I’ve been posting on the important role empathy (or the lack thereof) plays in character disturbance (see also: Empathy and Character Disturbance and Empathy and Character Disturbance – Pt 2: Nurturing Empathy). And as I’ve written about in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome and discussed in several articles (see: What is a Psychopath, Predators Among Us: The Psychopaths, and What Psychopaths Can Do That Everyone Else Can’t) psychopaths are the most empathy-impaired individuals among us. They are the heartless predators that either lack the capacity to care about others or have the uncanny ability to mentally wall-off (i.e. “compartmentalize”) any care or concern they might have when they want to victimize. As the great researcher on the topic, Robert Hare, has said, this makes psychopaths capable of the most “callous, senseless, and remosrseless” use, abuse, and exploitation of others.
We know that empathy capacity varies in human beings. But we also know that the mere capacity for empathy does not make a socially conscientious human being. Empathy must be nurtured. That’s often a very challenging task for individuals who lie somewhere on the character disturbance spectrum (for more on this topic see: Character Disturbance Exists along a Continuum). And there’s mounting evidence that it’s most likely an impossible task for those at the extreme end of the spectrum.
Times were when empathy training was a required component of most treatment programs for sexual offenders and predators. But the evidence indicated that providing such training had no effect on recidivism rates. Moreover, some evidence emerged that teaching psychopathic predators about empathy only gave them increased knowledge about the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of others, which, in turn, they were prone to use to become even more adept predators.
Now there are a lot of misconceptions about just how hard-wired psychopaths are for heartlessness. We know their adult brains are different from normal brains (even different from the brains of antisocial and sociopathic individuals who aren’t psychopaths) both structurally to some degree and in inter-neuronal communication patterns. But the human brain is a remarkably plastic organ. Environmental shaping influences and learning patterns greatly influence both its structural development and its inter-neuron communication network development. So the real challenge for both clinicians and researchers is to come up with ways to more reliably assess at the earliest stages of development when empathy capacity is lacking in a person as well as what learning strategies might be the most effective in enhancing empathy capacity.
This week’s Character Matters program will be a pre-recorded program as I will be taking a much-needed break for a week. But we’ll be back live on October 11 at 7 pm ET (4pm PT) so I can take your calls then. Information about the Cross-Country Seminar venues and the fall webinar will be posted as soon as the details are known, and again, I apologize for the delay in finalizing these details.