When Your Child Is a Psychopath
May 17, 2017 1:50 PM   Subscribe

“I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.” Psychopathy: the condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
posted by capnsue (60 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating. So the "cure" is to help them become garden-variety workplace psychopaths instead of violent criminal psychopaths? Just refocus the arena in which they apply their drive to win, dominate and manipulate?
posted by clawsoon at 2:22 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


I want to know the name of the disorder that leads to journalists presenting a complex, disputed and uncertain field as simple and settled science.
posted by howfar at 2:35 PM on May 17 [31 favorites]


So the guy routinely abuses his wife, she just wants to get out safely, and the shrinks "laugh knowingly" and say he counts as a success? Wtf?
And then the article goes on with his sister saying he's been dealt a shitty hand and it's a wonder he's not in prison for life. And then the next paragraph the author says he's starting to like him.

I mean, what the hell am I reading here? How can you send people without empathy into the world hoping that they'll continue to act well out of self interest because they expect a rewards system? Because the world doesn't work that way. It doesn't consistently reward you for good behaviour.
And how can you have it on your conscience that you gave these guys just enough coping skills to simulate normal behaviour, whilebeing primed to vengeful behaviour underneath? How can you do this to these people's victims?
posted by Omnomnom at 2:43 PM on May 17 [30 favorites]


While an engrossing read, especially since it takes a deeper look at children who display these traits instead of focusing only on adult men as many articles do, it doesn't really cover any new ground I haven't read about before.

These people are doing admirable work. But there's still no cure. And what are we as humans, are supposed to do with other humans who verifiably cannot experience the emotions that keep society running? Even those doctors, professionals and parents interviewed freely admit that keeping these people out of prison, barely on the good side of the law is what they consider a 'win'. I don't think that Carl's second wife would consider it a win for her and her son.

Pretty sure I've stated it before here, but I'll do so again. Nothing has come closer to making me deny the existence of God than the fact that psychopaths exist. What kind of deity would create, or allow the evolution and birth of a whole class of people who are, by their nature, incapable of achieving salvation?
posted by sharp pointy objects at 2:44 PM on May 17 [17 favorites]


A jealous one.
posted by Naberius at 2:55 PM on May 17 [11 favorites]


How can you send people without empathy into the world hoping that they'll continue to act well out of self interest because they expect a rewards system?

Well, but really, what's the alternative? Lock them up for life for crimes they might one day possibly commit? Put them on some type of national registry and forbid them from ever living around or interacting with other humans? I'm asking not to make a rhetorical point, but because I honestly don't know.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:03 PM on May 17 [38 favorites]


Nothing has come closer to making me deny the existence of God than the fact that psychopaths exist.
Having access to people who have no empathy (or who can selectively shut it off) is highly useful for societies. I'm not joking.
posted by xyzzy at 3:03 PM on May 17 [21 favorites]


Pretty sure I've stated it before here, but I'll do so again. Nothing has come closer to making me deny the existence of God than the fact that psychopaths exist. What kind of deity would create, or allow the evolution and birth of a whole class of people who are, by their nature, incapable of achieving salvation?

Why would they bother you in particular? It's just another facet of the classic Problem of Evil that has long plagued conceptions of God that are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:10 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Ok, I'll happily admit that I didn't read the entire article- I read a major chunk of it tho, but this sits really uncomfortably with me
"When she was about 20 months old, living with foster parents in Texas, she clashed with a boy in day care. The caretaker soothed them both; problem solved. Later that day Samantha, who was already potty trained, walked over to where the boy was playing, pulled down her pants, and peed on him. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” Jen says. “There was an ability to wait until an opportune moment to exact her revenge on someone.”

Not only is 20 months very early to be successfully potty trained, but to be plotting revenge?
posted by threetwentytwo at 3:11 PM on May 17 [10 favorites]


Nothing has come closer to making me deny the existence of God than the fact that psychopaths exist.

Having access to people who have no empathy (or who can selectively shut it off) is highly useful for societies. I'm not joking.


Oh, on a purely evolutionary scale, I totally agree. I can see the benefits that having some of these traits could be in many situations, and that these poor people are the tail end of the bell curve.

Why would they bother you in particular? It's just another facet of the classic Problem of Evil that has long plagued conceptions of God that are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.

Not sure why this one problem in particular is so difficult for me. It's just like a mental round peg in a square hole problem. My brain comes up against it and goes "Does not compute"

But not to derail more, since psychopaths do exist, I often wonder what we could do about them as a society. Just locking them up is uncomfortably close to Minority Report for me.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 3:27 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Having access to people who have no empathy (or who can selectively shut it off) is highly useful for societies. I'm not joking.

