Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 3 – In Fiction

This post is the third in my series of posts about Sociopaths in our Culture.  The first post, concerning the definition and description of sociopathy, can be found here.  The second post, where I look at the cultural adaptation of sociopaths, can be found here.

There are a great number of characters in fiction (including movies, books, and TV) that could easily be classified as having Antisocial Personality Disorder.  By my own way of looking at it, I see three different ways in which characters with APD are used in fiction.

For reference, let’s put the definition and indicators up again: A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or adolescence and continuing into adulthood, and indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability or aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavoior or to honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.

The first is very obvious; a great number of the villains in books are obviously sociopaths, many of them wanting nothing more than to destroy all or part of the world.  One of the better examples is probably Raj Ahten who is the primary antagonist of the first four books in David Farland’s Runelords series.  Ultimately he has a noble goal – he is trying to unite the countries of the world in order to face a bigger threat – but the methods that he uses are brutal as he tries to subjugate society.  (Looking at the list, you could diagnose him with #’s 1, 2, 4, 5, 7.)

The second use of APD in fiction comes from a variety of book with a specific type of main character.  While not the most common, there is a history of books being written about antiheroes, characters that in most other stories would be the primary antagonist.  (For antiheroes I’m using the classical definition as described in the Writing Excuses podcast.)  Looking through my list of reviews, the only true antihero book that I have on there is Perfume by Patrick Suskind.  But I’m going to talk about a different book for this, Waiting Period by Hubert Selby Jr.

Selby is one of my favorite authors, and Waiting Period is one of my favorite books of his.  The basic premise of this book is simple; a man who is depressed decides to kill himself.  He decides that the best way to kill himself is to buy a gun and end it quickly.  Because of the laws he has to wait several days before he can get his gun.  During this time, he starts to think a little differently about his situation in life.  He starts to think that his life isn’t the problem; the problem comes from people in power keeping everyone else down.  This leads to him deciding that he needs to kill the people who have been causing the problems rather than himself.  He is in many ways the prototypical APD case, and is easily diagnosed with symptoms #1, 4, 5, & 7.

The third use of people with APD is not one that many people commonly think about.  In many cases, the primary protagonist in many novels could easily be diagnosed with having APD.  The main reason most people wouldn’t consider them to have this personality disorder is because they’re doing noble things.  But if you look at their patterns of behavior, several heroes of stories show consistent signs of APD behavior.  Two characters that easily fall into this category are Kelsier from Mistborn (#’s 1, 2, 4, 5, & 7) and Kvothe from The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear (#’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7 – yes, he shows all of the common symptoms at times).

Not everyone with Antisocial Personality Disorder is a serial killer – in fact many people who could be diagnosed with APD are very successful people.  This series of posts started because of the ways that I saw H. H. Holmes being depicted in media.  I don’t think anyone can argue that what he did was horrible, but the worst thing you could do is simply dismiss someone because of his or her behavior.  Take the time to understand different personalities, and try and figure out why they exist.  Many times people with strange patterns of behavior are the most interesting to look at.  This is true in both fiction and real life.

Realize that any time you’re dealing with people with different personalities or conditions it’s never an issue of “us vs. them.”  We all have numerous aspects to personalities, and there are no clear dividing lines between groups of people, it really comes down to a matter of degree.  It’s also worth considering that there is no condition that is inherently good or bad.  We all have different tools for use, and from there it’s simply a matter of what we decide to do with them.

Hopefully you enjoyed this series of posts (and hopefully I didn’t ramble too much).

The definitions from this series of posts come from my psychology textbooks that I used in college.  My Abnormal Psychology textbook is the Hansell & Demour Abnormal Psychology (2nd edition).  Also of use was my textbook from my Personality class, which is the Larsen & Buss Personality Psychology (4th edition).  Obviously I also used my lecture notes from these classes, for which I thank my professors.  If you are interested in further reading into this topic I would highly suggest looking into both of those books.

