Sunday, June 19, 2011

I’m O.K., You’re a Psychopath


[...] If you aren't sure whether you are a psychopath, Ronson can help. He lists all the items on the standard diagnostic checklist, developed by the psychologist Robert Hare. You can score yourself on traits like "glibness/superficial charm," "lack of remorse or guilt," "promiscuous sexual behavior" and 17 other traits. As one psychologist tells Ronson, if you are bothered at the thought of scoring high, then don't worry. You're not a psychopath.

One of the traits on the checklist is "callous/lack of empathy." This is the focus of another new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Basic Books, $25.99), by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychologist best known for his research on autism. Baron-Cohen begins by telling how, at the age of 7, he learned that the Nazis turned Jews into lampshades and bars of soap, and he goes on to provide other examples of human savagery. To explain such atrocities, he offers an ambitious theory grounded in the concept of empathy, which he defines as "our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion." For Baron-Cohen, evil is nothing more than "empathy erosion." [....]

I think there's a better approach, one that involves breaking empathy into two parts, understanding and feeling, as Baron-Cohen himself does elsewhere in his book. Individuals with autism are unable to understand the mental lives of other people. Psychopaths, by contrast, get into others' heads just fine; they are seducers, manipulators, con men . . . and often worse. (Ronson tells how one psychopath — "good-looking, neatly dressed," with "a bit of a twinkle in his eye" — encountered a troubled teenager and decided to provoke the kid into attacking his family with a baseball bat, killing one person.) The problem with psychopaths lies in their lack of compassion, their willingness to destroy lives out of self-interest, malice or even boredom. [....]


  1. empathy is often broken into two parts: my group and the enemy.

    People who are not "psychopaths" can be full of empathy, help, social understanding for their own group and still callous with "the enemy". You see this over and over again.

    this is also the way torture happens in a military context...

  2. There seems to be so many frum people who are very kind to their own immediate family or group, but become as cold as ice to anyone outside.


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