The blurriness of empathy


Could the truism be wrong: the psychopath lacks empathy?

In order that we can understand the ‘callous/lack of empathy’ criterion of the Psychopath Checklist (PCL–R), I ask What, is this thing called ‘empathy’?

Readers of this blog – those who have commented thus far, that is – range in expertise from therapeutic, to philosophical, to those whose experience has been forged through life with a psychopath. Responses have been striking in that they have highlighted each of the main ways the term is understood.

Extra-; Intra-; Inter
The first thing to say is that when one accepts the existence of the phenomenon empathy one is choosing sides in a deep philosophical divide. Continue reading

Is Tony Soprano a sociopath?

[This post is by Donna Andersen from Lovefraud.com and the Lovefraud Blog. The goals of Lovefraud are to teach people how to know when love is a con and to wake them up to the danger of sociopaths. ‘Is Tony Soprano a sociopath?’ was first published at Lovefraud blog on June 10, 2007.]

Tonight, in the final episode of the HBO series The Sopranos, we find out what happens to Tony. Will he get whacked? Will he
escape? Will he go into the federal witness protection program?

As a prelude, last week’s episode, called The Blue
Comet
, showed Tony as a man alone, losing his family,
friends and even his psychiatrist. Early in the show, Tony’s shrink,
Dr. Jennifer Melfi, is at a dinner party with other mental health
professionals, including her own shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupfenberg. The
conversation turns to sociopaths:

Doctor #1: I Googled stuff on sociopathic personalities.
Apparently the talking cure actually helps them become better
criminals. It was fascinating. The study was by Yochelson and
Samenow.
Dr. Melfi: Studies are turned around every few years.
Doctor #1: This other—I think it was Robert Hare—suggested sociopaths
actually quite glibly engage on key issues, like mother, family …
Doctor #2: I seem to remember that from residency.
Dr. Melfi: Me too, and I’ve read Hare, but who’s a true sociopath?

As the scene continues, it is revealed that Dr. Melfi is treating
Tony Soprano. Dr. Elliot Kupfenberg points out that she may face
moral and even legal consequences for keeping him as a patient. Later
in the show—after reading the study—Dr. Melfi dumps Tony.

Reasonably accurate

The dialog among the psychiatrists was essentially correct,
although I’m sure Dr. Robert Hare was not happy about them using the
term ‘sociopath‘. He always uses ‘psychopath.’

Still, I’ve been to two of Dr. Hare’s seminars, and I’ve heard him
discuss the research about talk therapy and sociopaths (psychopaths).
However, I believe the research related to incarcerated men mandated
to attend group therapy sessions. What happens is they learn the buzz
words to manipulate their prison psychologists and parole officers.
This allows them to get out of jail faster, or, if they re-offend,
talk their way into reduced sentences.

Of course, many Lovefraud readers who have attended counseling
sessions with sociopaths can relate to how they con the therapists.
And the line about “sociopaths glibly engage on key issues like
mother, family,” well, we all know that one.

For me, the best part of this scene was seeing a reasonably
accurate discussion of the sociopathic personality in a mainstream TV
show.

Is he or isn’t he?

Still, is Tony Soprano a sociopath? My first response is no. As
those of us who have experienced sociopaths well know, they feel no
guilt or remorse. Nothing is their fault, and they do not believe
anything is wrong with them. So although it may be great television
for a mob boss to go into therapy—not because he was ordered by the
court, but because he felt the need—it is not going to happen with a
true sociopath.

But in an article Friday in the St. Petersburg Times, Dennis Lehane, a writer for the HBO series
The Wire (my personal favorite), says Tony Soprano is a
sophisticated sociopath who fools everyone. And Allen Rucker, author
of three officially sanctioned books about The Sopranos,
says, “We were all the therapist being sucked in by the psychopath.
One part of Tony has the sensibility of a poet and another part is
the predator—which is why we love him.”

So is he or isn’t he? The sociopathic personality encompasses a
range of behaviors, and Tony certainly has some of the traits. Or
maybe he’s taken the personality disorder to a whole new level.
Luckily, Tony is a TV character and we don’t really have to decide.

But the good news is that the media may finally be getting the
idea that sociopaths are not all deranged serial killers. They’ve
graduated to mob hit men. I guess that’s progress.

Do you know what is empathy is?


What, in your understanding, is empathy? Is it an ability, an attitude, a behaviour?

Psychopathic lack of empathy
Once we know what empathy is we can make sense of what the psychopath’s famed lack of empathy is.

As you may know, ‘callous/lack of empathy’ is one of the twenty items on Hare’s Psychopath Checklist – Revised (PCL-R). (The full the list is reproduced below.)

But, does the slash (/) mean ‘and’ or ‘or’ or ‘and or or’?

  • Are ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ synonyms (callous, in other words, lack of empathy)?
  • Or are ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ distinct (callous plus lack of empathy)?
  • Perhaps ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ are fused (callous implies empathy)?

Consider this article abstract:
Continue reading

‘Neurological correlates’ – a blog worth a visit



Time to plug a blog readers may or may not yet be familiar with.

