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Do Psychopaths Make the World Go Round? (tor.com)
40 points by wslh on June 11, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

As a person who does not experience empathy (that is, a psychopath), I am somewhat insulted that Robert Lamb is telling the Internet that I am also "dishonest, undependable, impulsive, prone to irresponsible behavior for no reason, prone to casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships," and "quick to make excuses for [my] actions, blaming others." It seems especially bad that Mr. Lamb chooses to misinform people about psychopathy under the guise of clearing up misconceptions about psychopathy.

Now that I notice he lifted these words from the Scientific American article he linked, I guess I can only assume that he didn't know that he was misinforming people. I would prefer that a distinction be made between the characteristics necessary to be a psychopath and the ones that commonly occur in psychopaths, so as to make a better impression of psychopaths in the mind of the reader.

I will suggest that it might be appropriate to describe yourself as a "sociopath" which I believe currently has no clinical definition but colloquially tends to be understood as negative and somewhat similar to, though less than, "psychopath". Folks here are not likely to accept some colloquial self-determined definition of a term like "psychopath" when it has a clear clinical definition.

I have two very challenging children, one of whom is not empathetic, tends towards narcissism and so on. Like you, he stays out of trouble by making judicious choices concerning the longer range consequences of his actions which I spent a lot of time educating him about (in other words, I did not appeal to some sense of morally "right" behavior, which he lacks, instead I focused on developing a perspective of enlightened self-interest). He shares many traits with his father, my ex husband, whom I found quite difficult to deal with. But I get along extremely well with my oldest son. He was raised very differently from his father. He has a very similar nature to his father but the nurture part varied considerably and the difference in outcome has been substantial.

EDIT: Which is to say I agree with a point I feel you are trying to make that having X trait in no way guarantees Y outcome. Most people who know him superficially describe my oldest son as "very polite and respectful" or "a very nice young man". Others who have had to deal with him more than just superficially tend to find him pretty crazy-making.

What I would mean if I were to say "sociopath" seems clear as mud. Wikipedia tells me:

Sociopathy is a loosely-defined term that may be used to refer to: Psychopathy, Antisocial personality disorder, Dissocial personality disorder

and later,

Hare writes that the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy may "reflect the user's views on the origins and determinates of the disorder."

Edit: I see, thanks.

Yes, exactly: Clear as mud is very socially acceptable for most "normal" people (not necessarily on HN where people will pedantically argue every definition with you). Say "sociopath" and then if someone asks what you mean by that have a clear description of what you are trying to convey (basically define it yourself). It is a malleable word, open to interpretation. It gets you a lot less shit from other people than using the word "psychopath". I know because it is a word I and my sons use in part for this very reason.

My remarks are intended to be a helpful suggestion, based on something that has worked for me. That's it.


Edit: No problem.

Reviewing your comment history, where you clearly express emotion and some empathy, and acknowledge consequences, you don't fit the bill as a psychopath. You may share certain attributes with psychopathy, or fancy yourself being one, but all indications are that you are not one.

The second indicator that you are not a psychopath is that you disagree with Robert Lamb's description of psychopathy, which are not insults -- they are the qualifying traits of a psychopath.

It pleases me to hear that I give the impression of empathy.

My impression of the (recent) literature on the matter was that absence of empathy, in addition to the criteria for ASPD, is necessary and sufficient for one to be considered a psychopath. One could easily have both of these things without also being unreliable, impulsive, or dishonest.

I think that you're deluding yourself, for whatever reason.

And on your second point, your impression is incorrect. These are qualifying traits of ASPD (formerly "psychopathy").

Have you been diagnosed as such by a qualified professional? The traits listed in the article are also listed here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hare_Psychopathy_Checklist - do you have any contrary sources?

Assuming you don't, then if the terms listed don't fit you, you're not psycopathic because that term is defined to mean 'one who displays those traits'. Disagreeing with that is as meaningless as saying that not all brunettes have brown hair.

Under PCL-R a person with a 30 or more "points" (ratings from 0-2 regarding each characteristic) is regarded as a psychopath, so assuming that PCL-R is the definitive definition of psychopathy, we must still accept that a psychopath is not necessarily also a pathological liar and an impulsive individual. It seems silly to use PCL-R as the definition of psychopathy for the general population, however, because "Revocation of conditional release" is something that one can only experience after being institutionalized or sent to gaol.

To re-iterate: have you been diagnosed psycopathic by a qualified mental-health professional?

