Years ago, I read an excellent book on the psychology of the career criminal. In the introduction, the author cautions readers against “medical students’ disease”: the tendency of first-year med students to suddenly notice that they have symptoms that are superficially similar to those of the strange diseases they’re studying. Similarly, he warned, as you read about the psychology of criminals, you might notice—in your most self-critical moments—that you have a few superficially similar traits. But unless you’re actually sticking up liquor stores, this does not mean you are a criminal.
Ah, but how much easier it is—how much more delicious—to use these superficial similarities to impute a criminal psychology, not to yourself, but to your enemies.
That is the upshot of an article that is just slightly crazier than your average piece at Salon, which cherry picks a few tendentious psychological studies to claim that conservatives are psychopaths. Science proves it!
This is just cashing in on a rather sloppy, poorly thought out trend toward studies of “psychopathy” which claim to find evidence of it everywhere, particularly among those stock Hollywood villains: wealthy and successful businessmen. They do so by means of exactly the method we just described: describing the characteristics of a psychopath in such vague terms that practically everyone can be said to bear some superficial resemblance, so therefore we’re all just a little bit psychopathic, on a sliding scale. Despite the fact that most of us aren’t actually, you know, doing anything psychopathic.
Here’s a great example. A fellow named Kevin Dutton has produced a book on The Wisdom of Psychopaths. Here is how he describes their characteristics: “The typical traits of a psychopath are ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action.” He seems to have left some things out from the actual scientific definition of psychopathy, so far as there is any agreement on it. These include “poor impulse control including problems with planning and foresight,” “poor judgment and failure to learn by experience,” and “failure to follow any life plan.” (So much for all of that “focus.”) And oh yes, there is the actual criminal behavior and fascination with cruelty. No, instead, psychopathy is reduced to “mental toughness and fearlessness.”
So get that? Being self-confident is a characteristic of psychopaths. So is being charming. So is being able to control your emotions and think things through with rational detachment. And so on.
You may notice a few things about these characteristics. First, they are normal, and most people possess them to one degree or another. Hence, everyone is a psychopath. Second, these characteristics are good. In most contexts, they are virtuous and can even be heroic. Where would the world be if no one had any self-confidence? Or focus? Or “mental toughness”? I guess it’s no surprise to find armchair psychologists proclaiming that James Bond is a psychopath. Because, you see, he’s self-confident, he’s charming, and he’s ruthless when it comes to killing bad guys.
Notice also one other thing: a lot of these are characteristics associated with individualism. So I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and along comes Paul Rosenberg in Salon to sling together a set of dubious studies and claim that there is a “link” between conservatism and psychopathy. The link primarily consists of measurements of “social dominance orientation.” And how is this measured? By giving people questionnaires asking them to choose between oppositions like this one: “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups,” versus “Group equality should be our ideal.” Can you see the bias here? In effect, the choices are to back affirmative action—”group equality” as the organizing principle of society, as opposed to mere legal equality—or embrace racism. It’s easy to arrive at the result that the right is psychopathic when you’ve programmed that assumption into your experiment from the beginning.
The root error, though, is this: “Psychopathy—once thought to be an all-or-nothing condition—is now understood in a dimensional fashion,” i.e., as a grab bag of superficial characteristics possessed by everyone in some degree or another.
Which is precisely how we’ve gotten this absurd extension of the label “psychopath” onto anyone you don’t like. It’s just another example of how the “data-driven” party of science loves to use sloppy, half-understood science to confirm their own prejudices.
Should I say that this is the kind of self-justifying rationalization that is characteristic of a psychopath? Nah, just chalk it up as the perfectly normal operation of an everyday political hack.
Follow Robert on Twitter.