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What is it like to be a psychopath: towards empathy for the unempathetic

In a previous post, I referred in passing to the idea that a psychopath could live a moral life, despite lacking an inner moral compass.

I’d like to share here some background information, especially for those whose information about psychopaths comes from TV stories of serial killers!

First, by way of denifition, I’m talking generally here. There are various terms used: “psychopath”, “sociopath”, “antisocial personality disorder”. These are used sometimes synonymously, sometimes to refer to different conditions on a related spectrum.

A number of years ago, I read a first person account of a “good psychopath”, and while I can’t find that exact passage, it’s easy to find similar accounts. Here’s an interview with a diagnosed psychopath:

Is there anything that you feel that I left out, that you would like to add?
It’s a lot more complex than people realize. I think it’s important to hold people responsible for their actions, not brain formation. People make choices. Psychopathy is not an excuse, and it’s definitely not a reason why someone does bad things. People do bad things because they make bad choices. So instead of looking at psychopathy as this constellation of things that represent evil, just look at it as a different way of experiencing the world, and what a person chooses to do with that is on that person.

The last part is really important, and actually insightful: “People do bad things because they make bad choices.”

Here’s a thread on Quora, with some interesting responses.

https://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-be-a-psychopath

Some of the responses are quite disturbing:

I enjoy not experiencing emotions in the same way as others. Everything they seem to go through looks exhausting and stupid. However, I do enjoy studying the behaviour of my peers. They are fascinating, with the way they speak, and move around certain people, and react to certain situations. I find their fears funny, and their likes disturbing. For instance, all of my school friends hated blood, bugs and even violence, whilst I relished in the presence of them. I never needed them, as they were never true friends anyway. After studying their behaviour, I could tell who my real friends were. I didn’t have a single one, but they didn’t know that I knew that. I played them, and used them, and it only brought up the confidence I had in myself.

Other responses are almost sweet; you can catch a glimpse of a deeper humanity.

I have a friend (James) who has always been a really good friend to me. My behaviour towards him instinctively reflects his behaviour towards me, so naturally he trusts me and believes I truly care about him. I had a birthday party awhile ago and said the obligatory “thank you for coming” to my friends that I’ve heard other people say at their own birthday parties and when I said it to James, his response caught me off guard because he said “of course, I will always come to your birthday parties”. In that moment, I knew in my heart that he loved me because all of his actions and words over the years proved that to me and it all culminated in that one instant and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever not felt alone. Not only that, I felt joy and I was completely at peace. I can’t even describe how I felt in a way that does it justice but it only lasted a split second because my life-long defense mechanisms kicked in and I wouldn’t allow myself to emotionally bond with him any longer than a split second.

Psychopaths are well aware of how people look at them.

How does it feel to be a psychopath? As if you’re unburdened from the chains of emotional possession, but locked behind a glass wall watching everyone point at you as if you’re some kind of ravenous beast waiting to attack. Eventually, you learn to just blend in to avoid the persecution.


The context of this discussion began with the so-called Trolley Problem, and the “moral” choices of psychopaths. In the Suttas, the Buddha argued that there were multiple different reasons for living a moral life, and did not use a reductionist approach. I proposed that this gives an opening for a Buddhist morality that might be useful for psychopaths.

The Buddha said we should do good both for our own benefit and the benefit of others. A psychopath wouldn’t act for the benefit of others, but if they can be persuaded to act morally for their own benefit, surely that is a good thing.

Consider, for example the benefits of giving:

  1. A giver, a donor is dear and beloved by many people.
  2. Good people associate with them.
  3. They get a good reputation.
  4. They don’t neglect a layperson’s duties.
  5. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.

Surely the first three of these would be appealing to a psychopath. They like it when people like them, as it gives them advantages. They don’t particularly care that people like them, but having friends, or at least the option of them, is entertaining and opens up options.

Similarly they may also like the friendship of good people. It would help them stay on track, avoiding extreme acting on any immoral or criminal impulses.

