Are we all psychopaths?

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Staff Columnist


Last Thursday, professor Heidi Maibom of the University of Cincinnati presented this question to the students of IU South Bend.

In a just under two-hour talk, Maibom discussed what psychopathy is, how it presents in people, and our overall fascination with the idea of labeling people as psychopaths. At the end, she opened the floor for a question-and-answer segment for further discussion.

Maibom began the presentation by discussing Elizabeth Holmes, an “inventor” and businessperson. Holmes “invented” a portable blood-testing device, smaller than any in use or on the market, supporting her invention with her company Theranos.

While Holmes’s stated goal of creating a device that could generate a full lab’s worth of tests from what is essentially a paper cut is remarkable, there was just one problem; the device never worked, and Holmes knew that. Holmes had made herself into Forbes Magazine’s “Youngest Self-Made Female Billionaire” had been running a con the entire time.

When measured against a psychopathy test, Holmes displayed a number of traits that made her a potential candidate for being a clinical psychopath.

That is far from a proper diagnosis, as you would need a clinician trained in the field to sit down the subject and go through a lengthy series of interviews in order to have anything even resembling a proper diagnosis.

Still, the idea of diagnosing Holmes as a psychopath was of interest to Maibom. Not in making a diagnosis, but of why people want to make a diagnosis in the first place. It is not as if it would have a major consequence for Holmes, as a proper trial for wire fraud is already scheduled for next year.

However, a quick Google search for “Elizabeth Holmes psychopath” shows numerous articles implying to diagnose Holmes, including major publications such as Forbes and Vanity Fair.

Maibom presented three factors that lead people to want to label individuals they don’t like as psychopaths.

First, it explains why they committed behavior that most people would believe they would not or could not commit. If Holmes has some sort of mental condition that alters their morals or decision-making, then it very easily explains why she would do things that might seem unthinkable to most.

Second, it lets people move guilt around to where they want it. If Holmes is suffering from a mental illness, then she could be seen as not the cause of her actions. As a result, a person looking at her case can then make claims as to anything else being the cause of her behavior, such as a political system or social factor.

Thirdly, it provides the personal comfort of “othering badness,” as Maibom put it. “Othering” refers to the practice of taking a thing someone doesn’t like, and finding some way to justify the idea that it is something fundamentally different from themselves. Othering abhorrent behavior allows a person to not have to worry that they are capable of or responsible for the thing being othered, and makes it easier to make moral condemnations of it.

For example, Holmes lying about what Theranos was actually making in their device, and thereby endangering countless people by providing inaccurate information about blood tests, is abhorrent. Seeing someone exhibit behavior perceived as abhorrent tends to make people wonder how this person, or they themselves, could do such a thing.

By othering the person or behavior in question, it removes any sort of responsibility for abhorrence from oneself and places it on a foreign idea that can be easily fought and challenged.

It’s far easier to deal with an outside force (such as a mental illness, or a social system) than it is to contend with the idea of humanity simply being capable of doing horrible things, more or less because they can.

Illness can be treated, and social systems dismantled; there’s not really a way to challenge or effectively respond to humanity being inherently capable of cruelty and disregard for each other.

The conclusion Maibom draws is that psychopathy is less a difference in kind, and more a difference in degree. Anybody can exhibit psychopathic, or empathy-lacking behaviors under some instances.

One example Maibom provides is how most people can know about how poorly livestock are treated in modern farms and still be comfortable putting an animal through it so they can have a cheeseburger. Those things are awful, but not every person can champion every cause; some people just pick one issue specifically, like climate change or civil rights and focus their energies on fighting those injustices instead.

The idea is that people conventionally seen as psychopaths choose to exhibit more of those tendencies more frequently than others. Sure, anyone could be a psychopath, but trying to label someone as such misses the point.

Maibom recommends confronting the idea that anyone could do something psychopathic, and using that as an opportunity for self-reflection, and making oneself a better person.

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