Maybe if they're kept under tight controls and their perspective is understood for what it is--an inhuman point of view. But I'm not so sure. There's a reason psychologists warn people away from thinking they can help psychopaths. They just use your good intentions to manipulate you to feel more in control and powerful.

I've known a couple of people over the years who I think may have genuinely had psychopathy, and they really didn't seem quite fully human, more like very potentially dangerous animals. I mean, basically, isn't the thinking they're people who during the object manipulation stage of development learned to start seeing people only as objects or toys to manipulate?

My understanding is it's not much difference from the stimulation the rest of us get from clicking a link and feeling simulated by the novelty. Psychopaths are broken in a way that makes it impossible for them to see the people they manipulate as having interior lives and agency of their own apart from the instinctive/reflexive kinds of emotional/stress responses psychopaths use to manipulate.

They see the existence of those "triggers" in others as a weakness they don't share that makes them less like robots than the general population. Those are all delusions, really, because psychos are almost all about involuntary responses to stimulus, and that's precisely what makes them so amoral and dangerous. I don't see how you could ever harness a skill and appetite for fucking with people as a form of self-soothing for doing good in the world. Maybe make them all Punk'd style hidden camera t.v. show hosts, but with careful controls in place? Put them in charge of killing other psychopaths maybe?

It's a tricky problem. I had to give up on having any relationship with my own birth father he became such a sadistic psychopath after a severe injury to his frontal cortex he got in a motorcycle accident.

Being around him, when I first realized how broken he was, it was really unsettling how you could almost just feel he was missing something. He used to get so excited and gleeful about the idea of teaching me to swim by the sink or swim method and it was always a little odd to me growing up how my grandparents never smiled and played along with him when he would suggest it and laugh. Instead, it was always striking how it seemed to make them uncomfortable while, as a kid, I always tried to take those moments as good natured joshing around. It took me into adulthood to really understand and accept there was nothing good natured about it. He really would have thought it was hilarious to see me sputtering and almost drowning because that's how his broken mind worked. It was always tempting to think he had basically lost his soul through that injury. By all accounts, he'd always been kind and empathetic and mild tempered before.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:28 PM on May 17 [18 favorites]


How many 'psychopaths' come from families where they were nurtured and loved? I'm not sure people can be born without empathy, but I'm certain that nascent empathy can be smothered under the right circumstances.
posted by leotrotsky at 3:40 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


How many 'psychopaths' come from families where they were nurtured and loved? I'm not sure people can be born without empathy,

You may have missed this from the article:

But other children display callous and unemotional traits even though they are raised by loving parents in safe neighborhoods. Large studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have found that this early-onset condition is highly hereditary, hardwired in the brain—and especially difficult to treat.
posted by dragoon at 3:43 PM on May 17 [37 favorites]


I don't see how you could ever harness a skill and appetite for fucking with people as a form of self-soothing for doing good in the world.
This is a very narrow view of what "psychopathy" enables. It also enables you to, say, crack open someone's chest with a rib spreader and use sharp objects to cut into tissue belonging to a living person without getting distracted by pesky emotions. It also allows you to stop thinking about how much it must hurt to be impaled by a giant piece of metal while you're cutting that person out of a car or a collapsed building bit.

That's not to say all surgeons or first responders are psychopaths. But it's a hell of a lot easier to do this type of work if you were born without empathy and enjoy a nice adrenaline rush.
posted by xyzzy at 3:43 PM on May 17 [25 favorites]


What kind of deity would create, or allow the evolution and birth of a whole class of people who are, by their nature, incapable of achieving salvation?

Well there's a really easy answer to that; a psychopathic deity, who might be lying to us about what the true rules for salvation are. You know that bit about humans being created in God's image? Well, maybe it's the psychopaths who were created in God's image, and It created the rest of us to give Its chosen children playthings. That sort of mind game would be exactly in line with what human psychopaths do.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:47 PM on May 17 [18 favorites]


Also, that God is a psychopath is pretty much exactly what the Gnostics believed, neatly solving the Problem of Evil.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:49 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]


Ever noticed that you always feel less guilty about a bad thing you did if you're absolutely certain you'll never get caught? Empathy isn't some inate soulgem glowing inside us, it's a conditioned and (vitally) conditional trait. We're all sliding about on a spectrum, when it comes to empathy, and I can't help but feel that the dehumanisation of "psychopaths" (which is much too neat a word for a range of disorders that may or may not have certain things in common with each other or subsets​ thereof) is quite an effective technique for making ourselves feel more comfortable about our own failures of empathy, and their consequences.