I have never even spoken to qualified mental-health professional while he or she was at work.

I've long thought that being a psychopath hardly precludes/excuses one from acting morally. If most psychopaths turn out to be anti-social criminals I'd say the blame is ultimately because they failed to identify the value of moral behaviour (to the individual) and logically follow through on the principles which arise. Perhaps because society does not teach these things adequately. If most non-psychopaths turn out not to be criminals, however, arguably it could be a mixture of some people just blindly following their empathy and other people taking a principled stance on things.

My opinion, as someone who has very successfully raised "good kids" with a lot of these types of negative traits: Psychopaths often turn out badly because they are treated so negatively by other people for being different. So they basically get abuse heaped upon them. What goes around, comes around. (In other words: "normal" people who think they are so fucking moral are often assholes who help create monsters.)

Well then, speaking from your own experience, what is keeping you from doing these things?

I consider the consequences of actions in the medium to long term before I do them.

I'm honest because I believe a reputation for honesty can be of greater value to me than anything I can con people out of, and because I haven't any experience at conning people. I am about as dependable as I am honest. I am less impulsive than most people I know, and I don't do much of anything "for no reason." I have no problem owning my actions because I prefer to be honest. Regarding my interactions with others, I would say I'm "frank and earnest," but "casual and callous" works too.

Dude, you're not a real psychopath; that's just Aspergers.

Alright, that is an interesting take. I looked around and found these characteristics of both.

* Both psychopaths and people Asperger's might make comments that hurt other people. Those with Asperger's will do it un-intentionally, they just don't understand all the rules of social interaction and they won't even know they would be hurting others. Psychopaths will often say things in order to hurt other. So the difference is that they will knowingly hurt others while those with Asperger's won't.

* Psychopaths are better at learning and mimicking normal emotional responses. Some of them can even be "too" good and sometimes you can tell by them trying too hard. Those with Asperger's do that too but they are less successful

* A psychopath will easily switch on an off their "social" mode. Someone with Asperger's might not have the same level of control. A psychopath does not cultivate relationships with others because they deem themselves to be too good and superior and see it as a useless waste of time. But they could if they wanted to -- if it benefits them. You can spot these cases when someone is very friendly with their superior (the boss) but immediately switch and act a total dick for now reason at all to their peers or their inferiors.

* A person with Asperger's can be introspective. Can conduct self-analysis. They can have a low self-esteem and can be prone to depression. A psychopath will usually never see anything wrong with themselves.

* A psychopath will enjoy see others suffer for no reason at all. They would go out of their ways to hurt someone just to enjoy the effects.

Also most of us often confuse psychopathy and machiavellianism. Together with narcissism they form the so-called dark triad.

I do not have concrete studies to back my claim, but most movers and shakers in the third world are rather Machiavellianistic. They may not create anything of value or change they world, but most gate keepers certainly fit the description. So do most non-tech entrepreneurs.

I am not sure about the first world though, I have only experienced it inside the tech bubble.

How does your psychopathy affect your relationships? How do you know you are a psychopath?

Also, I think that having a fine-tuned sense of how your actions will affect other's opinions of you, is to some extent what empathy really is.

>>I consider the consequences of actions in the medium to long term before I do them.

>>I am less impulsive than most people I know

Isn't part of being a psychopath to lack foresight? To lack fear of punishment?

'WildUtah' has a point -- you are on the Aspberger scale, or something.

Self-described "psychopaths" are pathetic, in my opinion.

First, you're probably not one, just as a person who occasionally plays video games till 3:00 is not an "insomniac", a person who double-checks locked doors is not "paranoid", a high-strung, finicky person is not "OCD", and a mild rush of anxiety caused by an unpleasant situation is not a "panic attack".

Why do I say this? Because a real psychopath would never find it useful to discuss his psychopathy. Psychopaths don't overshare, because they don't really ever share (although they may feign emotions and share those, if it suits them). It doesn't benefit them to self-identify as psychopaths.

Your claimed lack of empathy is normal emotional awkwardness, not psychopathy. Welcome to HN.

> Why do I say this? Because a real psychopath would never find it useful to discuss his psychopathy

Interestingly, once it becomes common knowledge that if one describes themselves as a psychopath they couldn't possibly be a psychopath, it would be beneficial for the psychopaths to just identify themselves as a psychopaths because in the eyes of others will instantly be labeled as "definitely not psychopathic". That would perhaps serve as an extra shield behind which they can hide their psychopathy.

