Psychopaths in ChargePosted: January 2, 2011 | Author: bostonboomer | Filed under: Civil Liberties, Corporate Crime, financial institutions, Global Financial Crisis, Human Rights, income inequality, investment banking, psychology, torture, U.S. Economy, U.S. Politics | Tags: Alan Simpson, American Psycho, antisocial personality disorder, Bernie Madoff, Brett Easton Ellis, CEOs, investment bankers, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, politicians, psychopaths, sociopaths | 73 Comments
In 1991, Brett Easton Ellis published a brilliant satirical novel called American Psycho. The book is narrated by a young man, Patrick Bateman, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Business School, who is now a fabulously wealthy Wall Street investment banker with a pricey apartment on Manhattan’s Upper west side. In other words, he’s a typical ’80s yuppie, benefiting from the “Reagan Revolution.”
Bateman is utterly materialistic and narcissistic, obsessed with things like getting a reservation at the most trendy, expensive restaurant of the moment and having a more perfectly designed and printed business card than any of the other yuppies he works with. He is engaged to another yuppie named Evelyn, but he doesn’t really have any feelings for her. She is just another status symbol for him to show off to his Wall Street colleagues.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Bateman is filled with narcissistic rage. He begins torturing and murdering people–a homeless man, his secretary, a business associate, and more. The crimes become successively more violent and horrifying. In conversations with coworkers, he tells anecdotes about serial killers and even confesses his own crimes, but no one takes him seriously. These other numb, detached young men simply assume Bateman is joking and laugh at his bizarre, inappropriate remarks.
Toward the end of the book, there are hints that Bateman’s descriptions of violent murders could be hallucinations or fantasies–or they might have really happened. The interpretation is left to the reader.
Ellis told an interviewer that he wrote American Psycho at a time in his life when he was living an isolated, consumerist lifestyle, somewhat like Bateman’s:
He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street. High concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place…
American Psycho was not well received by reviewers–before or after publication. In fact, the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, cancelled their contract with Ellis based on “aesthetic differences.” The book was never released in hardcover, but was eventually published in a quality paperback edition by Vintage Books. After its publication, Ellis was on the receiving end of a flood of hate mail and even death threats.
Today, Ellis points out, the blood and gore that was so shocking in his 1991 book is all around us.
You see it in “Saw” movies or in “Hostel” or anywhere. The gore is mainstream. The stuff you see now wass unimaginable in 1991 and that’s one reason why it caught on. The availability of that kind of subject matter was limited. It was limited to maybe certain graphic novels or transgressive fiction or certain out-there horror films but it wasn’t part of the mainstream. the accessibility of it was unique. This is how we’re rolling now.
What I took from the novel when I first read it was that it was a perfect representation of the societal effects of Reaganism. In the ’80s, American culture became more materialistic, superficial, and value-free than ever before. Reaganism taught that “greed is good.” Becoming wealthy became the highest goal for many Americans. At the same time, anyone who was poor, sick, or disabled was reviled. Reagan made Social Darwinism fashionable again.
Under Reagan, we closed hospitals for the mentally ill and threw them into the streets to beg and to wander our cities muttering as they listened to the voices in their heads. The need for low-cost housing and maintaining public infrastructure was ridiculed, and poor families with children began to wander our city streets homeless, sleeping in their cars or in public parks. Meanwhile the rich continued to get richer, greedier, and more callous toward people who had less than they did.
What other result could we have expected than the America we live in today? We live in a country in which so many people are cold, callous, and calculating, seeking to amass as much money as possible at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. Investment bankers like Ellis’s Patrick Bateman are treated like gods, shielded from any negative effects of their own lying, cheating, and stealing.
Today the message I take from American Psycho is even more troubling to me than when I first read the novel years ago. I see Bateman’s serial murders as symbolic of the damage out-of-control capitalism is doing to us as a people. I look at our political leaders and see empty, cold, callous people with no core values except how to get the most money and power for themselves, and screw the rest of us. They are serial murderers too, only they manage to distance themselves from those they murder in their wars and through their pro-corporate, anti-human policies.
