Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Is Psychopathy Bad?

     Psychopathy is bad because it isn't recognized.  It's not one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so perhaps we don't know how to point to it, what to call it.  Without a name in the vernacular of a language it's easy for something real to operate invisibly.  Psychopaths can masquerade as all kinds of people, even the opposite of themselves, because none of us is brave enough--once we've identified them-- to name them for who they are.  Why is this the case?
      It's not that we can't label bad character traits.  We don't mind saying, "He's an angry person!" or "She's violent!"  We refer to people as being greedy, domineering, lazy, or dishonest--although we may consider it unkind to use such terms, instead couching our remarks in euphemisms.
     We recognize liars and cheaters, but we don't have a word for irresistable liars, the ones who say the exact opposite of what they intend, the charming ones who know how to make you feel good about turning your life-savings over to them, or grateful that they hang around allowing you to buy them things,  cook them special meals or clean up after them.  All they need to say in their compelling way (they're lying!) is how much they care about you.  What's the word for a psychopath?  Evil?
     Saying, "She's a psychopath," is like committing a cardinal sin.  When was the last time you heard anyone say it, except after a heinous crime has been committed?  Sure, Hannibal Lector was a psychopath, but he's a rarity.  The garden-variety psychopaths are walking among us, pretending to be one of us, getting fat and rich off our labor and savings, and making us feel guilty when they aren't appreciated enough.  Some of them are our sons and daughters, some our employers and co-workers, and some are even--if you can believe it--our friends.  There are probably psychopaths reading this post right now, learning how to up the ante so that, after you're finished reading, they can convince you that I haven't been describing them.  Their lying is as habitual as breathing.
     We think that because we wouldn't say and do what they do, without really meaning it, neither would they.  It would make us so anxious to lie that much--but then, we all lie a little, don't we?  Are we all a little psychopathic?  Maybe it's not so different, telling someone he's really smart, when he isn't, or she's very attractive, when she isn't.  The potential for psychopathy--being a capacity to downregulate feeling states so they don't overwhelm us--may exist in all of us, even expressing itself in ways we like to assume won't hurt people.  The horror and fascination of psychopathic behavior, then, could be connected to what we realize exists, at least in potentia,  in ourselves.
     We live in a compassionate age.  There is an "explanation" for everyone.  We're all very sensitive and psychological these days,  looking for the roots of behavior in childhood or cultural patterning--and I'm not against psychology.  I think it's one of the greatest tools we have.  But psychopaths aren't mentally ill.  Psychopathy isn't a diagnosis, it's a character trait.  Psychopathy is every bit as much a part of a person's innate being as the tone of his voice, his posture, his gait.  Whether there is a hereditary component or not, psychopaths come from all kinds of families, the loving ones and the conflicted ones.
     The two hallmarks of psychopathy are:  1)  a complete lack of empathy, even as empathic statements flow charmingly from the psychopaths' mouths;  2)  abnormally low anxiety, allowing psychopaths to commit acts of treason that for the rest of us would be fraught with guilt and worry.
     There is research showing that the brains of psychopaths are different from those of non-psychopaths. The difference is primarily in the amygdala, two almond-shaped areas deep in the temporal lobes, an anatomic region considered the center of emotion.  MRI's have shown deformations within the amygdala in individuals with psychopathy, as reported by the Department of Neurology at UCLA.  In 2010 Justin Feinstein of the University of Iowa reported the case of a woman whose amygdala had been destroyed by disease, as a result of which she was unable to experience fear--a feature that typifies psychopathy--and she manifested other psychopathic traits as well, as measured by Hare's Psychopathy Scale.
     One hypothesis is that psychopaths lack "mirror neurons" and therefore are unable to interact meaningfully on an emotional level with others.  They read signals from people without being affected at a feeling level by them.  In this way they are able to act with cold calculation for their own benefit, a trait that in a capitalist society full of sensitive people allows them to become very rich and very invisible, very easily.
     We cannot incarcerate all the psychopaths in the world;  we can't send them to Siberia.  Three to six percent of the population--their estimated numbers--is a lot.  But their presence among us creates enormous distress for people and threatens the very ground of society.  Something has to be done.
     It is imperative that we--as a society--learn to recognize psychopaths.  We should proclaim their character traits--out loud--and, without negative judgment, find a place for them in our world.  Just as people with mechanical skills are most successful in certain trades, and people with patience make good teachers, psychopaths can be useful to the world if they are routed into careers that profit from insensitivity.  Psychopaths should not work with people or animals, for example, and they should not be nurses or teachers or therapists. There are many potentially suitable professions, including computer work, art, graphics, accounting, business management, landscaping, auto mechanics, research, law, and construction.   These are jobs where the psychopath's compulsion to sabotage human trust might be minimized.
     People with psychopathy need a lot of help raising children and should not be allowed to do it alone.  Neither should psychopaths be allowed to make decisions where money or the welfare of others is at stake.  It may be possible, with effort, to "teach" feelings to those who seem to lack this capacity...but no one knows how to do this yet.
     We cannot continue to allow ourselves to be conned, robbed, and damaged by psychopathic people.  Neither should we kick them out of our lives, quietly and ashamedly trying to forget their cruel deceptions, at least not without publicizing their wrongdoing.  If we do they will simply repeat the scenario with others. 
     The most effective management of psychopaths is to force them to confront the hard facts of the justice system.  Why do psychopaths keep doing what they do?   It's because what they do keeps working--because we don't report them, we don't want to be reminded of our devastation, so they end up being given tacit "permission" to commit their treason all over again. We must stop making excuses for psychopaths, stop pretending they are legitimate members of society while they lie, steal and cheat their way through life, and force all the consequences of the justice system on them. 
     For other people to their change behavior we have to change ours.  As long as we treat psychopathic people as though they are invisible, as long as we are afraid to assign individuals this denotation, psychopath, they will continue to wreak havoc in our lives.  We must act together as a social group to bring visibility to the problem of psychopathy, which is undermining the world we take for granted--until that world is turned upside down by, as Robert Hare says, "the psychopath next door."  

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