Tag Archives: Ideology

What’s in a name? The fickleness of sociopathy: Ideas, the suspension of the conscience, and why psychopathy is completely different

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There is one question that can often haunt research on mental illness and mental disorders. Simple as it may seem, “What should we call it?” can often pose no end of obstacles, and result in long drawn out debates in the mental health and medical profession. One reason for this is that certain maladies often have numerous dimensions, and symptoms can present differently in those afflicted. Typically, through extensive research, diagnostic criteria are established under the banner of one name; pick up the DSM-V or the ICD-10 and you’ll see the names for all kinds of illness and disorder, with thorough lists of all the symptomatology that is now accompanied and unified under a common name. But these symptoms are often present in other conditions, and present in the patient to different extents. Rendering a diagnosis is indeed a tough challenge for any mental health professional.

 

Another reason that makes it difficult to name a particular mental health phenomenon, is that there is sometimes an inclination for the name to include the developmental origin. This struggle is perfectly captured in the history of psychopathy research. Cleckley, arguably the first psychiatrist to make strides in classifying psychopathy, writing in the 1940s devoted many chapters in his book, The Mask of Sanity, to discussing how the term and the individual were currently seen by the mental health establishment.

 

Every physician is familiar with the term psychopath, by which these people are most commonly designated. Despite the plain etymological inference of a ‘sick mind’ or of ‘mental sickness’, this term is ordinarily used to indicate those who are considered free from psychosis and even from psycho-neurosis.

Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity[i]

 

Clearly, in the mental health profession, a term denoting a ‘sick mind’ is not particularly useful in attempting to make a diagnosis, as it perhaps captures every possible mental malady that can afflict the human brain. However, the term does appear to capture those who are free from psychosis and psycho-neurosis, while still indicating that something is awry within these individuals. The truly psychopathic are renowned for behaving in socially pleasing ways, at least temporarily, before they are implicated in acts of antisocial behavior, sometimes even downright grotesque or horrendous behavior. This nature of the psychopath puzzled mental health experts and laypeople alike, as they pondered how one person could exhibit such extremes of behavior, sometimes in a short space of time.

 

Later, the term ‘psychopath’ clearly evolved and took on new meanings as research on this dangerous personality disorder progressed in the twentieth century. As the esteemed psychologist, Robert Hare, pointed out:

 

[Those] who feel that psychological, biological, and genetic factors also contribute to the development of the syndrome[,] generally use the term psychopath.

 Hare, Without Conscience[ii]

 

Hare stated this in contrast to those who were using the term ‘sociopath,’ who according to Hare were convinced that social factors and early experiences were responsible for the manifestation of this particular disorder, and subsequently this particular type of person, in society.

 

This appearance of two names for the same disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy), and the same person (psychopath/sociopath) becomes problematic. Not only is having two different names for the same condition a little redundant, but the developmental origins, the initial reason for having the two different terms, all belong together. Social factors, early childhood experience, psychological, biological, and genetic factors, all collapse into a uniform analysis of the one condition. Social factors and experience immediately become psychological and biological factors on the level of the brain, and these factors can have a direct impact on the level of gene expression. This is even more profound when the brain is still developing during the formative years, when certain kinds of abuse can result in neurological developmental errors.

 

In early 1990, Hare and his team devised what became the psychopathy checklist, revised.[iii] This built upon earlier research that resulted in the psychopathy checklist,[iv] and has become the gold standard for diagnosing psychopathy. The list is composed of two sets of behavior, dividing them into antisocial traits and personality traits. This diagnostic tool generates a total possible score out of forty, and after a mental health professional has assessed the behavioral history of an individual, any score given in the high twenties and over thirty is indicative of a psychopath. Using this tool, many neuroscientists have created experimental groups of psychopathic individuals and have found unique brain differences between the psychopathic and the non-psychopathic. And so, despite ‘psychopath’ being a vague and somewhat empty term in Cleckley’s era, psychopath research today is incredibly rich from behavioral and neuroscientific input. This richness, coupled with the collapse of social factors in with the biological to describe the same condition, means that the term ‘sociopath’ should be extricated from discussions of the disorder.

 

The term ‘sociopathy’ does become useful again when considered in another context. Hare and Babiak described ‘sociopathy’ in their book, Snakes in Suits, thusly:

 

Sociopathy is not a formal psychiatric condition. It refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial by society at large, but are seen as normal and necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they developed. Sociopaths may have a well-developed conscience and a normal capacity for empathy, guilt, and loyalty, but their sense of right and wrong is based upon the norms and the expectations of their subculture or group.