They may also prefer to have a good reputation, as it gives them power and opportunities.

The fourth and fifth benefit are probably less relevant, I guess. But we already have some good reasons!

This argument could be extended to cover a variety of moral issues. It’s not unproblematic by any means, as a psychopath can, and probably will, twist the appearance of morality for their own benefits. However, as long as their own benefit does not actually harm anyone else, it’s as good as can be expected.

To be clear, this is not meant as a treatment or cure for psychopathy. Nor am I recommending that anyone get involved with a psychopath: generally I would encourage avoidance where possible. Nor is it a basis for meditation—which I would absolutely recommend a psychopath avoid—or higher wisdom, all of which require a deep level integration of compassion and are impossible for a psychopath.

However, such approaches may be useful in the case of self-aware or diagnosed psychopaths who want to integrate and live a safe and prosperous life. Many psychopaths develop such coping techniques by themselves, lacking any support. And little wonder, since religions and moral systems rely heavily on the assumption of conscience and compassion, and have little to say to those who lack these.

Evil is not a psychological condition, it is a choice. Making the right choice is harder for some people than others, but it’s always possible. While it may seem strange to point out that Buddhist teachings can be applicable to a person who seems so detached from “Buddhist” values, it is, to my mind, an affirmation that the Dhamma truly is for all sentient beings.

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I have recently watched a documentary about how much of the biodiversity we are destroying, in it I saw the footage of a lone orangutan climbing a tree left behind in the massive deforestation and destruction going on around it (similar to the one below).

At that moment I had a strong feeling and wish for the extinction of the human race as a whole, me included. It is still around.

The question I have is, am I a psychopath? :thinking:

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No.

Psychopaths have a reduced emotional reactivity. They would look at the destruction and feel nothing, or very little.

In addition, psychopathy is a long-term (probably lifelong) condition, not a passing emotion.

I believe the condition you are describing is called “being a kind and good human under challenging circumstances”!

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Thanks bhante, and sorry for the off-topic question. I may create a new thread to discuss how to deal with these situations. :anjal:

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No worries, I knew you were not 100% serious! But these are genuine questions and deserve a proper response.

(perhaps the “life hacks” thread would be better for this topic.)

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No bhante, I was serious. I have always had this bias when faced with the reality of bad and harmful choices we humans consistently make as a species. Hence my genuine concern I may suffer from one of these conditions.

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Why? Would it cause them harm in some way?

Is psychopathy the result of some underlying trauma, which seems to be the case with most (if not all) mental illnesses?

Cause is considered by researchers to be complex

Antisocial and psychopathic personality disorders can be linked to a number of biochemical abnormalities (e.g., serotonin, monoamine oxidase, and hormone dysfunctions), genetic and environmental influences, and psychological and social manifestations. Children with conduct disorders, with or without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, have an elevated risk for antisocial or psychopathic personality disorders in adolescence and adulthood. The presence of comorbid disorders such as substance abuse and schizophrenia have a strong negative predictive value with respect to the course, the prognosis, and the outcome of antisocial and psychopathic disorders. Furthermore, there are substantial gender differences. The rates for spontaneous remission and improvement of antisocial and psychopathic personality disorders are possibly relatively high. In fact, these rates are higher for women than for men. In the fourth decade of life, most of the antisocial and psychopathic personalities are in remission.
Abstract, Antisocial and Psychopathic Personality Disorders: Causes, Course, and Remission—A Review Article. Willem H. J. Martens (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306624X00444002) August 1, 2000

Neurology studies show some differences; but causes are more difficult than snapshots.

There is tremendous stigma to this diagnosis; partly for this reason, it is disallowed for patients, regardless of behavior, under 18.

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No, because it would cause you harm. Someone who is well-meaning but not versed in the problem is likely a target for manipulation. If the psychopath is someone in your life, then you have to learn to deal. But if they’re not in your life, better leave it that way.

The problem is that usually you wouldn’t know until too late, unless you have prior experience or professional training.

