Neurodiversity editorial: Do we have to accept sociopaths? Revisited.

Welp, another inauguration, another four years gone by.

Four years ago, during the last Obama inauguration, we asked if we had to accept sociopathy as a form of neurodiversity.  Our point was to wonder why we accept autistic spectrum individuals, but not psychoapths. Both conditions are organic, as far as we can tell.

We’ve mellowed in the past four years, and so we’re revisiting this.

The goal is for psychopathy to be viewed similarly to any other organic brain condition. Neurotolerance, if you will. That way, we can focus on where their strengths can be best used for beneficial purposes in society.

Mrs. Obrien and Thomas the Valet

As the 2009 Swivelchair opined,

Yet, I’m a huge hypocrite: I just can’t get with the whole sociopaths-are-just-another-neuro-diverse-population gig.

. . .

Contrast autistic spectrum disorders. I’m totally ok with that neurodiversity. Both autistic spectrum and sociopaths lack “empathy” (although there are profound other differences, which I won’t go into here). Why am [sic] do I grade these two organic conditions differently, having neurotolerance for autistic spectrum, and no tolerance whatsoever for sociopaths?

Fear. I’m fearful because wild-type sociopaths roaming free in society are capable of huge swaths of destruction, and I can’t tell who they are. They look so lifelike. It’s context. I understand the ecological niche for rattlesnakes. But NIMBY. If sociopaths were culled from the herd, and put somewhere where they couldn’t do any harm, I’d be much more benevolent.  I know this is inconsistent. But is it wrong?

. . .

The 2013 Swivelchair has calmed down a bit, partly because many of the psychopaths in our own orbit are either dead or aren’t bugging us any more. So we’re  more objective, more dispassionate. Yet, what to do about the high-functioning psychopaths* who hide so that they can wreak havoc, and worse?

In the perfect world, psychopaths (using a definition including quantifiable white matter disconnections between the frontal lobes and the limbic system, to oversimplify) would be be part of society at large, focusing on their strong suit: low compassion — battlefield doctors, adventurers. Mr. Spock. Psychopaths would recognize their limitations as parents, spouses, teachers or other areas where they could harm dependent others, and avoid these areas, if not out of courtesy, then at least out of a utilitarian not-wanting-to-complicate-their-own-lives.  We previously suggested culling from human herd.  Although this is a harsh way to put it, this is what we mean. But the culling is not only to isolate individuals who are predisposed to harm others, but also to harness that special talent that psychopaths have.

There are all sorts of reasons why this won’t work, first and foremost, all the psychopaths we’ve known would be chuckling right now and saying, “Yeah! Let us in! We’ll show you our strengths, wink wink nudge nudge.”   We have no idea how to motivate a psychopath to work with the system, except perhaps appealing to ego by pointing out that we’ll all be dead one day, and there is a legacy issue. N.b., giving other people’s money to charity for self-enhancing legacy doesn’t count.  People are always magnanimous with other peoples’ money, ask any jury consultant. The legacy has to be authentic.

Yet, at some point, psychopathy (again, defined in an organically quantifiable way, rather than by behavioral phenotype) will be a mainstream diagnosis. Right now, in the corporate world, there are those korny with a “k” bogus personality tests where you get letters or colors or whatnot. Even the psychopathy checklists test only observable traits, and, as with any data, garbage in garbage out, gotta check your sources. We suspect, with all the studies about psychopathic CEO’s in the past few years, because brain damaged leaders lead to lower profits , brain imaging is not far behind. And that’s when we’ll have to figure out what to do with the sub-criminal high functioning psychopathic folks.


Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey, via OWN.

Psychopaths claim that if they were identified, they’d probably all just get together and start their own hedge fund.  (This from a psychopath I Am A/Ask Me Anything on Reddit, but it seems representative). Assuming it’s legit, I’m not opposed to psychopaths sitting behind a screen and hedging all day.  Psychopaths in positions of power and influence, on the other hand, should be identified and weeded out.  Exhibit A, the entire financial services industry.

We were sent a paper, Newman, J.P., MacCoon, D.G., Vaughn, L.J., and Sadeh, N., “Validating a Distinction Between Primary and Secondary Psychopathy With Measures of Gray’s BIS and BAS [behavioral inhibition system/behavioral activation system] Contructs, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 114: 319-323 (2005).  The primary distinction between primary and secondary psychopathy is that primary has low levels of “neurotic anxiety. ” The paper points out that, “[s]econdary psychopathy, by contrast, is characterized by relatively high levels of positive and negative emotionality, impulsiveness, and sensation seeking but average levels of fearlessness, passive avoidance, and electrodermal activity in anticipation of punishment.”  We view this as sort of cold psychopathy versus hot psychopathy. We’ve seen both in the same person, and usually, where there’s anxiety, it’s because there’s a fear of being found out for all the bad stuff they’ve done, and could be punished for.

Yet, secondary psychopathy behavior really does point to an organic condition that we’ll call “hair trigger amygdala.”  (See here. And here.)

We were asked to “pity” the secondary psychopath. Pity is tough to do in the absense of context, particularly where psychopaths are concerned. Yet, we do consider the secondary psychopath to have an organic condition — presumably abnormalities associated with the amygdala. If they are aware of this possibility, and consider taking steps to not put themselves or others in harms’ way, then perhaps we can have a reasonable dialog.


* We want to distinguish high-functioning psychopaths from those who really have troubles, such as these grievance shooters.Another post, another time.