Psychopathy: A Cultural Reality?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Stalin, Draper, Caulfield, Salander. No, it's not the latest name of Mad Men's pivotal ad agency. It's part of a list of people one could classify as psychopaths.

"Strange answers to the psychopath test," the TEDTalk by journalist Jon Ronson, explores the nature and definition of psychopathy. As research, Ronson visits a tough-as-nails CEO he suspects of psychopathy as well as an inmate of a psychiatric facility who claims he pretended to be a psychopath to avoid going to prison. Through the talk, he questions whether psychopathy is a legitimate category of mental illness, or if it's just a construct we use to explain away actions in our fellow humans that are less than nice, less than normative, that make us non-psychopaths feel uneasy.

One of the tools Ronson uses as a test is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which attempts to qualify and quantify the qualities we're reacting to in psychopaths. If we trust the checklist, we see that history and culture are strewn with both the wreckage and the accomplishments of pure, irredeemable psychopaths. And, glancing over the diagnostic traits, more than a few famous names, both real and fictional, come to mind as potential psychopaths.

This diverse list of personalities, and the stories that go with them, brings to mind not only that feeling known as "the willies," but also a certain amount of respect for the corresponding wiles that ultimately bring psychopaths their version of success. These psychopaths display effortless exploitation and gritty determination, bottomless destruction and a certain industrious creativity. They are rich and poor, male and female, powerful and disenfranchised. And yet, they have something in common: their cunningly unconventional way of interacting with and successfully manipulating other people.

This difference is probably what makes psychopathy such an attractive subject to journalists, artists, and writers. One famous occasion of psychopathy appears in John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, East of Eden. The antagonist of the novel and a stand-in for the Biblical Eve, Cathy Ames is the very depiction of evil: She murders her parents, cold-heartedly deserts her devoted husband and baby sons, and pretty much fails to show a scrap of compassion throughout the novel. In other words, she is a perfect case study in psychopathy. About Cathy, Steinbeck writes:

Even as a child, she had some quality that made people look at her then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign in her eyes... Men and women wanted to inspect her, to be close to her, to try to find what caused the disturbance so subtly.

You could say that American culture and the capitalism it's built on glorified psychopathic traits. Looking again to the list of Hare's psychopathic traits, it's clear that those we define as psychopathic are often just as respected as they are Machiavellian. --Laura Cococcia

However unsettling Cathy is for being different in a way people can't put their fingers on, she is also magnetic, attractive, and tactful, and therefore successful in her endeavors. Really, she is an individualist at heart and in the strictest way possible: the ties of family, friendship, marriage, and motherhood mean absolutely nothing to her, and she is willing to sacrifice them all for what she wants. So, I wonder: in a nation that tends to hold individualism as a sacred tenet, is the psychopath's complete egoism something we admire?

Inspecting psychiatric disorders is not just for the pop culture hobbyist, of course -- there are people who do it as a profession. But given its re-occurrence as a subject and a theme in pop culture and history, it might be surprising to learn that the DSM IV, the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, does not list psychopathy among its long list of mental disorders. While Hare and others have broadly defined psychopathy, its definition often relies on traits and behaviors that make it easy to cast a too wide net when fishing for psychopaths.

Still, whether or not psychopathy is a valid category of mental illness doesn't have much of a bearing on how fascinating our desire to categorize psychopaths is as a cultural tendency. As Ronson explains, you could say that American culture and the capitalism it's built on glorified psychopathic traits. Looking again to the list of Hare's psychopathic traits, it's clear that those we define as psychopathic are often just as respected as they are Machiavellian.

So, what does our interest in psychopaths say about American culture and its most important values, narratives, and archetypes? Among other things, I think, it at least proves that most of us aren't psychopaths. A psychopath, after all, doesn't have the inclination to consider anyone else but him or herself.

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