Advertisements

Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 2 – Cultural Adaptation

This post is the second in my series of posts about Sociopaths in our Culture.  The first post, concerning the definition and description of sociopathy, can be found here.

Continuing with my discussion of Antisocial Personality Disorder, we come to the question of how these people continue to survive in our present day culture.  In general, about half of our personality is based upon our genetics, while the other half is based upon our upbringing.

One of the most commonly used and widely accepted models for analyzing overall personality is the Five Factor Model (FFM) used by Costa & McCrae.  Their model assumes that personality can be broken down into the five factors of Neuroticism, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.  The two that are relevant to this discussion are Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C).  Agreeableness is a measure of how well the individual cooperates with other people, while Conscientiousness is a measure of how hard people work as well as how much planning they put into a situation.  Generally a person who has been diagnosed with APD will rate very low on A & C as compared to the average of the population as a whole.

Like anything else in genetics, your personality isn’t simply going to be the average of your parents.  There is going to be some variation from your parents.  If you have parents who are fairly low on A & C, there is always a chance that you would end up scoring even lower on both measures.  The biggest issue with this is that having low A or C would seem like very poor personality traits.  This would lead you to think that over time these personalities would be slowly phased out of the gene pool.  So why are they still around?

The answer is simple, these are adaptive traits and in many circumstances people who possess these traits can be highly successful in society.  I know it sounds strange, but if you stop and think about it, it’s fairly easy to think of situations where it’s advantageous to be low on A, C, or both.

The clearest situation where someone low on A would be successful would be any situation where there is competition.  Lets look at sports for a moment.  (I’m watching the NBA playoffs as I type this, which is one of the reasons I’m using this as an example.)  One of the most highly regarded players in the NBA is Kobe Bryant, and in listening to analysts discuss his play, he is often described as having a killer instinct, or being ruthless.  To me at least, both of those adjectives sound like works that you could use to describe someone very low on Agreeableness.

So what about low C?  One of the clearest markers for low C is showing low remorse for other people’s well being.  The easiest situation to see where this would be advantageous (and oftentimes encouraged) would be in a time of war.  If you’re a general of an army, there are times when you have to be willing to send people into battle, knowing that in many cases they won’t be coming back.

It’s also very easy to see how it can be balanced in society.  A good example of this is the movie The Invention of Lying (which I have to confess I haven’t actually seen, but the previews got the premise across very well).  If you live in a world where everyone is honest and considerate, it can be quite advantageous for a single person who goes against these traits.  If no one ever lies, then the first person that starts to lie will be able to abuse that ability because people aren’t accustomed to anything other than the truth being told.  However, if too many people exhibit that behavior, more people become wary of it and it becomes a less adaptive strategy.  The constant cultural adaptation that we experience means that the level of people who exhibit dishonest and/or violent behavior will be fairly stable over time.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 3 – Sociopaths in Fiction

Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 1 – Definition

One of my biggest complaints about Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City is that I felt like I’d been sold the wrong book.  The title of the book (which is one of the main selling points) leads you to believe that the book is going to be primarily about H.H. Holmes, who was one of the first recorded serial killers in America (as well as one of the most prolific).  While the book did discuss part of Holmes life, I really thought that it was shoehorned into the book with the goal of helping the book to sell better.

I was still interested in learning more about Holmes, so I watched a documentary about him on Netflix that was directed by John Borowski.  The documentary was very well done and had a lot of interesting information about Holmes, some of which was included in Larson’s book, but much of which was not.  If you’re interested in learning specifically about Holmes, I would suggest Borowski’s documentary before Larson’s book.

While contrasting the two works, I noticed a big difference in the tone that was used when they were discussing Holmes.  Early in the Larson book, he is very derogatory and almost dismissive of Holmes.  I understand that it’s his book and it’s going to be styled by his opinions, but I think it leads to a kind of “us vs. them” attitude when dealing with sociopathic individuals, which I consider to be the wrong way to look at it.  The Borowski documentary is much more even in tone when looking at Holmes’s actions, which allows you to draw your own conclusions.

