Do Psychopaths Dream of Power & Status?

The following documentaries are extremely interesting and worrying in their implications (to put it mildly). Both documentaries are centred around psychologist Robert D Hare’s recently devised checklist to accurately diagnose cases of psychopathy, and raise, in my opinion, some serious issues which need to be addressed if we are to make a better, fairer and safer world for future generations. But an ethical solution to some of the problems presented may not become available to us for some time to come, and even if/when the science /technology to resolve the problems without resorting to inhuman right-wing tactics becomes available to us, there may still be serious ethical considerations to weigh-up as to whether or not the technology should be employed.

This undoubtedly all sounds very melodramatic and exaggerated, but I think once you’ve delved even just a bit deeper into this topic beyond the commonly held view (or misconception), as I have, you’ll find that you agree with me, if not in whole, in part.

Experts say that as many as 1 in 100 people could be psychopaths. They are not only serial killers, that is only the extreme and a small minority of the whole, in reality they are all around us, functioning, for the most part, as law abiding citizens. But this does not mean they are harmless.

What defines a psychopath is the inability to relate – a total lack of empathic reasoning. This causes them to be extremely selfish and ruthless; they will hold no qualms over deceiving and/or manipulating to get what they want. Sometimes to get what they want they must inflict violence or kill. Whilst other times (remember, they possess no empathy or conscience) they simply crave the rush and sense of power dominating/abusing/killing a person will provide them.

Not all psychopaths feel they need to break the law to get what they want though. They are often, by nature, very cunning people, and resorting to such crude methods as killing to fulfil their selfish desires often is not necessary. As you’ll find out if you watch the documentaries, a lot of psychopaths get on extremely well in the ruthless, cut-throat world of business and commerce for example. And this world satisfies their craving for power and domination over others.

Quote from the Equinox documentary, Psyschopath:-

The notion of industrial psychopaths rising throught the ranks to become captains of industry could mean that the character traits are a positive business asset.

Power attracts the corruptible – Frank Herbert

So, we know what defines a psychopath, but what defines a human? Is empathy and a conscience vital qualities to being human? If so, can psychopaths really be classified as truly “human”? Or are they humans in disguise? Cold, unfeeling androids without a “soul”? If this is the case, then maybe the ethical conundrums I mentioned earlier don’t apply, but I feel very wairy of going down this route… we all know what happens when people are classed as “subhuman”.  The inspiration for Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was people PKD saw around him who he felt lacked these vital humanistic ingredients. Even the “Voight-Kampff” test used to identify the androids is reminiscent of a psychopathy evaluation, gauging emotional reaction to stimuli.

From the wiki article about the novel:-

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, where the Earth and its populations have been damaged greatly by Nuclear War during World War Terminus. Most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. To own an animal is a sign of status, but what is emphasized more is the empathic emotions humans experience towards an animal.

Deckard is faced with “retiring” six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, the latest and most advanced model. Because of this task, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids possess no empathic sense. In essence, Deckard probes the existence of defining qualities that separate humans from androids.

What definately isn’t a human is a corporation (Tyrell, “More Human than Human”!). Yet as explored in the second documentary, a Canadian film called The Corporation, these organisations must be considered, in the eyes of the law, as a person rather than an entity. Under this definition, reasons profiler Robert Hare, corporations can be categorized as psychopathic because they exhibit a personality disorder: that of single-mindedly pursuing their objectives without regard for the people in and around them.

In my opinion, these docos are explosive and should be seen by everyone. The Equinox documentary is an eye-opener for sure, and The Corporation is nothing short of a masterpiece in my opinion, winning the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, 2004, along with a Special Jury Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2003 and 2004. They have certainly changed and shaped my present view of the world in which we find ourselves (as well as my interpretation of PKD’s novel). I hope you can find the time to view them both, and I look forward to the debate these docos will hopefully initiate on the comments section.

If you want to research even more into this topic after watching the documentaries, I recommend the book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us by Robert D Hare, the psychologist who developed the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) and Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R).

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36 Comments

  1. Definitely your most interesting contribution yet Mr Jones 😉 Will check out those documentaries today and let you know my thoughts. I liked the reference to Dick too. The ethical argument about discriminating against people with no empathy may be a read herring, we as a society waive the rights of those who wish to harm people, be they terrorists or child molestors or whatever. The legal quandry would be proving they harm society. If you believe in the power of commerce you might arrive at the conclusion that psychopaths are a necessary evil rather than a detrimental influence. Indeed, many are celebrated as heros, in a world that worships at the alter of profit.

