Author’s note: This was originally scheduled for 7/26/2013 but was bumped as a much better blog beat me to the punch. Oh well, scrape the mold off and read.
A new study suggests that psychopaths can turn on or off empathic ability and may not completely lack empathic ability in its entirety. By and large, the common consensus regarding psychopaths is that we are inherently callous and could care less about the pain and suffering of most people around us; that we simply do not possess the ability to get inside another person and feel what they are feeling. I’ve ever so briefly touched on my own experiences regarding this. What would the implication be if we could get inside other people’s feelings? Could it be used for rehabilitation? Would it be just another outlet of information to use for exploitation? I think the answer is much more the latter than the former.
Undoubtedly many psychopaths, including myself, use the emotional state of another person as a means of determining what actions to take in order to best manipulate a person. This manipulation may be immediate when we capitalize on feelings of arousal and desire, for instance, or may be delayed as when we take in the life story of someone at the bar. As one contributor to the BBC article gives concern regarding the findings: “It’s dangerous to look at brain activation and say that it means they’re empathising. They are able to generate a typical neural response, but that doesn’t mean they have the same empathetic experience”.
I am not adept at empathy, so when I capitalize on the emotional state of another, I perceive it to be a solely intellectual exercise and not one that comes from the gut. I think whether my empathy is ‘real’ or not does not matter, however. The fact is that many of us are using information conveyed by someone’s emotions as a means of evaluating them for our self-serving purposes. Very rarely are we examining one’s emotions in order to provide empathic support. Even rarer still, are we truly in tune and able to mirror the pain being felt. The closest I ever come to achieving this last point is with those I have profound respect for. I am not trying to imply that psychopaths are continually in the shadows and digesting, as one would a book, others in order for completely self-serving purposes. But you would be deluded to think that we are not doing that a significant portion of the time; otherwise dissecting others’ emotions is merely a journey into irrationality with no immediate, or long-term, gain for the psychopath: meaning it would be rendered pointless.
So what of rehabilitation? Here is the problem with ‘rehabilitation’ and psychopaths. Most of us are at ease with our psychopathy. We may wish to improve ourselves via various means, be it an adherence to religion, intellectual growth, interpersonal growth, etc., but, in general, we do not wish to be ‘cured’ of our psychopathy. Ultimately, that is the endgame for non-psychopathic society. Psychopaths are viewed as creatures of destruction, which we certainly can be, that are constantly looking for our next fix, something I’m not quite so sure holds for all psychopaths. Just because we can be destructive forces does not mean that we feel the need or desire to that at all times; there are plenty of psychopaths that live productive lives and are relatively innocuous. If rehabilitation is truly needed, then society will need to take advantage of our self-interest rather than our brains. For instance, the threat of imprisonment is enough for some psychopaths, including myself, to be hypervigilant about the actions we do or do not perform.
So if we, in general, don’t want to be rehabilitated according to the endgame of society, then would empathy being switch-like really amount to anything? I don’t think so. Even if we could empathize when we want to, our narcissism and proclivities would presumably remain unchanged. Even if we could, over time, adapt to realize nearly automatic empathy, we would still, I believe, put ourselves and our desires first. Psychopathy is a cluster of behaviors, I don’t believe the acceptance of empathy would have a great effect on the other behaviors within the syndrome. I think it would just be another tool in our toolbox. A tool that would be more readily available and more readily used. Essentially, the switch would have to be taped into the ‘on’ position and I wonder if such a route would really be any different than the moral issues found in in the main character’s “rehabilitation” in A Clockwork Orange.