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The Partial Psychopath

E.T. Barker M.D. and B. Shipton Ph.D

...In our experience, the dimension that correlates most closely with psychopathy and which has been identified or is implicit in all definitions of the illness is the concept of empathy -- but I have to say quickly, empathy defined in a specific two-part way.

Empathy is loosely thought to be the capacity to put yourself in another persons shoes. But this seems to be only one part of what constitutes empathy as it exists in the psychopath. What seems different about the psychopath is that he is peculiarly unaffected or detached emotionally from the knowledge that he gains by putting himself in your shoes. Thus, although he is able to very quickly glean during the briefest of interaction with another person a lot of very useful information about what makes him tick, this knowledge is simply knowledge to be used or not as the politics of the situation dictate. What seems to be missing in psychopaths is the compelling nature of an appropriate affective response to the knowledge gained from putting himself in another persons shoes, in the way that this happens in the normal person. This essential missing aspect of empathy in the severe psychopath is not in my experience easily seen and one does not often get a second glimpse of it if one has been treated to a first one by mistake.

A rather crude example might suffice for I am sure many of you have had similar experiences. A young psychopath who had inflicted multiple stab wounds on an elderly woman, and was charged with attempted murder, appeared subdued and appropriately sad about the offence during the early stages of a first interview. His eyes were moist as he accurately described how the woman must have felt during and after the attack. But later in the same interview, after a rather jocular rapport had been established, this boy blurted out, "I don't know what all the fuss is about. The old bag only had a dozen scratches". To my knowledge, in all his subsequent years at mental hospital, he stuck to all the right lines of remorse which he quickly learned were more appropriate and useful. The bright psychopath, the experienced psychopath, doesn't stumble like that every often. Although with luck and the right question at the right time in the right place about how the other person's feelings affected him, will produce a pause, or a puzzled look, or even rarely the question "how am I supposed to feel about it".

We have often thought that the deficient capacity for this two-part type of empathy, coupled with a pervasive distrust of others, are together enough to account for the psychopath's inability to give or receive affection, or maintain lasting relationships. Moreover, if we had the capacity to measure this two-part type of empathy we would be able to correlate such findings with clinical impressions of severity of psychopathy, whether we are speaking about psychopaths in prison, in politics, in business, or the day before they kill.

To take the issue further, if a relative incapacity for this two-part type of empathy is a key ingredient in the makeup of psychopaths, what are the consequences for society if large numbers of individuals are functioning without it. Isn't a capacity to be affected by what is happening to others a necessary component in the makeup of a majority of persons in order for a group to function as a group? From a sociological perspective, isn't this one of the functional prerequisites of any social system? Is there a critical mass for this type of empathy for a society to survive?...

Excerpted from a paper presented at the 68th Annual Meeting of the Ontario Psychiatric Association, 1988.