    • Cheers Mick. 🙂 Yeah, PKD explored what is was to be human in DADoES, the main motif being empathy. In the end the “andies” became more human than the human characters in the story (esp. replicants Deckard and Rachael in the film, who fell in love), “learning” empathy as they got older (and nearer to their expiry date). Whereas humankind seem to be loosing their empathic ability. The title refers to whether or not andies experience empathy towards their own kind, hence “electric sheep” and the link between pets/animals and the empathy we feel towards them. This is where my analogy comparing the andies to psychos falls a little short, as psychopaths can not be rehabilitated, and can not learn empathy, it’s simply a quality they do not possess.

      If you’re interested, there is a little gem of an old 90s BBC Arena episode all about PKD, it’s fantastic if you’re a fan of PKD as I am: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJehaCfnXHE

    • The “technology” I refer to at the beginning of the article is, as an expert in neurology puts it at the end of the Equinox doco, “replacing dysfunctional brain mechanisms with microchips”. He seems to think this technology is not that far away.

    • Another interesting point is that in the Equinox documentary they state that 1 in 200 could be psychopaths in the UK, whereas in the US it could be as high as 1 in 100. Very peculiar…

  2. Whoa WHAT? I don’t think being a psychopath is a digital thing where you either are one or you aren’t one. Most people I know have some sort of ‘insane’ trait they just don’t express it to the degree that they’re actually a lunatic. If you tried to cut out my psychopathic traits to make e a better human or whatever I would cut off your fingers an burn down your organisation. It’s part of what make me me and what make humans human.
    It’s not just something that exists today in large organisations. Read a book called Lords of Creation and you’ll find that for better or for worse psychos have been the biggest movers and shakers of humanity since the dawn of civilisation. I don’t think there’s any ethical standpoint for predeterminately removing psycho genes from the gene pool, bar good old natural selection. Yeah punish murderers and the like but don’t edit humanity to prevent a crime before it happens. It’s basicly genetic cleansing which is pretty psychotic.

    • The Human Race is imperfect and wanting to change that is a dangerous thing, you’re soon looking into the dark abyss of eugenics and fascism.

    • The experts seem to think there is a scale of psychopathy, and that it is a dysfunction of a certain area of the brain. Something you are born with (or without). The experts think that yes, you are either a psychopath or you’re not, and it can be and assessed through measuring brain activity in that certain area, when the subject is presented with emotive stimuli. Psychopathy isn’t the same as insanity. Psychos are perfectly sane. They just don’t care about the people around them.

      Don’t take my word for it, I’m no expert on the subject, it’s just an area which has interested me for some time. Have you seen the Equinox documentary? It’s only 30mins long.

      I agree, going down the route of seeking out psychopaths and removing them from society/altering their minds through microchips is going down the route the Nazi’s took with eugenics, etc.

    • I will check out that lords of creation book dan, thanks.

    • All these views about not resorting to Nazi-style genetic cleansing are humanistic and compassionate in nature. Not the kind of issues a certified psychopath would concern themselves with. It’s a case of being the same as them if we follow that route, like you say Dan, “Basically genetic cleansing which is pretty psychotic.”

      And micro-chips implanted into the brain to give psychos empathic ability is also a well dodgy route to go down too.

    • *Edit – Sorry, re-reading your post dan, I can see that you’re not saying that psychopaths are insane, as I originally thought you were.

    • Dan. “If you tried to cut out my psychopathic traits to make e a better human or whatever I would cut off your fingers an burn down your organisation. It’s part of what make me me and what make humans human.”
      It’s not a case of cutting out your psychopathic traits, what makes you psychopathic is something missing, compassion and the ability to love. Not saying I agree with this idea, but the neurological implant would give you empathy. So maybe you wouldn’t cut off my fingers after all, as you’d now you’d instinctively feel empathy and compassion towards your victim, whereas before you would not have. I’ve given you the gift of compassion and love, why would you want to cut-off my fingers?

      • You’d have to put the implant in me first which would put you in a dangerous situation of coming near me with pointy objects. And if you managed to do the deed of implanting me my sheer force of will would require me to return the favour by putting foreign objects in you. I’m pretty ideologically against any implants that would interfere with my brain, partly because of the aspect of control and also because I suspect humanity’s understanding of the mind is way off it’s actual workings.
        I believe labels such as psychopath and insane are part of social manipulation used to make you think that these people are somehow less than human. The psychotherapy occupations and sciences seem on the whole less about understanding these different mind sets and more about labelling people fit or unfit for society and then bending these people to fit with the social norm .

