Psychopathic (alt: sociopathic) personalities are capable of the most senseless, remorseless, use and abuse of others. But what is it about them that makes such seemingly heartless behavior possible? In a follow up to last week’s primer on the topic of psychopathy (see: What is a Psychopath?), we’ll take a serious stab at answering this most perplexing question. In the process, you’re likely to learn some highly disturbing things about what makes psychopaths the dangerous persons they are.
At the core of the psychopath’s ability to wantonly injure others without remorse is their impaired capacity for empathy. In some cases, because of the unique way their brains are “wired,” they simply lack any ability to feel emotionally connected to other human beings in the manner in which most of us can. There are cases where psychopaths actually appear to have the capacity to feel, and to have a seemingly normal capacity for affection for others. But in these rare cases, they also appear to have an ability most of us don’t: the capacity to “compartmentalize” (i.e., wall-off or completely disconnect) at will any emotional connection to their actions, which enables them to engage in the most heinous acts without pangs of guilt, regret, or remorse. Most of us can’t simply turn off our human sensitivities. While we might utilize certain “defense mechanism” to assuage a certain amount of guilt when we commit a minor transgression, we can’t simply divorce ourselves of all emotion and caring. But some psychopaths can. So, psychopaths essentially come in two varieties: those who have no empathy, care, or conscience in the first place, or those who can simply turn off as easy as a light switch any emotion that might hold them back from doing an unspeakable thing.
Like many of you, I was quite interested in Casey Anthony trial and its outcome. After all, a sweet and innocent life was not only ended far too early, but also discarded in a bag much like a piece of garbage. This tragedy is revolting in so many ways for anyone with normal human sensitivity. But I was not among those who wanted to string up the jury for acquitting the child’s accused murderer. In fact, these conscientious and noble folks did just as they’re supposed to do: weigh the evidence, not allow themselves to be swayed by the horrible nature of the circumstances surrounding the crime, make the state prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of precisely what they assert, and acquit if the state doesn’t meet their burden. And the purpose of this article is not to find fault with our admittedly imperfect justice system or to criticize the wisdom of the prosecution’s handling of the case. Rather, the purpose of this article is to possibly shed some light on the elephant in the room that nobody’s really been talking much about: why so many people are outraged at the end result of the tragedy and trial.
Outrage is the rightful and distinctly human response when it is learned that the mother of a child she knows is dead is out getting tattooed, partying, and living “la bella vita” like nothing ever happened. Any normal, rational person wants to know how someone – anyone – can do that. And although we were given various explanations: “She never looked for the child or acted worried because she already knew the child was dead” or “As a result of years of sexual abuse, she learned to lie,” nothing really explains the emotion that would be congruent in any normal mother with any normal sense of bonding to a child being so absent as it apparently was in this case. And even the explanations offered by some of the armchair theorizing professionals (e.g., “She was in deep denial, a typical defense of someone with serious psychological wounding in her past”) prove without much foundation once you look a little closer at the facts. The poor jury in this horrendous case never got any sensible explanation (with the possible exception of some of the weak yet remotely plausible few offered by the defense about the atypical reactions some people can have to trauma) for what is still so incomprehensible. Worse yet, they would have found it hard, if not impossible to buy the harshest but most plausible explanation when all the facts are considered: There are persons on this planet that are very, very different from most human beings. Although they often have high awareness about the human condition and can “mimic” normal emotions and behavior, they are devoid of the kinds of feelings and kind of conscience with which most of us are familiar. The either have no emotional connection to the rest of us, or they have an uncanny ability to switch off any human-like concern when they want to do something obnoxiously self-serving that might easily inflict huge damage on someone else. Sometimes they can be so malignantly narcissistic that they truly see themselves as superior to us hapless chaps who have scruples, and at other times they can be almost insanely predatory in their victimization of those whom because they view as inferior, they also perceive as rightful prey. Even more insidiously, they can even have feelings for their own flesh and blood but still be able to completely detach themselves from those feelings when they’ve decided that that innocent life they once nourished has become too much of a burden. But accepting such a notion can shake almost anyone to their foundation. It’s so hard to believe, we’re tempted to believe almost anything else.
In recent years, some popular books such a Without Conscience and The Sociopath Next Door have raised public awareness about psychopathy. But well before then, In Sheep’s Clothing made the point – emphasized later in Character Disturbance – that a continuum exists of the most seriously disturbed characters among us and that none of the traditional assumptions about what make these folks the way they are holds much merit anymore. In addition, in Character Disturbance, I argue that even more insidious than the lack of conscience and empathy that characterizes most psychopaths, is the ability of some to compartmentalize emotion. It’s how some of these deeply disturbed characters are able to seem so normal when they first hook up with folks in relationships. They look like they can feel, hurt, and empathize just like anyone else. What a shock it is (sometimes a deadly one) when it becomes apparent how easily they can switch off any caring and how capable they are of unspeakable deeds.
In the film based on the famous book by Truman Capote, there is a scene in which one of the intruders into a family’s home recognizes that one of his elderly, frail, intended victims is cold and shivering. He kindly escorts the woman to her favorite rocking chair, puts a shawl around her shoulders, and then blows her away “In Cold Blood.” I guess you could say that in some way he felt for the woman. But he felt nothing at all when he needed to be as cold as steel. If you don’t get anything else about these heartless predators, please understand this point. It literally could save your life.