Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Two Sides of Psychopathy

By Beth Terrell

A few weeks ago, I went to a lecture on psychopathy. It was delivered by Vanderbilt University psychology professor Dr. Stephen Benning in conjunction with an art exhibit called "Paint Made Flesh." The exhibit was about the human face and figure in art, and the lecture was about how psychopaths respond differently to photos and paintings than non-psychopaths do. I can't remember the lecture word for word, of course, but I thought you might be interested in hearing some of what I learned from it.

Psychopathy, Dr. Benning said, is a blend of two extreme and opposing personality types: the fearless dominant type and the impulsive antisocial type.

The Fearless Dominant type (which I will call the FD type for simplicity's sake) is often a paradoxical mix of charm and nastiness. Cool and calm under pressure, the FD type is not easily rattled. They lack the same kind of anticipatory anxiety that most people have, so instead of thinking, "What? Jump out of a perfectly good airplane?", the FD type just thinks, "Cool!" Fearless Dominance is associated with a number of things our society considers desirable or good: high verbal I.Q., high performance, and economic success. The FD type is often charming and socially influential. He or she relishes directing other people's activities and basking in their admiration. The FD type is sexually adventurous and often takes risks. It's not that they can't feel fear or anxiety; it's just that it takes a much more extreme situation to elicit those emotions. FD types live for the thrill, the excitement, the adrenaline rush. With proper parenting and a nurturing environment, an FD type might become a fireman or policeman. As Dr. Benning said, if you were assembling a Special Forces team, you would want to screen for people high in fearless dominance.

The flip side of psychopathy is impulsive antisociality. The Impulsive Antisocial Type (IA type) is aggressive, unorganized, and suspicious. The world is a hostile place for the IA type. "You hurt me, now I'll hurt you," is the IA type's mantra. IA types don't generally make plans, and they don't think society's rules are worth following. They often abuse drugs, and--like the FD type--are often extremely sexually active. It's not the thrill that motivates the IA type, though. It's the relief of boredom and alienation. IA types are often risk-takers, not because they don't don't feel fear, but just to have something to do. They are extremely reactive and have a lot of raw, aggressive energy. Usually, they have a long history of antisocial behavior, such as brawling and vandalism. Mike Tyson is a good example of an IA type. His boxing training provided him with the tight structure an IA type needs, so when he was heavily in training, he was, as Dr. Benning says, "a fearsome powerhouse." But when he became successful, it went to his head and he broke free of that structure. Without it, he spun into a downward spiral that ruined him.

Remember that hypothetical Special Forces unit? While you would screen for individuals high in fearless dominance, you would want them to be low in impulsive antisociality!

These two personality types are juxtaposed in the psychopath, who, due to the complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors, is high in both fearless dominance and impulsive antisociality. Not all psychopaths are dangerous. Many have some sort of compensating factors that help them find a useful place in society (e.g., good parenting or a very high I.Q. that enables them to see the consequences of their actions). Because the FD and IA types require very different (and often opposing) parenting styles, a young psychopath is hard to raise, but with the right balance of love, freedom, fairness, and structure, the psychopath may become a successful fireman, policeman, soldier, or participant in extreme sports. Some may pursue the creative arts as a focus fir their interests and a socially acceptable means of expressing their frustrations. Others may become successful salespeople or businessmen. Yet others may take a darker path, such as John Gotti, who was both charming (FD) and violent (IA).

Thriller writer David Wiltse (The Edge of Sleep, Close to the Bone) does a good job of pitting his hero (who is a psychopath) against pschopathic or psychotic villains. The contrast between Wiltse's well-socialized psychopath (a psychopath with a sense of justice) and the dangerous psychopath makes for fascinating reading.

And who can resist Jack Bauer (of the hit TV show 24)? He just goes to show that a little psychopathy isn't always a bad thing.


Vincit said...

I'm lookin' at you, Amy Winehouse! I hope "Rehab" doesn't become the mantra for either the FD or the IA types. And fortunately, the British R&B artist hasn't been much in the news lately. Now that I've said that, be prepared for more of her antics.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating subject, Beth. It's unnerving to wonder how many of them wind up in government and other positions of power.

Beth Terrell said...

Don't wonder too hard, Jean. You may never sleep again.

I always wondered how Saddam Hussein could be such a monster (feeding people to wood chippers and so on)and have such a beautiful smile. Now I think it must have been fearless dominant charm.

Vincit said...

It's incredible how many ruthless dictators have that smiley face thing goin' on. That may be one of the main things that hooks people.