By Jerry Russell and Richard Stanley.
Revision level: 1.0r, 4/5/2003
For many years, psychologists have studied the frightening reality of psychopathic or sociopathic personalities -- the serial killers, the child abusers, the pathologically consistent liars and incorrigible thieves. The scientific study of these individuals was systemically organized by Hervey Cleckley and his 1941 classic "The Mask of Sanity", and today the specialist Robert Hare is one of the foremost authorities in the field. According to Hare, the key emotional and interpersonal traits defining the psychopathic personality syndrome are: a smooth, glib capability to lie, manipulate and dissemble; a completely callous lack of empathy or concern for others; shallow emotional affect and lack of remorse; and egocentric grandiosity.
While most psychological studies of psychopathy have been based on prison populations, there's an emerging (and controversial) recognition that many individuals with this cluster of personality characteristics, are not in prison. The traits of these individuals are so distinctive that they may even represent a distinct taxon, a true sub-species of mankind -- consisting of otherwise normal human beings who are completely lacking in normal human responses to social interactions with others.
In his book, "Without Conscience", Hare writes:
"To give you some idea of the enormity of the problem that faces us, consider that there are at least 2 million psychopaths in North America; the citizens of New York City have as many as 100,000 psychopaths among them. And these are conservative estimates. Far from being an esoteric, isolated problem that affects only a few people, psychopathy touches virtually every one of us.
Consider that the prevalence of psychopathy in our society is about the same as that of schizophrenia, a devastating mental disorder that brings heart-wrenching distress to patient and family alike. However, the scope of the personal pain and distress associated with schizophrenia is small compared to the extensive personal, social and economic carnage wrought by psychopaths. They cast a wide net, and nearly everyone is caught in it one way or another.
The most obvious expressions of psychopathy -- but by no means the only ones -- involve fragrant criminal violations of society's rules. Not surprisingly, many psychopaths are criminals, but many others remain out of prison, using their charm and chameleonlike abilities to cut a wide swath through society and leaving a wake of ruined lives behind them.
Together, these pieces of the puzzle form an image of a self-centered, callous and remorseless person profoundly lacking in empathy and the ability to form warm emotional relationships with others, a person who functions without the restraints of conscience. If you think about it, you will realize that what is missing in this picture are the very qualities that allow human beings to live in social harmony.
It is not a pretty picture, and some express doubt that such people exist. To dispel this doubt you need only consider the more dramatic examples of psychopathy that have been increasing in our society in recent years. Dozens of books, movies, and television programs, and hundreds of newspaper articles and headlines, tell the story: Psychopaths make up a significant portion of the people the media describe -- serial killers, rapists, thieves, con men, wife beaters, white-collar criminals, hype-prone stock promoters and "boiler-room" operators, child abusers, gang members, disbarred lawyers, drug barons, professional gamblers, members of organized crime, doctors who've lost their licenses, terrorists, cult leaders, mercenaries, and unscrupulous businesspeople.
What about politicians? Well, here we have to be careful, because in any individual case it can be very difficult to get the data that's needed for a complete scientific diagnosis. However, in some cases there is enough information available to make a persuasive case. For example, Chris Barr in his essay Towards a unified theory of Clinton notes the psychopathic aspects of Clinton's obsessive-compulsive work habits and decision-making processes, his multiple sexual escapades and denials, and his slimy yet inescapable "Sun King" charisma. Unfortunately, Barr's article is less attentive to Clinton's murderous attack on Yugoslavia, his coverup of the Vince Foster scandal, and his cynical manipulation of the financial markets to produce a massive and artificial boom-bust cycle, all of which would prove much more devastatingly that Clinton was a cold-blooded killer and pokerfaced liar.
Based on the conduct of the Iraq war, more and more people worldwide are concluding that George Bush is a psychopathic, insane individual. Some skeptics argue that the events of 9/11 were a cynical hoax, intended to provoke America into fighting aggressive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of innocents, in a quest for Imperial power. If this is agreed, then it really should not be necessary to offer any further evidence of the psychopathy of George W. Bush. But there is much more: in this essay by Bev Conover of Online Journal, Bush isn't a moron, he's a cunning sociopath, we learn that in his youth, George W. "enjoyed putting firecrackers into frogs, throwing them in the air, and then watching them blow up." Reporter Richard Gooding of the tabloid STAR stated, in a well-referenced article, that Bush was the president of Yale's Delta Epsilon Kappa fraternity -- which "barbarically branded its new members on their backsides with a red-hot metal rod as part of a sadistic hazing practice." Reportedly, "the branding resulted in a second-degree burn that left a half-inch scab in the shape of the Greek letter Delta."