Its psychopaths all the way down!

Interesting possibility, but claiming psychopathy still reflects badly on a person's character, even if it means that person is almost certainly not a psychopath. It shows that a person is at least mildly histrionic and self-deprecating in an off-putting way (cheap, fake sincerity). Therefore, it's not a useful or skillful act, and the rational psychopaths aren't going to pursue it.

This is falling into pop psychology. Psychology is like linguistics - you can describe it using a rough model, but should keep in mind that it's all just an abstraction.

Actually, there's some value in telling people that narrow-minded prescriptive grammars are "correct" - that encourages people to write the same way. Encouraging people to think of every little deviation as a disorder can do much more harm than good.

Queue an onslaught of self-diagnosed "Hare psychopaths" who will try to act out the role.

Yes, there are probably a few real psychopaths out there in the extremes. But that's no reason to encourage people with a mild case of "Asshole Personality Disorder" to start telling themselves they are merciless machines who are capable of anything.

"Maybe spies, lawyers and bosses need a dash of the unhinged if they’re to betray, scrutinize, and fire those around them. Sure, they make sucky friends and sucky spouses, but the rest of the time they’re making the trains run on time."

betrayal, unreasonable scrutiny, and the ability to fire people is not what the world needs. People who think so are often incredible softies intrigued by their own cruelty. There are better alternative approaches that involve more than predator instinct and egomania.

Psychopaths make terrible spies and soldiers, for what should be obvious reasons. They have no sense of honor and they're individualistic in some very dangerous ways. The military tries to filter them out, not bring them in. Since lawyers and business leaders have to make much easier decisions than people in the military, I'd argue the same for those jobs.

There is one job at which psychopaths are, in all aspects, better performers (more effective, less likely to quit) than anyone else: torturing-- an act that produces no value (as an interrogation technique, it's nearly useless) and something that people shouldn't be doing in the first place.

There is one job at which psychopaths are, in all aspects, better performers (more effective, less likely to quit) than anyone else: torturing

And also sales. But I guess that's just a subset of torturing, if popups, Flash-ads, and background music on ad pages is any indication.

You can spin almost anything into a positive light. Like, "hey I know I killed you, but you know what, this is just a horrible world that you are better off death". I wonder if Hitler was a psychopath, he may have been. <sarcasm> He certainly made the world go round, fighting him lit a fire under all the western nations which in turn allowed us to make great advances in rocketry, nuclear power, and god knows what. Sure, he killed millions of innocent people but you know what, at least he did make the world go round. Even Germany benefited immensely, it emerged as a world economic power. Thank god for psychopaths, what would we do without them. </sarcasm>

Exactly. But though you emphasize it with <sarcasm> it still might contain a lot of truth [1]. Its known as the "Mephisto Principle":

Mephisto: "I am a part of that power, that constantly wants to do harm and constantly creates the good." (Goethe, Faust 1) [2]

As an example, let's assume that, soon, human race has to become interplanetary in order to survive. Now, are we more likely to get there with threat of inter-human war and large defense funding? Perhaps. Until recently, I used to call DARPA money "dirty" and insulted many fellow students this way. But I'm starting to realize this might be naive. Without DARPA Net I might not be able to have this discussion here.

[1] If I had the choice I would go back in time and prevent it. But that would still be a difficult decision. I guess this play of thought does not not lead to anything useful. A more useful question might be: Would you like to prevent a future world war. Sure! [2] http://www.maxeiner-miersch.de/mephisto_e.htm

That reminds me of the Cuckoo speech from The Third Man-

You know what the fellow said in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.


The more strongly everyone is inclined to cooperate, the more advantage there is to individually defect and exploit. And the more people defecting, the more benefit there is to cooperation.

At the very core of moral theory is this conflict of individual and group. And I suppose evolution just realises that in some form of perpetual dynamic equilibrium.

No, no, no. Psychopathy in a leader has a net effect toward organizational mediocrity, at best. Start observing in the real world and this becomes obvious.

There is a difference between psychopathy and selfish disregard: selfish disregard wants to be justified, wants to connect to reasons for its disregard -- it is not fully disjunct from societal norms. This association here is nonsense and revealing. No psychopath can function in an institution (for long) and neither can a sociopath. As said elsewhere by others, just because you don't want germs on your hands doesn't mean you're OCD. Likewise, just because you harbor highly self-centered traits, it doesn't mean you are a psychopath.

