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Who is the sociopath?

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.)

 



183 Comments on "Who is the sociopath?"

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  1. one_step_at_a_time says:

    ah frank, you did get a little snippy. 😉

    spath for me is a not only a shortening of a word, but a spitting out and an owning of the term sociopath. i am a lesbian and a feminist. i have spent a great deal of time pondering the naming of things in language and how that frames power relationships. I embraced ‘dyke’, ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ with a vengeance. We used those words hurled at us and built a culture of resistance out of them. They then became the expression of the essence of all that our culture was, with resistance only one part of the whole. THIS is how i use and view the term spath: a claiming of my experience, an owning of my right to name the damage, be angry, become empowered and heal.

    Most people who come here catch on to all the terms we use. I myself am trying to use ppath now. I know i used sociopath at first because the word psychopath too heavily laden with images of serial killers and so grossly misunderstood that I felt that the people I spoke to would arbitrarily dismiss my story.

    Using the term pyschopath felt like too big a responsibility, but i can deal with that now. I can call her a ppath, she really IS evil. I have become more comfortable with carrying this story and owning it.

    thanks for bringing this up frank. our views are different. but we both want to claim terms that are forceful and empowering – they are just different terms.



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  2. dancingnancies says:

    Just goes to show people, just because someone has “credentials” doesn’t mean they are to be automatically believed, or taken by their word. I don’t care how many diplomas you have on your wall, gold stars, medals, awards, brownie points, WHATEVER. If your argument is faulty then your credentials don’t mean anything. On the other hand, if your arguments are logical and make sense, then your credentials are justified and prove worthwhile.

    The bigger point being, actually listen to someone instead of looking at the shinies and thinking well if they have a shiny, they MUST know what they’re saying. Doesn’t work that way.

    Thanks for the illuminating dissection and an intelligent examination of this guy’s claims/work, Steve. Some people, in the aftermath of a P or S will be eager to gobble up any info they could find. It’s inordinately important to thoroughly examine an argument before accepting it. ( Case in Point : S. Vak the malignant N, although he has no real credentials to speak of. His so-called “PhD” is actually from an online diploma mill. Yet he always addresses himself by that title. Then again he is an N/P so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. )



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  3. Ox Drover says:

    Dear Dancing nancies,

    Yep, there ARE several “noted PhDs” out there that speak in WORD SALAD to sound “important and knowing” that if you look at what they say actually doesn’t say anything, but it isn’t because their thoughts are so lofty that us “common folks” cant understand them, it is that the aren’t saying anything intelligent or true.

    I used to assume if I couldn’t understand something it was because I wasn’t educated enough or smart enough, but I’ve finally come to realize that is NOT always the case, the case very well may be, they aren’t saying anything that makes any sense.

    Communication is a two-way street. If you aren’t being communicated to, it is possible there is nothing there understandable or worthwhile for you to understand.



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