Nightmare on “The Psychopath Test”

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I woke up from a nightmare after reading Jon Ronson‘s “The Psychopath Test“.

I didn’t want to check the time but I knew it was dawn, which meant I only slept about 3-4 hours after finishing the book late last night. It was a real page turner, brilliantly written and hilarious, just as the backcover of the book suggested. I just couldn’t put it down.

I tried to keep my eyes closed and go back to sleep, but an image from my dream kept appearing when I closed my eyes. It was a woman’s head that snapped off from her body after she was pushed by a psychopath and fell, breaking her neck as she landed on the curb. The neck just broke in half, there was no blood and nothing gruesome about it, but what really scared me was the expression on the woman’s face. She was in fear and in shock, her eyes and mouth wide open, and her expression remained the same even after her head came off. It’s almost comical when you come to think of it, that woman’s expression was over the top like a theatrical performance, and of course it made no sense that the neck would just snap in such a clean way. But I was scared anyway, and the craziest thing was I tried to close my eyes when the neck was about to hit the curb, but of course I couldn’t, how could you close your eyes when your eyes are closed? I found it amusing that I even tried, and that shows that I’m probably the opposite of a psychopath, having an overactive amygdala.

It didn’t wake me still, the dream ended with the psychopath being alive and reading a copy of “The Psychopath Test” like a normal person, during his break at the facility that contained him. The book, I think was given by Jon Ronson, not entirely sure though.

By then I was awake and all I could see was the woman’s face as soon as I closed my eyes, she was looking right at me. I was finally aware that I couldn’t close my eyes while they were closed.

I did manage to fall asleep again after a while of staring into the sky through a small opening between the curtains, at the same time I was feeling my cat’s soft fur and light purr, that calmed me down, and I felt like I was back in reality. It was nothing but a dream.

Why did the psychopath kill the woman? It was actually explained in the earlier part of the dream (yes it was quite logical at the beginning). The woman was a researcher on psychopaths, and she somehow pissed him off by writing about her discoveries, and also rejected him when he made advances. He was actually harassing her before he killed her, on the front part of a tour bus. He kept pushing while she kept backing off, eventually he pushed her off a platform on a cabin that could be pulled down like a truck (strange anatomy for a tour bus, I know).

When I finally woke up, I was less scared, but still had to watch a bit of Spongebob to get rid of that creepiness.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t scared when I was reading the book. It was just a quest that the author decided to go on, trying to understand if psychopathy had anything to do with the way the world is. Many questions were asked, some were addressed, some remain a mystery.

For example, what makes psychopaths so emotionless and how do we spot them? This part was answered quite thoroughly I think.

Another more controversial question is, have modern psychology devised a system that puts too many tags and labels to people that could just be dysfunctional in certain aspects but not dysfunctional enough to be labeled? In other words, are there people who are wrongly diagnosed as mentally ill just because of certain temperaments that might deviate from the general public, just because pharmaceutical firms are making big money out of these “mental illnesses”? (That would somehow make these firms giant “psychopathic organizations”!) This question is so complex that I don’t think there could be an absolute answer, except for Scientologists maybe. I studied psychology back in university, so I knew what the DSM represented, but I never had a copy and never laid eyes on one – ok I might not have been a diligent student but it just wasn’t necessary. I’ve always been interested in the human mind and the most exciting course was probably abnormal psychology, that’s what we were in for. But still, there was no way we could’ve learnt (and let alone memorize) all the mental disorders listed on the DSM-IV in one semester.

