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General News    H1'ed 10/7/14

Transcript: Scott Lilienfeld-- President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy

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Rob: So, okay. Most people talk about psychopaths' most common characteristic being lack of empathy. That's what I hear when most people...laymen speak of it, that's what they kind of picked up as the tidbit that they grab. What do you....what would you describe as the most salient characteristics of psychopaths from the point of view of the research community. I saw in one of the articles this triarchic model, but whatever...

SL: Um hmm. Right so...yeah we...our work is increasingly influenced by that model developed by my friend and colleague Chris Patrick, that came out of a measure of psychopathy we developed in our lab and Chris was astute enough to realize that, in our measure and a couple of others, it looked as though there were three overarching characteristics of psychopathy that seemed to course run through almost all chronicle descriptions of the disorder. So one of them, I think, relates to what you mentioned -- lack of empathy. So one key element of this triarchic model we might call meanness or I call it coldness, and I think underneath that umbrella falls things like lacking empathy, being callous...also lacking guilt is very essential, that's often thought of as...even by some people, even a more central part of the disorder, is...I think it's at least as important as being cold, callous, emotionally detached is one very important element. Another important element in our model, but this is controversial because some people see it as less important than we do so there's a lively controversy about this...the other is more closely aligned to boldness or fearless dominance -- being physically and socially fearless, being poised, being adventure-seeking, in some cases being risk-taking that may verge into recklessness when it becomes very extreme. And then the third component, which maybe is the least interesting, psychologically to us, but perhaps is the most important when it comes to real world danger is what we might call disinhibition, poor impulse control. So we see that psychopaths have often a poor ability to learn from punishment, they often engage in behaviors without thinking very much about them. They're often reckless, which again, overlaps a bit with the fearless dominance dimension. They often are prone to getting in trouble. They often have a hard time inhibiting impulse to do things that are against their best judgment or in some cases their worst judgment.

So those three characteristics are all important and I suspect that the question 'which is most important?' depends on one's purposes. I don't know if there's a simple answer to that. I think that we're looking at different blends of psychopathy there that I think with some of these folks you have more or less of different characteristics. Of course the quintessential psychopath in our view is the person that who is high in all three dimensions because that's going to be the kind of person who is charming, is poised, but also is cold, detached inside and is disinhibited enough they may act on that lack of empathy to hurt others.

Rob: Now, you know, you gave the lists of the 3 elements of this triarchic model: meanness, boldness and disinhibition. And then when you say the quintessential psychopath -- the first thing you say are charming and poised, but you didn't mention in any of those 3. I guess they come under boldness but...

SL: Yes, that's right...exactly.

Rob: And to me, those things...that aspect, the charming and poised part, is perhaps the most dangerous part of it. And there's one piece missing that I have concluded from my experience that is perhaps I think one of the most important factors, and that's the predatory nature. Where does that fit in?

SL: Yes, so....that's interesting. So a couple points. So you're exactly right and I think you're intuitions are consistent with the research that are...being charming and poised seems, at least in our data, and that of others like Chris Patrick's, that being charismatic, charming, poised seems to fall under that boldness domain because, after all, my PhD mentor David Lykken was among the first people to point this out ...a lot of what being charming comes from is (of course, most people who are charming are not psychopathic so we should be clear about that so it doesn't mean that one's a psychopath if one is charming but), a lot of what makes one charming is a lack of social anxieties as David, my PhD mentor, would remind us. He would often ask us as a thought experiment, think of the last party you went to and ask yourself why maybe you weren't quite as charming as you wanted to be. And a bit of introspection...what most of us would realize is maybe we weren't quite as charming or charismatic as we wanted to be because we felt inhibited, we felt a bit anxious, whereas the psychopath is freed from those inhibitions. The psychopathic person, classically, is often flamboyant and can be quite charming, because after all, they don't really care what other people think about them. And we find they're often very charming.

Now you also asked about the predatory nature -- that's interesting....that's right. I think that's a key component of psychopathy within the triarchic model that certainly fits pretty nicely under the domain of being cold and mean. What you see in people who predatory is that they are often conniving, they're often cold, calculating individuals, and they're perfectly happy to take advantage of other people in a very cold way that disregards their emotions. So much of that, almost certainly, comes from that domain of coldness or meanness, although you're probably also seeing a merging of that domain with disinhibition, that people who are engaged in predatory aggression they'd also be disinhibited enough that they are willing to act on those impulses.

Rob: Yeah, I really have....for me, it seems like predator is perhaps the best word I can come up with to describe a psychopath. Is that a mistake? Is that wrong?

SL: Well, yeah...I don't know if it's true of all of them but I think it's a very common characteristic. I think that there are some people I would describe as fairly psychopathic I would see as more what Benjamin Karpman, who is a great writer on psychopathy, talked about in the 1940s as sort of passive or parasitic. He talked about the passive parasitic psychopath. There are some people with these traits who aren't as overtly predatory who just take advantage of other people, not by sort of preying on them overtly but just by living off of them in a more passive way. But there's no question that many psychopaths are more overtly predatory and are almost actively looking to take advantage of other people, so there's no question -- that can occur and that's a common, although in my view, not invariable characteristic of the classic psychopath.

Rob: Really, can you describe one who would not be predatory?

SL: Sure, so...yeah, I mean I've...I'm always reluctant to name names of famous people but certainly I have seen clinically individuals of people who are pretty psychopathic who, more or less, are in romantic relationships. For example, with people who, for example, make much more money than they do where they live off the person in a parasitic way, taking advantage of them -- not necessarily in an active predatory way but more or less just milking things off of them, taking advantage of their wealth, taking advantage of their resources...not working very hard, not working much at all, being lazy...but at the same token availing themselves of everything this person has to offer without giving much back in return.

Rob: I love it. Because basically you've made me change from a single word to a continuum -- parasitic and predatory.

SL: Yeah, and they could...I think probably what you're talking about here is you're probably talking about a continuum here so in a way you could argue they are being predators, but in a much subtler way, not the way we would typically think about a predator swooping down and grabbing a prey...but more or less, someone's like a vulture -- just sort of taking advantage of what other people have to offer.

Rob: How about psychopaths who are not parasitic or psychopathic? Can you conceptualize that?

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Rob Kall is an award winning journalist, inventor, software architect, connector and visionary. His work and his writing have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, the HuffingtonPost, Success, Discover and other media. 

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He is the author of The Bottom-up Revolution; Mastering the Emerging World of Connectivity  

He's given talks and workshops to Fortune 500 execs and national medical and psychological organizations, and pioneered first-of-their-kind conferences in Positive Psychology, Brain Science and Story. He hosts some of the world's smartest, most interesting and powerful people on his Bottom Up Radio Show, and founded and publishes one of the top Google- ranked progressive news and opinion sites,

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Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization (more...)

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