A relative lack of care and concern for others lies at the heart of most character disturbance. And in the case of the most severe character pathology, psychopathy, deficits in empathy rise to an all-too-troubling extreme. We still have a lot to learn about empathy, the natural capacities that have to be present for it to be cultivated, the process by which most of us acquire it, and the the socio-cultural factors that promote vs. impeed empathy development. But without a doubt, forging a healthy conscience and a sound character depends largely on the extent to which we come by a sense of care and concern for the welfare of others. So perhaps there’s no more urgent question needing answering in our age of more rampant character disturbance than how we can better foster empathy development in our children.
Now, there’s a lot of information available these days about psychopathy (for more on the topic see the articles (Psychopathy and Sociopathy and Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy). And some studies have shown that the brains of psychopaths operate differently from normal brains – even evidencing some structural and neuronal networking differences. Moreover, we’ve long known from studies of identical twins reared apart that there’s at least a genetic predisposition to psychopathy (the concordance rate is less than 100 percent, so a strictly genetic basis can’t be established), But when all the rest of the evidence is taken into consideration, we can’t really say that people are simply born with or without the capacity for empathy (for more on this topic see the article: Is Psychopathy Genetic?. Rather, it’s more likely that while constitutional factors play a major role (in some cases a greater role than others) environmental factors most likely influence the extent to which all of us – even a person with diminished empathy capacity – develop the ability to care about others.
As I’ve stated many times before and illustrate in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing, character disturbance exists along a continuum (see also: Character Disturbance Exists along a Continuum). There are plenty of disturbed characters who fall short of being full-blown psychopaths (for more on this topic, see the article: Psychopathy and Character Disturbance: Looking Beyond the Hype Toward the Greater Problem and the Series on the Character Disturbance Continuum). But at their core, all character-impaired individuals are to some degree empathy deficient, which is what impairs their conscience formation and allows them to do the hurtful things they do.
Back in June of last year I posted an article on the bizarre case of two preteen girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who stabbed a school acquaintance 19 times with intent to kill her (see: A Case of Arrested Empathy Development?). The girls perpetrated the attack purportedly to gain the favor of a mysterious internet legend called “Slenderman.” The girls are now a year older as they prepare to go to before a judge later this month who will determine whether they should be regarded as adults in the legal system or as juveniles. Treating them as adults would enable the state to maintain jurisdiction over them for a longer period of time and mandate continued professional intervention. But it also would pave the way for them to receive prison sentences for their crime. While the girls appear to have matured to a degre, and some advocates argue that they can’t rightfully held to the same standards as individuals with whose brains are more fully developed, the judge presiding in the case is concerned that the girls still show some disturbing signs of a lack of empathy and appropriate care and concern for the nature of their acts, although by all accounts they have demonstrated an improvement over the attitudes they displayed when first arrested for their crime. At that time the apparent shallowness of their emotion horrified those all around them. Andvin the article referenced above I commented on what I found to be the most chilling aspect of the case (Note: the quote is edited for ease of reading):
The perpetrators of this heinous crime made statements that provide some insight into the remarkable lack of empathy involved in their crime. One reportedly remarked how interesting she found it to have no real feelings about stabbing her victim other than the excitement associated with actually engaging in the act. She also described carrying out the attack as surprisingly “easy.”
Unfortunately, there have been several other instances of youngsters engaging in heartless, even sadistic behavior, which begs the question of whether they had any degree of empathy or empathy capacity. In the current series of articles, we’ll be taking a look at what we know about empathy and its development. Fortunately, individuals who appear born devoid of the capacity to care are relatively rare. But there are far too many among us who either have a diminished empathy capacity or an uncanny ability to compartmentalize or shut off their emotions when they want to use or abuse others. And these individuals appear to be capable of commiting the most unthinkable acts with no compunction or remorse. So we simply have to achieve a better understanding of the factors that might contribute to weak empathy development if we’re going to successfully address our growing character-related problems. And for this series, I will sincerely appreciate input from the commentators about their experiences with the empathy-impaired.
This week’s Character Matters will again be live, so I invite you not only to tune in at 7 pm Eastern time but also to join the conversation.
Also, I know many of you have been patiently waiting for more information on a webinar planned for this fall. The reason more information hasn’t yet been posted is that I’ve been working with a national seminar company to not only do a series of workshops over the next two years but also turn some of the recordings of those workshops into webinars (with me live-monitoring and available to answer questions from participants). Details still haven’t been worked out but as soon as they are, I’ll be posting information. And if it so happens that this arrangement either doesn’t work out or doesn’t appear to properly suit the need, I’ll have information about a free-standing webinar hosted through Go To Meeting.