In criminal justice schools throughout the United States, from Fresno State to John Jay College, students are learning terms that law enforcement and caseworkers frequently use to describe that rare breed of individual known as the “psychopath.”
The Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines “psychopathy” as a ‘mental disorder that is marked with both antisocial and egocentric traits’ (“Psychopathy” N.p). However, psychiatrists describe those diagnosed with psychopathy as a group of individuals with behavioural disorders that are characterised by antisocial and asocial actions but lacking certain mental illness features (Campbell 198). These definitions, not all that frequently, leave readers scratching their heads wondering just what any of these quote-unquote “antisocial traits” really mean.
Perhaps the most comprehensive definition is provided by Dr. Hare, who famously created the Psychopathy Checklist, the inventory and examination tool which forensic psychology students learn (though not necessarily learn how to apply). This checklist in itself contains a host of traits on which a person is scaled. Without belaboring the point, the traits most typically associated with psychopathy are the following: Glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, pathological lying, conning/manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callousness/lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral controls, promiscuous sexual behavior, early behavioral problems, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions, the existence of many short-term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility. A total score of 29 or above typically warrants the person being considered a psychopath.
A more recent book by Dr. Kevin Dutton, The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, contains several inventories on which one can check oneself to determine whether one aligns with psychopathic characteristics and traits. The book maintains the idea that one can scale up (or down) in terms of one’s psychopathic traits. Perhaps the most famous book on the topic is Without Conscience by Hare who provided case studies of people he observed.
For one reason or another, the psychopath captivates not just students, but law enforcement professionals and people in entertainment. Popular portrayals of psychopaths almost romanticize such individuals. In a way, we are made to sympathize with their plight despite their “evilness.” For example, when Hannibal Lecter sympathizes with FBI trainee Clarice Starling, we empathize with his situation, even though we know he’s manipulating her.
In the book The Super Villain and Philosophy, author Ben Dyer discusses the notion that many of the most notorious comic book villains, such as Magneto (who fights against the oppression of mutants, almost mirroring the Civil Rights Movement), are not villains at all but, rather, people facing obstacles and seeking to overcome adversity using means that they believe will help solve their problems.
Of course, everyone has problems, but we all solve them in different ways. We can learn about this from various studies, such as Milgram’s studies involving an electric shock that participants applied to a confederate, and the Zimbardo prison study, which revealed that many people, depending on their circumstances, can become villainous in one way or another. As Glinda so eloquently put it in Wicked, we get “wickedness thrust upon us.”
We then face a sort of paradox. On the one hand, our general education system teaches us a Kantian morality that says, “Do unto others” and don’t break the rules; be kind to others; give everyone the full benefit of their humanity. On the other hand, when we enter the real market (“the real world,” as it were), we discover that some of the rules we were told to obey no longer apply—sometimes you must break a few rules to get ahead, and sometimes it pays to be faster than others. And sometimes,we are compelled to treat others as commodities in a marketplace—a notion that subverts what moralists in education and academia consider our “better natures.”
It is frequently said that many corporate CEOs can be considered psychopaths because of their careless disregard, shallow affect, and the Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means mentality. Gordon Gekko’s classic dialogue from the movie Wall Street comes to mind: “Ladies and gentlemen, greed, for the lack of a better word,is good.” In the market, people buy and sell goods; we like to think of the supply-demand curve as consisting of people who provide services and people who consume services, in a typical supply chain. Thus, we learn two sets of rules—one of which is defined by market conditions and “what the market will bear.” We must also have a vetting process that brings the right people through the door, thereby avoiding unnecessary costs and wasted time.This shows the psychopath we can see in ourselves, this austere and detached calculating of others’ value. Ultimately, we find that some psychopathic traits, as Kevin Dutton observes, are necessary for survival.
In his book The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, Dutton describes military training and the sense of not having to feel anything when one is in the line of duty–similar to how one must think and feel when promoting oneself and perhaps getting on the phone with a very important (lucrative) account or client. More importantly, and for our purposes, Dutton sets out to define the philosophical worldview of the psychopath. To get to the bottom of his findings, we need to look at different philosophies, especially existentialism.
“Existentialism” is a term that was used in the 19th-20th century to refer to philosophers who believed that every individual should define themselves and find meaning in an absurd and illogical world.Existentialists believed in finding oneself and the meaning of life itself through free will, personal responsibility, and choice. They also believed that human nature is chosen through choices in life and that a person is at their best when they are struggling against their nature, therefore fighting for life (“Existentialism” N.p). Some existentialists onemight be familiar with: Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus; all pioneers in this line of thought, all contributing to the concept of existentialism as we know it today.
