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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Becoming Amoral: On the Road to Mass Murder

I believe that God created man with free will and that all humans commit sin.

The Bible contends that Adam's free will led him to sin and that his "original" or "ancestral" sin has had grave consequences for humanity even since. The human condition after the fall of Adam has been characterized in many ways. Many Christians believe even though humans are born with a general nature of goodness, they have a slight deficiency, or a tendency toward sin inherent in birth, referred to as a "sin nature."

Those who believe in "sin nature" see it as a result of one trespass that led to condemnation for all men. Romans 5:18 -- "Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people."

Other people believe this Biblical explanation is wrong.  The founder of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, said: “As far as I know we just don't have any intrinsic instincts for evil.” Agreeing with Maslow is noted psychologist Carl Rogers who stated, “I do not find that…evil is inherent in human nature.” Both Maslow and Rogers dismiss sin and instead say if a person is committing evil acts, then the "patient" is psychologically ill and must be brought back to mental sanity through medication and therapy.

What causes a human to become totally depraved and morally corrupt? Theories abound. The nature of evil is complex and highly speculative. It is also full of mystery. If we all are sinners, why can most of us use freewill to limit and control our sins while others cannot? While most believe a combination of factors from environment to mental illness contribute to corruption, we still struggle to understand what causes depravity.

So, today, I thought we might find a couple of points of common ground in our beliefs.

The first point is really a definition that is universally accepted, so allow me to merely state this:

1. "A psychopath is a person who is sane but amoral."

(Dr. Robert D. Hare, "What Is a Psychopath?" SciTechLab, December 4 2008)

Hervey Cleckley, a American psychiatrist, in his 1941 groundbreaking book, The Mask of Sanity, describes the psychopath as someone who has only a very superficial sense of beauty/ugliness and only the most elementary understanding of the basic concepts of goodness, evil, love, horror, and humor.

(Hervey M. Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity -- An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-called Psychopathic Personality, 1941)

Cleckley says the psychopath functions by mimicking the normal behavior of those around him hiding “a grossly disabled and irresponsible personality.” He, psychopathy is rare in women, is “brilliant and charming” and talks “entertainingly” all the while carrying “disaster lightly in each hand.”

Popular Misconceptions About Psychopaths

Despite substantial research over the past several decades, popular misconceptions surrounding psychopathy persist. Here, according to Scott Lilienfeld and Hal Arkwitz are three of them:

A. All psychopaths are violent.

"Research by psychologists such as Randall T. Salekin, now at the University of Alabama, indicates that psychopathy is a risk factor for future physical and sexual violence. Moreover, at least some serial killers—for example, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader, the infamous “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) murderer—have manifested numerous psychopathic traits, including superficial charm and a profound absence of guilt and empathy.

"Nevertheless, most psychopaths are not violent, and most violent people are not psychopaths. In the days following the horrific Virginia Tech shootings of April 16, 2007, many newspaper commentators described the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, as “psychopathic.” Yet Cho exhibited few traits of psychopathy: those who knew him described him as markedly shy, withdrawn and peculiar.

"Regrettably, the current (fourth, revised) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), published in 2000, only reinforces the confusion between psychopathy and violence. It describes a condition termed antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which is characterized by a longstanding history of criminal and often physically aggressive behavior, referring to it as synonymous with psychopathy. Yet research demonstrates that measures of psychopathy and ASPD overlap only moderately."

B. All psychopaths are psychotic.

"In contrast to people with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, who often lose contact with reality, psychopaths are almost always rational. They are well aware that their ill-advised or illegal actions are wrong in the eyes of society but shrug off these concerns with startling nonchalance.

"Some notorious serial killers referred to by the media as psychopathic, such as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, have displayed pronounced features of psychosis rather than psychopathy. For example, Manson claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and Berkowitz believed he was receiving commands from his neighbor Sam Carr’s dog (hence his adopted nickname “Son of Sam”). In contrast, psychopaths are rarely psychotic."

C. Psychopathy is untreatable.

"Although psychopaths are often unmotivated to seek treatment, research by psychologist Jennifer Skeem of the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues suggests that psychopaths may benefit as much as nonpsychopaths from psychological treatment. Even if the core personality traits of psychopaths are exceedingly difficult to change, their criminal behaviors may prove more amenable to treatment.

"Although psychopaths are often unmotivated to seek treatment, research by psychologist Jennifer Skeem of the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues suggests that psychopaths may benefit as much as nonpsychopaths from psychological treatment. Even if the core personality traits of psychopaths are exceedingly difficult to change, their criminal behaviors may prove more amenable to treatment."

What 'Psychopath' Means,"
Scientific American, November 28 2007)

The second point of common agreement is one I've heard mentioned by ministers and those familiar with the value of ethics as they relate to sin and human existence.

