Friday, November 13, 2009

Ruled by psychopaths

The News, March 15, 2009


Ruled by psychopaths

By Omar R. Quraishi

What is a psychopath, one may ask. According to Wikipedia (what else is one supposed to quote in a newspaper article?), it is a construct made by psychologists to describe "chronic immoral and antisocial behaviour." Perhaps one could argue that it should not be necessarily 'immoral' but 'amoral' -- as in behaviour that does not adhere to any moral norms in that it does not depend on the individual's perception of morality in society.

In many industrialised countries, psychopath is a legal term used to fight crime perpetrated by individuals who may have traits similar to those exhibited by psychopaths as defined by specific laws. Of course, the primary reason for the enactment of such laws is to treat those who have such disorders

The heading of this article may make some readers wonder who is being ruled over and who is the ruler. Once the definition of what makes a psychopath is given, it will hopefully become clear that one is referring to the Land of the Pure.

According to practitioners of psychiatry and human psychology, a psychopath is someone who finds gratification in criminal, sexual or aggressive impulses and also if he or she is unable to learn from past mistakes. There is also a strong element of lack of remorse in that the actions undertaken and executed by the individual are such that they can harm others but that the doer expresses or in fact experiences no remorse for such actions and gains satisfaction from them. Surely, these are all traits of those who have ruled over this country -- both in mufti as well as khaki lest I also fall into the dangerous trap of blaming everything on just the politicians. Those who fall in this category do not seem to learn from their mistakes, they seem to never express any regret or remorse for their misdeeds or misgovernance. And worse still, they hold delusions of grandeur with regard to the consequences of their actions -- as in policies that harm citizens and tangibly lower their quality of life but which those in power interpret as being good for the people. Hence satisfaction is gaining from implementing and enforcing them on a generally unwilling populace.

A student of the Greek philosopher Aristotle by the name of Theophrastus is said to have come up with the first description of psychopathy in a book called The Unscrupulous Man. A French psychologist in the early 19th century spoke of patients who were not mad in medical or other terms but carried on with actions that were "impulsive and self-defeating" but that they kept on carrying out such actions, fully understanding the obvious "irrationality" of their behaviour. Psychologists in the early 20th century expounded on this ideas -- some of them in the context of the system of corrections that was becoming an established institution in the west. For example, one predominant view was that such people were in fact incorrigible. Putting them in jail would not achieve much because they did not understand the dire consequences of their actions. Also because they failed to express any remorse and hence were unwilling, if not wholly unable, to learn from the past and at least not do the same, which would make them, end up again in the correctional system.

It was not until 1941 that a canonical work was done on this issue by an American psychiatrist Hervey M Cleckly who was a professor at the Medical College of Georgia. His work, The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality, can be found on the Internet (in pdf format at was groundbreaking in that much of what he wrote is used by psychiatrists today. He first came up with the idea of a "mask of sanity" or a demeanour used by psychopaths that made others think of them as perfectly normal and rational individuals. (One wonders whether this explains why so many times when a murderer is caught, those who know him/her because of living in close proximity or because of a relation express surprise at his/her actions and say that he was a 'normal' person and so on and so forth). He also called it a "mask" because it hid from other people the mental disorder of the person who was a psychopath.

Interestingly enough, psychopaths also sometimes tend to display an overdeveloped sense of narcissism. They are basically in love with themselves which is present in most people who not categorised as psychopathic but that in the latter it is found to a degree whereby it causes psychological problems. According to Freud, there is a triad at work: self-admiration, self-centeredness and self-regard.

Some of the traits found in psychopaths, as defined by psychiatrists are: Superficial charm; a very high sense of self-worth; pathological lying; ability to be manipulate others; lack of remorse or guilt; lack of empathy and failure to accept responsibility for one's actions; tendency to get bored quickly; living life as a parasite; poor behavioural control; sexual promiscuity; lack of realistic long-term goals; doing things on impulse; a high degree of irresponsibility and juvenile delinquency; displaying a "reckless disregard" for the safety of oneself or others; aggressive or violent tendencies; a high sense of entitlement; inability to distinguish right from wrong; poor judgment and failure to learn from experience and substance abuse. Of course, this is not to say that those who have all or part of these traits are necessarily psychopathic but that individuals clinically determined to be psychopaths tend to display all or most of these traits.

A well known Canadian criminal psychologist, Robert D Hare of the University of British Columbia, has said of psychopaths that they are "intra-species predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse. What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony."

In children, three particular traits are thought to give early signs that the child may grow up to have psychopathic tendencies -- bedwetting, cruelty to animals and starting small fires (also referred to as the 'Macdonald triad' after forensic psychiatrist J M MacDonald of New Zealand – first spoke of the triad in a 1963 paper that he wrote for the American Journal of Psychiatry titled 'Threat to kill'). I have no idea about bedwetting tendencies but I have seen many many children in my life who are extremely cruel to animals and who also love to start small fires.

The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News. Email:

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