Blaming everything on the monsters among us is very easy if I've ruled out the possibility that sometimes the monster is me.
posted by howfar at 3:53 PM on May 17 [31 favorites]


Even those doctors, professionals and parents interviewed freely admit that keeping these people out of prison, barely on the good side of the law is what they consider a 'win'.

But the thing that everyone would accept as a 'win' - a cure for psychopathy - is off the table. We just don't know how to do that yet.

So, barring that, preventing them from committing crimes seems to be the best possible outcome. The other options seem to be imprisoning them forever, because they might commit a crime - or more disturbingly, because they might engage in behavior that is psychopathic but not illegal. And this is a facility for treating children; to keep them indefinitely would be to decide a child's life is over before they're done maturing and an adult pattern of behavior is established.

The two subjects that are given the most attention are also two of the most extreme.

That said, I really did get the sense that the empathy the people involved felt for the wife-abusing psychopath prevented them from seeing the abuse as the huge failure it was. They seemed to regard it as a minor setback. Perhaps if they're thinking that the untreated version of him might have killed her, it's better than that outcome - but it's still a failure no matter what.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:56 PM on May 17 [13 favorites]


This article is really both interesting and worrisome.
posted by corb at 4:00 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


Professional surgeons can learn to do that without becoming psychopaths. You can't jettison the bad parts of psychopathy and only idealize the illusory short term advantages because those more sadistic, manipulative tendencies are at the core of what specifically defines psychopathy. There are plenty of other psychological conditions that can inhibit emotional response and affect. There's nothing unique to psychopaths about any of the more potentially useful traits of psychopathy.

I mean, I get the challenge: I don't like the idea of saying anybody might be irredeemable or too dangerous to tolerate, but to me, the answer would be developing better approaches to identifying, treating, and harm reducing than to mythologize or romanticize aspects of the condition.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:05 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]


But other children display callous and unemotional traits even though they are raised by loving parents in safe neighborhoods.

Well, how does anyone know that these are "loving parents in safe neighborhoods"? I'm not being facetious here. I know plenty of people whose parents would describe themselves as such but who experienced emotional and physical abuse. I don't doubt that my own parents would be described as such.
posted by threetwentytwo at 4:07 PM on May 17 [13 favorites]


Her biological mother had been forced to give her up because she’d lost her job and home and couldn’t provide for her four children, but there was no evidence of abuse.

a two year old child was given away to strangers, given away from her entire family. but there was "no evidence of abuse" and "no emotional scars." what a thing to write.

sure I understand that from the adults' perspective nobody meant to damage her, but what's that got to do with the experience of the child? A two-year-old child is meant to sense the difference between her mother disappearing and her mother having no choice but to give her away? say society and the failed welfare system was the agent of the abuse, not her mother, but she was abused. there is a terrifying empathy deficiency at work to allow anyone to write the quoted sentence, and it's not only in the awful violent child.

as to this:

How can you send people without empathy into the world hoping that they'll continue to act well out of self interest because they expect a rewards system?


Because most crimes don't have life sentences. and outside this one program, most places that can put you on a psych hold even if you're not a criminal yet aren't like Mendota, they aren't specialized violent-boy-camps. The other people in hospitals and mental health institutions don't deserve to be a captive population available to psychopaths for sexual and other sorts of violence. That's what happens when you put psychopaths in places like that, and it isn't considered as horrifying as the stories of what they do when they get out, because the general population thinks it is more entitled to protection from the proto-Ted-Bundys of the world than the mentally ill are. which is a scandal.

Psychopaths may hurt people out in the world; they certainly will hurt people anywhere they're given a captive pool of victims with diminished capacity to fight back and no capacity to get away. at least people out in the world have a fighting chance to report crimes and be taken seriously when they're victimized.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:20 PM on May 17 [26 favorites]


Heh. Does no one really find it suspicious that one of the supposed success stories operates a funeral home, perhaps with, say, a crematorium and access to graveyards? I mean, sure, he supposedly waxes and wanes in terms of his interest in the business, but...
posted by limeonaire at 4:47 PM on May 17 [10 favorites]


Blaming everything on the monsters among us is very easy if I've ruled out the possibility that sometimes the monster is me. -- Howfar

