Shadowy but present danger: A primer on psychopathy

In the age of social media, it is hard to avoid exposure to popular culture. This is a problem because most of the bugbears that are popular in this culture – like zombies or vampires – do not actually exist. In contrast, those that do exist – notably psychopaths – get comparatively little screen time and if they do, they are portrayed as a caricature of the actual condition. This increases the likelihood that you will not recognize a psychopath when he enters your life, increasing the odds that the experience will truly be life ruining. At the same time, society appears naive and helpless in the face of psychopaths. While society continuously adds new layers of rules and regulations to all procedures, this does not come without a cost, diminishing the efficiency of carrying out all activities. Also, it is questionable whether this approach works – in many cases a determined psychopath will find a way to game the system all the same. If they are eventually caught, many psychopaths end up in prison, but at that point, the damage is done and prison as an institution is not specifically geared to deal with the condition.

At this point, the only hope comes in the form of the emerging neuroscience of psychopathy, which helps us detect the condition and understands its neural underpinnings. I review the evidence here.

Psychopaths - few moral considerations enter their decision making calculus. Due to the mask of sanity, you are unlikely to be able to recognize them until it is too late. Unless you know exactly what to look for.

Psychopaths – few moral considerations enter their decision making calculus. Due to the mask of sanity, you are unlikely to be able to recognize them until it is too late. Unless you know exactly what to look for.

Perhaps this will – in the long run – allow us to harden our society against psychopaths, dramatically lowering the burden of suffering inflicted by the condition on all of us.

Note: This is the primer. The full article is here.

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15 Responses to Shadowy but present danger: A primer on psychopathy

  1. Excellent post and a good starting point for people new to the subject.

    I am a bit confused by your final comment though. What do you mean by “harden our society against psychopaths?” I completely agree that people should be aware of warning signs of psychopathic behavior and be aware that it is far more common and far less violent than people imagine. But I think there is a significant moral debate about how to deal with psychopaths in the long run. Rather than being “hardened against” psychopaths, the argument could be made that the toxic behaviors are the result of a mental disability which is beyond the capacity of these individuals to control. While they’re surely dangerous I think the issue of whether we can wholly blame them for their behavior is an open question.

    As an aside you might also be interested to learn that a juvenile detention centre in Madison Wisconsin has had some success in treating psychopathic individuals. through intensive treatment:

    • Lascap says:

      All true. But note that this is just a primer for a larger/longer piece I wrote (linked above, and discussing decompression). This is not an issue of blame, obviously. In the piece, I likened it to the moral equivalent of color blindness. But we are just beginning to understand it, so treatment will likely be elusive for a while. My concern is that society is really completely unprepared for this. I suspect that a lot of issues that garner the public interest are really psychopath-related issues underneath, but this is not on anyone’s radar screen. So articles like these are meant to put psychopathy “on the map” – as a public policy issue.

  2. Garret Merriam says:

    Very informative, Professor Wallisch, thank you for sharing.

    I’m curious: you say that psychopaths have “a dramatically muted emotional affect.” Can they still have deep connections with other people? You say they “treat people like you would treat objects – things to be manipulated for their personal gain with no conceivable ethical or moral dimension.” Is that true for *all* other people, or just people they don’t have a connection to? Can they care about another person, or only about their “self-aggrandizing goals?” Are they always completely self-obsessed and narcissistic?

    I guess what I’m asking is this: Can a psychopath love another person?

    • Lascap says:

      Good question. While some might disagree, my reading of the literature suggests that this is indeed a “global” tendency. They have particular problems with abstract concepts like “friendship” or “love”. For instance, they define the latter – if pressed – in terms of “sex”. As for narcissism: The conditions are empirically related, but conceptually distinct. There are narcissists who don’t have psychopathic traits and vice versa. They do form two components of the “dark triad” however.

  3. Ron Fields says:

    There is a broader category called “sociopath” which prospers in a competitive economy and spreads harm through greed… accumulations of wealth that imply poverty and neurological stress (damage) to others. Society is burdened by many more than 1 in 100 or 200 psychopaths. It is the unempathic brain, beginning with everyday acts of selfishness that makes for unending social conflict.

    • Lascap says:

      I’m aware – I address this issue in the original article. That said, I’m not sure if “sociopath” is a useful term. It seems mostly like an ideological construct with scant empirical support. The same can’t be said for psychopathy. Psychology and neuroscience would be well advised to use terms carefully.

      • Ron Fields says:

        Lascap, there are several points here. I’ll just quote Thesaurus: “”psychopath’ was once widely used but has now been superseded by ‘sociopath'”. . Of course terms should everywhere be used carefully. But the understanding of “psychopath” outside of scientific correctness is that of a serial killer. And the ideological point in the use of “sociopath” is that there is far more harm done in society by the lack of concern for others than the 1 in 100 or 200 psychopaths.

        I would very much enjoy further discussion on these issues, but this comment page doesn’t seem the place. Regards.

        • Lascap says:

          But that is exactly the point of the piece. The public hears “psychopath” and thinks “serial killer”. This is not accurate and psychopathy is a genuine brain based condition. As for sociopathy: One can have a discussion about societal structures that incentivize or de-incentivize empathy. The point is that psychopaths wouldn’t be able to do it regardless of social structure. I disagree re harm. While genuine psychopaths might be relatively rare, the damage they can do if they are in influential positions can be rather disproportional. Particularly in the age of nukes.

      • Ron Fields says:

        Lascap, there are several points here. I’ll just quote Thesaurus: “”psychopath’ was once widely used but has now been superseded by ‘sociopath'”. .

  4. Ron Fields says:

    Sorry for the duplication… my bad.

  5. Anton says:

    Great article and an important subject.

    You might include the pronoun ‘she’, and not exclusively ‘he’, when you write about psychopathy. Even though the likelihood of a male becoming a psychopaths may be significantly higher (I really don’t know), a lot of females also fit in the category.

    We should limit the possibilities of misunderstandings as much as we can.

    I see now that this article is a bit out of date. Nonetheless, think about it.

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