While he was not busy slumming at Delta Epsilon Kappa, Bush also joined the highly elite Skull and Bones fraternity at Yale. Some boys just can't get enough of that "Greek" party lifestyle.
There's a lot of controversy over whether psychopathy should be viewed as a disease caused by some sort of organic birth defect or brain damage. Injuries to the frontal lobes can cause a syndrome that's similar in some respects, but Hare has done a series of studies showing that they're not identical, and that "true" psychopaths basically have highly intact cognitive skills, unlike victims of brain injuries.
Whether it's a "defect" or not, our speculation is that the psychopathic personality is an inherited trait (although this would certainly be controversial among psychologists, many of whom would argue that it can be a result of traumatic childhood experiences or brain injuries.) From our perspective on the literature, it seems reasonable to speculate that it may be only a matter of time before scientists isolate the particular genes that are involved in creating a pre-disposition towards the psychopathic syndrome.
A paper by Harris, Rice & Quinsey (1994) argues that psychopathy is a "taxon" -- that is, a discrete subclass, more or less as distinctive as male vs. female, or cat vs. dog. This is based on a statistical analysis of a population of subjects with their scores for psychopathy. The distribution of scores is strongly bimodal, indicating a lack of "shades of gray" for the psychopathic personality syndrome. This is a strikingly unusual result in personality research, which usually finds a continuous range of variability in personality traits. While a five-factor personality model (introversion/extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness) is often considered sufficient to describe the normal range of personality, the psychopathic personality is very difficult to represent within this space (see Miller et al., 2001), exhibiting highly differentiated sub-traits within the major personality dimensions (where we would normally expect to find correlated sub-traits.) The unusual pattern of sub-traits is, in our view, another basis for believing that psychopathy represents a distinct genetic syndrome.
A review article "the sociobiology of sociopathy an integrated evolutionary model"(Mealey, 1995) treats "primary sociopathy" more or less as a synonym for Cleckley/Hare psychopathy, and argues that it's an evolutionary adaptation -- that enables a percentage of the population to fill the ecological niche for cheaters and scam artists.
Along these lines, Kent Bailey(1995) argues that psychopaths should be called "warrior hawks", and that a healthy contingent of them would be necessary for the survival of any primitive band, faced with the need to survive in violent competition with neighboring tribes. "Warrior Hawks" is perhaps a kinder, less judgmental euphemism for the phenomenon. But on the other hand, it might be unfair to those who might favor warfare in some specific set of external circumstances. "All warrior hawks are psychopaths"? Dramatic, but probably not strictly accurate. (Some warrior hawks might only appear to be psychopaths.)
A related issue is the extent to which "normal" individuals can adopt the behavior patterns of psychopaths. The ideals of empathy, social cooperation and altruism have been supported by a wide variety of philosophical, ethical and spiritual arguments over the years. More importantly, they may also be backed by millions of years of evolution, as many species have adopted cooperative modes of behavior for survival. A revulsion for excessive wanton cruelty may be literally instinctive for most human beings. Nevertheless, any evolutionary tendency towards kindness, empathy and cooperation can apparently be overcome in certain circumstances -- for example, when the government issues a call to war, and tells the people that the enemy must be killed as a matter of the society's own survival.
The psychopaths have developed an extraordinarily powerful camouflage mechanism. When it fits their purposes, they are glib, friendly and easy-going, devoid of the petty anxieties that trouble most of us and cast a pall over day-to-day interactions. They are the very embodiment of charisma and chutzpah. In this way, they stay hidden and undetected by their victims until a trap is sprung. Precisely because most human beings have an instinctive internalized sense of fair play and altruism, they are incapable of seeing when another human being does not share these attributes. We simply do not believe that such evil could exist -- and when we do undeniably encounter it, we may be tempted to ascribe it to supernatural causes, invoking the Devil himself. It is particularly stunning and incredible to contemplate that a powerful and reputable person, a company president or a Senator, or the Ruler of our Country, could possibly be a true psychopath, a man devoid of conscience.
