Blame the Amygdala

The neuroscience of crime and violent behavior

Training the Mind to Devalue the Lives of Others

Sociopathy and cognitive empathy


Wherever we find crimes against humanity, there is a good chance we will find ideology. And I don’t mean ideology to suggest extremism, just simply the presence of ideas that are used to justify or explain the crime. Whether the crime was intentional, whether it was because of one or many perpetrators, or whether it was accidental, ideas (which may have been present before the crime) will always quickly follow the crime in order to dampen the conscience.

To be sure, a conscience does have to be present in order for it to be dampened. The clinical psychopaths among us are not going to suffer a crisis of conscience should their behavior threaten the livelihood of others. Ideas may be tossed around in a courtroom in defense of their actions (prison is still an inconvenience for a psychopath), but they will not be needed to stop their mind from spinning out of control due to the powerful rehabilitative and sometimes crippling actions of a conscience.

There can be little doubt that our capacity for empathy plays a role in our conscience, after all, it is our empathy that truly allows us to experience the drive to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated (the Golden Rule). It is truly an admirable state of humanity that one can witness the pain of another and then feel the drive and motivation to end that pain, although this in itself could become part of an ideology that results in the systematic murder of many people to fulfill the goal of ending pain and suffering. And there is also the small caveat of ‘feeling’ another person’s pain with the desire of inflicting more pain, perhaps for the sadistic desire of torture or the cockeyed belief of using pain to gain information.

It is widely acknowledged that there is a dual component to empathy; emotional and cognitive. Emotional empathy represents our strong feelings when we recreate the emotional experiences of others, and cognitive is when we use our reason to understand what somebody must be feeling. These two work together to create our empathic experience, and this experience is the gateway to how we will perceive ourselves after witnessing or thinking about an emotionally salient event. If we are directly involved in the event our conscience is going to want to weigh-in on how to feel, and if we cherish our peace of mind, we have to successfully navigate through our empathic experience of the event and find personal vindication.

The only problem is we can cheat.

As our cognitive empathy is based upon ideas – such as somebody else said they’d call an ambulanceeverybody’s doing itI would’ve caused an accident if I’d have stoppedthey were faking so they could rob me – not only can we retrieve our actual memory of events, but we can use our imagination to interpret those events. It doesn’t matter how objectively true or valid these ideas are as far as our conscience is concerned, it is just that we believe them. And nothing validates an idea like other supporting ideas or the agreement of the idea by those we love and/or trust. When the conscience comes knocking, it is the cognitive component of our empathy that can send it on its way. And if certain ideas are heralded as true before an event, particularly a criminal event, such as women are fundamentally different and so need to be treated differently, or they would have killed me if I hadn’t acted, then the inhibitive impact of a conscience before a criminal event and its crippling affect after an event, won’t even be an issue and provides free license to aggressors.

Psychopath experts Robert Hare and Paul Babiak discuss the meaning of sociopath in their book Snakes in Suits. They define it as a person who has a sense morality (unlike a psychopath), but the morality comes from a sub-culture. These people have a sense of right and wrong, but their worldview morally permits them to behave in ways that are harmful to others. Such a sub-culture could be Anti-Semitism or White Supremacy, or any set of beliefs that devalues the lives others (homophobia, misogyny, racism, ageism, etc.). Sometimes the belief systems aren’t even as extreme as we might think – nationalism, patriotism, and religion have all been used to devalue the lives of others. Beliefs that some of us cherish, such as love of country and love of God, even though seemingly innocuous and noble, could easily be borrowed by new ideas that support devaluing the life of others (such as those who don’t share those beliefs), all to appease our actions and deflect our conscience. The content or nature of the ideas doesn’t matter. If they’re used to devalue life, we’re talking sociopathy.

Of course, somebody who systematically devalues the life of others would not view this as devaluing (how can you devalue something that has no value to begin with?).  Those who recognize and feel that they devalued the life of others can make amends and adjust their future behavior, and this can be for something simple, such as stealing somebody’s pen, to denying a person their basic human rights. In the latter case, if those human rights aren’t even recognized due to a person’s ideology (the guiding force behind cognitive empathy), an aggressor has a powerful weapon to bat away the conscience and perpetuate harmful behavior.

 

Additional Reading

Hare, R.D.; Babiak, P. (2007) Snakes in Suits, Harper Business, New York

Pemment, J. (2013) Psychopathy versus Sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(5), 458-461

Jack Pemment is a recent neuroscience graduate from the University of Mississippi. He explores the neurobiology of criminal behavior and personality disorders.

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