That psychopath in the mirror

October 25, 2010 | By | Reply More

In the September/October 2010 edition of Scientific American Mind, I recently read an article titled “Inside the Mind of a Psychopath,” by Kent Kiehl and Joshua W Buckholtz.

Who are psychopaths? The authors claim that psychopaths are people whose brains have “gone wrong.” They claim that psychopaths make up .5 to 1% of the general population, adding up to 250,000 psychopaths living freely in the United States. They offer a list of criteria for determining whether a person is a psychopath, mentioning that “everyone falls somewhere on the psychopathic continuum.”

What are the basic symptoms?

One of the most striking peculiarities of psychopaths is that they lack empathy; they are able to shake off as mere tinsel the most universal social obligations. They lie and manipulate yet feel no compunction or regrets-in fact, they don’t feel particularly deeply about anything at all.

So much for the way regular people make sense of the world is through emotion. It informs our gut decisions, our connections to people and places, our sense of belonging and purpose. It is almost impossible to imagine life without findings-until you meet a psychopath. But psychopaths often cover up their deficiencies with a ready and engaging charm, so it can take time to realize what you are dealing with.

Fair enough, but I’d like to focus on that idea that all of us fall along this continuum. In particular, I have to wonder about the hundreds of millions of Americans who really don’t care that our American military action is causing  numerous civilians to be killed halfway around the world (many of those are children and parents of young children), with no justification for waging these peculiar wars. The recently released documents by Wikileaks indicate far more civilian deaths and injuries than our military had previously admitted.  What we have, then, is a military purportedly representing you and me that is causing immense pain and suffering halfway around the world, yet most of us do not care in the least. We would rather watch the World Series or play solitaire than writing a letter of protest to our politicians, and we would certainly would rather do these things then organizing a protest.  To recap the prime characteristic of a sociopath, they have the ability to “shake off as mere tinsel the most universal social obligations.”

Image by Thereisnosquare at (with permission)

Perhaps some readers might complain:  “I do care.”   A few years ago, I said that line to a former neighbor (I forget what the issue was, but I was protesting that I “cared”).   He said “No you don’t.  If you cared, you’d be doing something about it.”   I’ve adopted his logic ever since.

Now perhaps you’re one of those people who is convinced that terrorists are trying to destroy the United States and that our military actions are protecting us from terrorism. For you people, I’ll offer two other examples. Most of us complacently allow millions of American children to go to crappy schools that are destroying whatever chance they have to live stable and productive lives as adults.  Here’s another example: hundreds of millions of Americans have money to blow on entertainment and amusement, and they will choose that route rather than to send that money overseas where a few bucks will save the lives of starving people. Consider, again, the definition of psychopath: “They feel “no compunction or regrets… They don’t feel particularly deeply about anything at all.”

When someone in need is within our in-group, we often respond in admirable ways. When we characterize someone as outside of our in-group (when he or she is in the  “out-group”), we act as psychopaths toward that person. I’m not suggesting that we are capable of really caring for each of the more than six billion other people. We are not biologically capable of caring for that many people. We are tuned to most easily care for people we actually know, or friends. The research of Robin Dunbar shows that each of us is only really capable of having approximately 150 friends at any given time, due to the cognitive load maintaining friendships imposes upon us. It’s an ugly and frustrating reality. Damn the biological limits imposed on us human animals!

The inescapable truth, though, is that all of us are psychopaths, at least some of the time.


Category: Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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