psychopathy and empathy

BBC News report suggesting that psychopaths can selectively feel empathy.

Psychopaths do not lack empathy, rather they can switch it on at will, according to new research….

The team proposes that with the right training, it could be possible to help psychopaths activate their “empathy switch”, which could bring them a step closer to rehabilitation.

Toward the middle of the article they (finally) define psychopathy for the reader (a reasonable though incomplete definition).

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by superficial charm, pathological lying and a diminished capacity for remorse.

Psychopaths can be violent or non-violent; many are impulsive and risk-taking (part of our fascination with them is due to this quality); they view others as objects to be exploited rather than as humans to be protected or cared for. Some are in prison for “obvious” acts of violence; others are “successful” and work in the corporate world, though they are no less insidious. Psychopaths are not “crazy” and are aware of their actions and consequences, but do not care what harm they cause to others or sometimes even the consequences to themselves. It is statistically likely you have already met someone who is psychopathic in your lifetime and did not know it. Some of the world’s most infamous dictators were likely psychopathic, such as Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

It’s good that research of this sort is being carried out, but I’m highly skeptical. Previous evidence suggests that psychopaths who receive therapy learn how to more effectively manipulate others. Psychopaths who attend group therapy sessions will end up “taking over” the group and leading the discussions. The problem is that they don’t want to change. They do not “suffer” from their condition. Unlike conditions such as anxiety disorder or depression, psychopaths do not feel the need to change. Any therapy they are involved in (and likely required to attend by court order) will only make them better at gaming others, mimicking emotions associated with caring and empathy, and causing greater societal harm.

What to do then? Greater education of the public regarding psychopathy and related antisocial disorders. There is a risk of overreaction here–seeing psychopathy in everyone simply because one is looking for it. That is an unfortunate risk, but one that can be mitigated. We should understand that those with antisocial and psychopathic characteristics are indeed different from the rest of us, and ignorance is not bliss on this subject.

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