With the release of the Mask of Sanity in the 1940s Dr. Hervey Cleckley began the quest to describe a syndrome called psychopathy, in which affected individuals prey on others without remorse. Since people affected by the syndrome are socially disordered the syndrome has also been called sociopathy. Dr. Robert Hare extended the work of Cleckley and carefully documented the symptoms of the disorder. All this research has lead to two basic conclusions:
1. It is quite remarkable that individuals who choose a lifestyle of remorseless predation of other people are so similar in their behaviors and personality traits.
2. Equally important is the idea that non-disordered people do not “regularly” prey on others.
These two very profound conclusions have been the cause of a dilemma that is outlined by the following statement by a prominent psychopathy researcher:
Clearly, not all people who are violent or callous or sadistic are psychopathic. In fact, it is probably the case that most of the cruelty in the world is not perpetrated by psychopathic individuals. Similarly, although psychopaths commit a disproportionate share of the violent crime, it seems to me that they do not commit even the majority of the violent crime.
Over the last two weeks I have thought about the above dilemma, particularly since attending the Battered Mothers Custody Conference. The dilemma was also discussed at the conference in the form of questioning whether “all batters are psychopaths/sociopaths.” I want to answer this question for you in and extend the answer to the broader context of psychopathy/sociopathy and humanity.
All though I have the utmost respect for the quoted psychopathy researcher, I disagree strongly with his views. I believe that ALL people who are violent, callous or sadistic (in the sense that these traits persist in them) are psychopathic.
Over the last 7 years a number of studies show that the group of traits and behaviors that group together in psychopathy act like a “dimensional trait.” By dimensional trait I mean that psychopathy is similar to height. Just as there are short people and tall people and also what we consider short and tall changes according to age, gender and geography, there are people who are more or less psychopathic. The dilemma only happens when we attempt to categorize a person and call him or her “a psychopath/sociopath.” Scientists and mental health professionals disagree about where to draw the dividing line to indicate “a psychopath,” just like you and I might disagree as to what height makes for a “tall person.”
The dimension, psychopathic is also different from height in a very important respect- that is stability. Whereas height is very stable, psychopathy is only relatively stable and is affected by aging, mood disorders, substance abuse and social environment.
Now I want to explain the source of the confusion around the dimension psychopathic. The source of the confusion is a failure to understand that one issue underlies psychopathy and is the cause of the observed fact that a group of traits and behaviors cluster together in psychopathy/sociopathy.
The cause of psychopathy/sociopathy is an addiction to power. The addiction to power can start at any age but as in most addictions it usually begins by the early 20s. Also like other addictions, the earlier a person becomes addicted to power, the worse the addiction. Addictions that begin early are very resistant to treatment and carry a very poor prognosis. Psychopathy/sociopathy that starts prior to age 10 (puberty) is the most devastating.
The idea that an addiction to power underlies psychopathy/sociopathy has important micro and macro implications for human society. On a micro level the family is affected by psychopathic individuals who are obsessed with the pursuit of interpersonal power at the expense of family members. Violence, callous manipulation and sadism are all part of that power fix. The person that abuses family members does so because it makes him or her feel powerful. That is true whether the abuser is mother, father, brother, sister or any other relation.
The macro level is just as important. Our institutional leaders, if addicted to power produce widespread abuse in our society. Institutional leaders are bosses, politicians, teachers and the like. When we examine risk for “psychopathy” in leaders, it is useful to consider the phenomenon of addiction as applied to power.
Last night we went to The Cheesecake Factory to celebrate my daughter’s 18th birthday. I had one frozen mango marguerita, likely one of six I will have in all of 2009. I will also likely drink 4 glasses of wine and about three beers all year. There are many people who cannot drink just one drink because the pleasure of alcohol sets off a chemical reaction in their brains. Once they have one drink they develop a compulsion to keep drinking.
Power with me works the same way. I dislike telling other people what to do. I have had to learn to manage this dislike in order to adequately mother my children. Good parenting requires the thoughtful, careful exertion of interpersonal power. Some parents become addicted to that power and become what are called “authoritarian parents.” They are so bossy and dictatorial their poor children never learn to think for themselves.
Institutional leaders are like parents. Leadership requires thoughtful, careful exertion of interpersonal power. For a psychopathic, power-addict the first time they lead the meeting fills them with pleasure and delight. They become obsessed with the feeling and so obsessed with power. Since love and power motives are mutually exclusive, eventually power consumes the person’s entire being and he/she develops all the qualities of “a psychopath.”
Let us look at domestic violence again. Men and women who abuse their partners mentally, emotionally sexually and physically are not normal people who are the subjects of the influence of a violent society. They are power addicts. Just like there are societal factors in alcoholism, gambling and other addictions, there are societal influences on psychopathy. These societal influences no more cause psychopathy or power addiction, than they do alcoholism. Drinking causes alcoholism and exerting power causes psychopathy- in people with an inborn predisposition.
Please comment on what I have written. If you disagree please state your reasons. Let’s have a debate.