One significant resemblance amongst the ideas of these philosophers is that they all rejected the way in which traditional morality was founded on rationality and the way it attempts to make a universal code of conduct. Moreover, their ideas hinged on the notion that human beings are evading responsibility.At the same time, these philosophers also observed that we are rational, thinking creatures. A fundamental idea that ties them all together is the sense that humans are aware of the pain they must endure in life—that to experience pleasure, they must work through pain, move through it.
Meritocratic schools generally do not teach this; rather, they encourage the avoidance of pain whenever possible through the avoidance of mistakes. Dutton notes that psychopaths don’t feel this pain; they simply work in the moment, come what may, and go for what they want (hence, the lack of conscience). There’s a sense that this is not simply a quirk but a survival mechanism that, evolutionarily speaking, has been kicked into high gear and serves this particular group (and possibly others).
Those of us who don’t have this level of actionorientation will work on ourselves and engage in mental activity, training our brains to be more assertive, self-reliant, and pioneering. We’ll do manifestation exercises, eat vegan, cut out trans fats, do hot yoga. To get what we want, we must overcome ourselves,but this is not the case with the psychopath. The psychopath simply takes.
Dutton notes that “Sartre’s obsession with becoming all we can be, with sawing through the shackles of convention and becoming the masters of our own destiny, demands that we play with our ruthlessness [sic]” (p. 92). Essentially, we shouldn’t worry about what’s going on around us; we shouldn’t have to overthink or feel anything. Ultimately, we live in a fundamentally free world and we are the architects of our own reality (a la Life is a Dream). This is oddly in line with the beliefs of many postmodernist thinkers, including those in the self-help and self-inquiry industries, such as Byron Katie, who argues that we are all at liberty to erect our own meaning from the everyday events we observe, and that if we don’t like it, we can turn it around and make it better by offering up a new reality, similar to changing a channel.
Just as authors like Byron Katie can only use her brand of self-inquirywithout necessarily introducing feedback and dialogue,and thereby denying us our own personal, physiological experiences, so, too, can the psychopath dismiss all manner of persuasion and logic aimed at getting the psychopath to change their ways and become moral.
Interestingly, the only way around this is to use the terms that these groups use in their own worlds. The only way to address the postmodernists is through their own language, in the same way that working with a psychopath requires working in their own philosophical plain of thinking. For example, during my training in Forensic Psychology, I frequently heard that when a psychopath talks about their numerous infractions of the law, one mustn’t undermine them and pull rank. Instead, one must congratulate them and ask what they did, with a certain level of curiosity. This way, the psychopath can identify with you and you become someone the psychopath can respect. However, even in our postmodern digitized age, a sense exists that the only way people can really make headway is by breaking rules. As Katherine Hepburn used to say, “if you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
Don’t hate the player, hate the game. We encounter this conflict as we enter the workforce and make our way through life. Humans, as Dutton said, are fundamentally “pattern driven” and like to create meaning out of things. We are fundamentally tasked with this project in our lives. Relying on others (such as our bosses, parents, or spouse) for approval can be difficult; and ultimately, the market rewards execution and doing and failing and muddling through–zig-zagging, as it were, until you create something that’s truly meaningful, something for which you can truly take credit and be proud of. In short, our economy rewards some psychopathic traits, for better or for worse.
Would Gordon Gekko of Wall Street approve of the world in which we live today? Probably, but no more than any of the postmodernists who declare that we are ultimately free. In the way that Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Camus declared personal freedom, psychopaths declare it through their actions.
Calderón, Pedro. (2012). Life is a Dream. Dover Publications.
Campbell, Emily. The Psychopath and the Definition of “Mental Disease or Defect” under the Model Penal Code Test of Insanity: A Question of Psychology or a Question of Law?, 69 Neb. L. Rev. .
Dyer, Ben. (2009). Supervillains and Philosophy: Sometimes, Evil is its Own Reward. Open Court.
“Existentialism.” AllAboutPhilosophy.org. N. p., 2018. Web. 26 June 2018.
Hare, R. D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. Guilford Publications.
Katie, B., & Mitchell, S. (2003). Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.
Kennedy, D. (2006). No B.S. Wealth Attraction for Entrepreneurs (No BS Series). Entrepreneur Press.
McNab, A., & Dutton, K. (2014). The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success. Transworld Digital.
Mozart, W. A. (2013). Don Giovanni. Dover Publications.
“Psychopathy.” Merriam-Webster.com. N. p., 2018. Web. 26 June 2018.
Todd Squitieri holds a B.A. in Criminology and an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
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