Hare & P. Babiak, Snakes in Suits[v]

 

This definition is really what sets the two terms apart. Psychopathy is understood as a mental disorder and has formal diagnostic criteria; sociopathy does not. Sociopaths have empathy, guilt, and remorse; psychopaths do not. It is this latter point that is the most profound, because neurological studies have shown us that the areas in the brain that are heavily implicated in moral decision-making are typically malformed and mal-developed in the psychopath. This means that the brain of the psychopath, physically and neurologically, will be significantly different from the brain of the sociopath.

 

With this new definition, sociopathy becomes so much more useful to us. We can now ask questions such as ‘How can someone commit devastating and destructive crimes if they have a conscience?’ and ‘If a sense of right and wrong is represented in a person’s personal ideology, what power do ideas have in influencing a person to commit crimes?’. Sociopathy presents us with the opportunity to study how those with a conscience can, at least temporarily, act unconscionably. It presents us with the opportunity to explore how those with strong moral codes can promote group solidarity, while treating those not in the group as subhuman; think gangs, or the Mafia, or paramilitaries. Exploring the ideas present in the manifestos of spree killers and hate groups also becomes relevant, as they usually purport a version of history where one or more groups in society present as a threat, and why action needs to be taken against this group. All of these people have a conscience, but over time it appears to have become punctured or torn. Sociopathy could help us to understand why this has happened.

 

If we explore perhaps the most antisocial of behaviors, taking the life of another, sociopathy as a study of the ideas that led up to the act adds to our wealth of knowledge of those with disorders or illnesses that can lead to murder. Not all psychopaths are killers, but it is easy to understand how they can kill. Not having a conscience and not feeling guilt or remorse, perhaps even coupled with the pleasure derived from killing or severely injuring others, could easily lead to the act being carried out. Others have suffered psychotic breaks, often over a period of time, and aggression has escalated to the point of lives being taken; this has been true in some with schizophrenia and related conditions. Visual and auditory hallucinations can convince them of the need to act, and when this is coupled with paranoia, something that is often present in the schizophrenic, patients are often compelled to act in a manner they consider appropriate and necessary. Now, it is arguable that as a psychopath does not have a conscience, then they are simply unable to develop a complex ideology of right and wrong behavior; but we could find that sociopathy is comorbid with schizophrenia. Auditory hallucinations become part of the schizophrenic’s experience, and thus represent to them a truth about the world. If, like has been documented elsewhere, the auditory hallucinations are believed to be voices from the supernatural, instructing the person to act, the patient could work those instructions into everything else they believe about the world. A patient with a religious faith could easily believe they are receiving divine instructions to end the lives of people who are secretly evil, for example, demons posing as family members. Their hallucinations make their belief system very real to them, and the drive to act comes from a strong sense of rightness, bolstered by the belief that they are perhaps an avenging angel with a divine mission.

 

There are other abnormalities with neurological correlates that could facilitate taking the life of another. Crimes of passion are quite common, where an individual experiences a heightened sexual or stressful state and lost, only temporarily, a state of rationality. Extreme emotions can sometimes dampen the ability to reason and think clearly, with catastrophic consequences. These can often be exacerbated with those susceptible to anger management issues, or serious stress disorders. Sociopathy could also be present here; a homophobic father who catches his child engaged in a homosexual act could prompt a loss of control due to stress and result in extreme violence. The father would have no doubt been exposed to homophobic ideology before witnessing his child in a same sex relationship, and used the component ideas to justify to him what is true about the world. The perceived infraction from the father’s moral code results in the stress and the loss of control. For the most part, the father has a conscience, and loves his child, but his beliefs about the world seemed to couple with witnessing this act, and worked together with poor stress control to temporarily suspend his conscience.

 

Brain tumors, physical damage to neurological tissue, as well as alcohol and drug use, are also all linked to violent behavior. Here, too, an overarching ideology of what is right and wrong about the world, could work in synchronization with these biological changes to motivate destructive behavior, and the compulsion to act aggressively could even further justify the truth value of the overarching belief system; it has to be true (and thus, right), because why would the desire to act be so strong, otherwise? But does something have to be wrong biologically for toxic ideologies to take root and influence behavior? This is also a question that merits further research. Experiencing the world negatively, either because of something biological, or maybe just suffering from intense psychological hurt and pain, would be enough to make a person crave understanding. During this time they will be receptive to any ideas that seem to explain the negativity, and perhaps claim to provide an answer to end or cure the suffering. This wouldn’t explain all sociopathic behavior, but it would go a long way to understanding its onset.