  3. A person without the normal ability to empathize should not be given the power to rule over people/make important decisions any more then a blind person should operate a car. Simple as. The running of this planet by those who desire power, status and wealth has led it towards destruction, and it is time for a different way. We all have skills to offer, and removing this trait is not the answer- but allowing it to continue because it is nature’s way is ridiculous. If we allowed nature to take its course, I would have been dead long ago…

    Thing is though, evolution may not be finished. We shall indeed reach a point when natural selection is a reality once again- simply because resources will be squandered, ecosystems damaged enough, and the climate disrupted to the point that removes many of our modern tools and leaves us fighting over basic needs like clean water. It will be a grim time.

    We will, however, have the knowledge that it was allowing these greedy megalomaniac psychopaths who helped us into the mess we find ourselves in. I hope that we have the cognitive ability to change the system with hindsight at this point. But I am also afraid we will end up beating each other to death over the limited resources, and elect to revere the most ruthless of us who can procure and manipulate these resources successfully, thereby starting the whole vicious cycle again.

    • I’m glad you share my views on the topic Mary. And your simple solution is genius; just evaluate and discriminate. I think in some cases discrimination in terms of certain positions in organisations and society, such as positions of power and influence over people’s lives where there’s potential for spreading harm, can be a positive thing.

    • The things I wanna ask though is what is the ‘normal’ ability to empathise? I’m not going to say that too much empathy is a bad thing but where the cut off point for people with too little empathy, how do you even recognise it? I don’t like the word normal when applied to the whole of humanity because it’s loaded by what you think is normal. You could have some average level of empathy for humanity but I think you’ll find that level a lot lower than you hope. A lot of people don’t seem to care for people outside of their families.
      Also evolution’s not over yet, not by a long shot, not until the universe has settled in a state of total entropy ( if you believe in that sort of thing)

      • Psychopaths simply can not empathise, do not possess a conscience, experience zero guilt, no matter how heinous and monstrous the damage they may have caused either intentionally or by accident. It’s not a case of maybe feeling only a little compassion or empathy as opposed to a lot, or caring only for your immediate family.

        There is the emotional distance and detachment you may feel to say a devastating natural disaster you see reported on the TV from the other side of the world, because it’s not happening in front of you. That’s different from the psychopaths’ total lack of empathy. If their sister shot her brains out in front of them, they would not bat an eyelid, if anything they may find it interesting, or amusing, or be annoyed that some blood and brain matter got spattered on their new suit.

        Like, would you, for example, seriously consider not giving your child lunch for school because you want all the money the kid could have to buy school dinner for betting on the horses, even though there is no food in the house for making a pack lunch? A psychopath would do that without a second thought if they thought they could get away with it – that’s the kind of level of total lack of conscience I’m talking about. That total lack of conscience automatically leads to an extremely selfish nature.

        You recognise psychopaths by Robert D Hare’s psychopathy checklist, a list of traits/behaviour patterns etc. The more traits an individual has that are on the list, the more likely it is that they are psychopathic. It is universally accepted by psychiatrists and neurological experts as the most accurate standard by which to identify psychopaths.

        Plus, the book Lords of Creation: The Demented World of Men in Power by Margaret Cook, seems to be written from the angle that “power corrupts”, but the angle I’m exploring is the possibility that power attracts the corruptible, in particular relation to psychopaths who are born with a dysfunctional area of the brain, and are not created by external factors such as access to power and influence.

      • PS I agree with your views on implants 100% – it’s a pandora’s box for sure.

        I also agree with you to an extent about “labels” and them being a way to classify certain personality traits as dysfunctional in terms of society’s requirements. But I think psychopathy is in a totally different ball park to other “mental disorders”. This is were discrimination is necessary, it’s not simply about not fitting in. These people are extremely dangerous and harmful full stop. It’s not a case of if they will cause harm to those around them/under them, but when and how often. Given the qualities that make a psychopath it is an inevitability and most likely a daily occurrence. Psychopaths leave a trail of devastation behind them wherever they go.

      • Argh, I understand where your coming from but I just can’t believe in this total and utter complete psychopath scenario. Neither can I justify a system that would make them second class citizens because It would be open to serious abuse by the very type of person it would be designed to stop. Though I gotta check out the documentaries ‘cos I’m missing part of the argument.

        Lord of Creation looked at the issue of psychos in power from both angles and was less about corruption and more about the common unusual personalities of leaders.

      • Brap! Watched Psychopath and I picked up on Hare’s checklist being scaled up to 40 with 40 being the most psychopathic which suggest to me that psychos don’t just have a blank spot when it comes to empathy and conscience.
        Another point is that brain scanning for psychopathy might not be so reliable. I caught a radio programme where a professor who’s profession is base on brain scanning for psychos ended up identifying his own brain in a group of scans as one which is ‘obviously’ psychotic. I’m fucking pissed that I can’t remember the name of the show.

