a mental illness. Now it's called a personality disorder. Mental illness doesn't really, imo, accurately describe it. Maybe it should be called a social illness. (But isn't that another name for crabs? lol)

Mental illnesses typically come with disabilities in nagivating the world. In the continuum of being disabled by mental illness on one end might be Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder and on the other end might be Schizophrenia or Major Depressive Disorder.

The Mental illnesses may or may not come with psychotic breaks, delusions, paranoia. All that may be treated with a number of medications, such as neurontin or luvox. I think the mental illnesses impact the emotions tremendously. (Depression is a topic unto itself).

But there is no medication I know of to stop the malice or ill will of a sociopath/psychopath.
posted by nickyskye at 8:30 PM on May 17, 2012


That is not the case with any of the other mental illnesses.

Says who?!

I think you've invented an idiosyncratic definition of "mental illness" so that you can create a separate category of problems which you can claim aren't mental illness. But no one else is using your idiosyncratic definition.

Meanwhile, everything you describe is categorizable under the rubric "mental illness" using widely understood definitions that are more like this:
Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning....Mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.
If you could prefer, we could call them "mental disorders" instead of "mental illnesses." But there's nothing much to be gained by playing the word game. "Mental illness" includes everything that falls outside the category of "mental health."
posted by Miko at 8:40 PM on May 17, 2012


Says who?!

Ok. Isn't that the definition of mental illness, that it's in the mind of the person who has it? It's not defined by its context but by the experience of the person with the illness. As you said, the "ability to relate to others and daily functioning....Mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life."

Sociopaths are enabled by their illness to be socially devious, go up the social ladder, be charming, conniving as a method for being sadistic, destructive and malicious. Their illness can make them better able to manipulate others, even en masse, even be surrounded by sycophants and supporters. They can cope with all the ordinary demands of life, food, housing, education, driving cars, bank accounts, marriage etc.

I'm not trying to quibble with you. I think the term needs to be something different for the Axis II Cluster B Disorders. I thought Character Disorders was actually a more accurate descriptor. Emotionally Handicapped Social Context Disorder, LOL?
posted by nickyskye at 9:01 PM on May 17, 2012


Ok. Isn't that the definition of mental illness, that it's in the mind of the person who has it?

No. That's not the definition of mental illness. There's nothing in your link that even suggests that's the definition.

Sociopaths are enabled

Not to cope with the ordinary demands of life, they're not.
posted by Miko at 9:07 PM on May 17, 2012


nickyskye: "My controversial opinion is that psychopathy is not a mental illness, because the person who has it - or any of the other destructive personality disorders (NPD, BPD, ASPD, HPD) -knows the difference between right and wrong, ie is not legally crazy, is usually far more intelligent than most people, in a neocortical kind of way, far more shrewd, often has an unusually gifted memory, is often extraordinarily perceptive."

I'm enjoying this conversation a lot, but do you have a cite for this last bit? My understanding of the literature is not broad, but I thought the once-fabled connection between psychopathy and intelligence had been all but obliterated, and I've never heard the claim that psychopaths have unusually gifted memories. I agree that psychopaths exist in every walk of life, and I'd even say that American society disturbingly encourages psychopathy in positions of power; however, I don't think psychopaths are more likely to be intelligent than non-psychopaths. It's just that unintelligent psychopaths, at least in the US, are in prison - along with a massive chunk of the lower classes.
posted by koeselitz at 9:13 PM on May 17, 2012


Ooh, what fun! So glad you joined the conversation koeselitz. Okay. Let me dig up some links. give me a few minutes. Nice to see you in this thread.

Miko, we're probably going to differ on this point. But thank you for making me think more deeply about it. I'm of the opinion that the LastPsychiatrist has about the Axis II Cluster Bs and keep coming back to his definition:

No one "has" it or doesn't have it. It's not a disease, it doesn't have physical pathology. It's a construct, a heuristic-- a description. A description of someone by someone else.

And it exists only in relationship to someone else, to society. It is context specific-- emotionally and situationally.


Mental illness.

