At the Heart of the Psychopath Are Spite and Contempt

New research shows the psychopath’s emotions are driven by spite and contempt.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

One of the key features that people associate with psychopathy is an inability to experience emotions. Popular depictions of psychopaths in television shows and movies show them to be cold-hearted and ruthless, seeking to execute their own darkly conceived plans for no other purpose than to create mayhem. Perhaps you have a supervisor or relative whom you regard as tending toward the psychopathic. Mean-spirited and manipulative, this person will step on anyone who gets in his or her way. Such individuals will cheat and lie to make sure that they get the outcomes they want, no matter who they hurt. If they should happen to be caught in the act, they show no remorse whatsoever, and may even laugh with scorn at those whom they harmed.

According to Tilburg University (the Netherlands) psychologist Carlo Garofalo and colleagues (2019), the old view that psychopaths couldn’t experience emotions is shifting to a more nuanced approach in which they’re seen as having no trouble feeling anger, particularly directed at other people. As they observe, “the experience and expression of anger . . . are intimately connected to the aggression shown by psychopathic individuals” (p. 174). From a psychodynamic point of view, furthermore, the negative emotions shown by psychopaths also include contempt toward others, which allows them to experience pleasure and gratification (“contemptuous delight”). Consider that relative of yours whom you believe has psychopathic qualities. Perhaps he regales anyone who will listen with stories of how he “screwed over” the “sucker” who paid too much for the car he sold him. Your boss might, similarly, brag about having cheated the company by filing false reports for last month’s profits, laughing at how she pulled one over on the auditing department.

Although people high in psychopathy are often regarded as unable to experience emotions involving other people, then, contempt does have an interpersonal component. Similarly, spite has an interpersonal component in that it involves taking pleasure out of harming other people, even if this means losing something yourself. As Garofalo et al. state, “contempt is related to an action tendency to distance oneself from others, whereas spite is related to an action tendency to approach others to inflict harm on them” (p. 174). Instead of lacking the ability to experience emotions, both positive and negative, the Dutch author and his colleagues believe that psychopaths can experience positive emotions associated with having done something bad, especially if it involves something that hurts another person. This approach would then help explain the kinds of vindictive behaviors that psychopaths engage in, especially those with antisocial and impulsive tendencies.

To examine the hypothesis that psychopathy would be related to the emotions of contempt and spite, the research team administered a set of questionnaires to 800 participants drawn from undergraduate populations and from the surrounding university community. Garofalo et al. measured psychopathy with standard self-report scales. To measure contempt, they asked participants to complete a scale with items such as: “Feeling disdain for others comes naturally to me.” Participants also rated their experience of anger and hostility in their daily lives as well as other negative emotions that included fear, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, depression, and sadness. They also rated their abilities to regulate their emotions and their attitudes toward anger as negative or positive. In a prior study using data already available to the research team, psychopathy’s relationship with spite was also assessed with items such as: “Part of me enjoys seeing people I do not like fail even if their failure hurts me in some way.”

Overall, the correlational analyses supported the predictions that people high in psychopathy would also score high on measures of shame and contempt, even when controlling for other negative emotions and the ability to regulate emotional reactions. As the authors concluded, “far from being devoid of emotions, individuals with high levels of psychopathy may experience other-directed negative emotions such as spitefulness and contempt more often and more intensely than other individuals” (p. 180). There’s no emotional deficit in the psychopath’s makeup; if anything, there are too many of these negative emotions that permeate their existence and their desire to cause harm to others.

Even worse, as the Dutch research team points out, people high in psychopathy have a strong dose of narcissistic entitlement that leads them to see themselves as superior to others, justifying their hurtful actions. That relative who’s so proud of taking advantage of the person who bought his car is operating, from this perspective, from the viewpoint that anyone who is so easily fooled deserves being tricked; the same logic applies to the behavior of the psychopathic boss. These individuals like humiliating others for the purpose of maintaining their own supposed sense of superiority. A strong dose of sadism also fits into the formula, given the pleasure they derive from dominating others and watching them suffer.

Understanding the emotional experiences of people high in psychopathy can also serve as a window into their motivational systems. The pleasure they experience from watching others suffer will lead them to become predators, even if to do so means they will lose out on the opportunity to enjoy relationships marked by civility and respect. In the process, they can also avoid having to look inward and see where their own flaws might be. Garofalo et al. propose that “the devaluation of others may also enhance positive feelings about the self” (p. 181).

Keeping in mind that this is a correlational study conducted on volunteers, including a large number of college or university-related individuals, the Dutch study nevertheless provides some intriguing insights into the emotional life of the psychopath. Indeed, the most important revelation of this study is that psychopaths can feel emotions, even though they’re not ones that are very pleasant or prosocial. As a means of helping to understand the people in your life whom you regard as potentially high in psychopathy, Garofalo’s study suggests that you see beyond the callousness that forms part of their personalities and prepare yourself to be treated with contempt and spite. Although these individuals may be able to say and do things that hurt you, because they can be very adept at reading other people’s emotions, recognize that they’re doing so to protect their own ability to feel superior.

To sum up, productive relationships with the people in your life which rely on emotions that help bind you to others are the ones you should allow to support and sustain you. Contempt and shame may make up the unattractive dispositions of people high in psychopathy, but they don’t have to affect your own fulfillment.

References

Garofalo, C., Neumann, C. S., Zeigler-Hill, V., & Meloy, J. R. (2019). Spiteful and contemptuous: A new look at the emotional experiences related to psychopathy. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 10(2), 173–184.doi: 10.1037/per0000310.supp (Supplemental)