Critiquing expert views, part 2: Psychology Today blogger on psychopaths who care

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles critiquing what mental health bloggers are saying about sociopaths/psychopaths. Here is the first article: “CNN blogger on Ariel Castro.”

The headline in a recent blog article on the Psychology Today website stopped me in my tracks:

Despite popular opinion, psychopaths can show they care

This article was written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., who is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Here is the first paragraph, with my comments in parentheses:

The quintessential psychopath shows callous disregard for others, a complete lack of empathy (although they are great at pretending to show empathy when it suits them), a glibness and superficial charm, and an impulsive and antisocial lifestyle (true). We would never, given this set of qualities, expect such individuals to make decisions that would benefit anyone but themselves (unless they are engaged in manipulation). Their lack of empathy should make it nearly impossible for them to understand how other people are feeling (true). Yet, when you think about it, the ability of psychopaths to con and smooth talk their way into situations that allow them to take advantage of people requires some pretty sensitive people-reading skills (true). Perhaps behaving in psychopathic ways isn’t a matter of lack of ability to empathize, but is instead due to lack of proper incentive (huh?). If that’s the case, it should be possible to put the psychopath’s people-reading skills to good use (OMG are you kidding me?).

Then Whitbourne spends the bulk of her article describing research conducted by Nathan Arbuckle and William Cunningham. The researchers recruited college students to play a game in that involved gambling for points—there is no mention of whether real money was used. They told the research subjects they were earning points “for their team.” The hypotheses was that students who scored high in psychopathy on a self-report scale would make bets in order to benefit “their team.” The hypotheses was proven correct.

My reaction: Who cares? This research was incredibly artificial and had no connection to the real world. I don’t think it proves anything about how psychopaths actually behave.

Whitbourne, however, interpreted this experiment, to mean there was hope for psychopaths. She wrote:

If you, or someone you care about, shows the everyday psychopathy tendencies of callousness, lack of regard for ethical concerns, selfishness, recklessness, and impulsivity, consider invoking the idea of a team identity. If such a slight manipulation can change the behavior in an artificial situation of a lab, what might this lead to if used in real life? It’s possible that we don’t have to give up on the person with psychopathic tendencies and assume that he or she will never be able to show empathy or selflessness.

This statement is ludicrous.

Everything psychopaths do is to further their own agenda. They are quite capable of showing what appears to be empathy or selflessness if they perceive that they will benefit in some way. In fact, they often appear to “care” for others when they are in the process of ingratiating themselves. Later, once psychopaths have convinced their targets to trust them, the manipulation and exploitation begins.

This article highlights a widespread misunderstanding about psychopaths. Many mental health professionals and psychology researchers define psychopathy by what is missing empathy. But I agree with Dr. Liane Leedom, who believes that the real core of this disorder is defined by what is present an overactive drive for dominance. Psychopaths do what they do because they want power and control. A subsidiary of their desire for power and control is that they want to win.

So in my opinion, the real reason why the students in the experiment behaved in a way to benefit their “team” had nothing to do with empathy or helping others. It had to do with winning.

 Critiquing expert views part 3: Psychology Today blogger on understanding the sociopath.


Comment on this article

Please Login to comment
Notify of

Exactly Swimming! If looking like they are on the team gets them a win, they certainly will entertain being a ‘team’ member to garner, if not a personal win, being on the winning ‘side’.

They are NEVER looking out for someone else’s well-being unless they are getting something that they want (a good ‘cover’, $, sex, rent, etc…)

As for pleasing the spath. Please them or anger them, you lose.



LMAO! Sociopaths ‘betting’ for the ‘benefit of the team’? Yes, of course they wage bets on behalf of others. Because when they win, then they manipulate the other team members, leaving them penniless, swindled and broken. What’s not to LOVE to a sociopath about that game????


This comment made at Psychology Today RE the blog article cited, resonates with me:

“Dr. Hare (an expert on psychopathy who developed a widely-used diagnostic tool called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) has described psychopaths as “intra-species predators”; he goes on to say that a true psychopath relates to other human beings pretty much the same way that a cat relates to a mouse.

Cats are not evil, they are simply predators that are inherently deadly to the mouse’s self-interest.

That conceptualization works for me.

But I can understand and agree that if sometimes a psychopath *appears* to be doing a positive, compassionate thing for a fellow human being, its only because the psychopath has determined that doing so is in the psychopath’s own best interest.

The psychopath could just as easily (and with NO twinges of guilt or conscience) do or say something shockingly negative or even deadly to a fellow human being if the psychopath determines that harming or killing another (and getting away with it) would be in their own best interest.Ӭ

Dr. Hare has written that a psychopath can just as easily shake your hand as shoot you between the eyes *and with as little concern*, to illustrate this point more succinctly.

So, bottom line: there are no psychopathic heroes who risk their own lives to save another out of pure altruism; not for their country, or their family, or their friends, and not for a stranger. The concept of self-sacrifice *for no reward, no ego-gratifying adulation, no personal gain* is as alien a concept to a true psychopath as the idea of breathing water.

A cat would not sacrifice itself to save a mouse.”

Send this to a friend