I'm reading a lot about crime these days, partly because the general topic interests me, but also partly because I've read a bunch of Colin Wilson's books during the past few years. I mentioned my interest in Wilson's work in an earlier post, and I hope to post about his ideas about crime in the near future. My own work has been taking up a lot of my attention, and so recently I haven't had much free time for blogging about my reading.
But I just finished Robert D. Hare's Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, and I thought that I should say something about it. It's a fascinating book, and certainly one that is relevant to criminology. After all, many criminals have psychopathic personalities. Consequently, some rudimentary knowledge of Hare's work might come in handy to anyone interested in crime, be it fictional or non-fictional.
Below you'll find two images: one of the book's cover, another of Hare's list of the ten key symptoms of psychopathy.
I have to admit that I was struck by how restrictively Hare formulates his concept of psychopathy. His checklist seems, at least to me, to epitomize confidence tricksters and unscrupulous glad-handing businessmen. Prior to reading his book, I assumed that lack of remorse and lack of empathy were the two salient features of psychopathy. Many people I would have characterizedin my casual way as someone who has not been trained in psychologyas psychopaths don't really meet Hare's more stringent criteria.
On page 175 Hare writes of psychopaths as leading "lives of callous self-gratification." I'm not sure that I've ever known someone who could be described in this manner, although I've known self-absorbed people who often acted in a callous fashion. Maybe that's the same thing under a different description. But there are self-absorbed people who can be brought to think and care about the consequences of their actions. It's just that they have to be pushed by outside influences to do so. Psychopaths, as Hare diagnoses them, just don't care, although they're often good at pretending that they do.
When I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, I met a few business students who almost certainly were the unscrupulous glad-handing type, but I never got to see them in their full glory in the business world. But they have to come from somewhere, and I'm sure that Wharton graduates its share of them. How else can you explain the financial crisis of 2008?
When I was in academia, I met many people who obviously possessed several of the traits on Hare's list. I guess, though, that their lack of imagination, their dogmatic certainty that they and they alone were in possession of the truth, and their indifference to the welfare of other peopleall of which taken together often produced behavior that seemed psychopathic to mewere what you should expect from highly introverted people whose scholarly training has convinced them that they belong to a special elite. But according to Hare's criteria, they shouldn't be classified as psychopaths. These people, whatever their faults, I would never have characterized as glib or impulsive. Some were certainly egocentric and grandiose, and obviously had shallow emotional lives, but they typically had tight control over themselves.
You might say that their personal rigidity was intellectual and emotional. They easily excluded other people from their moral purview, and probably did so because they did not regard others outside of their elite groupings as worthy of respect and decent treatment. Hence their abominable behavior. That seems psychopathic to me, but Hare's research indicates otherwise. I guess that for Hare it's just a rather involved form of learned callousness (perhaps grounded on a natural shortage of sympathy and empathy) that doesn't go all the way down to the roots of their personalities as psychopathy does with psychopaths.
Well, of course, I'm not in a position to settle this debate. I'm glad that I read Hare's book, and I recommend it to your attention. I'll take it as my starting point for future reading on the topic of psychopathy.