Greedy Goblin

Monday, January 25, 2016

The key of understanding psychopathy

It's been a long time since I've written anything about social psychology, since I told everything I wanted (should probably collect these articles), but now I come with a pretty ambitious one, to understand and possibly cure psychopathy. This is ambitious since psychopathy has often been considered untreatable.

Psychopathy is mostly defined by lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotional life, failure to accept responsibility and because of these, exploitative, mean or even criminal behavior. What I claim here is that these aren't alien to anyone.
- Do you feel any empathy for the Syrian migrants?
- Are you bursting out in tears hearing their tragic stories?
- Do you feel remorse or accept responsibility for supporting Western politicians who set Syria on fire by trying to remove Assad?
No? Then you are officially a psychopath! Or... simply an ordinary guy who can't care less about Syria.

Social people characterize other people as members of their in-group and out-group: us vs them. This is a deeply ingrained, probably evolutionary programmed behavior, as proven by minimal group experiments: in these, test subjects were placed into "group A" and "group B" literally by a coinflip front of their eyes. These groups are the most meaningless and random possible and they knew it. Still they were more likely to have a positive opinion about their groupmates and favorize them when distributing resources. The thing is, that you, the normal, loving, responsible and ethical person are only "loving, responsible and ethical" with in-group members. It doesn't mean that you are evil with out-group members, it's just that you are not caring, loving and responsible. It's not like you go to Syria to kill people, or you'd be evil with a Syrian face to face, it's just that you can't care less about them.

Is it a problem? No, because you don't often meet with "them" and even if you do, you can interact in an a-social, professional manner. For example if you go to a random shop, you take item and give money in return. You don't care about who is the shopkeeper and he doesn't care about you. You both keep the law and don't commit crime against each other, despite having no emotional bonds. If you'd read next day that the shop was robbed and people killed, you'd think "oh dear, it could be me" and not "oh dear, it's a terrible thing that happened with those people", while if the very same thing happened with an in-group member, you'd not only feel horrible for them, but also guilty for you being alive.

I believe the proper definition of a psychopath is a person without in-group. The psychopath is unable and unwilling to think of any fellow man as "one of us". Does it make him naturally worse than you? Since you treat 99.9999% of the mankind the same way, you are only 0.0001% better, nothing to be proud of. Still, if not handled properly, that 0.0001% can mean the difference between being an ordinary dude or a serial killer.

If two people consider each other in-group members, they engage in mutually altruistic behavior. If they consider each other out-group members, they engage in trading. However if one consider the other in-group, while the other considers the first out-group, the relationship will necessarily be exploitative: the first will care a lot for the second and give resources and attention in an altruistic way, while the second only gives what he is asked to. You can't blame him for that! When you see a "50% sale" in a shop, you pay half price and never think that you should be loving and grateful to the shopkeeper for that. They announced sale, they surely know why they do it, you just take on the opportunity.

Social people consider relatives and people physically around them in-group members. This means that a psychopath with no in-group finds "for sale" signs everywhere, so he goes and shops. That girl offered easy sex, let's take it! That guy offered to help me in work, great! He doesn't give more thought to the motivation of these partners than you give to the shopkeeper. When the girl burst out in tears for the psychopath not loving her and the guy gives a fit of rage for the psychopath never helping him back or buying him beers, the psychopath is just as surprised as you'd be if the shopkeeper would yell at you "I gave you my wares at half price and you didn't even say you love me!"

This can go two ways, depending on how aggressive the social partners are. If they are not really, the psychopath simply acknowledges that the world is a happy place where he gets everything for free. This case he'll be the callous and shallow manipulator who always get what he wants. If they are aggressive and punish the psychopath for "abusing them", he learns that everyone is after him for no reason. This case he'll become aggressive, hating and probably criminal.

This theory easily explains why the "uncurable" psychopaths become "cured" around the age of 40: they don't. Social people grow out their overly emotional openness. When you are 20 and meet other 20-es, they will see you as a "bro" or a "true love", creating the "everything for free" situation for a psychopath. He carelessly takes these for granted and then be surprised over the backslash. When you are 40 and meet other 40-es, they'll see you as "another coworker" or "another affair" and don't even expect anything emotional anymore, so the psychopath can fit in.

This theory offers a way to treat psychopathy, by teaching the psychopath how social people work, how to recognize if they are emotionally affected and how to politely reject their emotional offer (or avoid the situations where such offers happen), instead of walking into a situation his emotions are expected and their lack of are punished. By letting him understand why social people act they way they are and how to prevent them, he will no longer believe that everyone is after him and his only option is to get them before they get him. Sure, many psychopaths will use such enlightenment to become better manipulators, but even that is better than criminal behavior.


Anonymous said...

Except its widely regarded by experts who have formal training and accreditation that "talk therapy" merely makes the psychopath more adapt at manipulating people.

Harris, Grant T.; Rice, Marnie E. (2006). "Treatment of Psychopathy: A Review of Empirical Findings"

Gevlon said...

And that's a problem because?
And where did it contradict with anything I've said?

Anonymous said...

This is rather a binary view of human nature. I'd say it was more a sliding scale on proximity, rather than not caring about an out group it's rather less and less based on distance. Even then people still donate to tsunami and earthquake victims in other countries. Also there was a great deal of empathy when that Syrian boy was dead on the beach.