It's so nice to have a label for your guilt. If you don't subscribe to a religion, then picking up the DSM-IV/V is the next best thing.

Poor thinking at best; irresponsible definition at worst.

"The reasonable man bends himself to suit the world. The unreasonable man bends the world to suit himself. Without the unreasonable man, there can be no progress."

Now, I agree with other here who claim you can be slightly narcissistic, unreasonable etc without being a psychopath. But there's something in the theory - and especially in that quote, which I love and whose source I will now try to track down - that applies to my goals in life, and probably to many startups.

Edit: George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

This has nothing to do with being a psychopath.

You can be stubborn and still be a lover.

You can be firm and still donate your time.

Psychopaths are "me, me, me". Startups are about "how can we enter into a mutually beneficial voluntary exchange?"

So, no, psychopaths do not help startups at all. In fact, I'd say it would be quite rare for a diagnosed psychopath to have a successful startup.

From what I have heard, serial killers are typically small business owners. It helps give them the freedom they need to do as they please. (I think that cuts both ways and can also be a force for good: Supposedly, the founding fathers of the US felt strongly that democracy was best safeguarded by having plenty of independent small business owners -- i.e. people positioned to speak their own minds publicly and not fear being fired for it.)

I'd like to see those stats.

I don't have any stats. It is something I have seen on TV shows (like 'Cold Case Files') where they talk about profiling -- the detailed kind, not the "fast driving ethnic male is probably a drug dealer" kind. But the kind where they run it past a forensic psychologist and get a detailed report to help them find a serial killer. They repeatedly say that serial killers tend to be small business owners, in part because they don't do well with a regular job where other folks are telling them what to do. And in two of the cases I recall, when they did find the killer, he was, in fact, a small business owner and closely fit many of their other parameters surprisingly well. I would suggest you google it if you are interested in actual stats. (If you do, sharing would be cool.)

Sorry I can't do better than that. But have an upvote cuz it's a great question.

Hence "without being a psychopath".

I was noting the connection between one of the article's themes and one of the more meaningful quotes I've applied in relation to my life starting up my own business.

Unless, of course, they stole it from someone else.

Related: Jon Ronson's "The Psyocopath Test" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6aCir5bu-c)

Also featured on the recent This American Life podcast.

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." --George Bernard Shaw

He meant 2011 science festival, right?


Maybe they just solve the problems created by themselves.

curious. i would have expected a more positive response here. like the article says, psychopaths have the positive characteristics necessary for an entrepreneur. there was a quote from pg a while back (can't remember the wording, but it was discussed here) about looking for people who fit the same description.

of course, i'm not saying entrepreneurs are loony axe wielders. but i don't see why psycopathy has to be binary all or nothing. every day i see the less pleasant (more psycopathic) people getting ahead.

the nice guy finishes last. it's common knowledge. why all the naysayers? guilt?

"the nice guy finishes last. it's common knowledge."

It's an old, tired cliche.

Which Richard Dawkins using Game Theory found to be wrong-


Only if you let them.

I'll answer this: fuck, no.

Psychopaths are good at taking credit for others' accomplishments but rarely produce anything of value. They're generally quite lazy, in fact. They're politically effective and do well in many social environments in the short run, but their long-term contributions are almost always disastrous.

You don't need to be a psychopath to make tough decisions: firing bad employees, for example. You just need experience, vision, and the willingness to take responsibility for difficult decisions.

I think a slight narcissism can be beneficial as a motivator for some people, but that's a different discussion.

You completely nailed it.

HN, you dropped the ball here. Even Reddit would spot a comment like "Nailed it" and see that it doesn't contribute in any way.

This community should try to stop a decline in quality...

For people not used to the HN / Reddit point system this requires some learning. I had my fair share of "I second this" posts and took my down votes.

As long as HN is growing and new people, who are used to pin boards and mailing lists without a voting system, come in, you will have this problem. Just down vote them if you have ability.

Maybe, this should be more emphasized in the FAQ [1]. When I signed up here recently it was not obvious to me, that such posts should be avoided.

[1] http://ycombinator.com/newsfaq.html

I agree. Your comment history is full of the high quality exchange we should strive for.

In short: you nailed it.

Probably not.

But one thing I'd think is true is that no person that is primarily nice and sociable has ever done anything that has significantly advanced the state of anything worthwile.

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