I know that I’ve written quite a bit about psychopaths in other places on this blog, but I thought I’d summarize some of these thoughts so that they are more easily usable. We are in the middle of a literal shitstorm of manipulation on both the Left and the Right. And without a media corps that has interest in understanding either themselves, or the larger forces moving us around, we are stuck in the middle of the empathy-disordered.
Let’s explore this a bit. The empathy disorders we are addressing today fall mostly into the Axis II/Cluster B and C categorizations in the DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Just so y’all know, my brain LOVES to go down the rabbit hole of validity as far as understanding how the APA actually came up with this. But in the interests of brevity and giving my personal squirrels some rest, let’s just take the surface-level descriptions, aggregate them a bit and reason with them.
Empathy disorders, also known as personality disorders, are quite literally disorders of empathy — where a person’s empathy pyramid just doesn’t work like some representative “average” person. The bad kinds have been better represented by Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Empathy 0 +/-“ and we’re going to focus on the nasty version — not people that represent on the autism spectrum. We’re talking about people that we know just don’t connect the way a normal human does – and often display malevolent, anti-social behavior.
This matters quite a bit, once you understand that one of the key drivers of evolution is inter-agent coordination. The average individual actually wants to get along, mostly doesn’t want to control others, and barring various forms of trauma, wants to be happy. Believe it or not, this is a pretty big net to cast, and includes (depending on who you ask) around 80-90% of the population.
The laundry list of empathy/personality disorders might be something like this — narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, anti-social, avoidant, and more. These are the ones you encounter in people who are out there functioning, often at the highest levels, in society. They are NOT the ones of people who are actually low-functioning, and obvious. If you were to meet some of them at a party, they might be the most charming person in the room, and bright. You simply cannot tell from a laundry list of symptoms who has, or doesn’t have a personality disorder. As I’ve said in the past, Donald Trump was a classic narcissistic psychopath. Yet, like it or not, he found a way to become the President of the United States, and there’s still a good hunk of the electorate that wants him back in the White House.
The dominant v-Meme of the empathy-disordered is Authoritarian Red v-Meme, to the exclusion of much influence from any of the other v-Memes. This creates a condition I call Collapsed Egocentricism. My thesis (with considerable overlap with others like Scott Peck) is it evolves from a process of destruction, either from genes, or trauma, or a combination of both, of well-defined personal boundaries. The result of this is a structural dissociation, following a range of conditions, that creates a deep state of subconscious confusion. Over time, the individual adapts to that confusion by intense management of others’ emotional states. Think of it this way — when you have weak, or no personal boundaries, it’s impossible to not be absorbed with others’ thoughts. And so the empathy-disordered individual turns toward whatever flavor of control they see work in the surrounding world to create depressed emotional states in the people around them. This lack of differentiation also can lead to very disturbing outcomes, which I’m only going to touch on here. Lack of a habituation response is one; the other is the inherent belief that you can get away with anything as long as there is no obvious, superior external observer.
The sum of these characteristics often lead to people who are inured to any internally developed morality (there are degrees, of course) as well as individuals who are very often detail-oriented. Their lack of boundaries often leads to hypersensitivity toward how others think and feel, and because they are existing in a collapsed-egocentric world, feel free to borrow from whatever the contemporary zeitgeist allows to both depress and control others.
The end result of this analysis, by looking at the individual, is you often, without a whole lot of training or experience with them, cannot finger them in a crowd. The key point here is this: You cannot ID them definitively solely by looking at the individual. There have been books about various famous people who are admitted psychopaths, including various research folks. This story is particularly instructive. And so, just as one cannot associate a particular behavior with a given v-Meme — v-Memes are ensembles of behavioral containers that can produce a given range of behaviors — so also can you not identify a psychopath by looking at a list of personal characteristics. It doesn’t mean that it can’t help — obviously some behaviors are going to be far more common among the empathy-disordered than not. But it’s just not as final as folks would like.