 

Sociopathic behavior could result if over time, exposure to negative ideas helped to diminish empathy towards other people, and is perhaps demonstrated best by considering the lives of spree killers. Elliot Rodger, Seung-Hoi Cho, Dylan Roof, Anders Breivik, and Christopher Dorner all wrote lengthy manifestos, and some maintained websites and made Youtube videos detailing their grievances at great length. There are various mental illnesses and disorders that have been implicated in the lives of some of those individuals, but it is sometimes hard to substantiate if a diagnosis was made or not. Regardless of conditions or disorders, the manifestos represent a detailed view of the world, as seen by these individuals, including what is wrong with it, and usually what in their view has to happen to fix these societal ills, perhaps taking the form of retribution and revenge. Constructing a manifesto takes a lot of time, and is a significant personal investment for the author; they have taken the time to create a reflection of the world that is accurate to them, built up of the ideas that they think represent the truth and depict reality. The tremendous effort and planning that goes into the manifesto begs the question of what role the manifesto played in bringing them up to their final act. Was it to help them understand why they needed to do what they felt was necessary, thus allowing their conscience to at least temporarily bend to murderous inclinations? Did it help to commit these acts, knowing that people could use the manifesto to understand why it took place, even though they no doubt accepted they would not be alive to witness this ‘understanding’? Finally, if hypothetically they were unable to put a manifesto together, or they believed nobody would ever understand their actions, would their final act still have taken place?

 

There is also the question of how ideology and determining what is true about the world can change after the experience of psychotic episodes. If auditory hallucinations convince a patient of imminent threats or inevitable actions, what the patient believes is true about the world could change; ideas that promote certain kinds of behavior are adopted to achieve goals that fit into an evolving ideological framework. When the psychotic episode has subsided, does the imminence and immediacy of these ideas decrease? Are the ideas eventually discarded as an inaccurate representation of the world? Psychotic episodes are no doubt traumatic because they force the patient to reassess how they are seeing and understanding the world around them, and the more they are forced to reassess, the more traumatic the experience. After a string of psychotic episodes, the patient could well still harbor ideas that became prominent during the last episode, and so certain inclinations that become mandatory are eventually expected. The entanglement of psychosis with ideas and conceptual representations of the world is clearly a crucial study, and could well illuminate the state of the patient’s conscience.

 

This study of sociopathy would also apply to soldiers, who have to be prepared to kill, and destroy infrastructure that could decrease the standing of living for civilians. Soldiers are trained to incapacitate or take the lives of enemy combatants, often by a bloody and violent means. For a soldier to be able to take this action, they have to at the very least temporarily suspend empathy towards other human life, and be comfortable after the carnage with the actions that were taken. Soldiers obviously go into the military with a conscience and do not join out of a love or desire to kill (there is certainly screening to catch this disposition). Ideology can assist with coming to terms with needing to kill, particularly those of nationalism and patriotism; believing that some war is unfortunate but necessary, the war was just, evil has been prevented, and the enemy is a direct threat upon one’s way of life (which is right and true).  When these ideas fail to resonate as true, perhaps based upon personal experiences, the life of soldiers can become a living Hell, especially if they are also suffering from stress-related disorders brought on by extended periods of combat.

 

If we take sociopathy to mean the use of ideology to at least temporarily suspend the conscience or diminish empathy towards others, the example of soldiers as sociopaths opens up an interesting dimension to the discussion. Regardless of political inclinations or personal worldviews, most people would reluctantly accept that sometimes it is necessary for soldiers to kill. Sometimes people have to kill other people. Most of us are fortunate in that we have people who do it in our stead, and we trust them to make those decisions and take all the necessary precautions to keep it as ethical as it can be. If one of the primary purposes of the soldier is to be prepared to kill, then within this framework of sociopathy, we condone the training of sociopaths to carry out this necessary and deadly behavior.  Here, it is crucial to keep this framework of sociopathy in mind, and not treat it as a synonym for psychopathy. Soldiers are not psychopaths. It would be a worthwhile study to track soldiers’ ideologies throughout their careers in the military, because exposure to extreme combat is likely to force the soldier to reassess how they see the world, in a similar manner to schizophrenics experiencing psychotic episodes (a severely agitated mental state, prompting a new understanding of reality). Any time that reality is re-assessed, values of right and wrong can be re-considered, and this will reflect in the overall conscience of the individual. Those forced to re-evaluate the world, due to agitation or trauma, will become open to new ideas and vulnerable to toxic ones, which is one of the reasons why these individuals need constant help and attention.