The America we live in today is much like the surreal world that Brett Easton Ellis created in American Psycho, except that we now have even more electronic gadgets, more stuff to do on the internet, more “reality” TV shows where we can ridicule fat people or people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or people trying to sing and dance. We have books and movies so violent that people become desensitized to depictions of blood and gore that seemed shocking in 1991. We are in decline in every way–our health, our incomes, our infrastructure, our rights, our values, our privacy. And the rich are richer and the poor are poorer now than at the end of the Ronald Reagan era.
I know I’m not the only one here who thinks we are being ruled by psychopaths–whether we’re talking about government officials or the heads of corporations. I really believe that, and I don’t mean it as hyperbole. I think the richest among us are the most likely to be detached and callous, because they don’t even have to see the poor and suffering people they are hurting with their greed. Their wealth insulates them from the daily struggles of the vast majority of Americans.
I think this is a subject that is worth talking about. Do you need to be at least a subclinical psychopath to be willing to do the kinds of immoral things government officials, corporate CEOs, and investment bankers do? Like lying in order to enter illegal wars so you can steal oil from other countries and murder hundreds of thousands of their citizens? Like sending young Americans to die for oil and a dying empire? Like taking jobs away from Americans and replacing them with slave labor in third world countries? Like throwing people out of their homes illegally? Like testing drugs on babies and children? Like polluting the water, air, and food with chemicals and refusing to clean up your messes?
I think you have to be a very sick person to do those things. And how is it different from what a serial killer does? First, government officials and corporate CEOs kill and maim and destroy people in far greater numbers and with more powerful weapons than a serial killer. Second, government officials and corporate CEOs don’t need to get close to the blood and death. They get other people to do their killing so they don’t have to see or hear their victims suffer.
So what exactly is a psychopath? Robert Hare, now emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia developed a checklist used by professionals to identify people with psychopathic tendencies.
People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get with they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.
Hare’s checklist (the PCL-R) is used in combination with a semi-structured clinical interview (an interview with set questions that allows the interviewer to follow up with his or her own questions when appropriate) and a detailed review of medical and psychiatric records. The following are the 20 traits for the evaluator to watch for:
•glib and superficial charm
•grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
•need for stimulation
•cunning and manipulativeness
•lack of remorse or guilt
•shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
•callousness and lack of empathy
•poor behavioral controls
•early behavior problems
•lack of realistic long-term goals
•failure to accept responsibility for own actions
•many short-term marital relationships
•revocation of conditional release
Not all of these characteristics would have to be met for someone to be diagnosed as a psychopath.
Each of the twenty items is given a score of 0, 1, or 2, based on how well it applies to the subject being tested. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.
The checklist was originally designed for evaluating prison inmates, but not everyone with psychopathic characteristics becomes a criminal. I am arguing that many of them go into business or politics, am I’m far from the only one to suggest that. In fact Hare himself co-wrote a book called Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. Other books that make similar arguments are The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, and The Psychopathy of Everyday Life: How Antisocial Personality Disorder Affects Us All, by Martin Kantor.
Just a bit about terminology. Psychopathy and Sociopathy are essential the same thing. Antisocial Personality Disorder is similar too, but could perhaps apply to people who wouldn’t score 30 on Hare’s checklist. I don’t know why the names of this disorder keep changing–it may just be because some psychiatrists see studying prison inmates as somewhat disreputable. Anyway, psychopathy is no longer listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (latest version: DSM IV-TR). Instead, it is subsumed under “antisocial personality disorder.” Here is the DSM-IV-TR criteria for APD:
A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others
6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
B. The individual is at least age 18 years.
C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.
That official characteristics of APD are much less extreme than the ones on Hare’s checklist. I think it’s fairly obvious that many of our political and business leaders could meet at least three of those criteria. But can anyone argue that someone like Bernie Madoff could not be classified as a full-blown psychopath according to Hare’s criteria? What about Alan Simpson? What about someone like John Ensign or Mark Sanford? I believe I could make an argument for many more of our political and business leaders being either clinical or subclinical psychopaths.
There is some evidence that psychopathy is at least partly genetic, although most criminal psychopaths who have been studied had very abusive childhoods. There is also evidence for differences in the brains of psychopaths compared to typical brains.
I’m going to get into this topic in more detail in a future post. But for now, what do you think? Would it be useful for us to stop denying reality and accept that the psychopaths are in charge of our society?