"any disease of the mind; the psychological state of someone who has emotional or behavioral problems serious enough to require psychiatric intervention"

Ok, so somebody who goes postal, is in uncontrolled mania or acting out suicidally would be examples of behavior that impinges on society and that psychiatrists would intervene, as helping a "mental illness".

But sociopaths get put in prison. Or not (getting away with malice). Their acting out is less "mental illness" and more criminal or malicious. The behavior impact is experienced differently by society, both because of the intention, the deviousness and also because of the scale. Sociopaths commit their ill will on a much greater criminal scale, than any other mental illness.

When you say ordinary demands of life perhaps I don't understand your meaning. Because I think sociopaths are enabled by their pathology to get more money, more power, more attention, more of the things that many humans want, houses, stuff etc.

Characteristics of a serial killer

Personality Traits

*White male between 25 and 35 years old.
*Can be of high income or low income.
*Average to high intelligence.
*Usually married with children and has a career.


If you're talking about love, then no, sociopaths aren't capable of that. But some sociopaths have had, apparently, happy married lives with wives who had no idea about the dead bodies.
posted by nickyskye at 10:07 PM on May 17, 2012


Ok, koeselitz. :)

Answering your question point by point. My controversial opinion is that psychopathy is not a mental illness, because the person who has it - or any of the other destructive personality disorders (NPD, BPD, ASPD, HPD) -knows the difference between right and wrong, ie is not legally crazy

1. difference between right and wrong legal defense:

Clinical insanity is a medical term. Someone can be totally insane but still know the difference between right and wrong.

Legal insanity is decided under what is called the "M'Naughton rule" (After Daniel M'Naughton, who was found not guilty of murder on the grounds of insanity in England in 1849) The Law Lords (English equivalent to the Supreme Court) established a set of rule to determine when someone was not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. These rules were adopted in most 'common law' countries, including most American states.

The Rules, stated shortly are:
(1) Persons acting under the influence of an insane delusion are punishable if they knew at the time of committing the crime that they were acting contrary to law.

(2) Every man is presumed sane and to have sufficient reason to be held responsible for his crimes.

(3) To establish a defense on the ground of insanity it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. If the accused was conscious that the act was one that he ought not to do, and if the act was at the same time contrary to the law of the land, he is punishable.


From this criminal forensic psychology site:

Most serial killers are not insane. Insane is a legal term that means the person did not know right from wrong when crime happened. Psychotic persons may or may not be legally insane.

----------
Is that good enough re sociopaths being sane, legally? Or would you like something more?
------------------

Next point: is usually far more intelligent than most people, in a neocortical kind of way

From Cleckley's list of symptoms of a psychopath:

1. Considerable superficial charm and average or above average intelligence.

2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking

3. Absence of anxiety or other "neurotic" symptoms considerable poise, calmness, and verbal facility.


In those with antisocial behaviors, higher "performance IQ".

In terms of shrewd intelligence:
They tend to be personable, charming, and engaging and are usually above average in intelligence. This demeanor, however, is often a pretense intended to deceive others and facilitate the exploitation of others.

From Robert Hare, the psychopath expert:

psychopaths have little difficulty infiltrating the domains of business, politics, law enforcement, government, academia and other social structures (Babiak). It is the egocentric, cold-blooded and remorseless psychopaths who blend into all aspects of society and have such devastating impacts on people around them who send chills down the spines of law enforcement officers.

often has an unusually gifted memory

Quoting Eric Fromm re Hitler's memory:

'"One capacity that astounded everybody again and again - including
those who were not under his spell - was his stupendous memory; a
memory that could exactly retain even unimportant details, like the
characters in Karl May's novels, the authors of books he had once
read, even the make of the bicycle he had ridden in 1915. He
remembered exactly the dates in his political career, the inns he
had been to, the streets he had driven on."'


Okay, on this topic I have to say that my anecdotal experience has been with pathological narcissists, who were clinically diagnosed by others. It was the pathological narcissists who had/have the incredible memories. In some cases almost photographic but not for everything, usually some specific area, an encyclopedic memory for history details in the extreme kind of thing. NPD is an Axis II Cluster B personality disorder, but it is not the disorder of sociopaths, unless it's called malignant narcissism. I do think pathological narcissism is at the core of ASPD and there can be overlap between those who are ASPD and those who are NPD.

