walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

A Bit More About Psychopathy

Reading Ronson's _The Psychopath Test_ immediately after James' _Popular Crime_ made me think about how I've developed related ideas.

I have a deep suspicion of charming people (yes, you read that correctly). I've believed since I was a teenager that mutual respect was the appropriate basis for human relationships, whether friendship, business, etc. Built into that idea of mutual respect was an assumption of trust. Trust is a feeling that tends to accumulate over time as a result of feeling good about social and other interactions, whether with a person or a business. However, that feeling can be engendered much more quickly by proxies (a good handshake, appropriate eye contact, certain vocal characteristics, grooming, etc.). If everyone who has certain characteristics turns out to be trustworthy, then someone who has those characteristics gets to benefit from that generalization.

And there are plenty of people out there who exploit that. When I see someone who has a certain kind of smile, that smile that makes me feel special right away, I _do_ feel special. For about a half second, and then every single alarm bell and alert system in my head starts wailing and I run the usual analysis (how are they dressed, how are they speaking, what's their hair style, blah, blah, bleeping blah, and of course, what are they saying and who are they focusing on) with deep suspicion. Lots of charmers are people who are networking because that works well for them and they really don't have any particular harm in mind -- their agenda is one that when I figure it out I'll have an opinion on it and I'll just be careful around them because I know that I'll always tend to find them more convincing than our actual relationship justifies.

But charm is a powerful thing, and people who figure out how to do it really, really well often also figure out that they don't actually need to do much of anything else they are "supposed" to do because charm gets them everything they want. That sounds evil, and it tilts in the direction of the psychopathy test, or at least narcissism. But if someone isn't particularly ambitious and is not particularly cruel, it might not be evil at all: it might just be unambitious, perhaps edging into lazy if you're married to them or you've hired them or you were hoping they'd help out at your barn raising or whatever.

Charm gets worse when it's connected to ambition and lacking in a strong moral core: this can become freeloading and worse. But it's still not evil if the person isn't _trying_ to hurt people. Person with a hammer, everything's a nail. I'm thinking John Edwards kind of thing. You don't want to be married to this person (or working for their campaign), by psychopathy seems ridiculous and really, narcissism might be a little too harsh as well.

Charm plus an attachment problem -- a big hole inside that nothing can fill because the lid is screwed down tight -- is dangerous. And I think at that point, you're looking at narcissism or worse. But attachment problems can be mitigated even in an adult, if the adult wants to work on the problem and is given access to information that can get them to open up and really connect. But it's really hard for a charmer, because that feels like going backwards to go forwards.

Charm plus cruelty (which may or may not be an attachment problem) is where it starts getting ugly. This is a person who can do awful things and get away with them, because it's hard to remember that they did the bad thing and easy to believe their (usually transparently ridiculous) excuses. Old French guy (hey, I'm not naming names. I'm _stereotyping_.) probably falls into this category, as does the Pillar of the Community who beats the spouse and kids to the point where they wind up in the hospital. Repeatedly. While holding elective office.

We cross the line into evil when all of this gets hitched to poor executive function. Then you have someone wandering around that we all trust instantly, who doesn't really care about anyone, who has a capacity for cruelty and the opportunity to exercise it. But even that isn't what really scares us about psychopaths. What scares us about psychopaths is that they are charming people who don't care about anyone, actively LOOKING for an opportunity to exercise their capacity for cruelty. There's a name for that which I've forgotten, but boredom/low response to stimulus of all kinds is a recognize problem that shows up really early in development. And it is _not_ always evil.

Now this _looks_ very similar to Hare's list. But the way I think about it leads in a very different direction when it comes to Things to Try to Fix These Problem People. If you take away the cruelty, the attachment disorder and the poor executive function, a person who is under responsive to stimulus/bored easily, who is charming, who is ambitious -- that could be any number of wonderful people, but I wouldn't be particularly surprised to discover some extreme sports athletes in that group, say, or an entrepreneur.

The cruelty and the attachment disorder are very reminiscent of James' remark about serial murderers being the children of prostitutes. He notes that it turns up so many times in so many serial murderer stories (true ones) that after a while you just start to expect it, even tho there doesn't seem to have been much analysis of this. There are a number of conceivable interventions to interrupt the creation of serial murderers and/or psychopaths, then: readily available birth control, parenting support, economic support, access to protection from law enforcement (I'm not saying decriminalize, but that's certainly one strategy). Once someone is on The Bad Road, however, there are ways to alter their course if we can see that the issue is an inability to attach.

The executive function problem is also serious, and goes a long way to explain the criminals who do horrible things and _literally_ ask to be caught so they can be stopped. But _lots_ of people have executive function problems that are resistant to solution. That by itself is, if not manageable at least it can be mitigated.

It's the whole freaking package that is incurable.

Like Ronson, I think you can use psychopathy as a lens to think about mental illness in general, altho in this case, it's a bit in reverse. I have a lens for thinking about mental health and what modules, skills, etc. go into being mentally healthy. I think it can be applied to psychopathy, and I would be interested to know if anyone has tried to dis-assemble the complex of failures that produces a psychopath with a view to helping that person get to a point where they won't re-offend (or, if they feel like they might, maybe turn themselves in until they feel better, a la rehab). I tend to think this way about a _lot_ of mental illness (viz. the "illness" is a collection of things, each of which is manageable, but trying to treat the collection as a unitary entity, perhaps with pills, does not work well); this could be my hammer making my world look full of nails.

ETA: I thought about making this a separate post, but I'd really just as soon not draw that much attention to it. Better to bury it in a postscript.

Ronson quotes a number of people who say, essentially, that if you read over Hare's diagnostic criteria and become concerned that you might yourself be psychopathic, that means you are not. Ronson took the list and had a really great conversation with Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap of Sunbeam and other infamy. This conversation was really okay with Dunlap (if Ronson is to be believed, and I do) and fits well within the general understanding of Dunlap's personality. Ronson's conclusion is that it's hard to know where the boundary is between some of these traits as "leadership" vs. pathology.

I think a better way to think about it is, if you're worried about whether you are a psychopath in the "worried" sense, you aren't. But if the criteria might make you think you are a psychopath and that is interesting but not exciting, you may be a psychopath -- but there's not a lot we can do to you and you're a low priority compared to the more chaotic ones anyway.
Tags: diagnosis, not-a-book-review
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