Today let's focus on psychopathy (used in a specific sense, as opposed to general psychological pathology). In order to qualify as a "psychopath," a person must be incapable of feeling guilt, empathy, compassion, remorse, shame, and a host of other social emotions that keep most of us in line. (Technically, to differentiate it from similar antisocial diagnoses, other traits such as grandiosity and manipulativeness are required, but let's focus on the above for now.)
Through employing a variety of psychophysiological testing (such as heart rate and skin resistance monitoring, and more advanced methods like fMRI brain scans), we know that psychopaths process emotional stimuli very differently than the rest of humanity. And critically, to the best of psychiatric understanding today, psychopaths are born, not made.
Why should any of this matter? Consider the following quote from a psychologist treating a psychopathic child.
I remember a conversation where he told me, "People know when something is wrong because it feels wrong. I have to remember or be reminded that stealing from someone is wrong. I don’t feel bad if I take something."Another theme we'll come across again: while practical measures such as incarceration may still be warranted, malicious feelings that often accompany a thirst for vengeance are often counterproductive. In the case of psychopaths, the response you're most likely to evoke by expressing indignation is probably amusement or satisfaction. By coming to understand the perspectives of our perceived enemies, we may be able to better deal with our own painful feelings of resentment and bitterness, and eventually come to recognize them as vestiges we're better off without.
Meeting this young boy changed my opinion of a psychopathic personality. Why? Because children with this condition are "emotionally blind." And while I do not excuse cruelty or criminal behavior, I have sympathy and appreciate how hard it is for some people to learn how to act responsibly.
Estimates of psychopathic prevalence put the figure at ~1% of the population. If we group it with similar conditions such as Antisocial Personality Disorder, that number goes up to maybe 5%. So, what about "the rest of us?" As we'll see, the mere existence of the brain structures that give rise to compassion -- the ones that reveal our shock at seeing a dog kicked, even if we try to hide it -- are cause for hope.