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Sorry, I meant for them to meditate…

Oops, sorry, my mistake.

Yes, I believe that meditation will be harmful for psychopaths. The problem is that the starting point of meditation is a certain level of emotional integration which the psychopath lacks. They would assume the posture, do the things that look like meditation, but inside, if anything at all was happening, it would simply amplify their existing tendencies. They would likely learn greater patience, greater self-control, but it would be at the service of the ego and would not be directed to any higher good. They would be conceited and superior about their practice, and I would think there is a high likelihood that they would delude themselves or others that they are enlightened.

The worst case scenario is that they would set up their own religious movement, manipulating and using their followers for sheer cruelty and gratification. There are multiple cases like this in recent Buddhism.

That’s why I think it is necessary to lay down a basic ground zero, that a psychopath is incapable of any higher spiritual development. If they can be cured, then that is a different matter: but spiritual practice cannot cure them. The best we can offer them are some moral ground rules that can help them avoid harming themselves and others.

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I suspect you are right about the result of meditation practice for someone who has psychopathic tendencies, but I’m not so sure that it would be correct to say that spiritual practice can’t cure them.

Aside from slowly developing more faith in the Buddha’s path, I have recently read a book about psychopathy which basically suggested that if the psychopath believed that developing empathy benefitted them in some way, there might be hope for them. Which I think is what you were summarising as earlier being said by the Buddha.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to live in the same monastery as a psychopath!

As an afterthought, I wonder if a psychopath would be not be able to practice the noble eightfold path as they would be incapable of compassion? But, if they listened to the dhamma for long enough and led a moral life (even if only out of self-interest), and paid attention to the arising of their own suffering, would they not then develop some empathy and compassion?

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Hmm, I think before to say more I should collect and organize my divergences on this categorization. To make it short for this moment I might refer to a paragraph in en.wikipedia (which gives words for my momentary doubts) saying

Criticism of current conceptions (wikipedia)

The current conceptions of psychopathy have been criticized for being poorly conceptualized, highly subjective, and encompassing a wide variety of underlying disorders.
(… an explicte statement left out…)
Half of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist consists of symptoms of mania, [hypomania], and frontal-lobe dysfunction, which frequently results in underlying disorders being dismissed. Hare’s conception of psychopathy has also been criticized for being reductionist, dismissive, tautological, and ignorant of context as well as the dynamic nature of human behavior. Some have called for rejection of the concept altogether, due to its vague, subjective and judgmental nature that makes it prone to misuse.

I’d like to leave this at it stands at the moment.

But the following remark reminded me of something which I didn’t really understand some years ago:

I’ve come across the (mahayana) “maha parinirvana sutra (MPNS)”, enthusiastically featured by some contributor in a german buddhism newsgroup (in the “usenet”). Reading into this critically I came across the term "icchantika"discussion can be found in google-groups:(1)(2), a term never been used by the Buddha and likely not even known at this time (according to some related scholarly dispute), but meaning human beings, totally unable to proceed on a spiritual path or so. It seemed that this original term has initiated a later debate, whether this means, contrary to the (common mahayana) conception that every human has “a buddha nature” in the sense: … but not the “icchantikas” . I’d closed that case for me then - assuming that a historical situation had occured where the originators of the MPNS could not handle some deep and hard aversion against the buddha’s teaching in the society, taking refuge in the option to just deny spiritual abilities for their contrahents. (which seems not much unusual in my view). The intent of my remarks here is just to point out that “a psychopath is incapable of any higher spiritual development” is perhaps in the same league, and that later debate (that I refer to above) should also take such a thing into focus?


