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The hypothesis of selective psychopathy and critical remarks on it


How can we explain the participation of many psychologically normal people in premeditated violence, genocides, and massacres? Why did battalions of seemingly ordinary men commit brutal massacres against civilians during World War II? Why was the “architect of the Holocaust,” Adolf Eichmann, evaluated by many psychologists as a “terrifyingly normal” person without any mental abnormalities? And speaking of the Holocaust, it would not have been possible without the participation of tens of thousands of psychologically normal individuals who abandoned their moral principles toward a certain group of people.

There is a hypothesis that explains this as a phenomenon called “selective psychopathy”[1]. It argues that a psychopathic leader, together with his close associates, who are also psychopaths, is able to exert a strong influence on the population through manipulation, propaganda, and compulsion. He may label a group of people as enemies and “subhumans” who must be eliminated for the greater good, thereby stimulating selective psychopathy in the population. It is hypothesized that this influence may affect the functioning of people's brains, making them more similar to the brain of a psychopath. It suppresses the activity of inhibitory neurotransmitters in brain regions such as the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex involved in empathy, guilt, impulse control, pain, fear, and moral behavior, thereby removing the inhibition of violence itself. To confirm or refute this hypothesis, it is proposed to conduct experiments on people of far-right and far-left political views, assessing their reactions and brain activity to viewing images and videos depicting supporters of their own and opposing (enemy) positions in different situations. So far, no such experiments have been conducted.

Partially, we can agree with this hypothesis. But we will also put forward a few criticisms about it, which cannot be ignored.

The first of these is that it is wrong to assume that all people are equally affected by external influences. This is particularly true for the issue of violence, for which numerous animal and human studies have demonstrated the importance of mediating factors: genetics, neurophysiology, and psychological state. External influences do not directly shape human perception and behavior but are always mediated by individual predispositions. Certain variants of genes associated with violence inhibition lead to “immunity” to different forms of influence such as social isolation (in animals), childhood abuse, and low socioeconomic status; individuals who carry them do not become more prone to violence and the development of psychopathy in such circumstances[2][3][4]. And higher scores of psychopathic traits in people explain their aggressiveness due to alcoholism, as well as their tendency to indirect aggression, religious radicalization, and extremism[5][6][7][8]. Finally, psychological trauma may play an important role. There is historical evidence of widespread, abusive child-rearing practices in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Many of those who were psychologically traumatized in childhood later became Nazi supporters. Some researchers believe that punitive political attitudes, including the favoring of war as an instrument of national policy and capital punishment, are consequences of punitive upbringings that cause individuals to displace their childhood anger onto political issues and outgroups[9][10][11].

The second note concerns individuals who have committed violent acts but appear to us to be completely non-psychopathic and healthy. In this matter, it is crucial not to forget that the farther people are from the direct perpetration of violence, the weaker their inhibition of violence will be. Citing the example of some concentration camp office workers, it is unlikely to make a valid argument about a human vulnerability to propaganda. But even the case of individuals who were fully aware of what they were doing, observed their victims directly, and even killed them, yet appeared to be completely normal, can be explained by one interesting ability of psychopaths. There are claims that they are not necessarily incapable of empathy. Not only that, but they may be just as capable of it as healthy people. The only difference is that in the norm, empathy is spontaneous and reflective. Psychopaths, on the other hand, can control when and under what circumstances to show it[12]. It is not hard to imagine that some psychopathic individuals would be able to pretend to be normal in front of others in a fairly believable way while remaining capable of violent acts when they wanted to commit them. It should also be kept in mind that some psychopaths may well be able to fool even skilled psychiatrists (but testing for psychopathy can still be useful, for example, to show voters which politicians have worrisome personality traits)[13].

Taking all this information into account, we will draw the following conclusion: the hypothesis of selective psychopathy may be valid to some degree, but at the same time, it is worth assuming that not all people are vulnerable to this phenomenon to the same extent. We must also consider the extent to which a particular person has been involved in committing violence and the possibility that a psychopath may successfully pretend to be a perfectly normal and mentally healthy person. Any future experiments aimed at confirming or refuting the hypothesis of selective psychopathy must take all of these issues into account in order not to lead to false conclusions.

Finally, let us not forget that the participation of tens of thousands of people in the perpetration of mass violence does not in itself say anything about everyone else. Such a number of violent people may seem large, but relative to the entire population, it will be only a tiny percentage of people who may have been the most predisposed to be affected by external influences and inclined to engage in violent activities among all possible alternatives. And as the Cambodian genocide, for example, shows us, the actions of just 80,000 people can lead to the deaths of 1.8 million civilians[14][15][16][17][18]. If you look at the numbers in comparison to each other, a lot of things can fall into place.

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2) Beck, A., & Heinz, A. (2013). Alcohol-Related Aggression. Deutsches Aerzteblatt Online. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0711
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10) Miller, A. (1983). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
11) Milburn, M. A., Conrad, S. D. (1996). The politics of denial. Cambridge: MIT Press
12) Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A. J., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550–2562. doi:10.1093/brain/awt190
14) Carney, T. (1989). The Unexpected Victory. In Karl D. Jackson, ed., Cambodia 1975–1978: Rendezvous With Death. Princeton University Press, pp. 13–35
15) The Crime of Cambodia: Shawcross on Kissinger's Memoirs New York Magazine, 5 November 1979
16) The Khmer Rouge National Army: Order of Battle, January 1976. New Haven: Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program, 1976
17) Locard, H. (2005). State Violence in Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979) and Retribution (1979–2004). European Review of History: Revue Européenne D’histoire, 12(1), 121–143. doi:10.1080/13507480500047811
18) Kierman, B. (2023). The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia: The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80. Critical Asian Studies 35(4). doi:10.1080/1467271032000147041
Last modified: 2024/05/08 21:35 by Volunto

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