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Sociopathic Behavior & the Economic Crisis April 3, 2013

Posted by larry in economics, Psychology.
As the new Eurostat data shows, unemployment in the EU17 has risen again. Mitchell contends in his recent post, and I agree, that this is policy induced and can, therefore, be avoided only by certain policy changes. One such change, of course, would be to backtrack on austerity.

Mitchell characterizes the policy makers or their advisers as sociopaths. I thought it would be good to distinguish between psychopathy and sociopathy. I should warn you that these definitions are slightly different than those provided by Robert Hare, a leading expert of psychopathic behavior and designer of the Psychopathy Checklist used by law enforcement agencies around the world. It needs also to be pointed out that the kind of psychopaths that are under discussion are organized and non-violent physically. The damage they cause is emotional, which can be just as destructive as physical damage if not sometimes more so.  Here is a slide that makes the requisite distinctions for a talk I gave a while ago (apologies if it is fuzzy – due to WordPress).
       Hare does not agree with Bakan that a corporation can be psychopathic; in his view, only individuals can be psychopathic. One could, however, look at Bakan’s usage as a metaphorical extension of the term. It then becomes a further question whether such an extension is useful. Having said that, Hare contends that corporations and like organizations have become more psychopath friendly.
       It needs to be noted that psychopathy (and sociopathy) is a syndrome, hence, in order to classify an individual as being psychopathic, they must exhibit a number of the traits in the list on the right, not just one or two. For example, narcissism is often mistaken for psychopathy, and this is because narcissistic behavior is a component of true psychopathic behavior patterns. Determining whether an individual is truly psychopathic, however, is quite difficult to do clinically. A lot of information about the individual’s behavior over time is necessary in order to reach this kind of diagnosis. Having said that, under my definitions, there are more sociopathic individuals than there are true psychopaths. Hare reckons that around 2% of the American population are true psychopaths, that is, exhibit psychopathic behavior patterns in every aspect of their lives and in every social role they play. This is unlike sociopaths, who are psychopathic only part of the time, usually only in certain situations or when playing certain roles. Although not truly psychopathic, they do leave a good deal of emotional damage in their wake.
       You undoubtedly know or have known or worked with someone who is either psychopathic or sociopathic. I have, more than once, and these were not pleasant experiences. [Display problems with WordPress in this post.]


1. Systemic Disorder - April 3, 2013

I don’t think it is necessary to resort to psychological categories to explain the behavior of capitalist elites, however distasteful those behaviors might be. They operate within a system that rewards such behavior — and actually encourages greed and destruction.

If we removed a banker, somebody else would step into that position and do much the same thing. It’s not greedy bankers, it’s the system that enables the banker to act on greed. A different economic system would reward different parts of the human character.

Larry - April 3, 2013

You contend that most such behavior is socio-culturally induced. I agree wholeheartedly with you on this. The assistance that a psychological classification might provide, however, is that it might help provide guidance as to what socio-cultural alterations need to be made to alter that behavior. There is a need to worry also in this regard about how entrenched such behavior is. As for true psychopaths, there is nothing one can do to alter their behavior, as the they are unable to do other than what they do. The only way to remove their behavior is to remove them from their positions. This is what used to be done. As for the sociopaths, you are right. Altering the reward system would alter their behavior because it is largely situationally induced.

Re true psychopaths, there appears to an exception to their inability to alter their egregious behavior. In mid-life, generally around their mid-forties to early fifties, psychopaths appear to mollify their behavior rendering it less destructive. It was originally thought that they just “burned out”. But more recent data appears to suggest that there is an alteration in brain function, which occurs in all of us, at that time. The brain appears to begin to compensate for its inability to engage in rapid computations by dealing with what could be called “the broad view”. It is not known why this functional alteration in brain function should produce this kind of mellowing effect on the destructively manipulative behavior evinced by psychopaths.

Systemic Disorder - April 4, 2013

Thanks for the clarification. There are some people who are simply too dangerous to have around, such as mass murderers, who aren’t products of any system and would have to be removed from society as you indicate.

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