Yet we maintain that this is quite frequently the case, from the beginning of history down to the present day.
Psychopaths and Political Power. Sometimes (and seldom more than today) it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the whole world is going insane with war and preparation for war. However, the situation is merely a manifestation of a psychopathic tendency in politics, a sinister undercurrent which is always present and sometimes erupts into ugly prominence.
In order to explain how this has happened, we will take the liberty of expressing a theory in terms of primitive, pre-historical culture. (Ever since Rousseau invented the concepts of the "noble savage" living in the "state of nature", philosophers have appealed to pre-history in support of their frameworks, and scientists have criticized those models as little better than fables. Keeping this criticism in mind, we offer this historical just-so story as a model, but not as a proof.)
A pre-history of psychopathy. Primitive man lived in small tribes of perhaps a hundred people or so. Within these tribes, all the basic functions of government and religion had to be filled--educating the young, taking care of the old, making plans for hunting and gathering, providing an ethical system and a knowledge base for dealing with the world, and interacting with other tribes. To fill these functions, we might imagine that hierarchies would naturally emerge, based on strength, skill and intellect.
In this intimate environment, an unintelligent psychopath who actualized a criminal desire to kill or steal from his fellow tribesmen, would obviously be maladaptive as well as easily detected. However, a more clever individual with the psychopathic personality syndrome could find himself in an advantaged position in a tribal society.
With respect to a neighboring tribe -- a well-timed lie about their intentions, or false allegations of evil actions on their part, could inflame the passions of the psychopath's own tribe. This would have tremendous advantages in terms of the outcome of prehistoric warfare -- the ability to carry out an attack with surprise at a time of one's own choosing. A psychopath could satisfy his blood-lust, and emerge as a hero of his tribe as well -- while a non-psychopathic leader would spend time pondering the pain and suffering of the neighboring tribe, as well as the risks to his own people.
With respect to one's own tribesmen -- clever, well-spun and glib lies about Nature or "The Gods" could help fellow tribesmen achieve a (quite likely false) sense of assurance and confidence about the world and their place in it, while more honest individuals would simply scratch their heads at the mystery of it all. As long as the lies are not caught (and religious ideas are often framed in terms which are not subject to verification) the psychopath can earn the respect of his tribe, and probably extra benefits in terms of a greater share of the wealth of the tribe, and better access to women.
As society became more complex, the psychopath's psychological edge may have become more significant. To the extent that psychopathy and intelligence are both hereditary, those advantages would have compounded the sociological advantages of better education and greater wealth that would naturally have accrued to the children of the leading lights of the tribe.
Psychopathy at the dawn of history. With the development of writing, the elite class would multiply their advantage over the commoners, because these highly specialized skills could be used to create an aura of mystery as well as a body of tremendously useful proto-scientific knowledge. Of course, not all members of the elite would be likely to be psychopathic by any means -- on the contrary, we would expect that accidents of birth, the distribution of skills within the broader society, and the advantages of conscientiousness and honesty, would be a constant balancing force. However, the activities of the psychopathic element would put a continuously insane "edge" on the acceptable range of elite conversation, and more often than not, non-psychopaths would find it much to their advantage to play along with the lies of the psychopaths (even when they were able to understand the fraudulent nature of those lies.)
By the time of earliest written history, we would argue that the psychopaths must have been pretty firmly in control of the emerging civilizations. We find that hordes of slaves were enlisted to build gigantic stone temples for the benefit of rulers who were seen as Gods Incarnate, while fear of the Gods (and rulers) was sometimes maintained through human sacrifice at the altar of those same gigantic temples. And this was in the stable, civilized part of the world -- which was wracked from time to time by invading hordes of roving barbarians who sometimes left none alive of the vanquished. The hatred of human sacrifice was a major part of the dialectic by which Rome conquered the ancient world.
