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Are You a Psychopath? Two new books on the absence of empathy


This is neat little article in the New York Times about two new books about the absence of empathy. The first, by Jon Ronson, is a book about psychopaths, whom, he points out, are often found in prison and in corporate boardrooms, the other, by a Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen called The Science of Evil, is an attempt to explain, in effect, the holocaust and similar human atrocities as failures of empathy, which they surely are.

So what is a psychopath:

“If you aren’t sure whether you are a psychopath, Ronson can help. He lists all the items on the standard diagnostic checklist, developed by the psychologist Robert Hare. You can score yourself on traits like “glibness/superficial charm,” “lack of remorse or guilt,” “promiscuous sexual behavior” and 17 other traits. As one psychologist tells Ronson, if you are bothered at the thought of scoring high, then don’t worry. You’re not a psychopath.”

There are lots of different reasons why we lack empathy. It can be circumstantial. As has been proved, you can take a perfectly lovely person and put them in  brutal environment, like a gulag, or university administration, and after having subjected them to sufficiently high rates of abuse and humiliation, their capacity for empathy with others will erode. Not always, but often. People who have borderline-personality disorders and other narcissistic personality disorders also can lack empathy, so self-preoccupied with themselves, or unable to govern the lability of their own emotions, that other people don’t matter very much to them. I have dated people like that.

No, a psychopath is a different kind of fish. They can fake empathy, which is  what makes them tricky. They are con artists, deceivers, manipulators, can be highly intelligent and effective. They know the difference between right and wrong, but they don’t care. It doesn’t apply to them. Science suggests that this is in fact a matter of brain function and chemistry, a deficiency in the development of certain areas of the brain. They learn to mimic feelings as a way of getting along, but they don’t seem to actually feel them.

So are you a psychopath? Well, as noted above, if you care one way or the other, than the answer is no.

Categories: General
Alistair Highet