These facts point to even understanding the empathy-disordered, because of inherent knowledge creation problems in our social systems that have evolved to study psychopathy and empathy disorders. Psychological research will tend to fine-scale and study a given personality ensemble to death. But the inherent knowledge creation deficits involved in fragmented, authority-driven hierarchies mean that the real “Golden Ticket” description — how the psychopath maneuvers in a social system — is opaque.
That said, there are some obvious indicators when researchers are cruel. And cruelty in contemporary society (not so much in ancient societies) is a good hallmark of the empathy-disordered. My “favorite” would have to be Harry Harlow, famous attachment researcher, who found all sorts of ways to torture mother and child monkey pairs. It’s no wonder that these guys started, through reaction to their work, the Animal Rights movement.
How then do you tell a psychopath, with any reliability? Certainly, more research absolutely needs to be done. By my thesis, though, the best way to tell is by looking at relational disruption around the psychopath. Donald Trump was a premier case in point. Look at the chronic disruption in his Cabinet. Over the course of four years, his turnover was unbelievable, especially relative to other administrations, both R and D. Trump totaled 28 high-level turnovers, compared, say to G.W. Bush, who only saw 2. It’s tough to compare apples to apples here, but you get the idea.
As a narcissistic psychopath, Trump had no problem playing the various cards out of the “victim” deck, for himself, and his constituency. But lots of politicians (many who have empathy-disordered tendencies) do that. The key signifier in his world was that Donald Trump destroyed empathy through his leadership through obvious relational disruption — from old allegiances with foreign allies (Trump, for example, wanted to withdraw the US from NATO) as well as inside constituencies in the Republican party.
The idea that this is some unique right-wing disease, though, should not be taken seriously. There is obvious chaos in the Democratic ranks as well. Hillary Clinton’s calling a huge section of the country “deplorables” certainly was a relationally destructive move. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds compiling lists of sins for politicians. But the short answer to look for is a down-migration of relational systems to lower v-Memes. Short version — evolutionary leaders create societies where more, and diverse relationships are possible. Devolutionary leaders do the opposite. Trump migrated the country down to Right/Left. But Hillary did her own share of damage.
V-Meme level of development of individuals can also give insight – if, as Don Beck said, small ‘p’ progressive leaders are optimally one v-Meme level above the population they are attempting to evolve, regressive leadership is at least one level below the dominant v-Meme of a given population.
What that also means is that in our larger state of societal evolution, where we have a generalized population in the US that are a blend of Legalistic/Absolutistic Blue v-Meme, with a Goal-Oriented Orange v-Meme in the empathetic sense, we are especially prone to having our relational systems being manipulated by Collapsed Authoritarian v-Meme psychopaths. Such people will borrow from things like racial classification schemes, for example, or even small-scale societal goals, to manipulate events in their favor. Inherently, because of their lower filtering of complexity, more evolved ideas will get turned into concepts without the initial complexity score, or intellectual heft they were proposed with.
The most current example of this would have to do with Critical Race Theory. What Critical Race Theory is at the highest, guiding principles level, is the idea that many legal concepts implicitly produced racism in an emergent fashion. This is simply undeniable. Slavery itself (embodied in the U.S. Constitution), Jim Crow laws, and other legal constructs like redlining created systemic discrimination. They also created isolation of various racial groups from each other, so that empathy could not grow on an individual level, obviously!
The problem arises when you have knowledge encapsulated at higher v-Memes, like CRT (obviously systems of systems) is that when one group wants to weaponize various understandings, they generally have no warm spot in their heart for the people on the other side. And with any higher understanding, inherently people will take a given topic and decomplexify it as their level of understanding permits. In the case of CRT, this turns into “we are teaching white kids to hate themselves” on the Right, to “The Right is attempting to keep us from teaching about slavery/Jim Crow!” Neither of these viewpoints represent the more nuanced, guiding principles take on what CRT is. It’s more like saying “Gravity hates me because if I jump off a cliff, I’ll die!”