Anonymous said...

"Also there was a great deal of empathy when that Syrian boy was dead on the beach."

Did not know that 2 days on front page and facebookshares is the definition of great deal of empathy. Its just shock value. We were shocked, and now we dont care, this is the first time I ever encountered this instance again since it happened.

On the article: Interesting read. I have no idea about psychology or psychiatry but I enjoy talking with friends working in this area. Maybe you should vent your ideas through your friends or relatives who are professional in these, it could polish your view and ideas.

Anonymous said...

if the shopkeeper was robbed on my doorstep i might be slightly more involved / invested than if he was robbed in his shop one town across.

"there was a great deal of empathy when that Syrian boy was dead on the beach."
not in australia. perhaps in europe because it happened on their doorstep.

Anonymous said...

just from skimming the wiki page alone, it seems to me like psychopathy has a broader range than just your focus on asocial behavior.
for example in the Triarchic model:
- Low fear including stress-tolerance, toleration of unfamiliarity and danger
- Poor impulse control including problems with planning and foresight, lacking affect and urge control, demand for immediate gratification, and poor behavioral restraints
- use of cruelty to gain empowerment, exploitative tendencies, defiance of authority, and destructive excitement seeking

the picture you paint of someone in control of a psychopath that is in control of himself and with a firm grasp of reality seems quite different.
the way i interpret the definition is more alike to someone seeing one of the adds for 0$ iphone (with a smallprint that states you have to get an abo for x years), goes into an unrelated shop to demand all their devices. then he beats up the clerk if he says 'no' and feels no remorse after taking a few devices from the showroom on his way out.

on the social interaction layer, the fine print would probably be more like an expectation of reciprocativity or some other intent.

not calling a girl on the day after doesn't make you a psychopath.
killing her dog to put her into a state of emotional vulnerability for you to abuse, that makes you a psychopath.

Esteban said...

I consider the empathy/no empathy model more useful for creatures with an oversized neocortex than ingroup/outgroup.

You (and, to be fair, some behavioural psychologists) are rather too reductionist about altruism and human decency. There are plenty of examples all around us of people caring a great deal about people far away whom they'll never meet having a better life. The mature person simply learns that their reach and spare resources are limited, and expending them nearby has the greatest chance of bettering one's own life at the same time as acting on empathy. In his heart, the 40-year old may still want to save the whales, he's just smart enough to donate money to lobbyists instead of joining Greenpeace and throwing himself in the path of a Japanese harpoon.

Charity and political activism for 'fair trade', greater North-South equality, etc., aside, are you seriously telling me that, if you were on a solitary vacation in a poor country and some girl you'll never meet again offered herself up for a handful of loose change, that you'd take advantage? If you recognised a Renoir among the junk in a stranger's garage sale, you'd buy it for five euro instead of telling them what they had? If you saw an accident by the roadside, you'd fail to stop and render help because you don't live there?

It's absolutely true that we functionally disregard 99.9...% of people around the world as a psychopath might, but we still empathise with them in the abstract, and if we stop to imagine their pain, we can easily grieve with them. Social media has shown this in recent years - whenever a tragedy occurs (Anders Breivik, Charlie Hebdo, etc.) there is a flood of support on Twitter and Facebook and all the rest of it. Useless, yes, but non-psychopaths still feel a need to express their disquiet.

The science, so far, bears this out. One should be careful not to overinterpret brain scans, but in psychopaths the basic neural circuitry required to experience involuntary empathy appears deficient. They have to will themselves to try to feel it, and they do so when it's useful to imagine what the other person is feeling.

Anonymous said...

With respect I don't agree "social people" see things as us vs. them, the people that do are called paranoid. I'd also argue that not having an "in crowd" is not indicative of a sociopath but could be indicative of a wide range of things.

A sociopath is someone with anti-social behaviour but fits in with a certain type of behaviour such as being a pathological liar and impulsive behaviour. They also find it really hard to love or empathise with others but that doesn't mean they don't fit in with a group.

JackTheManiac said...

Just something I picked up in the comments that needs to be addressed. Psychology isn't a science. A science has a central theory that can be proven or disproven. Psychology does not.

Disagree? Please read this first:

More reading in the psychology section:

Interestingly, psychology and psychiatry will probably merge with neuroscience in the future.

Anonymous said...

"This is rather a binary view of human nature. I'd say it was more a sliding scale on proximity, rather than not caring about an out group it's rather less and less based on distance."

Just because evenings and morning exist doesn't mean we can't operate on the day/night model.

"Even then people still donate to tsunami and earthquake victims in other countries. Also there was a great deal of empathy when that Syrian boy was dead on the beach."

Ironically, this only reinforces Gevlon's point: it was only after the attention was brought to these events that people empathized; no one cared about the hundreds of African children that also anonymously died on that day, but they did care about that one Syrian boy because mass media covered it complete with sad music, which brought it into their "in-group".

Anonymous said...

Sure you can't empathize about things you don't know, so all you are saying is that humans aren't telepathic. What is germane is how much empathy they show when they ARE made aware.

Gevlon said...

It's not what you "know", but what you are "properly introduced".
- "100 children died in an improvized boat": you don't care
- 1 kid filmed with crying relatives: you care enough to press "like"
- kid in the neighborhood has cancer: you donate money and actually feel bad