 

Connecting the dots between ideology and conscience is clearly of paramount importance if we hope to understand violence. This goal can be met with an open, honest, and concerted effort to study sociopathy on the level of the brain, the individual, and society.

© Jack Pemment, 2016

 

References

[i] Cleckley, H., The Mask of Sanity (3rd Edition), EPBM, Brattleboro (2015), p. 27

[ii] Hare, R. D., Without Conscience, Guilford, New York (1999), pp. 23-24

[iii] Hare, Robert D., Timothy J. Harpur, A. Ralph Hakstian, Adelle E. Forth, Stephen D. Hart, and Joseph P. Newman. “The revised Psychopathy Checklist: Reliability and factor structure.” Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2, no. 3 (1990): 338

[iv] Harpur, Timothy J., A. Ralph Hakstian, and Robert D. Hare. “Factor structure of the Psychopathy Checklist.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 56, no. 5 (1988): 741

[v] Hare, R. D.; Babiak, P., Snakes in Suits, Harper, New York (2007), p. 19

Batman and psychopathy

Bat signalI have held off writing about my thoughts on this matter for a while, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to make sense. Clearly, Batman is a fictional character, and one that has appeared in many incarnations, but I believe his overall personality and history seems to make him a close candidate for a diagnosis of psychopath. I’m not a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist, but here is my case.

Young Bruce Wayne witnessed both of his parents murdered together in cold blood. The emotional trauma of this event and the extreme misery to follow could very easily stymie brain development in profound ways. For a child witnessing their parents die in a grotesquely violent act at the hands of a killer, that killer has also just abused the child in a very serious and disturbing way. Child abuse is one of the primary suspects for the development of serious personality disorders, including those that result in a lack of empathy. Presumably, this act also made the young Bruce develop an obsession with criminals and instill in him the need to make sure they are brought to justice.

I don’t know much about the adolescent Bruce Wayne, perhaps someone who is more familiar with the canon can let me know if he was socially deviant, reckless, and callous.

There can be little doubt that Batman himself is extremely violent. Beating villains into a bloody mess seems second nature. Other than the apparent lack of empathy, it is worth noticing that the violence dished out by Batman is very personal; it is close quarter, bone crunching, skin ripping, joint popping, and back stomping violence. In other words, it’s a very intimate level of violence. This seems to point to him getting a thrill out of hurting people, which makes him a sadist. It is widely known that Batman does not use guns (an aversion that could perhaps be explained by his parents being gunned down), but guns are very impersonal. The irony here, which helps enrich the story, is that the Joker also likes to use personal forms of violence, such as knives, on his victims.

There is also an argument to be had that the adult Wayne (and Batman) lack emotion. Batman is usually very clear-minded, cold, and calculated in his behavior. One often hears it is bad to let “emotion” get in the way of making decisions, but perhaps here, Batman has very little to get in the way. Yet clearly, there is always an explosive rage ready burst out of Batman, usually in the form of fists, feet, and head butts. Arguably, he doesn’t have much of an emotional spectrum, which is perhaps one of the reasons he cannot seem to maintain a good relationship (with the exception of Alfred).

There is a parallel between Batman, and the fictional serial killer from Jeff Lindsay’s novels, Dexter. While Batman does typically withhold from killing, he still has a code that provides the parameters for his violence. These parameters help to keep him socially acceptable, as he’s only going after the bad guys. Although, Batman’s code, like all tyrannical codes, have an element of the greater good. Any philosophy that incorporates the greater good will result in the denial of human rights to at least one, but often many individuals. Depending on the group, one could argue that the temporary denial of their rights is necessary, as politicians often do (although not in these words), but nonetheless it places people on different levels of worth. In fact, prisoners, which were at one time criminals, are an incredibly vulnerable group of individuals because they are very much at the mercy of the state, and in scientific research, the use of prisoners is heavily regulated.

Much of these ideas have already been realized in the superhero comics, especially how morality is very often a slippery slope.