Maybe the limbic (seat of the emotions) deficit in one part of the brain is compensated in another? Maybe it's quasi-autistic memory, connected with the sociopath's inability to feel whole empathy/connect with others in any meaningful way? Don't know. Will be interesting to see what scientists discover on this topic in the next few years. There seems to be a lot going on just now in examining the neurology of these disorders and about time too.

Did I miss anything or not include anything you would have preferred?
posted by nickyskye at 11:02 PM on May 17, 2012


koeselitz, Another snippet re pathological narcissism and memory from a really fascinating article:

Charisma, Detachment and Metanormal Abilities
Another Excerpt from Prophetic Charisma

Excerpt from Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (1997) by Len Oakes


Hence, any talents the child possesses have great survival value when he is attempting to maintain his narcissistic worldview. The followers in this study agreed that certain abilities, especially memory and social insight, were highly developed in their leaders.

and

Kohut insists that charismatic personalities have stunted empathy for others (Kohut 1976, 414), a suggestion that seems to run counter to the extraordinary empathy shown at times by prophets. But Kohut also argues that this stunted empathy may actually sharpen some perceptions (Kohut 1985, 84-87). The leader comprehends his environment "only as an extension of his own narcissistic universe," and he understands others "only insofar--but here with the keenest empathy!--as they can serve as tools toward his narcissistic ends, or insofar as they stand in the way of his purposes (Kohut 1976, 417). There are problems with Kohut’s usage of the term "empathy" (Oakes 1992,139- 42), but the main point is that the charismatic personality possesses an acute perception of the feelings and behaviors of others.
posted by nickyskye at 12:49 AM on May 18, 2012


An inability to empathize with others used to be called "being a dick" or "being a horrible human being." But because we find it unpleasant to believe that normal people can simply choose to be evil (and because psychologists are constantly looking for ways to make themselves feel relevant) now we diagnose it as a "mental illness."

If falling outside of the normal bell-curve range of empathy is a "mental illness," then why are we only diagnosing people at the low end? Logically speaking, wouldn't the people at the high end of the empathy spectrum be sick as well? We need to diagnose and treat them so that future future Gandhi's or Mother Teresa's can get the help they need to treat their crippling mental illness.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:37 AM on May 18, 2012


wolfdreams01, you have no idea what you are talking about. There is a vast amount of literature both anecdotal and clinical describing a remarkably consistent subset of emotions which certain people don't seem to feel. They did not make a decision to be evil; there is something wrong with them that removes the normal inhibition.
Another psychopath in our research said that he did not really understand what others meant by “fear”. However, “When I rob a bank,” he said, “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue tied. One barfed all over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t know why. If someone pointed a gun at me I guess I’d be afraid, but I wouldn’t throw up.” When asked to describe how he would feel in such a situation, his reply contained no reference to bodily sensations. He said things such as, “I’d give you the money”; “I’d think of ways to get the drop on you”; “I’d try and get my ass out of there.” When asked how he would feel, not what he would think or do, he seemed perplexed. Asked if he ever felt his heart pound or his stomach churn, he replied, “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight”
posted by localroger at 7:55 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting article on the topic of psychopaths that I found: 10% of Wall Street employees are clinical psychopaths compared to 1% in the general population.

Not really:

Correction: May 20, 2012

An opinion essay on May 13 about ethics and capitalism misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.

posted by falameufilho at 1:08 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nice correction falameufilho.

Still, 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths may mean economic collapse for millions. The Wall Street Journal also quoted that misinformation in their article about "psychos" on Wall Street.

"The only reason I started calling myself a psychopath is because it got me a complete walk from the Feds," he admits.

See, I think this is a significant statement about why it's important to know about sociopaths, psychopaths and pathological narcissists: It may be part of the human condition to venerate psychos, mistaking their grandiosity for leadership.

Interesting that both too much money and too little money contribute to traits connected with sociopathy. It reminds me of the Goldilocks Principle, "the first is wrong in one way, the second in another or opposite way, and only the third, in the middle, is just right."

