|Posted by Dr. Dorothy McCoy on October 30, 2013 at 2:55 PM|
Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Evil
DELANY DEAN, JD, PhD
NARCISSISM AND PSYCHOPATHY
Introduction: During both my professional careers (criminal law and psychology), two areas of particular interest to me have been psychopathy and narcissism. Psychopathy is generally viewed as a particularly virulent form of narcissism, in which the person is not only very much focused on herself, or himself, but also highly manipulative, sometimes sadistic, and very much into control and power. One prominent characteristic of psychopathy is the presence of what is usually called a “glib, superficial charm.” These people are usually able, at least in the short term, to win over others very easily. They would generally be described as “very attractive” people (on the surface). Sometimes a person who merits the designation “psychopath” goes into a path of criminal activity (many, but not all, serial killers are psychopaths, and criminals known as “con artists” are often psychopaths); other times, the psychopath will be engaged in a legitimate career (politics, academia, corporate leadership). The key is not the type of activity the person engages in, but the degree of control s/he exercises over others.
Underneath the superficial charm, the narcissist/psychopath always has a “me-first” mentality. If you work with such a person, you may begin to see signs that s/he thinks that everything is about her; and, crucially, it will become clear that control/power is a major part of her game plan. However, this can be well concealed beneath a veneer of friendliness and concern for others; it may not become clearly evident until s/he receives what is known as a “narcissistic injury.” A person who is truly narcissistic will respond with extreme anger if s/he receives a challenge to her ego (an ego that is both fragile, and strongly defended). This response may look like an overblown rage fit, following a minor slight; or it may take the form of a cold vindictiveness, administered by acts of retaliation. These responses can be very shocking, even frightening, to the person who unwittingly triggered or evoked the narcissistic injury (by getting in the way of the narcissist’s plans, for example, or by displaying a lack of full approval and appreciation for the narcissist’s brilliant ideas).
A good non-technical book about this phenomenon is: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout [the term “sociopath” is closely related to the term “psychopath”].
Some good web resources about the phenomenon known as “narcissistic rage” are in my “del.icio.us” links (click over in the side column on this blog, where it says “And, Check Out…”). One of them is from the “Dr. Sanity” website.
NEUROSCIENCE OF PSYCHOPATHY
Recently, Nature magazine published a great article [pdf] on the neuroscience of psychopaths, as investigated by an ingenious study being run by a group of Dutch researchers. Psychopaths are rare individuals who display what is sometimes called “malignant narcissism,” a capacity to use any situation for their own gain, with total disregard for the inconvenience or even suffering that their behavior might cause to others. At their worst, they may also be sadistic. Although it is sometimes said that they lack impulse control, the opposite may be true: many of these guys (most psychopaths are male) are very methodical. Here are excerpts from the article:
“Although there is a higher number of psychopaths among violent criminals, a psychopath is not necessarily someone who is violent.
“The term describes someone who is considered to lack empathy or conscience, is superficially charming, manipulative, has ’shallow affect’ (doesn’t have a big emotional range) and has poor impulse control. More recently, psychopathy has become synonymous with the use of the PCL-R, the diagnostic tool also known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist after it’s creator and psychopathy researcher Robert Hare.
“The Dutch team… are working with psychopaths who are in prison for presumably quite serious crimes, precisely because they lack empathy. They are comparing the brain activation between psychopaths and non-psychopaths when they view material that communicates emotions and normally evokes an empathy-driven reaction. By looking at which brain areas are less active in the presumably empathy-less psychopaths, they hope to find out the crucial empathy-related brain circuits.
“There are more details about the study in the article, but one bit is particularly interesting, wherein one of the participants, from a high security prison, comments on the study. He says that, when he entered the prison five years ago, ‘borderline personality’ was the fashionable term, and his designated pigeonhole. Later, he was diagnosed as a psychopath; about this switch, he says: ‘The psychopathy label is more damaging — it prompts everyone to see you as a potential serial killer, which I could never be.’ But [this prisoner] also wears his PCL-R score as a badge of honour: ‘I think my high psychopath score is a talent, not a sickness — I can make good strong decisions, and it’s good to have some distance with people.’
“Interestingly, [these points] have also been made in the psychological literature. Ian Pitchford proposed in a 2001 article that psychopathy could be an evolutionary advantage for a minority of individuals, as it allows them act violently or antisocially without any emotional cost to themselves. Furthermore, discussion in both the psychological and legal literature has focused on whether labelling someone a ‘psychopath’ is unjustly stigmatising.
One article even goes as far as to suggest that ‘psychopathy’ is just a modern term we’ve invented to replace the world ‘evil’.” See the pdf of Nature article ‘Scanning Psychopaths’.
Authoritarianism and Psychopathy