I have a big problem with trying to create the “us vs. them” attitude with anything, it doesn’t work and ultimately causes more problems then it will ever solve.  It’s easy to simply dismiss someone as insane, to call them a psychopath.  It makes us feel safer because there’s no way that we could ever do anything like that, we’re normal.  And while it’s the easy way to look at things, and it makes people feel better, it’s also dead wrong.

The first thing to discuss is the proper term for a serial killer, antihero, psychopath, whatever you normally use.  The term used in the DSM IV-TR and accepted by the APA is Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).  Is that a bit of a politically correct term?  Yes, but it’s the proper term.  Now, for the fun part that will probably surprise most of you, it isn’t nearly as rare as you think it is.  My Abnormal Psychology textbook lists the lifetime prevalence of APD as being 2% of the overall population.  In the 2010 Census the US Government listed the population of the country as just under 309 million.  Which means that there are potentially as many as 6.18 million people in this country who could be considered sociopaths.  (Please keep in mind that 2% is the figure that my textbook uses, although I don’t recall exactly which books they come from, I’ve heard estimates as high as 4% of the overall population.)

So what exactly are the symptoms to be diagnosed with APD?  Once again I turn to my Abnormal Psychology textbook:  A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or adolescence and continuing into adulthood, and indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability or aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or to honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.

Obviously not everyone who is diagnosed with APD is a serial killer, and there are killers who couldn’t be diagnosed with APD.  Any time you encounter someone with a different overall personality or viewpoint, it’s easy to break the discussion down to “us vs. them.”  But the better reaction to have is to take some time and examine their situation.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2 – Cultural Adaptation

The Black Swan

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  To begin with, this is an incomplete review of the book.  I have the second edition of the book, to which Taleb added a new section “On Robustness & Fragility.”  I will eventually read the last section, but I’m going to take a break from it.

The Black Swan is a non-fiction book dealing with Philosophy and its application to Business.  The first thing that I’m going to say about this book is that it is not an easy read.  There is a lot of information in this book, and Taleb writes in an academic style, which means it isn’t the most accessible book to read.  There were several sections where I found myself re-reading some sentences before I saw what Taleb was getting it.  This isn’t necessarily a weakness of the book as long as you’re prepared for it.

The book discusses what Taleb calls a Black Swan.  A Black Swan is an event that is statistically extremely unlikely but has a huge effect.  The quintessential example of this is September 11th.  No matter what you may have read or heard to the contrary, there was nothing we could have done to predict 9/11 from happening, but it had a huge impact on our lives (and still does to this day).

The book is split into several sections, and while I enjoyed the book, I would suggest that you only read the first two sections.  The first section deals with the ways that we seek validation for what has happened, and the second section deals with the reasons that we can’t predict what is going to happen.

As an example of these, I’ll quickly discuss some of Chaos Theory, specifically the Butterfly Effect.  You may have heard of the idea that in a simulation, a very minor detail can quickly render the entire simulation ineffective.  The example commonly given is that omitting (or adding) a butterfly in Australia can lead to a hurricane in the U.S. years later.  This works well as an idea of what caused something, but you cannot look at a butterfly today and determine that it will cause a hurricane two years later, there are simply too many other variables to take into consideration, so we cannot effectively predict anything.  For validation, we can look back and blame the butterfly, even though it was impossible to see at the time.

The third section of the book was the weakest part of it to me.  The third part was essentially just calling out people who have disagreed with Taleb.  The book lost focus at this part and became a train wreck.  If you’re going to read the book, just skip part 3.

With any non-fiction book, it’s less about what the book says and more about the way that the book says it.  This is the reason that Malcolm Gladwell is brilliant, he takes a complicated topic and writes about it eloquently.  This book has an interesting topic, and it discusses it in detail, but Taleb lacks the eloquence that Gladwell possesses.

Overall Grade

I’m giving this book two different grades, one for the first two sections and one for the complete first edition of the book.  I’ll either update this or more likely do a second post after I read the added section and give that part a third score.

Sections 1 & 2 – 8/10

Entire First Edition – 5/10