Jenna Baddeley

Jenna Baddeley

Embracing the Dark Side

Psychological disorders that avoid social pain

Without empathy, sociopaths have it good. Or do they?

Posted Jan 21, 2009

Recent research in psychology shows that the social pain of rejection and ostracism is longer-lived than physical pain. Might it not be nice to have a psychological disorder that allows one to avoid the negative emotions associated with bearing social pain (sadness, anger) or causing social pain to others (guilt, shame)? In her book, Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin mentions a friend of hers who failed out of school after a breakup with a boyfriend, and remarks that autism offers a welcome protection from some of the down sides of having intense attachment bonds with other human beings. Similarly, sociopaths, who have no empathy or conscience, can entirely avoid any messy, painful deliberations on how to balance their own interests and happiness with the interests and happiness of others. How lucky for them. Conscience prevents people from engaging their creativity in the ways that sociopaths can -- to fully explore and test the limits of self-interested pursuits and conduct. How liberating it must be to be a sociopath, free from the strictures of conscience.
Yet sociopaths' notorious sensation seeking behavior -- heavy drug and alcohol abuse and promiscuous sex, among other things -- points not to a rich and creative inner life, but to an impoverished one. And this all makes perfect sense, for without the painful and blissful drama of social life that occupies a mind with a conscience and empathy, the world must seem an awfully dull, meaningless place.

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