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Political Corruption, Wall Street Frauds, and Sociopaths

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With so many media people manifesting amazement at the revelations about political corruption and Wall Street scams, one wonders if the media are really amazed or is the surprise just one more example of the fakery endemic in American society.

Is the apparent surprise merely a device to maintain the myth that we're all such wonderful people living in a free-market paradise where scams against the public are so rare nothing needs to be regulated?

The roots of all of this are deep and troubling. Aside from the general American ethic of "money talks"--net worth more important than personal worth--there's a real psychiatric problem.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have learned a few things about what they call "social cognition"--our awareness of our connections to the people around us. People with normally developed social cognition appear to have attributes that foster social understanding. For example, they have what psychologists call a "theory of mind"--the ability to recognize what some person may be thinking from that person's facial expression or from cues related to what that person is doing or saying. Those with normally developed social cognition also have an attribute called "empathy"--the ability to imagine or feel the emotions of another person.

Unfortunately, either as a consequence of variant genes or very early environment or an interaction of both genes and environment, not everyone is operating with a full deck in the social cognition domain.

For example, 30 to 50 percent of all incarcerated criminals in American prisons have measurable problems in social cognition.

Autistic children have problems in social cognition.

Many psychotics such as schizophrenics have problems in social cognition.

Serial killers have special problems with empathy, although they do have good theory of mind--they excel at reading people and manipulating them. But lacking empathy, they can kill without batting an eye.

Sociopaths in general usually have social cognition problems, especially with empathy. They are people who feel nothing when viewing or imagining the pain and suffering of other people.

Most clinical psychologists and psychiatrists use a rating scheme called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to diagnose sociopathy (also called psychopathy).

Here are some items on the checklist to detect sociopaths:

Glibness and superficial charm. Grandiose sense of self-worth. Pathological lying. Conning and manipulative behavior. Lack of remorse or guilt. Lack of empathy. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.

Yes, we could make a list of politicians and Wall Street scam artists described by the above cluster of traits.

Sociopaths? Labels are just linguistic conveniences that we use to organize reality. We need to keep in mind the continuities in the real world, the gradations, the way traits gradually differ along a spectrum from one person to another, from ordinary to extreme.

Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is a serial killer. Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is in prison. Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is autistic or psychotic.

One can have enough empathy to refrain from homicide, but not enough empathy to refrain from fraud or political callousness that causes harm to many thousands of people.

So if you want to understand how someone can run the huge scam that was Enron, or how someone can rip $50 billion out of the pockets of charities and people, many of whom are "friends," or how some people can be callous about a torture called water-boarding (a "no-brainer," he said), or offer nothing but a shrug when reminded they have caused the death of thousands--if you want to understand the dynamics of these behaviors it might help to remember the continuum that runs from ordinary people with empathy to people with no empathy at all.

It seems that's the real America. Or is it? These days it seems we're living in a society that's a candy store for sociopaths and almost-sociopaths and wannabe-sociopaths.

I don't have a fix. Regulation will help on Wall Street, but it's only a band-aid. The general problem is apparently psychiatric.