What a difficult question this is—exactly what defines the sociopath?
Joseph Neuman Ph.D, psychopathy researcher, in an extensive interview (see link to this interview previously provided by Donna Anderson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmZgnCHweLM) addresses this and other questions about psychopaths.
Neuman’s research, if I understand him correctly (and I did not find him to be particularly clear in his explanations) yields a picture of the psychopath, surprisingly, not as primarily emotionally defective, but rather as emotionally defective secondary to certain forms of attentional problems.
Neuman makes some interesting and, to my mind, somewhat puzzling observations. For instance, and consistent with his basic premise, he actually suggests that psychopaths may be more inclined to genuinely assist someone they perceive to be in need than non-psychopaths. Did I hear that correctly? I think so.
Neuman also suggests that the psychopath’s capacity for this kind of humane response is unfortunately, or effectively, nullified (in others’ eyes) by his more antisocial, knucklehead behaviors. Did I hear this correctly, too? I think I did.
Neuman’s basic premise—again, if I understand him correctly—is that psychopaths aren’t so much fundamentally defective emotionally as much as their emotional capacities which, alas, may be much more normal than otherwise appreciated, are essentially obscured, effectively immobilized, by their over-attention, their over-focus on their particular, momentary interest(s).
So, to be clear, if I’m understanding Neuman, he’s suggesting that psychopaths (at least some, if not many) may indeed have normal emotions, perhaps even a normal range of emotions; the problem is that they don’t “attend” to their emotions because they aren’t “cueing” to the signals that should steer them to recognize, and be better regulated, by their emotions.
Neuman suggests that when psychopaths can be directed to focus on these cues and signals, his research shows that they can and do access a range of more normal emotions. This should and, Neuman says, does result in their coming under the better, and more appropriate, stewardship of their emotions (my italics, not his).
Now on one hand, Neuman says he’s not denying that an emotional deficit lies at the core of psychopathy. Yet it seems to me that this is exactly what he’s questioning! What he is saying in the interview, it seems to me, again and again, is that, at the heart of psychopathy is less an emotional deficit than a kind of attentional deficit, a signal-attuning deficit, the consequence of which is to detach the psychopath from connection to his underlying capacity to feel, and be better regulated in his behavior, by his emotions.
Now perhaps I’ve badly misinterpreted what I heard Neuman saying. I will leave that to other LoveFraud readers to weigh in.
Also, consistent with what I hear him saying throughout the interview, Neuman takes the rather radical stance that once a psychopath, not necessarily always, hopelessly, permanently a psychopath.
He suggests, rather, that if interventions can be developed that, for instance, can help psychopaths more effectively attune to the signals that will steer their attention to their healthier emotions, well then…NASA, we may have arrived at something of a cure, or palliative, for psychopathy.
He envisions interventions, if I understand him properly, that would effectively liberate the humanity within the psychopath, which is obscured, if not immobilized, by his attentional problems.
Because again, he is not saying that psychopaths necessarily lack emotions, or even a range of normal emotions; remember, he goes so far as to say that some psychopaths, including those with whom he’s worked, have shown evidence of an even greater (and genuine!) responsiveness to those in need than non-psychopaths. The problem, he stresses, is that psychopaths, by virtue of their overfocus on present, reward-driven interests, are basically disconnected from their emotions. At least this is what I understand him to be saying.
Neuman makes another interesting observation. Citing Hervey Cleckley, MD, he suggests that the psychopath may have an even weaker drive to acquire what he wants than the normal individual. The problem, he says, is that their “restraints” are even weaker than their “urges.” He describes this as a case of their “weaker urges breaking through even weaker restraints.”
Neuman also asserts that you can’t define psychopathy by behaviors and actions, including, he says, actions like “defrauding” people. I understand his general point—the idea that psychopathy’s essence may be more a reflection of a mentality than specific actions.
However, a pattern of certain actions, especially exploitive actions, can reflect, can reveal, the mind—and the disorder—behind it.
As I understand Neuman, let us say we have someone who is in the process of perpetrating a cold-blooded armed robbery—and not, say, the first he’s perpetrated. He’s prepared to bind, blindfold and shoot all potential witnesses to the crime. This way he can take what he came for and not get fingered, identified, in the act. Let us say he has done this before, remorselessly.
Neuman seems to suggest that, horrible as this act would be, it’s not necessarily indicative of a psychopath. Maybe he’s right.
But let’s say this individual is a Hare-diagnosed psychopath. Neuman also seems to be proposing the idea that the killer’s primary issue isn’t necessarily the absence, somewhere, of appropriate and potentially self-regulating emotion; rather, he’s so overfocused on taking care of the business at hand—robbing, and removing witnesses to the robbery—that he’s unable to attune to the kinds of signals that would lead him to recognize, and fall under the prosocial influence, of his more normal, humane emotions.
So that, if somehow, in the course of the perpetrating of his crime, you could somehow cue him to the signals that might lead him to recognize his more “humane” emotions, you might, theoretically, be able to short-circuit the robbery and coldblooded murdering of the witnesses!
Really? That’s an interesting concept, but it’s not one that strikes me as necessarily plausible. In general, as I listened to Neuman, I found that he depicted the psychopath specifically, and psychopathy in general, in terms that seemed to me much too benign; as if the psychopath, in Neuman’s view and based on his research, isn’t necessarily lacking in humanity as much as he’s lacking certain qualities that would enable his humanity to express itself in more visible, self-regulating, prosocial ways?
What was your take on the interview?
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)