This is absolutely the right way to look at it. I didn't agree the first time I read it. But the second time through, I realized the deep truth here. It applies to many areas of life.
posted by Modest House at 4:56 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


I mean, I get the challenge: I don't like the idea of saying anybody might be irredeemable or too dangerous to tolerate, but to me, the answer would be developing better approaches to identifying, treating, and harm reducing than to mythologize or romanticize aspects of the condition.
Who is romanticizing or mythologizing? Certainly not me. I was originally responding to the idea that the traits of antisocial personality disorder (and related diagnoses/conditions) are useless or irredeemable or have no place in society. I didn't even get into the epidemiological studies that show that more than half of people who could reasonably be diagnosed with "psychopathy" have no serious criminal records.
posted by xyzzy at 4:58 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Heh. Does no one really find it suspicious that one of the supposed success stories operates a funeral home, perhaps with, say, a crematorium and access to graveyards? I mean, sure, he supposedly waxes and wanes in terms of his interest in the business, but...

A real-life Dexter.

I read Carl as being very manipulative. He reminded me of other men I've known who were (are) violent offenders - they say what they think you want to hear. I have no doubt that if I were in his presence I would instinctively do everything I could to get away from him as fast as I could.
posted by vignettist at 5:03 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Ever noticed that you always feel less guilty about a bad thing you did if you're absolutely certain you'll never get caught?

I just wanted to say I don't know what you are talking about, not saying this isn't true for you or maybe even everybody else but in my case this simply is not so. My guilt/shame self repression mechanism operates without outside intervention. On overdrive!
posted by Pembquist at 5:37 PM on May 17 [38 favorites]


Yeah, I've occasionally been accused of something like sociopathy because I don't care about the evaluation others will make of the morality of my actions. I certainly feel guilt, but it's not related to what other people think at all. That tends to strike people as a more sociopathic way to experience guilt because it's less social. I don't think it's related to sociopathy at all, though. It is distinct from empathy.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:20 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


I have no doubt that if I were in his presence I would instinctively do everything I could to get away from him as fast as I could.

That might be true if you have experience with people like him, but most people don't. Psychopaths are great actors unburdened by the toll of affecting emotions; they can play concern and love with great verisimilitude until the point where they stab you in the back just for fun.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:25 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


It's an odd thing about this phenomenon that we keep changing what we call it. Psychopathy was the first word used back in the 18th century when it was first noticed. But then it became sociopathy, then antosocial personality disorder, and now this new "callous and unemotional" longhand. Finally circling back in the OP, probably because that's just too wordy and WTF and we're laypeople out on the porch here so fuck the DSM anyway, to the original psychopath.

That happened because whatever word or phrase we use to describe these people gets toxic by association to the actual monsters it ends up dancing with. And we don't want to sully innocent people with such a toxic description so we come up with another, which gets toxic, and then another, which gets toxic too, and then I guess people have forgotten what the word psychopath meant back in the day.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:33 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


I am also certain there are distinct criteria for sociopath and psychopath, but I admit it's been a while since I last checked.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:44 PM on May 17


I think the "callous and unemotional" wording is used specifically when talking about children, because most kids who have those traits won't actually grow up to be psychopaths.
posted by misfish at 7:19 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


It's an odd thing about this phenomenon that we keep changing what we call it.

This isn't new or specific to this phenomenon. Welcome to the euphemism treadmill, which isn't inherently bad.

Terminology changes as we keep improving our understanding of what's going on.
posted by Lexica at 8:26 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


The armchair commenting here is horrible. You fall in love with your new baby or a child, and then discover that they have a mental illness that they will be dangerous to everyone around them, and that it is possible that they cannot return or feel your love for them. And still, as their family, part of you loves them and remembers that little baby and wonders relentlessly what you did wrong, what will happen if they have children, who they will hurt next, why love isn't enough. It's a diagnosis that makes your child not terminal but toxic.

This isn't about adult psychopaths. This is about children with diagnoses. I have acquaintances going through this, and there but for the grace of God experience. I have nothing but sobbing sympathy for the families involved, who faced terrible choices, and so much hope that new techniques might help limit and teach options for the children born with this condition.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:57 PM on May 17 [32 favorites]


Psychopathy was the first word used back in the 18th century when it was first noticed. But then it became sociopathy, then antosocial personality disorder, and now this new "callous and unemotional" longhand.

Some of these things are not like the others. And some of the language used reflects differences in our understanding.

