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:
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.