But these mental models are powerfully, relationally disruptive. They move people down into their In-group/Out-group limbic brains, and prevent the agency for individuals to form their own relationships with people on the outside of their in-group. They also tend toward perspective homogenization — “all white people” or “all black people” and deny individuals their own ability to decide their affinity for others. Matt Taibbi indirectly talks about this in this piece on current doyenne of anti-racism, Robin D’Angelo. D’Angelo’s consistent denial of any allowable agency for white people in the current milieu is inherently psychopathic. It doesn’t mean that racism isn’t an undercurrent in our society at all. But through simplification of white people all into one aggregated class, regardless of lived experience, means that relational disruption and fragmentation is at play. You must forfeit your agency to D’Angelo or you are evil — a classic psychopathic play.
Psychopaths very often make a big splash when they show up on the scene. Their emotionally disruptive messaging gets everyone in a lather, and exciting those lower v-Memes brings out the tribal behavior in many people, who otherwise might be comfortably intellectually lounging on a given issue. There is a disruption of emotional and societal homeostasis. And that can be a good thing. Ossified systems are prone to be shaken up by psychopaths, who are more than happy to use the viral trigger/affair of the day to get their own way.
What happens over time, though, is that psychopaths might build a cohort of like-minded individuals in the short term — what I call a “vampire colony” — but over time, the overwhelming desire of most people is to return to some positive latency. Peace, by any other word. Dependent on the power and influence of the psychopath, isolation, even of the most powerful, is an inevitable outcome. People develop avoidance mechanisms and work-arounds, that likely will result in lower system performance for hitting goals, and certainly well-being. But things do seek an equilibrium.
Occasionally, the number of psychopaths will reach a criticality, and whole societies will become psychopathic. Certainly, Nazi Germany fell into that category, with its fictional, racialized history of the 1000 Year Reich. And of course, looking back in history, one can look at the comparisons of Athens and Sparta, as I did in this post. But inherently, such larger societies, once they move past a persistent tribal form, cannot support the complexity needed to feed and care for large populations. They then collapse.
That said, tribal societies through careful management of bounding cultural sidebars, can maintain persistence of groups of psychopaths. Iroquois division of war chiefs and peace chiefs might be an example. In this instance, we had a nation based on tribal structure, but through borrowing of knowledge through higher v-Memes (see The Great Law of Peace) managed to contain their empathy-disordered warrior elites. One of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans, illustrates the delicate balance between psychopathic warriors and overall larger tribal structures. For those that need a more recent side-by-side illustration of this dynamic, it’s tough to beat Farley Mowat’s book The Desperate People, an absolutely excruciating read of side-by-side normal vs. psychopathic tribal bands.
Summing up, here are the big takeaways.
- Empathy-disordered people cannot be discriminated reliably in a general population through individual characteristics. Mirroring empathy in these individuals, as well as attention to detail, allow them to adopt behaviors that often make them highly successful inside various organizational systems.
- Some percentage of any human system will contain the empathy-disordered. Exactly what this number is is not known, but likely somewhere between 5%-20%.
- Empathy-disordered people can be identified in social systems through their relationally disruptive behavior.
- This relationally disruptive behavior often is the result of decomplexification of more complex, prosocial behaviors that are weaponized for power and control of others.
- The empathy-disordered, upon showing up on the scene, inherently make a big splash, often as champions of pressing causes, or moral arbiters of truth. Emotional manipulation and deletion of nuance are key here.
- Over time, these relational disruptors become increasingly isolated inside social systems as the larger aggregate of people seek healthy attachment and lower stress modalities of living.
- In situations where a manager must manage some degree of the empathy-disordered in their ranks, it’s important to realize that who is at fault in a given conflict situation will be difficult to ascertain. When people start acting badly, the initiator or the reactor might execute a bigger sin. That said, a key element for a manager to identify is who is the pursuer, and who is attempting to get away. It is very likely that the guilty party is the one in pursuit of the other.