We are all complex 'situations'

Chris Timms continues the discussion on pathocracy.

Steve Taylor’s article (November 2021) and the subsequent discussion has been wide-ranging. But it still leaves many important questions around objectivity and conceptual clarity unanswered. How can we be certain that when a psychologist calls Donald Trump a ‘malignant narcissist’, the label is only telling us things about Donald – and not about the psychologist? And have psychologists achieved the level of objectivity and conceptual clarity necessary to justify labelling people we don’t like as psychopaths, narcissists – or pathocrats? 

In a nod towards the labelling problem, Steve Taylor observes: 'the term ‘psychopath’ has been bandied around too freely'. And others often mention the labelling problem too. But psychologists of influence have never done very much about it. And so, after 20 years of largely unchallenged psycho-typing, the psychological landscape is now awash with personality labels – and bullet-point checklists to ‘spot’ them. 

The article goes on to propose that those who are uncomfortable with the label ‘psychopath’ might prefer to use the phrase ‘people who are just ruthless and lacking in empathy and conscience’. But surely, this just crystallises the problem rather than addresses it. It replaces one pejorative label (psychopath) with three pejorative and value-laden labels (ruthless; lacking in empathy; lacking in conscience). It is not, in any useful sense, reductive. 

So, if not with labels, how can we better understand the psychology behind so-called pathocracy? 

The first requirement is to examine critically the notion of ‘empathy deficiency’. Central to theories of psychopaths and narcissists is the view that they behave and think as they do because they are empathy-deficient. What this means, in practice, is that when people don’t display compassion in circumstances where some psychologists think they should, those psychologists attribute it to ‘lack of empathy’. And to measure the existence of empathy in an individual, psychologists measure whether or not a person responds ‘appropriately’ to suffering (i.e., compassionately).

Trapped within this circular reasoning, it is easy – almost unavoidable in fact – to treat the word ‘empathy’ as if it is synonymous with ‘compassion’. And Steve Taylor’s article is no exception; you can substitute the phrase ‘lack of compassion’ wherever you see the phrase ‘lack of empathy’ – without once changing the meaning. 

But empathetic perception and feeling compassion are not the same thing. And, even more importantly, the possession of affective empathetic perception does not always lead to compassion. Similarly, cruelty does not only occur in people who ostensibly ‘lack empathy’.

We can conjure up countless real-world examples. Many ordinary people who cry at emotional scenes of suffering on telly will enthusiastically eat a lobster that has been boiled alive. A highly empathetic Russian soldier might experience the suffering of his wounded comrade very deeply, while being completely unconcerned about the suffering of the Ukrainians he is bombarding. When serious sex offenders are jailed, it is very common to see people crying with compassion for the victims – while simultaneously whooping with joy at the upcoming suffering of the perpetrator. And if Leicester City wins a football match, is a ‘highly empathetic’ supporter allowed to experience uninhibited joy – or must that ‘high empathy’ person cry for the obvious suffering of the defeated losers?

Our responses to suffering are varied, conflicted and paradoxical. This is because our emotional responses are not driven by the amount of empathetic perception we possess on some imaginary spectrum – but, instead, by what we do with those empathetic perceptions. And what we do with our perceptions is always governed by situational factors.

These situational factors include cultural and individual learning – combined with the inbuilt psychological processes that are common to all of us (for example, our perceptual biases, our stereotyping and prejudices, the biological competitiveness that leads to and is served by our frustrations and aggression, and our self-justifying cognitive dissonances).

So, how can rejecting empathy-deficient psycho-types help psychologists to better understand authoritarian political figures – and perhaps help to prevent them from gaining power?

It enables us to anchor our understanding in long-established science – and not in labels and circular 2-D psycho-types. Despite their fierce rivalries, the work of behaviourists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists, Gestalt psychologists, humanists, Freudians and evolutionary psychologists demonstrated one common thing – albeit driven by the trajectory of scientific truth rather than any cooperative intent: people are never just anything. People, ranging from Putin, Trump, Hitler, Rudolf Hoess, Mother Teresa, you, me and the bloke next door are never just ruthless or lacking in empathy and conscience – or just compassionate. We are all complex ‘situations’.

But unfortunately, 20th century experimental psychology is very dull theatre when compared with the high-octane world of psychopaths, Machiavellians, dark triads and narcissists. Who wants to hear that Hitler would probably have lived out his life as a mediocre Viennese artist but for his experiences in the First World War – when a Heym and Humich article in The Conversation (March 16, 2022) offers its readers “dark empaths – the most dangerous personality type”?

And that is the conundrum. If we want to understand the brutality of, say, Putin, we need to understand the mechanisms of, and the potential for, nastiness that exists in all of us: in those perceptual biases mentioned earlier, in the stereotyping that creates our moral or racial prejudices and in the frustrations of everyday life that fuel our aggression towards scapegoats – all magnified or minimised by our unique learning experiences.

If there are pathocrats, then we are all pathocrats – within our personal fiefdoms.

- Dr Chris Timms is an independent writer. [email protected]. 'Some years ago, I wrote a book chapter about the psychological origins of genocide and political mass murder. Here's an excerpt, focusing on the psychological characteristics of murderous political leaders.'

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