Constant of psychopathy: no empathy

Continuing my explorations into the nebulous world of psychology, I note that one of the characteris

Continuing my explorations into the nebulous world of psychology, I note that one of the characteristics of the psychopathic personality is a lack of empathy.

Psychopathy is an ill-defined condition that affects somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of prison inmates, according to an article on the subject in the Nov. 10, 2008, issue of The New Yorker magazine about attempts to measure it scientifically.

Such measuring turns out to be as challenging a task as measuring any other mental or emotional impairment, and the best that researchers have been able to come up with is that it “corresponds to a deficit in the paralimbic region,” which is part of the cerebral cortex, though there also appears to an environmental component to the condition since it is most common in people from “neglectful families.”

People labeled as psychopaths typically demonstrate “inflated self-appraisal and superficial charm” in addition to a “lack of empathy,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the insurance-billing guidebook of the American Psychiatric Association, which does not, however, list it as a separate disorder but rather groups it together with Antisocial Personality Disorder.

In my occasional encounters with low-life criminals, I have sometimes been struck by their lack of regard for basic right and wrong, or lack of conscience, you might call it, as demonstrated by a willingness to cheat and steal whenever the opportunity presents itself. I gather such conscienceless behavior qualifies as psychopathic. (The term “sociopathic,” coined in 1930, is still sometimes used.) I’ve always been fascinated by these people.

Now I learn that one of their characteristics is a basic inability to put themselves in other people’s positions, to feel other people’s pain, which I guess is what makes possible their criminal behavior.

A psychiatrist working in the 1930s, Hervey Cleckley, described psychopaths as “charming and intelligent, unreliable, dishonest, irresponsible, self-centered, emotionally shallow, and lacking in empathy and insight,” which is an interesting collection of traits, not all of which you would expect in low-life criminals by any means, just as you wouldn’t expect the “superficial charm” listed by the American Psychiatric Association.

But then, psychopaths need not be low-lifes. They can also be high-flying investors who construct elaborate instruments for cheating charitable institutions out of their endowments and individuals out of their savings.

The leading authority on psychopathy, Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, scores his test subjects on a range of qualities that include, “parasitic lifestyle, pathological lying, conning, proneness to boredom, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, poor impulse control, promiscuity, irresponsibility,” among others.

Again, an interesting collection. But one constant is the lack of empathy.

This strikes me now because of the recent furor we had over the use of empathy as a criterion by which to select judges and the disdainful response to that from the people I call the Angry Ones, including, of course, their pied pipers on radio and television.

Especially the pied pipers: Inflated self-appraisal, superficial charm, self-centered, lack of empathy. Hmmm. Then add the observation by Cleckley in the 1930s that the typical psychopath “talks entertainingly,” and doesn’t it just make you want to have a look at their paralimbic regions?

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