Psychopathy - Distorting a complex problem.

From the train tracks of Auschwitz to the crawl space of John Wayne Gacy, human beings are capable of committing the most terrible of deeds. As a society, we have a profound fascination with the worst of those amongst us; buses full of tourists pull up in the killing fields of Cambodia, whilst books on serial killers fly off the shelves. What seems to intrigue us the most is how normal the perpetrators of these acts can appear. There is something profoundly galling about the idea of a Nazi returning home and hugging his children, or about Josef Fritzl holidaying with his family in Thailand. For that brief second, in their most mundane moments, we are struck by the impossible notion that they are just like us. Pretty much without exception we believe that we are good people, if sometimes momentarily misunderstood. To better draw the line between ourselves and those capable of the most depraved crimes we imagine them to be almost subhuman, filled with an ‘evil’ of some kind. We are able to forget that they tend to view themselves as good and fair and humane just as we do.

Contemporary psychologists like Simon Baron-Cohen have realized how the concept of evil can only arise from cyclical thinking; evil acts are performed by evil people, so-called because they perform evil acts. As a term, it has no explanatory power and the discussion ends there. Instead, Baron-Cohen argues that these people are ‘psychopaths’, capable of understanding the feelings of others but with lower affective empathy, totally unmoved by the plight of those they hurt. He contrasts these people with autistic children who are unable to conceptualize the internal lives of others, but distressed when they are able to tell that another person is in pain. The idea that psychopaths are present and amongst us, riding the subway and eating at our favorite restaurants whilst all the while able to remorselessly kill us, fire us from our jobs or make our lives miserable is very seductive. It has spawned a vast number of books that attempt to characterize their ‘wisdom’ or ‘test’ for this supposed disease. Seemingly more persuasively, MRI studies have now been published claiming to show functional differences in the brains of psychopaths. It would appear that we can finally shed the almost religious concept of evil without replacing the belief that these people are fundamentally different to us.

 As seductive and popular as the idea has been, I can’t help but find it profoundly unconvincing. Aside from being a medicalization of that same, tired idea of evil, it falls short of truly understanding the very nature of heinous crimes. Despite being in common usage for years, the psychiatrist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual does not include psychopathy as a diagnosis. The World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association and countless other professional bodies have also chosen to avoid the term. Instead of the very real risk of branding people suffering from an often tormenting mental health condition with an emotionally loaded stigmata, they tend to use diagnoses like ‘antisocial personality disorder’. Far from being a useful description, ‘psychopath’ conjures up the perfect image of someone you wouldn’t be desperate to help, someone as inhuman as those previously branded evil.

 The other component to psychopathy that makes it so desirable and so very inadequate is its ability to boil down entire groups of very different people doing very different things into one damnable population. The Wall Street banker who fires staff without a thought for their families, the former partner who made your life miserable and the architects of genocide can all have something in common. As absurd as that might seem, it allows us to preserve the validity of our own choices without having to consider the complex perspectives of those that we demonize. Facing them as real people, with real problems, gives us the chilling sense that we could be capable of the same.

 As perhaps the most singularly terrible episode in human history, the Holocaust has posed a challenge for psychologists for decades. How can so many thousands of supposedly empathetic, social animals perpetrate such cruelty against their fellow citizens? Political theorist Hannah Arendt offers insight where others fell short. Her perception of the genocide is as a chain of human events, from the policemen rounding up ghetto residents to the train driver and the signalman all the way down to the finality of a man lifting a hatch and dropping in a canister of Zyklon B. No one individual performs any act that can be characterized as anything more than mundane, and yet, together the acts combine to create tragedy. In an attempt to understand the minds of the guards at the death camps, Stanley Milgram performed the famous experiments at Yale where he revealed that ordinary volunteers would readily give supposedly lethal shocks to an unseen person, particularly if they were told they would not be held to account. It is doubtful that anyone here can be considered a psychopath. It seems more accurate that they committed the all too human error of suspending judgement and getting swallowed by cultural and societal norms.

 If this is convincing for heinous crimes involving many, what then of those performed alone? The remorseless killer appears to operate in that same way. For a range of reasons, during development they have been forced to suspend compassion and dehumanize those around them. Once your victims are no longer people but faceless entities, no amount of suffering can sway you and no act is too terrible. Some subsets of these people may indeed have neurological hallmarks, but they deserve our compassion and our unrelenting desire to understand and heal, not our fear and disgust.

 Psychopathy, as a concept, is therefore rather dangerous. It seduces us into the belief that people who do really terrible things do so for motivations we would never be capable of sustaining. It puts us beyond the pale of ever being able to do the same and reduces the scrutiny that we apply to our own actions. It prevents us from always bearing in mind that there is indeed evil in the world, but the people who commit it are just like you and me.

Continue the discussion with @GabrielCSGavin


Arendt, Hannah "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil", Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon "Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness", Penguin.

About the Author

Gabriel C. S. Gavin

Gabriel Gavin is a neuroscientist at University College London (UCL) working on neuronal networks.

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