Quickpost: Jobs for psychopaths?

My correspondents ‘DuMuarier-Smith’ and Evan Hadkins have been worrying away at the question of whether certain jobs attract/require psychopathy.

DM-T: I’ve been reading Robert Hare’s depiction of the psychopath. Does anyone else think the depiction fits politicians to a T?

EH: I guess the big question is: are there some situations where psychopathology is useful (or, a bigger stretch, good). I’m a bit of an Agatha Christie devotee. She wrote a novel where the murderer was someone who had been very useful during the war but who didn’t really fit civilian society. Would this be an example? Part of me wants to say, “No! Never!” another part wonders with this part is just being unrealistic and sentimental.

(See this.) The latest issue of Nature has an article, Scanning psychopaths:

[Hare] has used [PCL-SV] to esti-
mate that maybe 1% are psychopathic, even if
they have never committed a crime, according
to research presented recently at a meeting on
psychopathy research. “Some psychopathic fea-
tures are not necessarily a bad thing for society
— in some professions they may even help,”
says Hare. “Too much empathy, for example,
on the part of a police officer or a politician
would interfere with the job.”

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.

11 thoughts on “Quickpost: Jobs for psychopaths?

  1. Dr. Steve:
    I think psychopaths can be “made,” possibly through the “Aushwitz Self” artifact Robert J. Lifton describes, a kind of normative “psychological distancing” in extremis, the result being a sort of ego-splitting. It may be useful to differentiate between this kind of artifactual psychopath and one who is physiologically incapacitated. In either case, I think today’s social dynamics are ripe for political psychopaths.

    With regard to Nature’s “scanning the psychopath,” if I recall correctly, Ekman or another nonverbal communication researcher also found in brain activity a receptive mirroring of facial expression affect, suggesting empathy had a “hard wired component.

    A couple of things suggested in this research area intrigue me. I’m something of a nut (for classical Darwinists) in that I believe learned behavior must have some inheritability. (This, of course, is contrary to random evolution, but explains how the brightest might survive when the strongest perish.) I don’t know how else to explain such “instinctive” behavior as the newly hatched chick that flees or freezes when the shadow of a hawk or predatory bird–and only those shadows–pass over. Can you imagine how many generations of chicks it would take for that image to be genetically encoded by mere random mutation? I think it’s safe to say, we’ve not yet had that many generations of chicks.

    A qualifier is necessary. I assume that heritability is principally limited to somatically based experience. We may inherit fear, but not in the abstract. I forget the name of the psychologist who trained rats to be afraid of the dark, and isolated a compound he called “scotophobins,” from the brains of the trained rats and fed it to other rats and found they too were afraid of the dark. Those findings were much like the planarian research published in The Worm Runner’s Digest where flat worms taught to run mazes were chopped up and fed to other, novice worms which then ran the maze faster than worms on a normal diet.

    Is it a coincidence that psychopathy seems to commonly manifest itself after a generation or so of what Christopher Lasch called a Culture of Narcissism? Psychoanalytic bloggers like Shrinkwrapped, Dr. Sanity, Sigmund, Carl and Alfred seem united on the theme of narcissism as the mode of contemporary politics. And they may be right.

    There’s always a problem with diagnosing an individual psychological disorder in a population. Society is the norm. When everyone is narcissistic, is anyone? On the other hand, what would you expect deviance to look like in a narcissistic society? “Psychopathy” would not be an illogical answer.

    I don’t know what the answers are; I only know what my questions are given what seem to me provocative indications. Not a very good feeling. I can understand when someone like Andrzej M. Lobaczewski publishes a book on psychopathy in politics that sounds paranoid–like a conspiracy freak. Is he? I don’t know.

    Whether as an artifact of social conditions or of genetic inheritance, what is the legacy of a generation or so of narcissism? Are psychopaths born, made or maybe both? Are our politicians self-selecting in their fit with our social disabiliities? I hope not. But if not, would they function?

    I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying . . . well, if Dr. Steve can get by with it . . . .

