Friday, May 27, 2011

Rare Variants

Let us consider another surprisingly common “rare” variant of human nature: the psychopath. Yes, I have been thinking about Jon Ronson’s new book, The Psychopath Test. My interest was piqued when I caught an interview with him on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. As is my want, I saw some connections to my thoughts about Asperger’s and to Rand and Nietzsche.

From the standpoint of society, psychopaths are a major nuisance. The make up a rather large fraction of the prison population and commit a large fraction of the most serious crimes. Even when they don’t commit crimes, they tend to leave large trails of devastation behind them. Estimates are that psychopaths constitute about 1 % of the total population – a surprisingly large fraction unless psychopathy either is associated with some selective advantage or results from a common developmental accident.

You might note that I assume that being a psychopath is an organic condition. The evidence supports that idea in a few ways. Psychopathy is believed to be permanent and, at least at present, incurable. There is evidence from blood flow imagery associating it with abnormal function of the amygdala, those organs of the brain which appear to perform a crucial role in emotional learning. Core characteristics of the psychopath include lack of empathy and especially lack of a conscience.

At a more physical level, psychopaths react very abnormally to punishment and the threat of punishment. They don’t seem to be able to remember punishment or the discomfort it caused them. These notions, and many others, are explored in this excerpt from Ronson’s book. Ronson seems to be a pretty interesting character himself, and is clearly drawn to the study of the oddballs among us. His most famous previous book, or at least the only one I had heard of, is The Men Who Stare at Goats – also the title of the great George Clooney movie adapted from it.

Just in case you might be wondering whether your neighbor across the street/in the next cubicle might be a psychopath, or whether you might be one yourself, here is a handy check list – in fact *the test* of Ronson’s title. (Score each with a 0, 1 or 2).

Item 1 Glibness/superficial charm

Item 2 Grandiose sense of self-worth

Item 3 Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom

Item 4 Pathological lying

Item 5 Cunning/manipulative

Item 6 Lack of remorse or guilt

Item 7 Shallow affect

Item 8 Callous/lack of empathy

Item 9 Parasitic lifestyle

Item 10 Poor behavioural controls

Item 11 Promiscuous sexual behaviour

Item 12 Early behaviour problems

Item 13 Lack of realistic long-term goals

Item 14 Impulsivity

Item 15 Irresponsibility

Item 16 Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Item 17 Many short-term marital relationships

Item 18 Juvenile delinquency

Item 19 Revocation of conditional release

Item 20 Criminal versatility




Ronson’s commentary:

Over the three-day course in Wales, my scepticism drained away entirely and I became a Hare devotee. I think the other sceptics felt the same. He was very convincing. I was attaining a new power, like a secret weapon. I felt like a different person, a hardliner, not confused or out of my depth as I had been when I'd been hanging around with Tony in Broadmoor. Instead, I was contemptuous of those naive people who allowed themselves to be taken in by slick-tongued psychopaths.

My mind drifted to what I could do with my new powers. If I'm being honest, it didn't cross my mind to become some kind of great crime fighter, philanthropically dedicated to making society a safer place. Instead, I made a mental list of all the people who over the years had crossed me and wondered which of them I might be able to expose as having psychopathic character traits. Top of the list was AA Gill, who had always been very rude about my television documentaries and had written a restaurant column in which he admitted to killing a baboon on safari.

"Item 8 Callous/lack of empathy," I thought, and smiled to myself.


How about Newt Gingrich? I wondered.

I don't think Nietzschean superguys would get a very low score either.