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Please Explain How It Is That Psychopaths Can Manipulate People If They Have No Empathy

Question:

I have no trouble relating to the notion psychopaths lack empathy based on my own personal experiences with someone I believe is one. But I guess I just don’t have a firm enough grasp on how their brains differ from the ‘normal’ or how they think and perceive the world. An example of my confusion is how are psychopaths able to be such masters in manipulation without empathy? Empathy means having the ability to relate to how another is feeling. Wouldn’t you need to be able to anticipate someone’s feelings or reaction to be able to even begin to put it into motion let alone pull it off with any success? I also have a hard time understanding which emotions psychopaths are actually able to experience and to what depths and which ones they completely don’t. I just have a hard time understanding how they are able to pretend so convincingly to be experiencing something they completely have no real awareness of such as love. It’s been of my personal experiences with John that I’ve noticed anger and happiness to be the only emotions he seems to be able to easily and genuinely express. All the others in between are either not at all present or didn’t seem sincere. Whether he is incapable or unwilling to demonstrate compassion, empathy, or consideration for others still remains a mystery for me.

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Answer:

Good questions all. Let’s start by defining the terms first. Psychopathy (otherwise known as sociopathy) is a personality syndrome or condition that is used to describe people who are extremely selfish, callous, socially manipulative, and narcissistic. They have little regard for social norms or rules or ethical codes, and instead are rather hedonistically motivated; more or less doing whatever it is that feels good to them. Their interpersonal relationships are accordingly quite shallow and lacking in any real intimacy as a rule, not that the average sociopath cares all that much that this is the case. They have little regard for other people’s welfare, instead regarding other people as either a means to an end, or as an obstacle. Such people can be quite predatory by nature. Due to their disregard for others, they can be quite willing to use violence against others if it suits their purpose. Outwardly, however, they may be perceived as socially skillful and charming, these being qualities based on a capacity to manipulate others, rather than a desire to join with them. Accordingly, sociopaths can make for effective salesmen, politicians and con-artists if they are bright enough to pull off the manipulations required. When they come to the attention of psychologists or psychiatrists, they will generally be diagnosed with Antisocial or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The classical understanding of sociopathy is that they behave the way they do in part because they have an empathy deficit; an inability to put themselves into another’s shoes and feel the feelings that that other person might feel if they were to be abused or mistreated. This is not the same thing as saying that a sociopath cannot put themselves into another person’s shoes. On the contrary, sociopaths can be quite skillful observers of other people’s experience. They can represent how another is feeling even though they don’t relate to that emotional experience in particular. Sociopaths are thought to have a leg up on other people with regard to being skillful observers and predictors of what others are thinking and feeling precisely because they aren’t distracted by concerns about their own self-worth, or the reasonableness of such manipulative behavior. They freely observe how their behavior influences other people and then use this knowledge to manipulate other people into giving them what they want, whether that is money, sexual favors, or some other desirable thing. It doesn’t typically trouble them that in the process of conning someone into sleeping with them, or making a sale that they might be very consciously lying to that other person. If it does trouble them, they manage to compartmentalize their discomfort so that it doesn’t interfere with their instrumental and manipulative behavior.

That your John is only sincere in expressing happiness and anger is quite consistent with the above description. Anger occurs when frustration occurs, which happens when someone or something gets in his way. Happiness occurs when he gets to have the reward he is seeking at any given moment in time. Anger and happiness are emotions consistent with hedonism, is another way of saying this. You don’t need to be socially invested in the lives of others to experience them. This is not the case with an emotion such as compassion, which requires a more developed and mature sense of self capable of not only representing another’s experience but also investing in and relating to that experience.

It’s hard to describe what it is about compassion that makes it a more advanced emotion than pure solipsist anger or happiness. I think the concepts developed by psychologist Robert Kegan are most useful for explaining what has gone wrong in social-developmental and maturity terms in the case of sociopathy. In essence, normal people start out rather narcissistic in orientation and then over time grow out of this initial perspective into a larger world in which they understand themselves to be connected to other people who experience the world in ways similar to themselves. For whatever reason, sociopaths do not progress in the normal way, but instead become developmentally delayed in terms of their social-emotional maturity. Their intelligence develops normally, however, so they appear to be normal adults, and learn to mimic a normal adult’s behavior. Inside, however, their social-emotional motivation remains at about the level of development of a naturally selfish young child.

There probably is not one mechanism that creates sociopaths. Some may be born with some as yet unidentified brain defect that makes them incapable of giving a crap about how others feel. If this is the case, it is not the same time as the recently discovered mirror neurons that are thought to underlie the communication deficits characteristic of Autism and Asperger’s Disorder. Sociopaths can communicate quite well, thank you. It is just that they don’t learn to care that other people have feelings. A more likely candidate for a genetic basis, to my mind, is the way that children and animals differ in terms of how easy they are to punish and reward. Some kids are born easy to punish. You look at them funny and they start crying. Others are the opposite; they are hard to punish. It takes a lot of pressure and aversive circumstance to get them to comply. There is a brain basis for these sorts of differences. If a child is born with an innate tendency to be undeterred from pursuing whatever it is he or she cares about, they are going to be harder for parents to socialize properly, and less likely to be humbled enough during maturation to grasp that other people matter.

It’s not all genetic, certainly. Severe abuse and violence exposure as a child is probably quite capable of arresting development on the social-emotional continuum.  It’s probably not the case that sociopaths are biologically incapable of feeling empathy, and more the case that due to the circumstances of their coming-up and their tendency towards hardheadedness, they don’t learn to develop this capacity, but rather remain stuck in an early developmental stage. See my essay about Robert Kegan’s book "The Evolving Self" for a good picture of what developmental stages these people fail to engage.

Putting this all together, I can now offer you my version of an answer for your question "how does a psychopath view the world?" More or less as a two year old would if that two year old lived in the body of an adult man or woman. Everything emotional is present but in primitive, undeveloped form. Socially advanced emotions like compassion fly over the head of a toddler and a sociopath because they require the development of a sense of self which has grown out of seeing itself as the center of the universe. Where a toddler has no intellect so to speak, an adult sociopath may have a very keen intellect. He or she uses that intellect in the service of his or her primitive, Second Order/Imperial consciousness (in Kegan’s terms) which has not yet made the leap into understanding the logic of the Golden Rule: that the way I feel is highly similar to the way that others feel, and therefore I should treat others as I would like to be treated.

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