Some of the confusion around this topic arises because there's a lot of selection bias in the psychological community when it comes to dealing with and studying people with these traits - if you spend your career studying serial killers, then you're going to see the worst.

Psychopathy is a neurological condition, and like all neurological conditions, is incurable, but that's not to say it isn't treatable[1], and it's also not the case that someone with that neurological condition will necessarily be a criminal. The people with this neurological condition who go on to do bad things have almost always been badly abused as young children. The ones who had good childhoods usually go on to successful careers in politics, business, medicine, military etc. Some countries even elect them as president...

Psychopathy is not a personality disorder - antosocial personality disorder is a different issue.

The "callous and unemotional" refers to the traits that people on this spectrum exhibit, and is sometimes used to avoid the associations with criminality that "Psychopath" usually brings up.

[1] While not curable, psychopathy can be successfully treated, but the process is much harder if the childhood abuse was severe. Successful treatment relies on the understanding that as with all neurologically diverse people, they think differently to you. Punishment doesn't work. Negative reinforcement doesn't work. CBT doesn't work.

And what are we as humans, are supposed to do with other humans who verifiably cannot experience the emotions that keep society running.

You could start by treating them with the respect and compassion due to people who didn't ask to be born neurologically different and then abused as children, and who can be as useful to society as any 'normal' person when their talents are channelled in useful directions.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 10:24 PM on May 17 [14 favorites]


Having access to people who have no empathy (or who can selectively shut it off) is highly useful for societies. I'm not joking.

Yeah but that's something that most people learn, or used to. Farm kids or kids who fish and hunt have to learn it to eat. Sports and various mildly dangerous or exciting situations teach kids how to control arousal: excitement, fear, competition. It's why people who grow up very sheltered often suffer from anxiety and fear as adults because they don't know how to control their responses and can't self-soothe or focus adrenaline into higher performance.
posted by fshgrl at 10:45 PM on May 17 [11 favorites]


It's an odd thing about this phenomenon that we keep changing what we call it. Psychopathy was the first word used back in the 18th century when it was first noticed. But then it became sociopathy, then antosocial personality disorder, and now this new "callous and unemotional" longhand. Finally circling back in the OP, probably because that's just too wordy and WTF and we're laypeople out on the porch here so fuck the DSM anyway, to the original psychopath.

I'm decidedly not an expert on this but I get the sense that "psychopathy" gets used most often (and perhaps sometimes dubiously) in the orbit of criminology, while less loaded clinical terms tend to be comparatively common elsewhere.
posted by atoxyl at 10:49 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


So, I can accept that there are people who are born with less capacity for empathy or even no capacity for empathy. I can accept that we have no cure for this condition but may have ways of providing treatments that lessen these individuals' likelihood to act in ways that are outside of society's norms. I can accept that we cannot institutionalize people for crimes they *might* commit.

What I can't accept is that we have created a society that actively inflames the condition of psychopathy, giving them conditions that predictably make them more likely to cause harm and giving them (literally) the ammunition to inflict the most possible damage. A society that gives the mother of a potential psychopath no choice but to give away her baby at a critical stage of attachment and fear of strangers because there is no way for her to financially provide food and shelter. A society that cannot prevent them from obtaining firearms. A society that cannot offer effective chemical dependency treatment. A society that cannot provide a basic standard of living without some people having to resort to crime to obtain some human dignity. A society that makes it such that a woman married to a psychopath and mother to their child calculates that she is better off staying with him despite the fact that he is bringing home a parade of sexual partners that she does not consent to, and slaps her for protesting.

We should find it chilling that psychopaths exist. But we should also find it chilling that cold market driven capitalism is the perfect fertile ground for psychopathy to flourish and propagate itself through generations.

I mean what's the counter argument? If we try to mitigate these results with compassionate legislation, then that just makes it ok to be a psychopath? We just argued that psychopathy exists, it's hardwired, and cannot be changed much.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:07 AM on May 18 [24 favorites]


I don't understand the assumption that psychopaths are "made" by the lack of nurturing and love during their upbringing, rather than born with these tendencies—like, for example, children/people with ADD, bipolar disorder, autism, anxiety disorders, etc. In terms of parental nightmares, this ranks right up there with the death of a child.

Related: autism was once blamed on "refrigerator mothers".
posted by she's not there at 12:48 AM on May 18 [17 favorites]


We should find it chilling that psychopaths exist. But we should also find it chilling that cold market driven capitalism is the perfect fertile ground for psychopathy to flourish and propagate itself through generations.