Came across this snippet in the British Psychological Society response to the soon-to-be DSM V. It's under the heading about personality disorders. Emphasis mine.

The Society has several concerns in this area. While a hybrid dimensional-categorical model for personality and personality disorder assessment and diagnosis may be welcome, little of that is visible.

As stated in our general comments, we are concerned that clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalisation of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences which demand helping responses, but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation.

We believe that classifying these problems as ‘illnesses’ misses the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems. For psychologists, our well-being and mental health stem from our frameworks of understanding of the world, frameworks which are themselves the product of the experiences and learning through our lives.

We are particularly concerned that the system proposes to diagnose psychiatric disorder on a rating of “quite a bit” on personality trait domains.

posted by nickyskye at 11:44 AM on May 20, 2012


It's under the heading about personality disorders. Emphasis mine.

The second and third paragraphs quoted appear on 22 pages of that PDF. They use those two paragraphs roughly every time they think the DSM is too imprecise (that the diagnostic criteria are too subjective or that criteria apply to huge swaths of the 'normal' population). Taken out of context, the bit you quoted means something totally different than what it was meant to. Take, for instance, the 'opposite' comment:
We have no specific comments on these disorders, other than to say that, in our opinion, the use of diagnostic labels has greater validity, both on theoretical and empirical grounds in these areas.
That sentence makes it more clear that they're not making a statement about whether personality disorders are mental illnesses, they're commenting on how personality disorders are identified and defined.
posted by hoyland at 3:24 PM on May 20, 2012


hoyland, the BPS uses that sentence (We believe that classifying these problems as ‘illnesses’ misses the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems.) after all the "disorders" it lists.

The DSM does not come out that often.
DSM-I (1952)
DSM-II (1968)
DSM-III (1980)
DSM-III-R (1987)
DSM-IV (1994)
DSM-IV-TR (2000)\
It's interesting to note the changes made each time a version comes out and what precipitates a new version of an old diagnosis.

Going back over the British Psychology Society paper it had a number of interesting points, such as after the heading on page one (emphasis mine): ...The putative diagnoses presented in DSM-V are clearly based largely on social norms, with 'symptoms' that all rely on subjective judgements, with little confirmatory physical 'signs' or evidence of biological causation. The criteria are not value-free, but rather reflect current normative social expectations. Many researchers have pointed out that psychiatric diagnoses are plagued by problems of reliability, validity, prognostic value, and co-morbidity.

Diagnostic categories do not predict response to medication or other interventions whereas more specific formulations or symptom clusters might (Moncrieff, 2007). Finally, disorders categorised as ‘not otherwise specified’ are huge (running at 30% of all personality disorder diagnoses for example).

Personality disorder and psychoses are particularly troublesome as they are not adequately normed on the general population, where community surveys regularly report much higher prevalence and incidence than would be expected.
posted by nickyskye at 6:34 PM on May 20, 2012


But what do you want us to conclude from that?

It seems like you want us to conclude that the whole idea of psychology, or at least the project of the DSM, is hogwash, which is very clearly not what they mean. We all know the DSM is flawed. I don't see how it would ever be possible to remove the cultural bias. Having 'too many' (however we measure that) NOS diagnoses doesn't mean condition X doesn't exist, it likely means that condition X was poorly described (or that the subcategories of condition X were poorly described). The point is that you revise those things. If you're lucky, some research has come along to guide the revision. If you're unlucky, you're stuck thinking critically about whether you're pathologising the human experience.
posted by hoyland at 8:07 PM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow hoyland, I said nothing of the sort, that "the whole idea of psychology, or at least the project of the DSM, is hogwash". I quoted the British Psychology Society paper, what they said. Better ask them what they meant when they wrote that.
posted by nickyskye at 10:02 PM on May 20, 2012


I don't see how it would ever be possible to remove the cultural bias.

In fact, I'm not sure you should, since if diseases express themselves in socio-cultural contexts and are partially resulting from those contexts, then they need to be treated within those contexts in order to restore the kind of behavior that falls within "current social normative expectations."