The ultimate moral dilemma has to be the labelling of psychopaths. Yes, there is a checklist to rank people on that, but can we make accurate judgements from a checklist? Tony in Broadmoor is a fascinating example, someone who successfully faked madness to get away from a prison sentence for assault, but unfortunate for him, he got locked up in a mental facility for criminals for 14 years instead, where his neighbours were serial killers and rapists. I’m not sure if I could’ve remained sane if I was in the same situation. Do people like Tony deserve a second chance? I would think so, but psychiatrists didn’t think so, because he scored high on Bob Hare’s psychopathy checklist, there’s a risk he could be a danger to society. I can understand why they didn’t take the chance, because according to Bob Hare, psychopaths have a lack of remorse and will surely offend again because they DO NOT remember punishments. There were unfortunate cases mentioned in the book when psychopaths were let out. So what if Tony got out and started mass murdering? Then people would be like, “You knew he was a psychopath, why the hell did you let him out?”

Should psychopaths be given a second chance?

I would think it’s a definite NO for serial killers, rapists and mass murderers (things would be much simpler if capital punishment was an option), but for people like Tony, he had not done anything as devious – ok he assaulted a homeless man after he was provoked, and the man eventually died – I’d still think he might be worth a second chance, maybe he should be under anger management therapy instead.

And so the author (and we) wonder if there are high functioning psychopaths who are successful in the corporate or political world? The answer is: possibly. Quoting Bob Hare’s research on corporate psychopathy, there might be as much as 4% of high functioning psychopaths who are the cream of the crop in our society, which is higher than the 1% among the general public. Their psychopathic traits could well be celebrated as “aggressiveness”, “relentlessness”, and perhaps “possession of a strong will to win and succeed”. As Al Dunlap would put it, being manipulative to him means “leadership”.

The corporate world is cold and Darwinian, and we know that. It would make perfect sense for these psychopaths to rise to the top, but do they deserve to be behind bars alongside with serial killers? Well some of them might be behind bars for white collar crimes, and they deserve it, because they’ve made a lot of people lose money, some lost their life savings, and they may even have indirectly killed people because of that. What about people who have closed down plants, cut jobs, and turned once lively towns into ghost towns like Al Dunlap? He’s like a villain to many people, for sure, and he should’ve been in jail for fraud. But did he commit a heinous crime? No I don’t think so.

And that got me thinking, can a person with psychopathic personality traits leverage on his/her aloofness and excel in certain professions, without destroying the lives of others? A doctor or surgeon maybe, like House? As long as he could be trained/conditioned to not intentionally kill anyone while he’s at it (because they are often “curious” about how it’s like to kill someone). My guess is it might help to not be affected by emotions as a doctor, to decide what’s best for patients. Same applies to lawyers, I guess. They could also be athletes, because psychopaths are generally immune to pain, and trainings can be quite painful. For parents who have children displaying psychopathic traits, perhaps they could think about that.

I’ve always thought that kids that abuse animals could be psychopathic, turns out that’s exactly what Bob Hare said. They do not have the ability to comprehend fear and pain, that led me to think, what makes them curious about killing animals or people? Is there an innate hideous self within us that makes us curious about destruction? Think about this, when you were a kid you’d play with all kinds of things, you smash them, break them, before you play with them like normal toys. Are we born with an urge to destroy?

When I was a kid, I would sometimes, out of curiosity, cut ants in half with my fingernail, or put a scotch tape over them while leaving some space to see if they get stuck on the tape. Did that make me an animal abuser? I certainly hope not. And as it turns out, the only way for me to cook live shrimps or crabs now is to dump them into boiling water or steam them, because that doesn’t involve me cutting them open while they are still moving. So I think that would clear my suspicion of myself being a psychopath, and also the fact that I’m worried I might have been psychopathic means I’m not (this is from the book, not my own deduction).

The thing with insects is that you can’t really see their faces, let alone their expressions. You can’t make out fear on the face of an ant (except in animations), but on animals like dogs and cats, and even shrimps and crabs, you kinda can. The reason why we are not psychopaths is that we can comprehend fear, which is a negative emotion, and we have a sense of empathy, so we do not want to do things that would provoke fear in other lives. Psychopaths have neither of those abilities, hence there’s nothing holding them back. So is that their fault? It’s like someone might be antisocial because he’s autistic, do we blame that person? We try not to. And… we’re back to the big question: should psychopaths be held responsible for their actions?

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