Seventy years ago, women would have been shamed into staying with that husband. A hundred years ago, families would have dropped that child off at the door of an orphanage. Three hundred years ago, that child might have just returned from fostering by a wet nurse (and that wife wouldn't even consider leaving her husband). I'm not convinced market driven capitalism creates a much worse environment for creating sociopathic children than many of the historical alternatives.

On a site praises efforts to address serial rape through "restorative justice" (that explicitly seeks to return a criminal into their original community), there's a real irony in saying that children who merely exhibit sociopathic tendencies need to be locked up for good or that multigenerational sociopathy can be addressed through a more compassionate culture. It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that it's easier to sympathize with individuals than to recognize the problems that their behavior poses to efforts to create any sort of compassionate society.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:18 AM on May 18 [10 favorites]


My behavior before my 8th birthday was worse than the examples cited in the article, except that I would never have hurt an animal, and I wasn't abused or neglected at all, although I did have weeks of temperatures of 106F that could only be controlled with prolonged ice baths, and x-ray treatments for a severe chronic infection in my left ear, all starting around my seventh month and continuing in some form till I was almost 2. I wish I'd thought to ask when I learned to walk and talk for the second time.

Like Karl, my turnaround came through reading -- learning to, in my case. I recall the change as pretty abrupt, but there must have been some things still going on, because toward the end of 3rd grade my parents sat me down one evening for what I now think of as our family's version of The Talk, which consisted of assuring me in solemn tones that I was their son, and they would stand by me no matter what I did, and that they loved me and would always be there for me, regardless. My reaction, which I kept to myself, was something like 'has it really been that bad?' But I guess it was, because my sister, whom I adored from as early as I can remember, yet whom I punched in the face one day when she was babysitting me when she was 12 and I was 6, knocking her cold and paralyzing her jaw on one side for a month, told me as we were packing up my father's house after he died, that they used to sit at the kitchen table after I went to bed talking in bleak tones about what they could do when, not if, I killed someone.

I wish they were still around so I could attempt to let them know that I've begun to grasp at last how much they went through for my unworthy sake, and how grateful I am for their heroic -- and successful! -- efforts to shield me from the demands of school and neighborhood that I be institutionalized.
posted by jamjam at 3:48 PM on May 18 [13 favorites]


Welcome to the euphemism treadmill, which isn't inherently bad.

No, sorry, I'm not on board with this. It is inherently bad, because words need to actually mean something.

For those who haven't done the reading, the terms psychopathy, sociopathy, and anti-social personality disorder all referred to the exact same widely recognized, poorly understood, and untreatable condition when they were introduced. There has been no advance in understanding reflected in this changing of the names, just a reluctance to slap a label on someone who one hopes might not turn out to be so bad that has such a toxic history. I suppose there is some evidence that the new callous euphemism is directed particularly toward children, but it still refers to the exact same widely recognized, poorly understood, and untreatable condition, and is different for the exact same reason of not wanting to use a poisoned label.

The thing is, if psychosociowhateverpathy was treatable in any way we probably wouldn't resort to the euphemism treadmill. We can call cancer, coronary artery disease (which almost killed me a few years ago), diabetes, hemophilia, and a thousand other things consistent names that make it clear what we are talking about despite the horror associated with them. Hell, even schizophrenia is a pretty long-standing name, and it's not really any better understood than psychowhatever. But it isn't so consistently associated with criminality, danger, and threat for the rest of us.

My gut reaction is that, if we do hope to ever figure this thing out and find a way to deal with the people it affects, figuring out what to call it is kind of a first step; if we can't manage to do that, what the hell are we supposed to do next?
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:27 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I don't understand the assumption that psychopaths are "made" by the lack of nurturing and love during their upbringing, rather than born with these tendencies

There is more than 'assumption' going on here. As I said above, psychopathy is neurological condition that one is born with. It can be detected by brain scans, and is an irreversible difference in brain function.

However, while having this condition results in a person exhibiting 'callous an unemotional' personality traits, it does not make them dangerous or a criminal. Such a person can develop in two ways:

1) Anti-social - early childhood abuse will do this, and we're talking about more than a "lack of nurturing and love". These people are very likely to become dangerous criminals. They need to be removed from the abusive situation before the age of three for this to be prevented.

2) Pro-social - a loving and happy childhood will produce an individual who still shows the personality traits mentioned above, but is unlikely to become a criminal. They are likely to be very successful in what they end up doing. If you want a surgeon or airline pilot with steady hands and icy calm in a life or death situation, you want one of these.

