“What is it that makes psychopaths so compelling?” I asked Dr. Aaron Kipnis – psychotherapist, professor, and author of four books – during a recent conversation.
I last spoke to Aaron Kipnis about the psychology of money – a fascinating conversation with a meticulous teacher, one who is able to probe the depths of our shadows with expertise and light. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to him again. And to find out why, when asked to write a blog post about psychopaths, I couldn’t hit the keyboard fast enough to reply YES!
“Why?” I asked him straight away. “What’s the intrigue about?”
Aaron Kipnis looked at me and smiled. We were speaking on Skype.
“Just sometimes,” he said slowly, “wouldn’t you also like not to give a damn?”
And so another captivating conversation began. Here are some snippets from our chat:
“Psychopathy is a personality disorder that is located at the far end of the Narcissist spectrum,” he explains. It’s the point where Narcissism becomes malignant. But whilst a Narcissist is annoying, a psychopath is dangerous.
Psychopaths do not give back, they only take, whether it be your attention, your time, energy or money, whatever they can get away with. In some cases, this can be your life. Serial killers fall into the most extreme edge of this category and even kill for pleasure. They walk at a distance from their own soul, viewing everybody else as an object, there for their enjoyment.
Cold-blooded and remorseless, what distinguishes a psychopath from an “ordinary” person, is that he has no conscience. In fact, tests show that when attached to galvanic electrodes that measure heat, and shown brutal acts of violence and depravity, a psychopath tends to relax. His blood pressure drops. He cools down. It brings new meaning to the word “chilling.”
How do psychopaths come to be? Are they born that way? Is it, as some suggest, a result of emotional deprivation from birth? “The nature/nurture debate is inconclusive at this point,” says Dr. Kipnis. It seems psychopaths can, have and are being born into loving families. There are even reports of twins with doting parents, where one has the condition and the other doesn’t.
That said, it is possible to create a psychopath, Dr. Kipnis believes. In his view, the criminal justice system as it stands is a pretty good crucible for creating this disorder in people. If you completely destroy a person’s emotional body, especially a child, and if he is repeatedly subjected to violence and neglect, which is often worse, they can fail to develop the capacity for empathy, become unattached to other human beings.
“There are some studies that claim that psychopaths are actually a variant species,” he explains. An intriguing idea. Not quite human, a bit alien, neurophysiologically different. From an evolutionary perspective, these are people who make very good snipers, who keep a cool head in war, if a leader can keep them in control. They can be fearless in the face of battle.
Dr. Kipnis says he meets very few psychopaths in his therapy rooms. They rarely, if ever, show up for therapy. “They see no need to,” he says. “Because they don’t believe there is anything wrong with them. Interestingly, they do realize they are different, and soon learn the necessary skills that help them to get what they want. They can mimic empathy and remorse, for instance, which makes them difficult to identify. They can be extremely convincing and very charming. They have manipulated people who are experts in their field, even psychotherapists.”
“Are they vengeful?” I ask. “After all, isn’t revenge ‘a dish best served cold?’”
“Not particularly,” he replies, to my surprise. “Only because the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. They would need to feel a degree of passion, of heat, to feel revenge, and they tend not to. They are cold, reptilian. The only remorse they sometimes feel is remorse at getting caught.”
“How do you know you’re dealing with a psychopath?” I ask.
“It’s difficult to detect at first meeting,” he replies. “How we know them best, is what happens to the world around them. Everyone in their orbit will suffer over time. A psychopath leaves a trail of destruction in his wake.”
“Like Bernie Madoff?” I ask.
“I don’t know, because I haven’t met and evaluated him myself,” replies Dr. Kipnis. “But it sure points to that. He seems to have no remorse. His son committed suicide, his other son died, his estranged wife is struggling to hold it together, and when asked by the New York Times how he felt about his victims, many of whom were elderly and have never recovered from his theft, his response was ‘Fuck them! I’m the one doing time.’”
He explains that our Western world as we know it appears to have become a particularly fertile breeding ground for psychopaths. Our world differs from tribal cultures, where groups are interdependent and interconnected, where people who don’t reciprocate get noticed, and after a while eradicated. In our western modern society, psychopathy seems to be growing. Doctors and therapists in the mental health field are noting with concern that psychopaths are now, more than ever, blending seamlessly into the domains of business, politics, law enforcement, government, academia and other social structures, and have devastating impacts on people around them. In fact, says Dr. Kipnis, many psychopathic traits such as egocentricity, lack of concern for others, superficiality, style over substance, being “cool” and so on, are not only tolerated but often valued.
This is why Aaron Kipnis’s course, Understanding Psychopaths is both important and timely. It is a 6 class course hosted on Jung Platform. The course discusses many facets of the psychopathic personality and explores how we might live better in a world where people with this condition seem to be gaining prominence.
Susan MannEducational Development Manager
Susan is a writer and a teacher. Her interest in depth psychology comes from a love for mythology, dreams and the imagination, as well as a fascination for the creative possibilities that exist within the shadow.More Posts by Susan Mann