Do the rich and super-rich tend to be psychopaths, devoid of guilt or shame? Are the 1% lacking in compassion? Does their endless accumulation of possessions actually bring them little to no happiness? To each of these, the answer is "yes"--but a very qualified "yes" with lots of subtleties. Even more important is what these issues suggest for building a society which does not ravage the last remnants of wilderness and rush headlong into a climate change tipping point.
Strange concepts of psychopathy
The word "psychopath" often elicits an image of a deranged murderer. Despite Alfred Hitchcock's chair-gripping "Psycho," stabbing victims in the shower is not a typical activity of psychopaths. They are more often con artists who end up in jail after cheating their victims. Classic definitions of psychopathy include features such as superficial charm, anti-social behavior, unreliability, lack of remorse or shame, above-average intelligence, absence of nervousness, and untruthfulness and insincerity. (1)
Most of those in the mental health industry sternly observe that a strict set of consistent rewards and consequences is the only treatment that works with psychopaths. But they admit that even this treatment might not work too well. Progressives may dismiss observations by psychologists because the field tends to explore a behavioral pattern as it exists in a certain Western culture at a given point in history and then imagine that it characterizes all people at all times. Psychology has a long tradition of bending to current race, gender and sexual orientation biases. Its class bias is reflected by the dominant portrayal of psychopathy.
Consider what William H. Reid, MD, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio writes about psychopaths:
I have no wish to dehumanize people when I say that those who purposely endanger others in our streets, parks, and schools, even our homes, are qualitatively different from the rest of us. I care less and less about why they're not the same as the rest of us; the enemy is at our door ... There is no (reasonable) ethic which requires that we treat him as other adults; indeed, to do so is foolish. (2) Reid cautions his readers: "We must stop identifying with the chronic criminal, and stop allowing him to manipulate our misplaced guilt about treating him as he is: qualitatively different from the rest of us. (3)
The author insists that good people must have the stamina to do what is necessary to protect themselves from the psychopathic criminal:
... life is full of situations in which we need to do something distasteful ... Most of us agree that we need to slaughter animals from time to time. We do it as humanely as possible, but we get it done ... We also agree that some public health needs are important enough to require the suspension of some rights of people who have not been convicted of any crime ..." (4) Reid chides those who recoil at the thought of suspending rights: "While we have been interminably discussing this weighty issue, the psychopaths, who don't trouble themselves with contemplations, have been gaining ground." (5)
Where did these insights appear? Not in a transcript of a Rush Limbaugh interview. Not in an Ayn Rand novel. Not from someone fondly reminiscing of Ronald Reagan.
These words are excerpted from an essay in the scholarly volume Psychopathy: Anti-Social, Criminal and Violent Behavior. The text is predominantly a collection of reports and syntheses under academic headings of "Typologies," "Etiology," "Comorbidity" and "Treatment." The portions quoted illustrate that intense hostility directed towards victims of the criminal justice system is within the acceptable continuum of published academic thought on psychopathy.
A demon with two horns
The words from Reid reflect what is called the "categorical view." It maintains that the difference between "psychopaths" and "normals" is as clear-cut as the difference between left-handedness and right-handedness.
A contrasting perspective, with a large amount of research to back it up, is the "dimensional view." It regards psychopathy and other "personality disorders" as exaggerated expressions of normal behavior. Just as we are all more or less compassionate, we all have the ability to be manipulative and deceitful. We act so when we think that circumstances warrant it.
Some people think circumstances warrant it a whole more than others do. "Pure" psychopaths are examined in case studies of flim-flam hustlers; they make the evening news; and they become topics of TV shows. But there are many more "marginal" psychopaths who score high on some aspects of the disorder but not on others.
The dimensional view also recognizes that psychopaths can be more or less successful. A fellow psychologist once told me that she feels that the psychopaths she sees in therapy are the less successful ones. While most psychopaths are a little more intelligent than average, she thought that successful psychopaths are much more intelligent and run corporations as well as the military, government, and educational and religious institutions.
The concept of "successful psychopath" is not new. An early text described "complex psychopaths" who were very intelligent and included unscrupulous politicians and businessmen. (6) By the 1970s it was more widely recognized that "this category includes some successful businessmen, politicians, administrators." (7) In other words, the unsuccessful psychopath might go to jail for swindling dozens of people with home improvement scams while successful psychopaths might swindle millions with bank deals, get bailed out by friends in government, and never spend a day in jail.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the medicalization of the disorder is how the psychiatric establishment departed from science in order to grant partial exemption from being characterized as psychopaths to the wealthy. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, in order to receive a diagnosis of "anti-social personality disorder" (i.e., psychopathy) a person must exhibit at least 3 of 7 listed behavior patterns. These include "arrest," "physical fights or assaults," and "failure to sustain consistent work behavior." (8) This means that those who can pay off cops (or never have charges pressed against them due to their social status), or pay someone else to commit violence on their behalf, or own companies instead of having to work for a living are all less likely to receive an official label of "psychopath."
An increasing number of psychologists are becoming aware that traditional research was limited by the bias of only looking at people in jail. One wrote that subjects in psychopathy research "were usually institutionalized at the time of testing, and consequently our research may not accurately capture the internal structure and dynamics of the successful antisocial or...