As with all such conditions, it exists on a spectrum, we all have these attributes to a greater or lesser extent. Someone with middling-level traits who came from an unhappy but not abusive home could go either way, and is certainly able to be steered towards the pro-social side with the right treatment.

The barriers to treatment are 1) Many people with these traits are simply unaware of what's up with them, and 2) There is still widespread belief, even in professional psychology , that no treatment is possible.

If you want to know more about pro social psychopathy, search for "James Fallon" on youtube.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:55 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]


figuring out what to call it is kind of a first step

Nope. Psychology has been only too happy to slap labels on poorly-understood conditions in the past, resulting in catch-all 'conditions' and 'diagnosis of exclusion'. Not too many years in the past all sorts of conditions would get chucked in the schizophrenia bin.

The first step is figuring out what a condition is.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:02 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


We can call cancer, coronary artery disease (which almost killed me a few years ago), diabetes, hemophilia, and a thousand other things consistent names that make it clear what we are talking about despite the horror associated with them.

Please note that the common thread in all the diseases and conditions you list is that they're physical ailments of the body, not problems of the mind. Mental and psychological issues have been much more subject to the euphemism treadmill. We went from classifying people as "moron" vs "idiot" vs "cretin" to calling them "mentally retarded" to "developmentally/learning disabled", and terms will probably keep shifting.

Things that affect cognition and understanding are, societally, way way scarier and stigmatized — and less understood — than things that impair physical functioning.
posted by Lexica at 7:12 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]


It also worth noting that those physical ailments all have easily-verifiable symptoms and diagnoses, and most physical ailments can be studied post-mortem.

Mental conditions are usually much more slippery to define and test for, and only a limited number of conditions are visible to post-mortem brain examination.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:31 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


>> Welcome to the euphemism treadmill, which isn't inherently bad.

> No, sorry, I'm not on board with this. It is inherently bad, because words need to actually mean something.


Nice. Awesome. Literally!

Sorry, but words change meaning. That's part of language and how history works.
posted by Lexica at 8:35 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


sharp pointy objects: It's suspected that psychopathy results from an "overload" of traits which can be useful to individuals and societies, when present in proper proportions. An analogous situation might be how we know that the family members of individuals with autism tend to be brilliant engineers and musicians. Having a highly compartmentalized autism spectrum brain can give people special talents for understanding logic and mechanical systems. However, excessive compartmentalization can prevent them using their brain holistically to read or "emulate" another person's mind, or even trap them inside their own world.

Likewise, many neuroscientists believe that schizophrenia results from an overload of traits which made people ideal shamans and spiritual leaders. A slight predisposition to meta-magical thinking and lack of mental filtering/boundaries can be useful when you're trying to help people look for metaphysical meaning, or connect with them on a deeper level. But, when that's taken to an extreme, you lose the ability to differentiate fantasy from reality, or protect your sanity from overwhelming intrusions.

Odds are that individuals with some amount of callous-unemotional traits have contributed to humanity in many unique and positive ways. It just seems to be the way evolution works, that nature is constantly tinkering with new combinations and iterations which lead to greater complexity on the whole. Unfortunately, it's inevitable that such a stochastic process will often have negative outcomes.
posted by prosopagnosia at 8:55 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder....

The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.

No one ever said elves are nice.

Elves are bad.”
-- Lords and Ladies

But the thing is, there are conditions that are worth stigmatizing. And sociopathy is probably the key example here. These are people without a conscience. They are unable to be trusted. I can have compassion for them, but I can also have compassion for Old Yeller.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 9:11 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


But the thing is, there are conditions that are worth stigmatizing.

Not so long in the past, people were saying that about homosexuality and [insert ethic group here].

Just where to you expect stigmatizing to get us this time?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:27 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


But the thing is, there are conditions that are worth stigmatizing. And sociopathy is probably the key example here. These are people without a conscience. They are unable to be trusted.

Even if this is true (and maybe it is, and maybe not, I think it depends on your terminology as well as research we just haven't done yet), why on earth would you want to create an environment where people who are "unable to be trusted" are encouraged​ to regard all of society as their enemy?
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
posted by howfar at 4:08 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Dude, these are people who will stab you in the back for fun. One of the people profiled here beat up his wife and his doctors considered him a success.