Still, if I was asked to write a Batman story, and part of the story included him being diagnosed using Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, I don’t think it would be a stretch to convince people of a score of at least 25.

While the promise of thrill seeking is enough to excite your average psychopath, the Bat Signal clearly gives Batman a raging boner.

Ideology, Nazism, and Survival – A post inspired by the memoir of Marie Jalowicz Simon

Marie Jalowicz Simon

Marie Jalowicz Simon

I have just read a very sobering and ‘human’ account of a Jewish girl who chose to stay in Berlin during the height of Nazism in Germany and the duration of World War Two. Marie Jalowicz Simon recounted to her son in the late 90s almost a hundred cassette tapes of her accounts of survival, and these were later transcribed, translated, and published as Marie’s memoir under the title Gone to Ground.

I say that it’s a ‘human’ account because Marie doesn’t pull any punches in describing her behavior. A cursory glimpse of the subject matter almost lures you into a reader’s bias of lionizing, even eulogizing, Marie’s life before you break the pages. This isn’t to undermine Marie’s struggle, in fact the story serves as a kind of wake-up call for what survival is really like. Even though she escaped the Gestapo and came into contact with many individuals that had bought into Nazism, Marie met many kind-hearted Germans that helped her to not only to avoid detection, but literally continue to live during difficult times. Marie exhibited a daring roguishness, such as testing how far Nazism had leeched into the population by asking policemen the best travel routes around the city. Jews were forbidden to travel on certain routes, and so if the police cared to uphold the Nazist beliefs, they would have expressed this to Marie, and perhaps even acted aggressively. However, the police saw a young girl that needed to get home, and so just told her to travel on the forbidden routes, regardless. Through this cunningness, Marie became an expert on testing the beliefs and convictions of those in Berlin during this time.

There are two parts to this memoir that have really stuck with me.

The first is that Marie refused to tar all people with the same brush. In the afterword, written by her son, Hermann Simon, he quotes part of a letter that his mother wrote to a friend explaining why she had chosen to remain in Berlin during this dangerous time.

I’d like to defuse the usual argument that pride doesn’t allow us to live in the land of the gas chambers. Do you think that the mob anywhere else in the world, if their worst instincts had been cleverly aroused, would have behaved any worse than the mob in Germany? Germans have murdered millions of Jews. But many Germans, risking their lives, made great sacrifices to help me.

Marie loved Berlin. She loved the Germany of Goethe, not the Germany of Hitler, and she never saw the rise of Nazism and the mass execution of Jews as a problem intrinsic to Germany. This was a major question that was asked after World War Two, and one of the major psychological experiments that explored the phenomenon of following orders, was carried out by the psychologist, Milgram. The experiment, although harrowing, seems to show under certain conditions, humans are likely to continue hurting others to appease the orders of an authority figure. This transcends all cultures.

The political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, also wrote about this phenomenon. In her seminal book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she discusses the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a man responsible for making sure the trains ran on time to send Jews to the concentration camps. Arendt seems to think that the trial, the new nation of Israel’s first major trial, was something of a show trial, and Eichmann was being treated as though he was on the same footing as Hitler or Himmler. The accountability of Eichmann can be debated, but this case does raise a number of questions, notably, where is the evil and how do you rank it? The banality of evil is an interesting discussion.

The second point that really stuck with me after reading these memoirs, is Marie’s attitude to being raped by a Soviet soldier. The Soviets liberated Berlin in 1945, and it has been widely documented that the Soviets raped many women during this ‘liberation’. Marie doesn’t devote much time to discussing it, other than to say, “I slept in the attic, where I was visited that night by a sturdy, friendly character called Ivan Dedoberez. I didn’t mind it too much.” She goes on to say that afterwards he wrote a note in pencil and left it on her door stating that she was his fiancee. This meant all other Soviet soldiers left her alone.

It is very hard to fathom and reconcile this attitude. Clearly, Marie had had to survive, often under excruciatingly dire circumstances, for many years, and so it’s almost like she had convinced herself that it was just another awful thing to endure as she continues to be a survivor. This is a point that Jane Garvey, a BBC Radio 4 presenter for Women’s Hour, discusses with Marie’s son, Hermann. Hermann seems to have the view that this was just one more thing she had to go through to survive, almost to say given everything else, what was one rape? Clearly, one rape is too much rape, and at this point in her story the turmoil of what Marie had been enduring for years just blows the mind.