What's the Best Way to Judge a Psychopath's Empathy?

New research shows why we use baby-kissing as a measure of psychopathy

Posted Jan 10, 2017

Many people find babies inherently adorable, but not everyone will give in to the urge to kiss the tops of their cute and warm little heads. For psychopaths, defined by their cold and unempathetic manner, it would seem to be an impossible stretch to show affection toward an infant, no matter how cute. On the other hand, if you believe that many politicians have a psychopathic streak, the idea that they would kiss babies makes perfect sense. Kissing a baby should reveal that they’re not really all that cold-hearted and calculating and you should therefore vote for them. According to new research, there’s a reason we use baby-kissing as the litmus test for judging someone’s true character. We'll take a look at this research and then see how it can help you in your own everyday dealings, whether with politicians or ordinary folk.

Southern Methodist University’s Ryan Murphy (2016) combined economic and political theory with social and personality psychology to address the key question of why we, as observers (and voters) need to judge our politicians by the baby-kissing metric. It all comes down to selfishness vs. the desire to act for the good of society as a whole. Economists, he notes, propose that markets fail when resources are scarce because individuals act in their own best interests rather than in the interest of the group. Let’s say a town is facing a water shortage due to the depletion of the local reservoir. To preserve as much water as possible for everyone in the community, all residents should immediately stop watering their lawns, washing their cars, and filling their pools. However, if people are acting on the basis of self-interest, or what economists call “Homo economicus,” they will think only about their own needs and use water for their own pleasure until it all runs out.  Clearly, this is not ideal for the community as a whole.

This theory leads to different predictions about economic outcomes than theories that propose people behave in more altruistic ways. The market will survive a shortage if everyone behaves in ways that are counter to ‘Homo economicus,” but it will collapse if it doesn’t. Similarly, in politics, when politicians behave in selfish ways that further their own goals (i.e. to get elected) rather than ways that benefit society as a whole, political institutions will suffer. If politicians vote only to get their local roadways repaired, there won’t be resources left to fix federally-funded road projects or even put money into fixing that ailing water reservoir.

Similarly, Murphy argues, psychopaths act in ways that benefit them and them alone, not the greater good of their communities or society: “They may sometimes superficially appear altruistic or cooperative, but those behaviors are strictly instrumental; they only treat others as means to ends” (p. 2). Any modeling of social behavior that doesn’t take into account the “selfish” behavior of such individuals will fail. If, as has been argued, politicians have a higher probability of being psychopathic than non-politicians, it means that our social institutions are being governed by a non-trivial percentage of people who only care about themselves. From an evolutionary standpoint, as Murphy states, “human genes have played a game of chicken” (p. 2). When a cooperator meets another cooperator, both will do well. But if the cooperator meets a psychopath, the psychopath will do well at the expense of the cooperator. Two psychopaths dealing with each other will achieve the worst outcome in terms of the good of the group. When they're running the country, those voters who didn't sniff them out will suffer the most.

Here’s where we get to the kissing baby problem. To get elected, even the most psychopathic of politicians need to show their warm, non-psychopathic side. From the standpoint of voters, though, having psychopaths run things will result in the worst possible outcomes for them, as pointed out above. The psychopaths will lie, cheat, and rig the system at the expense of the average member of society. Voters must “discern whether the politician is being honest while ‘kissing babies,’ or ‘which politician is better to have a beer with’” (p. 6).  It’s better to err on the side of caution, Murphy suggests, so we voters must grasp at anything that helps determine who's a psychopath.

Let’s move on from this analysis of economics and politics to the dilemma you face when judging whether you can put your trust in someone who may or may not be acting in your own best interests. Imagine you’re deciding on whether to buy a new cellphone plan, with your toddler in tow, and the salesperson swears that this is the best deal you’re ever going to be able to get. You’ve decided to get the phone from the Apple Store because it seems like it’s best to go to the source. The salesperson seems to be a caring individual who doesn’t exactly kiss your child (that would be inappropriate) but does make playful and amused voices while talking to you to get the toddler's attention. If the salesperson tries to manipulate you in this way, you reason, is it also possible that he’s lying about the plan for your phone he’s offering you?

Murphy’s answer to this would be to take the more skeptical position that people who stand to benefit from decisions you make in their favor are behaving as the “Homo economicus.” On the other hand, if you did that, you’d never buy anything from anyone or trust anyone at all to act in your best interest rather than theirs. Although voters are stuck relying on publicly available data about candidates, you have more direct access to the information you need to decide in whom you can trust. It is possible for you to question, challenge, debate, and ask for details from people trying to get you to buy something from them. You can use their answers, not what's reported about their apparent empathy or character as the basis for your decision.

It’s quite likely that politicians will continue to kiss babies, and that we will continue to scrutinize them in the process to decide whether they’re trustworthy. Luckily, in your personal life, you’ve got better data on which to rely in deciding who's got your best interest at heart.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Murphy, R. H. (2016). Kissing Babies to Signal You are not a Psychopath. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics, doi:10.1037/npe0000062