Tuesday, September 12, 2017



A good question to ask.  And a problem question.  The problem is one of definition.  But we can have a go at it.

If we were asking 'what is blue?', then I might be able to point at blue things until you twig that I am labelling something that is direct to your experience.  If you can see colour, then you are likely to have an appreciation of what I am labelling.

If we were asking 'what is a car?', then I might be able to point to those things with four wheels that are usually sold as cars.  You will be so familiar with your own use of the concept, that you will have little trouble appreciating what the label 'car' refers to.

But if we are asking 'what is a psychopath?', we immediately have a problem.  We are not talking about something you experience every day.  And we are not talking about something which most people are used to identifying and living with.  What I am saying is, the normal routes to learning a word - experience and usage - are not really available to us.


Firstly, the word 'psychopath' still does not have a steady definition among professionals.  There are, however, a few key characteristics which are frequently cited:

  1. Lack of empathy
  2. Selfishness
  3. Antisocial behaviour


  1. Regarding lack of empathy, there seems to be confusion as to whether a 'psychopath' would simply not have the ability to empathise with others; or whether, alternatively, a 'psychopath' can empathise perfectly well, but just chooses not to be influenced by empathy.  This capacity/choice debate has yet to be resolved.  It is important, because, if it is a matter of choice, then so-called 'psychopaths' would not need to be treated any differently for legal purposes.  They are just 'normal' people making an 'abnormally extreme' choice not to be influenced by empathy.
  2. Regarding selfishness, there is a philosophical problem.  It is perfectly possible to argue that all humans are selfish, directly or indirectly.  So egotism, in itself, may not end up being definitive in terms of what a 'psychopath' is.
  3. Finally, regarding antisocial behaviour, there is a political question.  When we say 'antisocial', we usually mean someone's behaviour is disturbing because it departs from social consensus.  For example, we consider unorganised fighting antisocial, but reward Olympic fighters with gold medals, because they are doing tidy, organised, socially-approved fighting.

These are all important questions, because without resolving them, we are stuck not being able to tell the difference between a so-called psychopath, and a 'normal' person who makes an unusual choice (a) not to be influenced by empathy, (b) not to bother disguising their selfishness, and (c) not to indulge in socially-approved behaviour.


Some have attempted to find parts of the brain which, when damaged or inhibited, increase one of the three above tendencies.  In particular, a lack of empathic response (and a lack of fear response) has been found in those preselected as showing psychopathic traits.  The circularity of this should be obvious: if you select someone for their traits, it is hardly surprising if their brain processing reflects those traits.  It is about as unsurprising as discovering that those who jump less high usually have inhibited leg processing.


An interesting aspect of the above brain scan research, is the potential linking together of lack of empathy, and lack of fear.  If I am a soldier in battle, I may choose to limit the resources I expend on empathising with the enemy.  I may also choose to limit resources expended on my fear response.  The relationship between the two may be mutual: reduced empathy may reduce fear; and reduced fear may reduce empathy.

It may have occurred to you that this is not the only possible pairing.  For example, some soldiers may retain sufficient empathy to anticipate enemy movements, and sufficient fear to motivate self-protection.  The no-empathy, no-fear pairing is only one strategic option.  My guess is that the single-minded focus on one, rather cartoon, definition of 'psychopath' will give way to a more subtle, multi-faceted appreciation of the different ways that empathy and fear can interact.

But I wonder whether the traditional view of the 'psychopath' will stray towards suggesting a simplistic developmental pathway where, for whatever reason, a child has become unable or unwilling to extend empathy, AND has become unable or unwilling to feel fear.  The definition may tighten itself up in this way, and then find a story about child development that corresponds.  Whether anything new arises by congregating such a selective story around the word 'psychopath', is a matter of debate.


So where are we?

Many people lack empathy, are selfish, and do antisocial things.

The word 'psychopath' is an attempt to label certain people as extremely, and possible irretrievably, unempathic, selfish, and behaviourally antisocial.

The problem in the plot will be our inability to tell the difference between (a) those who CHOOSE to divorce themselves from the interests of others, and (b) those who are COMPELLED THROUGH INCAPACITY to divorce themselves from the interests of others.

I suspect that polite society has developed a wish to label a set of people as (b), as deviant monsters, unable to share. It will carry on refining its definition of psychopath, until TV channels and pundits have their industry sewn up.

I would just ask one final question: are you so sure you can tell the difference between (a) law-abiding citizens who endanger a whole world with consumption, pollution and war, and (b) individuals who endanger others with their selfishness.  Remind me, which ones are the psychopaths?