Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Is Someone you know a Psychopath?

Hannibal Lecter - Image: Daily Mail

When we hear the term ‘Psychopath’, most of us tend to think of a character such as Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs or Jack Torrance from the film The Shining.  A ‘maniac’ who is both callous and charming; someone with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Although people tend to think of psychopaths as killers, most individuals with psychopathic tendencies are not killers, or even criminals. They are, however, often bullies.

According to the standard classification of all mental disorders, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Psychopathology comes under Antisocial Personality Disorder: "The essential feature of antisocial personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others..." 

Characteristics of a Psychopath 

The key characteristics of a psychopath mean they are usually: cold-hearted, ruthless, manipulative, fearless, charming, cool under pressure and egocentric. Hang on a minute – I hear you say – don’t I see these exact same traits in the people around me at home, or at work?! 

The truth is, many of these traits are beneficial in order for us to carry out our jobs – surgeons, for example, need to be emotionally distant to a certain extent to operate on their patients, or they wouldn’t be able to pick up the knife. Likewise, a lawyer defending a murderer or a Chief Executive having to lay off staff to save the company, need to make use of these traits. The same might also be said for politicians, sales-people, journalists and police officers. The traits in themselves don’t make a serial killer, but the danger comes when the qualities are extreme, creating individuals who are dysfunctional.

A New take on Empathy

One key difference between ordinary individuals and psychopaths is that normal people spontaneously feel empathy; the crucial ability in society to put oneself in another person’s shoes in order to understand how they might feel. Normal people feel sorrow, pain or embarrassment on behalf of other people automatically, without having to think about it. The assumption until recently has been that psychopaths are unable to show empathy. Recent Neurology research in the Netherlands, however, has shown that when specifically ‘asked’ to empathise, a psychopath’s empathy reaction in the brain fires up in just the same way as ordinary people. In other words – psychopaths can feel the same emotions that others feel, but they seem to be able to switch this mechanism off.

Image: Microsoft
According to Christian Keysers from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and senior author of the study, "They don't lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off."

The notion that psychopaths have no empathy at all is a bleak prospect, making it very hard for them to ever have normal moral development. This new research might mean a fresh approach for psychotherapists and psychiatrists in treating criminals with psychopathic tendencies. It’s hard to judge at this stage, however, whether having the same neurons firing up in the brain means that psychopaths feel the same as ordinary people. But, if psychopaths are capable of empathy - even if only in certain conditions - therapists have something to work with.

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