Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

On becoming a psychopath

Posted 24 Oct 2012 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher EducationPsychopathy’s Double Edge

There are so many fascinating elements to this article and what it says about human behavior.

First, there is the fact that most people walk around with a very potent regulatory of behavior, one that suppresses both impulses that would put oneself at risk and drives that harm others. This is the biological seat of altruism, of prosocial behavior, and it is plays a very strong executive role in the regulation of most people’s behavior. I kind of wonder whether we can even separate the avoid risking myself regulation of the amygdala from its role in suppressing urges that might lead to the harm of others. After all, if you live among other social partners who expect you to behave prosocially and will not hesitate to punish you for antisocial behavior, not harming others is crucial to avoiding risk to oneself.

Second, it is fascinating that life experience can allow some individuals to control the amygdala (or perhaps other segments of our brains). The depiction of the British Special forces officer and his ability to prepare himself for the series of disturbing images reminds me — perhaps ironically given the cultural distance involved — of the practice of mindfulness meditation. As I have experienced it, mindfulness meditation is all about quieting one’s mind, interrupting the cascade of emotional excitation that may come from a variety of external or internal stimuli: a practiced meditator can, so to speak, keep an even mental keel in the roughest of emotional waters.

Third, I am fascinated (but not yet satisfied) by the suggestion that this article begins with: that we are becoming more psychopathic as a society. There is so much to unpack here, even if this contention is true. I do not find it hard to imagine that psychopaths are responsible for many of our social ills, even if they are not increasing in the overall population. Whether we are talking about random violence or the extreme market manipulation that led to the recent housing collapse, it seems that risky, narcissistic behavior is a serious current-day problem. Maybe psychopaths are simply gaining more opportunities to become successful members of society, or maybe they truly are increasing in frequency. But if either of these is true, what might explain this shift?

One possibility is that psychopaths are no longer socially checked in the way they once were. The unprecedented emphasis that modern society places on individualism provides the perfect environment for psychopaths to thrive. Whereas only centuries ago we would have been far more dependent on our local communities, today it is very easy to live within society, play your role, and never have to rely on or be relied upon for mutual aid. The psychopath lurks undetected when community demands little in terms of altruism from the average citizen. I suspect that there have always been psychopaths, but perhaps they were purged more readily by angry prosocial mobs in the past.

A Minor Post, Altruism, Articles, Behavior, Emotion, Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Gene by Environment Interactions, Human Evolution, Neuroscience, Psychology

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