The strategy and tactics of class struggle: As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto --
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Yet Marx was quite incorrect in viewing Capital as the fundamental underlying nature of this struggle. Many other factors are just as important, if not more so. Capitalism had not even been invented when the process of Class Struggle was firmly entrenched in human society. We argue that history should more precisely be viewed as a struggle of Truth and Common Sense to emerge against the ongoing efforts of psychopathic elements within the elite classes, who promote chaos and insanity for their own benefit.
A list of the ever-evolving tactics of the psychopathic elite classes would certainly include the following --
(1) Capitalist economics. Wealth obtained by the elite through conquest or theft, or inheritance, or monopolistic practices, or government-granted privilege, is treated equivalently to wealth generated by hard work or trade or innovation. In this way, the elite co-opts the support of the productive middle class.
(2) Socialist economics. The elite captures a large percentage of the total income of society through taxation (as in most modern nations). This is done ostensibly for the benefit of the common people at large, but most of the resources are appropriated for elite purposes, while only a relatively small trickle is used for "bread and circuses" to maintain support from the lower and middle classes.
(3) Feudal, fascist or communist economics. The common people are more or less owned by the elites as slaves, who are alternatively terrorized and cajoled into compliance. This system occurs when the elite is able to cause the breakdown of capitalist or socialist economic system.
(4) Democratic political systems. All politicians come from the elite classes or serve the interests of elite classes, while the people have the illusion of determining outcomes for their benefit.
(5) Authoritarian political systems. Royal or dictatorial power is used to direct as much as possible of all social resources towards elite goals. The system may be justified on patriotic, ideological or religious grounds. Typically associated with feudal or fascist economic systems.
(6) Popular religions. Often created and always manipulated by psychopathic lies from the priesthood, popular religions exploit natural human spirituality to promote the goals of the elite. Typically, individuals are encouraged to behave honestly and altruistically on behalf of elite goals (in contrast to the elites themselves, who routinely rely on deceit and treachery.) Religion may also be used to promote war and ethnic hatred, when this is required by elite strategies.
(7) Conspiracy. Elite individuals may choose to cooperate secretly with other elite individuals in other institutions or nations, to achieve mutual goals. Since elites do not necessarily share the religious and ethnic prejudices of their citizens or subjects, these conspiratorial alignments may often seem paradoxical or impossible when viewed in terms of conventional (national or institutional) paradigms. They make sense only in terms of the universal class struggle transcending national or institutional boundaries.
(8) War and conquest. Elites in aggressor societies use their power and deceitfulness to incite the population to make war. War creates anxiety, and allows the upper classes to appropriate more resources to defeat the enemy. For the losing side in war, the population at large may suffer complete defeat (and death or slavery) but the losing elite typically emerges in quisling status -- reduced but far from impotent. Sometimes a militarily strong but culturally inept nation or tribe invades and conquers another, only to find themselves ruled in short order by the elite classes of the conquered.
A particularly astounding example of the creation of war by elite banking interests is the extraordinary level of funding of both Hitler and Stalin in the build-up to World War II, as documented in Antony Sutton's books "Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler" (1976) and "National Suicide, Military Aid to the Soviet Union" (1973). These interests were obviously more important that Hitler in creating World War II, yet they went unpunished and indeed invisible at the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunals, and they are leading the charge to war today as well.
(9) Revolution and submergence. If the lower classes make troublesome demands, the elite may stage or permit a revolution which promises a major overhaul in the social structure. Following the revolution, the same old elite class emerges in control of the new institutional framework.
(10) Economic and social chaos. Elites may intentionally create or exacerbate economic boom-bust cycles, instigate ethnic conflict, or intentionally sabotage the productive capacities of a society, in order to increase the relative power and status of government and corporate institutions.
Bailey, K.G. The sociopath: cheater or warrior hawk? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 18, 542-543.
Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E. & Quinsey, V. Psychopathy as a Taxon: Evidence that Psychopaths are a Discrete Class. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(2), 387-397.
Mealey, L. (1995). The sociobiology of sociopathy an integrated evolutionary model. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 18, 523-599.
Miller, J.D., Lynam, D.R., Widiger, T., & Leukefeld, C. (2001). Personality disorders as extreme variants of common personality dimensions: Can the five factor model adequately represent psychopathy? Journal of Personality, 69, 253-276.