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 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
, 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
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

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

Dating – don’t do it! Some thoughts after blogging about psychopaths

Simply writing and reading about about human wickedness has a sobering effect on one. When reading what follows, please keep in mind the author has been, if not frighted rigid then, had his protectiveness ratcheted way up.

I once wrote a piece – mainly for women’s eyes – about how dating (by which I meant dating in the hope of meeting a partner/spouse) doesn’t work.

My argument was that men have an aversion to that kind of ‘energy’. (I could have written another piece about how what is attractive on a first date is a very poor predictor of what works in a long-term relationship.)

But I was talking there about decent men. What about dating when they’re, shall we say, not quite so decent?Advice from a female criminal profiler
Pat Brown from The Daily Profiler knows a thing or two about how things can and do go horribly wrong. Her advice: Continue reading

Paramoralism-watch. Lord Black’s ‘expression of regret’

Oh dear. Once again current events compel me to interupt my three-part series on psychopaths and lying in order to show what may be precisely what I have been describing at work.

Former media mogul, Lord Conrad Black, 63, has been sentenced to 6.5 years in prison. He was found guilty of one count of obstructing justice and three counts of defrauding shareholders of one-time newspaper publishing giant Hollinger International Inc. The sentence is at the low end of federal guidelines.

Black was also fined $125,000, and ordered to forfeit $6.1m – the amount a pre-trial report said he stole to fund a lavish lifestyle. (Prosecutors put the amount at about $31m.)

According a selection of three news outlets,
here’s what happened at the sentencing.

First RTE News:

Black told the judge before she passed sentence that he wanted to ‘express very profound regret and sadness’ to Hollinger shareholders for the evaporation of $1.85bn in value.

Here’s CTV Canada:

He complimented the judge on her handling of the trial, and said he regretted the loss suffered by Hollinger International shareholders.

How about

“I have never once uttered one disrespectful word about this court, your honour, the jurors or the process.”
He thanked the judge for her openmindedness, considering that he came in with an “almost universal presumption of guilt.”
The former newspaper executive also apologized to shareholders of the defunct Hollinger International newspaper group, the company he was convicted of defrauding.

Respectuful, grateful, apologetic – what more could one ask?

It all sounds quite proper and dignified.
The old boy has behaved well, acknowledged his guilt, and expressed remorse. But let’s look a little more closely at what he actually said. (And then wonder about what the above reporters had stuffed in their ears that stopped them hearing it.) Continue reading

Psychopathic deceit in the suicide note of Robert Hawkins

What do you make of a 19 year old multiple killer who reminded his landlady of “a lost puppy that nobody wants“?

I interrupt my series of posts on pschopaths and lying to consider a perfect example in the news right now – the Omaha, Nebraska mall-killer Robert Hawkins.

The blogger ‘Against Medical Advice’ writes a post ‘random acts of violence‘, a humane and agonised attempt to come to grips with this event.

A few quotes:

i’m trying to understand what happens in our lives, that a 19-year-old can go from feeling a complete failure to killing himself and others in a crowded mall. i’m trying to remember what i was doing on wednesday at the time robert hawkins walked into the westroads mall in omaha, nebraska and started shooting into a crowd of strangers.

robert hawkins feeling so overwhelmed by emotional pain that he needs to take eight people down with him. what separates robert hawkins from me? is it just luck? could i, one day long ago, have been a robert hawkins? was i ever that desperate, that angry, that uninhibited from the life-saving constrictions of humanity and morality? clearly, no. but, also, i grew up in a place where guns were simply not a part of ordinary people’s lives.

i think of the eight dead, the various injured, of the banality — again — of walking into a mall three weeks before christmas to be shot by a kid with more pain in his life than he can handle. i wonder at lives ending like this, in a mall of all places. we don’t go to the mall to die.

It is genuinely heartwarming to see this ordinary (I mean this is a good way) empathy, sympathy, and soul-searching.

I responded as follows (with added inserts):

You ask whether there’s a difference between you and Robert Hawkins. There is.

Dr. Liane Leedom, a psychiatrist who writes for LoveFraud suggested straight-away that he was a sociopath. My first reaction was to think, “Maybe, but maybe he was just very unhappy or disturbed in another way, psychotic, say.”

Then I read the suicide note [see below] and I see that, yes, he was indeed a sociopath (psychopath in my terms).

Ridiculous lies:

“I don’t want anyone to miss me.” Practically every word here means precisely its converse: I demand that everyone never forgets me.

One doesn’t say, “I’ve snapped”, sit down to write a note, make one’s way over to the mall, and then walk around picking people off with a gun. That’s not snapping. Continue reading