I am going to make no pretense as to thinking that I have any involved knowledge in the social sciences or the humanities to comment on a serious level on the topic of the psychopath. However, their mystique attracts me on a “Hollywood Movie” level, and I somehow get the feeling that they are not the inscrutable evil geniuses that are portrayed in these movies.
I read into the literature, and I am confronted by a hornet’s nest of conflicting definitions. Psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and psychoanalysts do not seem to agree on the details, but I, as the reader of such things, would like to put together something that is plausible by me, as mentally put together over the years. I apologize in advance for not having references for everything I say, but I already warned you about not being strictly academic at the start.
We more or less all agree on the problem with these people. They are beyond selfish, they lack empathy, they have shallow charm, are cold-hearted, manipulative, irresponsible, and lack guilt or remorse. Unlike the stereotype, they do not have above-average IQ. Their intelligence is normally distributed like the rest of us.
Narcississm is currently thought to be part of the same package, and is part of the symptom outlay of psychopaths. To see the differences, from how I understand it, you have to travel inward. Psychopaths have a low autonomic arousal. For the common person, that means their “flight or fight” system doesn’t work like it does for us. They never get afraid of anything. Now, I wish I were that macho, and I guess we all wish were were a little tougher to face life’s sticky situations. But in the case of the psychopath, it makes them utterly reckless. They have no concern for their own safety, or the safety of anyone else.
Everything I have told you about psychopaths so far has probably given the impression that these folks are no picnic. Good. Frankly, these are just people you avoid. The literature states pretty clearly that even a trained therapist can’t change them, so don’t bother trying yourself.
Hearing of their low autonomic arousal made me think: most modern literature I have read states there are a higher concentration of psychopaths in modern industrial societies, particularly in large business institutions. I am not aware of any data that would have stated that the number of psychopaths diagnosed has risen in the last 60 years since the classification was first coined or even since the first popular book on the topic by the late Hervey Cleckley was written (of whcih I am aware), called “The Mask of Sanity” (you can Google yourself a copy of the classic third edition of the book in PDF). But I find it un-necessary to think in these terms. I believe we have had them all along. I believe psychopaths are as old as our species. I shall stop short of pretending I can find a genetic basis, however.
Nobody has any evidence of this idea that they go as far back as our species, but I don’t see why not. In the early days of Homo sapiens, the world was a much harsher place as we had not developed agriculture, probably hadn’t yet developed any good weapons, we were competing against Homo neanderthalis for the same resources. Recent eveidence had shown that the Neaderthals had larger brain cases than us, and that meant they were likely smarter than us. Evidence had also shown they were less selfish. There were no evidence of a conflict. They were there once, and then they weren’t.
I would estimate that in early Man, that is, Man the hunter-gatherer, looked upon those who could kill the biggest and fiercest animal with the most awe and respect. A psychopath wrestling a tiger with whatever weapons avaialble would mean that, due to the psychopath’s low fight-or flight reponse, that all the panicking is being done by the tiger. Maybe the psychopath comes out heavily bruised and scarred, but only the tiger dies, and the tribe is in awe of the hunter’s prowess. People like that are the stuff of legends. Not only do I think psychopaths had a place in early societies, I believe it was likely that they would be seen as essential to the survival of the tribe. All of these things fulfill the psychopath’s demands to be surrounded by admirers, worshipped, and to be considered superior to others in every way. Other hunters may try to match the psychopath, but they are beset by having a functioning autonomic system. They are not reckless enough.
The proportion of them that exist in all societies means that even in ancient societies, our lack of respect for the environment has always left a footprint everywhere we have settled. I would guess that the lack of respect would be proportional to the prevalence of psychopaths in that population.
In modern industrial societies, we have no need for them, but they are still around living out what has become a parasitic existence.