Hoyland is right that these quotations - well, even a "link salad," as it were - don't show anyone what we don't already know. It's the job of mental health professionals to offer self-critique, and we are working with blunt instruments when we discuss the human mind and society. We all know that and have for most of our thinking lives. But none of that can be construed to mean that psycopathic behavior = mental health.
posted by Miko at 8:03 AM on May 21, 2012


Miko, linking to the history of the DSM and the British Psychology Society's discussion of the new DSM, when it comes to disorders in a thread about antisocial personality disorder is not "link salad". It's relevant to the topic. I link to back up assertions, as cites for opinions and when I have a controversial opinion.

A more articulate discussion from the British Journal of Psychiatry, voicing concerns about the very things I mentioned before: The distinction between personality disorder and mental illness, in which it shows that this topic of whether antisocial personality disorder/psychopathy is a mental illnesses, has been a controversial one for some time now. Many years, in fact, in a number of countries.

Relevant quotations from that really interesting paper are below:

Proposals by the UK Government for preventive detention of people with ‘dangerous severe personality disorders’ highlight the unresolved issue of whether personality disorders should be regarded as mental illnesses.

...They are distinguished from mental illness by their enduring, potentially lifelong nature and by the assumption that they represent extremes of normal variation rather than a morbid process of some kind.

...Disorder is not an exact term, but it is used here to imply the existence of a clinically recognisable set of symptoms or behaviour associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions’ (World Health Organization, 1992a). The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association, which likewise includes personality disorders, does contain a detailed definition of the term ‘mental disorder’, but although this runs to 146 words it is not cast in a way that allows it to be used as a criterion for deciding what is and is not mental disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

...It is much harder to establish that personality disorder involves dysfunction, in the sense of ‘failure of a mental mechanism to perform a natural function for which it was designed by evolution’ (Wakefield, 1992). Indeed, it has been argued that several of the characteristic features of antisocial personality disorder, such as manipulation, aggression and deception, were originally successful predatory strategies that evolved in a prehistoric social environment (Lilienfeld & Marino, 1995).

...The most contentious issue is whether disease, illness or disorder (like the World Health Organization, I regard these terms as roughly synonymous) are scientific or biomedical terms, or whether they are socio-political terms which necessarily involve a value judgement.

One of the ideas behind my opinion is that ASPDs (sociopaths) do have partial empathy. They are capable of many, albeit shallow emotions, anger, lust etc. They can regulate their emotions appropriately in social circumstances, when they experience it as necessary. But their emotional ability is handicapped. It is generally accepted that sociopaths are incapable of the significant human emotion, love.

Sociopaths do experience emotions, they do experience partial empathy, they can operate skilfully in society, legally are accepted as sane but they are limited in the ability to feel love. That seems to me more like an emotional handicap than a mental illness. Mental disorder seems to me to be part way here in the definition, in part because neither therapy or medication can treat the core of the disorder, only some of the comorbid traits. A cite for that opinion:

Psychotherapy for people with ASP should focus on helping the individual understand the nature and consequences of his disorder so he can be helped to control his behavior. Exploratory or insight-oriented forms of psychotherapy are generally not helpful to people with ASP.
posted by nickyskye at 12:13 PM on May 21, 2012


linking to the history of the DSM and the British Psychology Society's discussion of the new DSM, when it comes to disorders in a thread about antisocial personality disorder is not "link salad".

It's not the content, it's the presentation.
posted by Miko at 1:33 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whether there's a debate about calling it mental illness vs. mental disorder doesn't bother me that much. That's a semantic discussion that may help people organize themselves to find more effective treatments, so they should have at it. The more significant point is that psycopathic behavior is not normal and it's not mental health.
posted by Miko at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


the presentation

Next time I have a discussion about a controversial facet of the psychopathology of the Axis II Cluster B personality disorders I'll keep presentation in mind. :)

it's not mental health

One of the interesting points in the essay in the British Journal of Psychiatry, that I quoted above, is that what is now called antisocial personality disorder may have once been "successful predatory strategies", not a "dysfuntion" in prehistory. With that in mind, establishing what ASPD is may not be about health or illness but about society's needs. That is also an aspect of ASPD (sociopathy) being context specific.
posted by nickyskye at 4:44 PM on May 21, 2012


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