In honor of the 4th of July we celebrate but also reflect on how to make our nation and world a better place. I therefore thought it would be fitting to review for you a book, Psychopaths in Everyday Life, by Robert W. Rieber. I highly recommend the book to readers who have some background in psychology. The book explains Dr. Rieber’s view of psychopathy and also discusses how psychopathy relates to what he calls “Social Distress Syndrome.” He says that America is plagued by this Social Distress Syndrome and therefore is breeding psychopaths/sociopaths.
First Dr. Rieber’s view on psychopathy. I was also fortunate to meet with Dr. Rieber to discuss his ideas in detail. He has interviewed many serial killers and has written extensively about psychopathy/sociopathy. By the way, he also has a lot to say about the case of Sybil and the idea of multiple personality.
His view of psychopathy is very similar to my own, and I should say, my own view was shaped prior to discovering this work. His view of psychopathy also appears to be very similar to that of Jack Levin, Ph. D., another psychologist who has worked with serial killers.
Dr. Rieber states, “In my view, the following four salient characteristics, thrill seeking, pathological glibness, the antisocial pursuit of power, and the absence of guilt, distinguish the true psychopath.” He further emphasizes that psychopathy is not a category but a continuum (a point I have also discussed previously see Psychopathy verses sociopathy again… ).
Drs. Rieber and Levin both have an opinion that sets them apart from other psychopathy experts. I want to share this view with you because I think you should be aware of differing opinions. Based on my personal and professional experiences, I also think their view has the advantage of helping us make sense of our first-hand observations.
If you read expert writings on psychopathy, you will see that the mainstream experts seem to hold the opinion that psychopaths/sociopaths lack guilt and empathy. Mainstream experts also teach that lack of a conscience is responsible for the disorder. Any therapist, teacher, minister or observer of humans will tell you that many people have a deficit in empathy and/or guilt and yet these people do not necessarily engage in an “antisocial pursuit of power.” I believe that the focus on the deficits of psychopaths has prevented us from seeing the most important aspect of the disorder- the antisocial pursuit of power.
The minute we say that victims are harmed, not because of a psychopath’s deficits, but because of his or her aberrant motivation, we have a good perspective on what we went through. We need to understand power motivation in order to understand the psychopath/sociopath. It is also power motivation, I believe, that ties psychopathy/sociopathy to the problems of our society.
There is a great quote from the book that leads into an explanation of another point that both Drs. Levin and Rieber make. It is, “The true psychopath compels the psychiatric observer to ask the perplexing, and largely unanswered question: Why doesn’t that person have the common decency to go crazy?”
So why don’t psychopaths have the common decency to go crazy? Dr. Rieber explains, “Since psychopaths act as if they were perfectly normal, i.e. sane, they must be skilled in a cunning manner to dissociate any real guilt that they should feel about their antisocial behavior.” He also says that since psychopaths dissociate, they don’t go crazy. He believes dissociation prevents them from experiencing guilt. He also says that many psychopaths do have some level of guilt they are dissociated from.
Dissociation is a difficult concept to grasp. It means to block out a thought or emotion. The ability to dissociate is related to hypnosis which is an induced dissociated state. Dr. Rieber told me that he does not believe that a person can be completely without guilt or empathy. He instead sees the psychopath/sociopath as being able to block out these from his/her experience. This view is shared by Dr. Levin who asks another interesting question. If psychopaths are unable to experience empathy, how is it that they enjoy hurting other people so much? To enjoy hurting they have to know and to some extent feel, they have hurt.
All of us have seen that psychopaths seek out ways to hurt people. They don’t do it by accident. They therefore have to have enough empathy to know when they have succeeded in their power goals and to feel gratified by the act of hurting. Dr. Levin terms the ability of a psychopath to be cut off from any negative emotion during the act of pleasure, compartmentalization. The concept of compartmentalization is basically the same as that of dissociation. When we discussed these terms, Dr. Rieber told me that Freud called the same process repression.
There is some interesting research from the lab of Dr. Joseph P. Newman demonstrating that psychopaths have an extraordinary ability to focus on a source of reward and ignore punishers. So there is experimental evidence supporting the link between psychopathy and dissociation/ compartmentalization/ repression.
But how is psychopathy related to The Social Distress Syndrome? Dr. Rieber puts together a nice argument demonstrating that the breakdown of all of our social institutions is associated with an increase in the prevalence of psychopathy. He says psychopaths and psychopathy permeate our society. However, the book does not discuss why or how social distress is causally related to psychopathy developing in individuals and in institutions. I will present my own opinion about that for you to consider on this July 4th.
If the pleasures of power and thrill seeking are behind psychopathy, and psychopaths can easily ignore everything within and outside themselves to focus on these pleasures, then we have to ask, “How is it that these pleasures become the most important thing in a person’s life?” The answer to that question has been in scientific writings for a long time and in religious writings for even longer.
The great primate researcher Harry Harlow made the observation nearly 30 years ago that the motivations of love and power are in an opposing balance. He discovered that thankfully in primates including humans, the love motive develops before the power motive. Because the love motive develops first it is stronger and puts the brakes on the power motive. A baby starts learning to love at birth or even before. The desire for power doesn’t start until the second year of life.
Now we can see the link between social distress and psychopathy/sociopathy. When all of our society’s institutions are broken, including the family, we are robbed of the capacity to fully experience love and to develop the ability to love. Instead of being motivated to love and care we become motivated to compete and take. The motivations of love and power are mutually exclusive, so a person can’t be simultaneously motivated by both. Also the pleasure of love has to be practiced to be maintained. There is no vaccination against evil. Love during childhood doesn’t prevent psychopathy for life. If love is not practiced during all phases of life relationships become power focused instead.
The answer for ourselves, the psychopath and our country is simple and yet extremely difficult. We need to restore ourselves to a place of love for our fellow humans. If love is primary we will still engage in friendly competition, but we will not get pleasure from cutting each other’s throats!
Love motivation has to permeate our families, our places of worship, our schools, our work places, our government and our foreign policy. When love rather than power becomes our most important pleasure, then we will all have a path toward social and personal well-being.
Until our collective pleasure balance is in the right loving place, we will all have to cope with the Psychopaths in Everyday Life.