The importance of ethical behavior is seen at the roots of human kind. It is the foundation of a civilization as ethical norms guide appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. As humans who sin, we are not capable of living by absolutism, but without rules, whether implicit or explicit, we have little protection from ourselves.  
(Cassandra Tuenge, "The Importance of Ethical Behavior and Its
Impact on Persuasion," A Perspective, November 11 2010)
Ethics may be defined as “characteristics of human nature that distinguish us from so-called lower forms of life, characteristics we can then use as standards for judging the ethics of persuasion. Among them are the capacity to reason, to create and use symbols, to achieve mutual appreciative understanding, and to make value judgments.”  My second point to seek common ground is the following:
2. One Sin Easily Leads to Another

"You can't stop birds from flying over your head, but you can
stop them from making a nest in your hair." - Martin Luther

New research from lead author Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the department of psychology at Vanderbilt University, and his group of scientists have discovered the brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost.These researchers believe their findings open a new area of study for understanding what drives these psychopathic individuals.

“Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences,” of the new study, says Buckholtz.

David Zald, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry and co-author of the study, says,“We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse. There has been a long tradition of research on psychopathy that has focused on the lack of sensitivity to punishment and a lack of fear, but those traits are not particularly good predictors of violence or criminal behavior,” 

“Our data is suggesting that something might be happening on the other side of things. These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward—to the carrot—that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick.”

 (Joshua W. Buckholtz, et al., "Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System Hypersensitivity in Individuals With Psychopathic Traits," Nature Neuroscience 13, 2010)

“It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they’re after,” Buckholtz said.

Added Zald, “It’s not just that they don’t appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns.”

Alcohol and drugs can further disrupt a psychopath's ability to put the brakes on aggressive, risky behavior. So finding some way to translate this data into targeted treatments could be hugely beneficial.

I think we understand that most sane people who have acquired at least some basic ethics meet their first temptations to commit sinful behaviors with fairly strong red flags. But, if they choose to cross the line, ignore the warning, and do something they know is wrong, the next time the temptation presents itself, they are more apt to sin. This is particularly true if the sinful behaviors are satisfying and rewarding.

Consider a spouse faced the opportunity to engage in infidelity. Let's assume that the spouse has a conscience and knows that cheating is wrong. Yet, the spouse possesses some significant motivation to engage in cheating: need for adventure, strong sex drive, extreme boredom, need for intimacy, etc. Sadly, the spouse's ethics break down once, and the spouse has a need that is pleasurably fulfilled. Then, it is often fertile ground for an affair to develop. I believe one sin often leads to another. 

Consider the actions of a young psychopath who doesn't consider any consequences for his actions and who feels an overwhelming desire to satisfy his needs. The psychopath has no reason to worry about any risks (and, possibly doesn't consider them). His only concern is to satisfy the drive to get his "carrots" at any cost.

Scientists believe that psychopathic children develop the ability to deceive around the age of three of four, and, believe it or not, they also acquire the ability to empathize. But researchers say, children with aggressive and antisocial personality disorders do not develop this ability, and therefore they age without a moral compass.

So soon, these psychopaths find lying and misbehaving as easy as telling the truth. In their case, one wrongdoing or sin merely leads to another if that behavior gives them their dopamine. They often develop an insatiable lust for this "fix." Any and all deception is OK as is any behavior that feeds their sick brains. Wouldn't they become well-practiced and convincing deceivers?

Also consider that some psychopaths grow up with nothing but traumatic experiences and a lack of contact with understanding adults. A lack of adults displaying empathy towards them as children means psychopaths will not learn from example, and they will develop extremely aggressive antisocial personality disorder. As they age, these psychopaths lack all feelings to empathize with others. They structure their own twisted, unethical adult environments of total disrespect.

And, if they have experienced gross sexual abuse or severe physical violence in childhood, they may grow up to be the "monsters" among us.

(Charles Q. Choi, "What Makes a Psychopath? Answers Remain Elusive,"
LiveScience, August 31 2009) 

My Take

I'm not trying to make excuses for psychopathic murderers. I am trying to find some common ground about these people who present a great threat to others. If we can find out what underlies their problems, we might be able to identify what kinds of interventions might be able to work for them.

In this blog, I hope I spread some light on these two areas: (a) how a sane person with the right tendencies can become amoral, and (b) how a single sin or wrongdoing often makes any human capable of committing many more offenses. To me, the combination of brain disorders, a lack of sufficient ethical foundation, and the overwhelming need for satisfaction can produce a horrible animal.

I think we should remember that not all psychopaths are violent or psychotic. It may be possible to treat this sick individuals. Also, if a psychopath becomes a killer - a murderer, a serial killer, or even a mass murderer - that person may come from any social or economic background. Their deception may be so good that no one can identify their "species."

Psychopaths are thought to make up as much as roughly 1 percent of the general populace and up to 25 percent of the prison population. In addition, some criminal psychopaths are about three times more likely to commit violence than other offenders and about two-and-a-half times more likely to commit other antisocial acts. 

Even if a psychopath is not violent, his kind of behavior is very destructive socially and hurts our trust of other people, yet you and I are likely incapable of judging who might be a psychopath. The belief that we can do this just might lead to us making terrible, wrong judgments about normal people who are not amoral but who are involved in some sinful behaviors. After all, we are all sinners, aren't we?

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