      • The checklist isn’t a sliding scale of psychopathy, the more traits you possess which are on the checklist, the more likely it is that you are psychopathic. Like, if you only exhibited a few traits on the list then you’re most likely not a psychopath, but if you exhibit over 95% then you probably are a psychopath.

        Yeah, I agree with you. making psychopaths second class citizens opens the door for abuse of this discrimination. Not that they’d care about such matters. It sounds alarm bells in my head too. But still, if what they say is true, the implications are alarming to say the least. and just ignoring it isn’t the answer in my opinion.

  4. We discriminate every time we select somebody for employment, we attempt to select the person who will be the best for the job. We need to be a lot more discriminating about those we allow positions of power.

  5. PS, love the angle matt, and beautifully written!

  6. really interesting Matt – I’ve got those documentaries on download, looking forward to watching them later. Much food for thought…

  7. Great article Matt. Fascinating subject area, I remember learning alot about psychopatholgy on my course, pretty sure I watched that equinox doco you were talking about aswell. I remember the lecturer talking about how it is now possible to detect who has psychopathic personality traits at the age 3 and 4 now, which I found quite shocking, as it brings up massive ethical considerations as to the potential harm and effect of labelling a kid that young with having psychopathic traits. The debate over micro-chips aswell was discussed and to me this idea is fucked and can only complicate things furthur.

    I believe the the traits western societies value and celebrate need to be addressed and reconsidered before we go messing around with electronically altering human behaviour. Afterall western society values and celebrates that of the lone psychopath who goes out into the dog eat dog world of business etc and fucks over his fellow man to better himself. This is the American Dream, which may explain why 1 in 100 americans are thought to be psychopathic as oppose to only 1 in 200 being psychopathic in the UK. They love that mindset over there – check out the film Hurt Locker and how the lone psychopath lead in that film is celebrated as a hero despite being an absolute lunatic. Anyway I could go off on loads of tangents with this topic but its 1am here and what I have already wrote has probably come out all jibberish anyway so Imaybe I’ll come back to it when I’m not half asleep. Nice work on the article though, this topic has been a fascination for me for a long time too. My final art piece at Uni related very much to my views on this issue, basically emphasisng how the corporate world is ultimately inhuman, cold and heartless and can turn people into uncaring psychopaths/androids or at least make them aspire or pretend to be like that. Thats what the murder scene in the art piece was all about, a business man finally losing it, killing someone but using there blood to paint a spiral on the side of a building in a spontaneous moment of rebellious self expression. This act revealing a need for something more than a world that wants to eliminate human error and imperfection and instead wants to manipulate the population into a predictable and productive workforce that will maximise profits for greedy corporations. Right I really am gonna stop now this rant is going on too long and will probably be nonsensical when I read it back lol. Nice work tho, got me thinking on this topic again cheers :]

    • Great comment Ad, nice 1.

    • You should post your “final piece” uni vid on the red eye, or perhaps I will if you can’t be arsed!

  8. Me and Mary have watched The Corporation now… really interesting documentary, thanks for hooking us up 😉

    • That Lucy Hughes, vice president of Initiative Media (nagging factor) is a vile piece of work is she not? The scariest part is that she seems totally oblivious to the moral wrongness of aggressive marketing aimed at children; “They are tomorrow’s adult consumers, so start building that ‘relationship’ when they’re younger, then you’ve got them as an adult” – to me, that’s psycho talk. A tunnel vision which ignores all other factors which do not effect profit and success.

    • … and no-way can anyone tell me that that approach is a necessary evil. No way. We don’t need that kind of thought process.

    • Ha – when she says, “somebody asked me, lucy, is that ethical? You’re essentially manipulating these children. I said, Well yeah, is it ethical? I don’t know. But our rule, our initiative is to move products. If we accomplish that then we’ve done our job.” – says a lot. And that’s the vice president of the largest marketing/advertising company in the world.

  9. The fact that she’s grinning her tits off throughout is what I find the most disturbing – I suppose it is a kind of sexism, but I find psychotic women much scarier than psychotic men. It is a sexism against men if anything, that we expect a lack of empathy in them, and are not surprised when it is absent. Very odd.

    • It’s probably got something do to with freudian notions of mother and father i expect.

  10. […] and their pathological pursuit of profit and power (see Matt Jones’s article on this here). It may seem like the dystopic fantasy of a science fiction geek, but we may only be a few years […]

  11. […] on Psychopathy… Further to my original post on this topic (here). I just stumbled across this on youtube. In this short webcast Frank Ochberg explains what a […]

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  13. I’d forgotten how good this debate was, really interesting contributions by everybody! More of this shit please team Red Eye 😉


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