Swivelchair at Neurological correlates deals with neuroscience and human behaviour. He translates current psychology/brain research into understandable terms. But more than that, he formulates his own hypotheses. Here is one an intriguing idea:

I’m interested in white matter, which is sort of the neural wiring in the brain, connecting the areas of gray matter. I think that the trouble with disordered thinking may be because of faulty wiring between functional areas of the brain. If this is the case, then that give me hope that it can be fixed — growing new synaptic connections may be a matter of blocking inhibitors or of growing new connections.

In a series of excellent recent posts he considers psychopaths, etc. in the light of possible faulty white matter. Do have a look-see; they warrant reading. Here are a few things that came to my mind.

Do Psychopaths Dream?
January 4, 2008

I noticed that in recovering alcoholics I know, they don’t report dreams, and some have said they don’t dream. And then in suspected psychopaths I know, same thing — lack of dreaming.

If this observation is correct, he suspects a white matter deficiencies. Any feedback from readers would no doubt be appreciated. Continue reading

7 points to remember about dating and predators

[This post is by Donna Andersen from Lovefraud.com and the Lovefraud Blog. The goals of Lovefraud are to teach people how to know when love is a con and to wake them up to the danger of sociopaths.]

As human beings, we all want love and companionship in our lives. It’s a basic human need, right up there with the needs for food, water and shelter. When we are lacking an intimate relationship, most of us try to fill the empty space. That leads to dating.

Here is what you need to know about dating and predators.

1. Evil exists.
What the evil is called—psychopath, sociopath, antisocial personality disorder, narcissist—really doesn’t matter. There are evil people out there, and they can be found in all segments of society—rich, poor, male, female, all races, all religions, all communities. They look like everyone else, but they are predators.

2. If you are dating, you are a target.
As an unattached person, you’re probably feeling a bit lonely—that’s why you’re looking for dates. This is natural and understandable. What you need to realize is that predators specialize in targeting lonely people. They know exactly how to find this vulnerability and exploit it by seeming to take the loneliness away. They shower you with attention, flatter you and promise you a lifetime of happiness—exactly what you’re looking for.

3. Meeting people on the Internet is extremely dangerous.
Yes, there are normal people on dating sites. But there are also predators, and communicating via the computer you do not have the tools you need to spot them. Most of the true meaning of conversation comes from nonverbal cues—voice, facial expression and body language. None of that is available in an e-mail. So what do you do? You fill in the missing pieces with your imagination, and the person becomes what you want him or her to be. You fall in love with a fantasy. For more information, see Internet Threat and Online Seduction on Lovefraud.com.

4. Predators are often charming.
If you meet someone who is glib, charismatic and has a quick answer to every question, be aware that these traits may indicate excellent social skills—or a psychopath. Pay close attention to what is actually being said. Are there gaps or inconsistencies? Is the person evasive? Does the person change plans or break promises—and always has an excuse? If you’re nodding your head, proceed with caution. For more information, see Key Symptoms on Lovefraud.com.

5. Watch for the pity play.
According to Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, the best clue that you are dealing with a sociopath is an appeal to your sympathy. If you’re dealing with someone who tries to make you feel sorry for him or her, blaming other people or “the system” for his or her problems, consider it a warning that the person may be a sociopath. For more information, see The Pity Play on Lovefraud.com.

6. Predators are often great in bed.
Many people who were involved with sociopaths have told Lovefraud that the sex was amazing. Sociopaths are often skilled lovers for two reasons: First, with an excessive need for stimulation, they are hard-wired for sex. Second, they get a lot of practice, often with anyone who comes along. In reality, sociopaths want only two things: sex and power. They do not feel love.

7. Do not ignore red flags.
Maybe something seems wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. Perhaps there’s a nagging feeling in your gut. Pay attention. Do not let him or her explain away your doubts. Do not tell yourself he or she has gotten a raw deal and your love is the solution. To avoid becoming the victim of a predator, your instincts are your best defense.

Most people who get ahead in the world lead clean, moral lives. Do you agree or disagree?


If you strongly disagree you might be Machiavellian.

A Machiavellian is someone who’s tendency is to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain. The charactersitics include: charm, confidence, glibness, arrogance, calculation, cynicism, manipulation and exploitation.

Machiavelliansim is measured using the simple 20-statement MACH-IV self-assessment test devised and standardised by Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis. A score of 60/100 and up qualifies one as a ‘high Mach’ – someone who is detached, calculating, and cynical about people. A ‘low Mach’ is more personal, empathic, and trusting.

Are high-Machs psychopaths? No. The difference is important and needs to be teased apart carefully. Here’s something from Wikipedia to get open the discussion:

It may be difficult to distinguish between the two, because both types exhibit similar tendencies, often while considering it important to mask or misrepresent their motives….(T)rue High Machs (as opposed to sociopaths) tend to take consequences very seriously, and when dedicated to a course of action which may backfire, it is usually because the potential consequences have been weighed quite carefully and the High Mach is prepared to be responsible if blame cannot be deflected sufficiently.

Before we lump high- and low-Machs in respective negative and positive boxes, it should be noted that at the very low end lies maladroitness with others: “kind of dependent, submissive and socially inept. So be sure to invite a high Mach or two to your next dinner party” says Salon.com’s ‘Ivory tower‘, where you can take the MACH-IV test for a look-see.

So, what do you think? Is this a useful ingredient to out into our pot?

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Photo: Uffizi statue: Niccolo Machiavelli, originally uploaded by Crashworks