The analogy here isn't homosexuality. The analogy here is child molestation. People don't choose to be born pedophiles, but once they act on that urge, their comfort is the least of our worries. People who fuck little children don't deserve euphamisms. Neither do people who don't have a conscience.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:30 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]


This is a bunch of nonsense. There areseveral different conditions being conflated in this article: childhood-onset conduct disorder with callous/unemotional traits, adolescent-onset conduct disorder with c/e traits, and antisocial personality disorder, which can only be diagnosed. Unlike antisocial personality disorder, which is considered to be a fixed condition, conduct disorder is no more fixed than most mental illnesses for most children/adolescents. The article even mentions in passing that 80% of children with conduct disorder "grow out" of it. A child with horrific behavior is so hard to have in the home; I have worked with these children as a social worker and seen how both the children and their families struggle. As far as a definite signal the child will have a personality disorder, though, that's absurd. That conclusion absolutely cannot be drawn from any existing evidence.
posted by epj at 6:38 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]


I was wondering if the threat of everlasting torment in the afterlife might be one of the few ways to coerce people without a conscience into exhibiting 'good' behaviours. If you become aware, as a person with 'callous and unemotional traits', that you can get whatever you want by working outside the constrains of normal social behaviour, that people can be manipulated to achieve your goals and discarded afterwards, that you can literally kill anyone that stands in your way without consequence, then what will stop you from doing those things to your benefit? Does the threat that you are being watched at all times and judged, and that this judgement may lead to a punishment that will last much longer than any earthly pleasures or riches that you may enjoy, help to keep the more antisocial behaviours at bay?
There are plenty of examples of mass murderers (or great men of history, depending on your point of view) who believed that they were on a mission from god, a neat way to avoid the issue of being judged!

On preview: Interesting epj, do you have any insight as to whether there is any way to nurture a child out of the conduct disorder?
posted by asok at 6:54 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Often (not always) the conduct disorder is caused by a combination of factors like abuse; neglect; inconsistent, punishment-focused parenting. These kids have often lived in chaotic, unpredictable environments where they were always on high alert (hypervigilant) waiting for something bad to happen, but they rarely or never experienced positive consequences. I really liked the description of Mendota JTC and how they upended things to be reward-based, teaching kids to count on praise and good things rather than be on alert for pain.

I think it's also worth saying that as we get older, our brains mature. A six-year-old may threaten to kill the whole family and mean it, even develop a plan, but that doesn't mean that they understand the permanency of death better than any other six-year-old.
posted by epj at 7:20 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


People who fuck little children don't deserve euphamisms. Neither do people who don't have a conscience.

These things are not alike. What about all the paedophiles who don't act on their desires? Lock em up because yeah fuck em?
posted by howfar at 11:27 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear. Wanting to have sex with little children is equivalent, in your argument to not having a conscience. I am of the view that neither of these things is morally wrong, despite the fact that the behaviours they predispose one too are clearly wrong. Your own argument turns on the notion that people should be punished for acting on their desires, not having them.
posted by howfar at 11:31 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


asok: Does the threat that you are being watched at all times and judged, and that this judgement may lead to a punishment that will last much longer than any earthly pleasures or riches that you may enjoy, help to keep the more antisocial behaviours at bay?

Based on the article, it sounds like punishment makes very little difference for this group of people. So maybe it's the fear of hellfire that keeps most of the rest of us in line, while heaven was designed specifically to motivate psychopaths. :-)

[/end half-baked theory]
posted by clawsoon at 11:34 AM on May 19


The analogy here isn't homosexuality. The analogy here is child molestation. People don't choose to be born pedophiles, but once they act on that urge, their comfort is the least of our worries. People who fuck little children don't deserve euphamisms. Neither do people who don't have a conscience.

So I'll ask again: What to you expect stigmatizing to achieve?

I was wondering if the threat of everlasting torment in the afterlife might be one of the few ways to coerce people without a conscience into exhibiting 'good' behaviours.


No. I'll repeat what I said earlier: These people do not think like you. Someone who is indifferent to punishment, and has a very minimal fear response needs a different approach.

Trying to work out ways to deal with neurodiverse people by thinking about what will motivate neurotypical people is doomed to failure, but for some reason, people keep trying to do it.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:23 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


The analogy here isn't homosexuality.

Works for me.

To be clear, I'm not making the analogy with regard to any sort of equivalence in perceived moral badness, but with regard to how these groups were treated by society - i.e. the stigmatizing that has occurred.

What actually happened as a result?

Did the stigmatized group go away?
Were innocent people harassed, discriminated against, punished, driven to suicide?
Can anyone who took part in this claim the moral high ground?

Actions, as always, speak louder than words.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:53 PM on May 24


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