The biggest difference between psychopaths and the rest of us is that psychopaths have no empathy, they see people in pain but they don’t feel that pain themselves, the way we flinch when we see someone hit their thumb with a hammer. Psychopaths aren’t all mass murders but can be successful surgeons, salespeople, CEOs and bankers, though perhaps that wasn’t the best idea.
This blog came about when I was trying to read up on the difference between empathy and compassion.* I came across research on what our brain scans look like when we feel empathy. As you might expect, psychopaths didn’t show an empathy response to people suffering, but neither did ordinary people if they thought the person suffering was cheating or was not ‘one of us’.
…the second wave of empathy studies has shown that this natural capacity for empathic resonance can easily be blocked – not just in psychopaths – but in all of us: Simply because we think someone was unfair or is not belonging to “our tribe”.
Right wing media and politicians justify attacking the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the people most in need to our empathy and compassion, by portraying them as benefit cheats and scroungers, or building up a picture of ‘us and them’ with them portrayed as a threat to us, our own tribe. David Cameron talks of supporting ‘hard working families’ even though the cuts hit many of the poorest working families. Worse still, this in-group excludes the most vulnerable in our society, the unemployed the sick and disabled who are not only outside his ‘hard working families’ tribe, but are constantly portrayed as scroungers and benefit cheats. The Labour party has bought into this rhetoric too by promising to reduce welfare without asking the very basic question how much welfare we need to take care of the poor and vulnerable in our society.
Immigrants are even easier to portray as not belonging to ‘our tribe’ even though it comes with the obvious problem of promoting a racist divide between ‘real Britons’ and foreigners, rather than being our neighbours, part of the rich tapestry that makes up our society, and fellow human beings. Immigrants are also portrayed as taking away jobs from locals (though immigrants create more jobs than people born here). They are constantly being portrayed as a drain on the benefit system and the NHS, so called benefit and health tourism, even though immigrants make a net positive contribution to the economy and pay more in the tax system that funds benefits and the NHS than they claim.
These politicians build support by creating an enemy who they blame for the problems in society, then promising to punish the out-group it has portrayed as outsiders or cheats. The Conservatives use the cuts in funding for the poorest and most vulnerable to pay for tax breaks to the sort of person they really do consider ‘one of them’, the very rich.
And to get you to agree with their harsh and cruel treatment of the poorest and most vulnerable in society all they have to do keep repeating the rhetoric that switches off your natural empathy towards them and turns your response psychopathic. The more you hear the sick described as ‘scrounger’s and the unemployed described as’ lazy’ and ‘benefit cheats’, and blamed for the crash that was cause by banks and big business, the more you hear all of your country’s problems blamed on a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants, the more you hear the rhetoric repeated by people around you, the less you will be able to feel for them emotionally when you see them being abused. You can still fell empathy and compassion to members of your own tribe, in fact they rely on the compassion and concern you have for your own people, that can be solved by attacking and punishing the scroungers and keeping out foreigners. It is just the out-group, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the immigrants, you will respond psychopathically to. And you will have little or no idea your mind has been twisted that way.
The claims don’t need evidence, they just need repetition, that is what builds and reinforces nerve connections in the brains. “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.” William James. For those with the stomach for it, here are some Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines.
America’s Religious Right
Writing from across the Atlantic it explains one of the strangest phenomena in the USA, conservative American Christians can be the most caring and compassionate people. They are followers of Christ who taught us care for the poor and love for our neighbour even if the neighbour is foreigner like Samaritans. Compassion for the poor and care for immigrants are taught all through the bible. Yet right wing American Christians vote for tax cuts for the very rich and cutting benefits for the poor, they cry out to deny them health care and demand busloads of child refugees to be turned back at the Mexican border. Part of it is belief in the rhetoric of ‘trickle down economics’, that tax cuts for the rich create jobs and that it is welfare rather than not enough jobs that stops people finding work. But none of this rhetoric would work if American Christians saw the suffering these policies cause the most vulnerable in society, and felt the pain. But to put the psychology and brain scans in biblical terms, their hearts have been hardened.
You don’t need to be a Christian to act morally to others, you just need the empathy to understand other people’s pain and how you actions affect them. Do the 16% of ‘nones’ thinking of voting UKIP realise how Nigel Farage’s rhetoric has stripped them of their ability to empathise, and that they think about immigrants their brain responds psychopathically?
The warrior gene, when society needs warriors
This ability to turn off empathy is a natural reaction that allows groups to defend themselves in wars against genuine threats. In fact the genetics behind psychopaths such as MAO-A the warrior gene, is thought to be selected for this reason and is switched off if children are raised in a stable loving environments.
While this psychopathic reaction is advantageous in times of genuine war, it is terrible for making peace, it leaves people baying for the destruction of the enemy with no regard to cost to the enemy or themselves. Worse the inability to empathise leaves you unable to understand the other side’s point of view, a point of view that is as legitimate to them as yours is to you. Because it is only through understanding how they feel, their fears and how they feel they have been wronged, can we come to a lasting understanding and peace.
There have always been unscrupulous politicians that have know how to blame the ills of society on a vulnerable group and build support and political power by attacking them. Communist regimes used it to justify their ‘re-education’ camps for the “enemies of the people”. Islamic extremists justify their vicious attacks on innocent people by calling them crusaders and infidels.
We now know a bit more about what is going on in our brains when we listen to the words of politicians and media who sow division and hate.. A diet of rightwing media slandering and alienating a whole community affects the brain on a deeper level than any pretence in it of rational argument, it takes our capacity for empathy and dials it down all the way to psychopath.
In 2000AD graphic novels the Judge Dread character Mean Machine has a dial on his head that turns from 1 Surly, through 2 Mean, 3 Vicious all the way up to 4 Brutal, the problem was it kept getting stuck at 4. Thing is we all have a dial like that that can make us treat people as though we are psychopaths, and without us realising, and without even overtly preaching hate, politicians and media can make us think and vote like psychopaths.
*while empathy is feeling what others feel, compassion is more a realisation that people are suffering and wanting to help.
Update May 2nd 2015
Just had a letter about this published in the latest New Scientist. It’s the 2nd letter on the Letters page.