  2. dumuarier-smith – So much thought-provoking stuff here – thanks. A couple of responses:

    1. This inherited learning business is so amazing; I’m practically illiterate about it but you make a good case. I was watching my fox-terrier marking his territory today using exactly the same complex series of actions as every other other dog. And yet froma young age he had very little contact with other dogs….

    2. Narcissism and psychopathy! This is the next big book waiting to be written (are you up for it?). There is so much the same, including the inner emptiness. But there are very important differences. Your thesis of psychopathy as deviance in a society where narcissism is the norm makes a terrible kind of sense.

    3. As for Lobaczewski being paranoid – well he came from the communist sytem so he knows a thing or two, I’d say. I think it was the Soviet poet Mandelstam who said that in that system if you’re not paranoid you’re crazy.

  3. I think that comparing politicians to psychopaths is a bit extreme. I believe that narcissistic is a much more accurate description. By most accounts many politicians have strong and lasting familial attachments that a psychopath would never come close to. Lets not confuse greed with such an extreme condition

  4. mnwhr5 – This issue of narcissism and psychopathy does have legs, doesn’t it?

    dumuarier-smith’s idea is one that’s got me thinking:
    “When everyone is narcissistic, is anyone? On the other hand, what would you expect deviance to look like in a narcissistic society? ‘Psychopathy’ would not be an illogical answer.”

  5. I think that the concepts of attachment disorder and good-enough parenting play into this discussion. Early, possibly pre-verbal trauma or abandonment by a parent who is emotionally inadequate for similar reasons serves to explain at least some of generationally transmitted tendencies.

    Likewise the generationally transmitted emotional skills and related biases could be related to socioeconomic classes or ethnic groups that have been stressed to the point where it is equivalent to extended trauma. These stresses may be pure survival-level issues, like being malnourished or forced into slave labor. Or they may be related to being in a class where a kind of deliberate social blindness and blunted empathy is necessary to maintain the economic status quo.

    It’s not that people don’t break out of these patterns, but I would guess these breakouts are more likely to occur in generations brought up in relative comfort and safety. Or where parental inadequacy may be ameliorated by supplemental resources.

  6. khatalyst – Attachment theory is a very powerful way of understanding the way people relate. Thanks for bringing it up.

    I’d be interested to know how attachment disoder would explain the psychopath (not the sociopath who is actually fitting in with a certain group’s norms).

  7. I think it is important that people are ‘social individuals’. Our genetic hard wiring is always socially shaped – children can’t survive apart from an adult so this is inevitable. Dealing with most complex behaviour means dealing with a physical individual in a social situation (and other dimension too in my opinion).

    If everyone is greedy is anyone? Yes. And consumerism is sick and destroying our planet.

    Narcissism (having regard only for oneself) sounds like a good definition of the internal dynamics of the psychopath to me.

    It seems to me that there are some places where a psychopath will excel – and this is a criticism of these places from my point of view.

  8. evan – On your first point, you may be interested in Dr. Liane Leedom’s work on bringing up children who are at risk because of their background with a psychopathic parent(genetic plus experiential). She can be found via lovefraud.com

  9. Evan wrote:
    “If everyone is greedy is anyone? Yes. And consumerism is sick and destroying our planet.”

    I agree with your view of consumerism (and so did Lasch), not just in terms of materialism, but it’s program of instant gratification and entitlement to everything from beauty to wealth. Still, everyone being greedy is not the same thing as everyone being narcissistic unless everyone is greedy to the extreme of psychopathology. And if everyone were, and you declared the world psychopathically greedy, you’d have to do so like Christopher Lasch, an historian, and take some earlier historic period as your norm.

    Psychology and psychiatry are normative social sciences, and contemporary norms constitute the yardstick of normalcy.

  10. dumauarier-smith – Good, clarifying thinking – thanks.

    Personally I don’t have an affinity with applying psychological/psychiatric diagnoses to whole groups. When I do it it’s usually because of sloppy or prejuduced thinking. More than usual, I mean.

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