A Philosopher's Blog

Spotting Psychopaths

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2011
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Seeing Jon Ronson’s interview on The Daily Show got me thinking about psychopaths. I did not buy his book, so I will not comment on it. Rather, I’ll say a bit about spotting psychopaths from a philosophical perspective.

First, a bit about psychopaths. According to the standard view, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self control.

In terms of specific qualities  psychopaths lack, these include shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. These qualities tend to lead  psychopaths to rationalize, deny, or shift the blame for the harm done to others. Because of a lack of empathy, psychopaths are prone to act in ways that are tactless, lacking in sensitivity, and express contempt for others.

Psychopaths are supposed to behave in ways that are impulsive and irresponsible. This might be because they are taken to fail to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a  general defect in that it applies to the consequences for others as well as for themselves This reduced ability to properly assess the risks of being doubted, caught, or punished no doubt has a significant impact on their behavior (and their chances of being exposed).

Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as  predators that prey on  their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.”

Given these behavior traits, it might be wondered how psychopaths are able to avoid detection long enough to actually engage in such behavior. After all, people tend to be on guard against such treatment.The answer is easy enough. First, psychopaths often seem charming. Since they seem to tend to lack a commitment to truth, they are willing and able to say whatever they believe will achieve their goals. Second, they are often adept at using intimidation and manipulation to get what they want. Third, they are often skilled mimics and are able to pass themselves off as normal people.

It is estimated that 1% of the general population is made up of psychopaths. The prison populations are supposed to contain a larger percentage (which would hardly be surprising) and the corporate world is supposed to have an above normal percentage of psychopaths. However, these numbers are not solidly established.

One obvious problem facing anyone attempting to determine the number of psychopaths is that they will tend to do their best to hide their true nature. After all, the intelligent psychopaths will generally get that they are not like other people and that normal people will tend to react negatively to them. The same holds true in attempts to determine whether or not a specific person is a psychopath or not. In many ways, the psychopath is like Glaucon’s unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story: he is a person who wants to do what he wants without regard to others, but needs to avoid being recognized for what he is.

As noted above, psychopaths are characterized as possessing traits that would tend to result in their exposure. As noted above, psychopaths are characterized by having poor impulse control, having difficulty with behaving responsibly, and a poor capacity for assessing consequences. Their deficiency in regard to empathy also probably  makes it more difficult for them to blend in properly.These could be called “exposure traits” in that they tend to expose the psychopath to others.

One rather interesting point to consider is whether or not these exposure traits are actually traits that are essential components of being a psychopath. After all, they might merely be traits possessed by the psychopaths that have been exposed. To advance this discussion, I will head into the territory of science fiction.

In science fiction, one interesting problem is the thing problem. This problem gets its name from Carpenter’s classic horror film The Thing (which is based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The thing is an inimical alien that can almost flawlessly imitate any living thing it has consumed. In the case of the movie, the humans had to sort out who was a human and who was a thing. In the case of psychopaths, the challenge is to distinguish between normal humans and psychopaths. In the movie, a test is devised: each part of a thing is its own creature and will try to survive, even if that means exposure. So, sticking a hot wire into a blood (or thing juice) sample will reveal whether the person is human or thing: if the “blood” squeals and tries to escape, the donor is a thing.

This test will, of course, expose any thing. Or, more accurately, expose any  thing that acts as expected. If a thing was, contrary to the way things are supposed to be,  able to suppress the survival response of one of its parts, it would pass the test and remain undetected. As such, any exposed thing would be a thing that could not do this, and this could lead the humans to believe that things cannot do this. At least until the things that could finished them off.

If you prefer machines or replicants to things, this situation can also be presented in terms borrowed from Phillip K. Dick’s works. In Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) there are replicants that can easily pass for humans, with one exception: they cannot pass the Voight-Kampff Test because they do not have the time to develop the responses of a normal human. The similarity of the Hare checklist is obvious. Of course, the test only works on replicants that cannot mimic humans enough to pass the test. A replicant that could give the right responses would pass as human.

Dick’s short story “Second Variety” also presented human-like machines, the claws. These machines were made for a world war and eventually broke free of human control, developing machines that could pass as humans. Unlike the replicants, the claws were always intent on killing humans-thus necessitating a means to tell them apart.  The early models were easily recognized as being non-humans. Unfortunately for the humans in the story, the only way they could tell the most advanced models  from humans was by seeing multiple claws of the same variety together. Otherwise, they easily passed as humans right up until the point they started killing.

It seems worth considering that the same might apply to psychopaths. To be specific, normal people can catch the psychopaths that are poor mimics, have poor impulse control, have difficulty with behaving responsibly, and  possess a poor capacity for assessing consequences. However, the psychopaths that are better mimics, have better impulse control, can act responsibly, and can assess consequences would be far more difficult to spot. Such psychopaths could easily pass as normal humans, much like Glaucon’s unjust man is able to conceal his true nature.  As such, perhaps the experts think that these specific traits are part of what it is to be a psychopath because these traits are possessed by the psychopaths they have caught. However, as with the more advanced claws, perhaps the most dangerous psychopaths are eluding detection. At least until it is too late.

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10 Responses

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  1. A J MacDonald Jr said, on May 19, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Great essay!

  2. FRE said, on May 19, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Would some of the people in this article be considered psychopaths?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/us/20mine.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp

  3. T. J. Babson said, on May 19, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Can dogs spot psychopaths?

  4. […] Spotting Psychopaths (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  5. zhawq said, on July 27, 2011 at 2:42 am

    You mention some good examples that represent equivalent ideas to those we see put forth about the differences between psychopaths and neurotypical (normal) people. There’re a few I haven’t read, but I’ll make sure to do so now that I know about them.

    Some have suggested we start testing and fMRI scanning people as early as possible as a default procedure in any society. Some even theorize pre-birth scans to determine “defects” (though I wonder if such a thing is possible, since most of the brain hasn’t developed at that point, so how to determine if f.x. a foetus has an abnormally small amygdala or has poor startle responses, i.e.).

    As for the philosophical aspect of the presence of psychopathy in the human species, I think there’s a lot to be said. I address some of the issues at my website Psychopathic Writings. You’re very welcome to comment.

    Thank you for bringing up some good ideas!… ‘^L^,

  6. […] the Voight-Kampff Test is fictional, there is a somewhat similar test in the real world. This test, designed by Robert Hare, is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This is intended to provide […]

  7. […] the Voight-Kampff Test is fictional, there is a somewhat similar test in the real world. This test, designed by Robert Hare, is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This is intended to provide […]


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