P.S.: A link to a website which I’d found in that discussion (see in the (2)-discussion thread):

(…) Diese neue Idee der “Icchantikas”, die in diesem “Mahaparinirvanasutra”
(MPNS) auftaucht, wird auf der Webseite weiter diskutiert in:

http://www.nirvanasutra.org.uk/historicalbackground2.htm

und etwa mit unserm aktuellen Konzept von “Extremisten” ver-
glichen, womit ein interessanter zwischenschulischer Streit
und die versuchten Mittel zu seiner Entscheidung erkennbar wird.
Zunächst wird ein kleiner historischer Exkurs (…)

update: website is currently empty, see webarchive instead: Nirvana Sutra :: Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

a bit on wikipedia: Icchantika - Wikipedia


P.p.s: Because, when I read 2008 in the newsgroup about that concept of “icchantikas” I’ve been really upset that such a route of arguing could have been arisen even in buddhism, I’ll add two remarks from the Liu’s 1984 text in JIABS to give a short illustration for the cursory rader:

In “Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies (JIABS)” Ming-Wood Liu (1984) on “the problem of icchantikas in the mahayana parinirvana sutra”:

(pg 64) (…) Thus, the icchantika is described in these chapters as one who “never works for the good dharmas.” He is further said to be so devoid of the roots of virtue that not a single thought of good-ness will ever arise in him:

What is an icchantika? An icchantika is one whose roots of goodness have been completely eradi-cated. His original mind is so devoid of any desire for good dharmas that not a single thought of goodness will ever arise in him.

If the MNS often declares the Buddha-nature to be the property of all sentient beings, the icchantikas are clearly meant to be the exceptions, for the following citation openly announces that the icchantikas are devoid of the Buddha-nature and so can never realize Buddhahood: (…)

And, by the allusion to the medical help, nearer to a common notion of uncurability of "psychopath"s,

(pg 67) (…) The epithet “bound to die” is applied to the icchantikas again and again in the MNS. Thus, a few paragraphs later, we come across the following remarks:

Again, good sons! It is just as there is a skilful doctor well versed in the eight branches of medical [art], and can cure all diseases except the fatal ones. . . . Good sons! Again there is a skilful doctor whose [skill even] surpasses the eight branches of [medical] art, and can relieve the pains of sentient beings, except that he cannot cure diseases which are fatal. The same is true of the Mahayana scrip-ture which is the MNS. It can wipe away all the defilements of sentient beings and establish them in the pure and wonderful cause of the Tathagata, and it can [also] make the thought of enlightenment arise in people who have never entertained the thought of enlightenment. The only exceptions are the icchantikas, beings who are bound to die.

All in all, the account of the icchantika in the first five chapters of the MNS amounts to one of the most authoritative statements of eternal damnation in Buddhism. (…)

In this lifetime. Long term, sure. I assume the same is true of the icchantika, although I’m not familiar with this term.

The description of the chieftain Payasi in the EBTs paints an unflattering portrait of a Sociopath/Psychopath. Its interesting to see the kind of arguments used to convert him to the Path… they all appeal to his self interest. Even after conversion, he never made much progress, whatever little merit he accrued was due to the little bit of generosity kindled in him by Ven Kassapa.

In contrast Angulimala was a dreaded blood thirsty criminal. Yet, after conversion, it became apparent that he was empathetic towards the people he had formerly preyed upon. That empathy resulted in his spiritual progress and eventual Enlightenment.

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Psychopath have a problem with inability to distinguish right & wrong, so the “bad” label is merely something we use to compare with…but to them, (around 1%) of which don’t see it that way.

Timing of this thread is perfect as only recently with the discovery of someone who is a psychopath!

They lie, then more lies…
Play games with you…emotionally…for fun!!..and will pick their targets…manipulate people around them…wow!
Help others…under their perspective…no!

My personal view is these people just made it into the human plane…from animals realm…am sure they have very little moral judgement within them but not enough to self-sufficiently control self…with right/wrong…yet, heavily burdened with previous life experiences under as animals where morality doesn’t apply.

Maybe more later…

This has been a very interesting topic, and a good discussion. In my work, I have been fortunate to have involved myself with the issue of personality disorders and related comorbidities in the context of family law. I have come across people with traits of antisocial personality disorder, and also see this trait sometimes in the professionals that I encounter. There’s a correlation, it seems, with some professions (CEOs, lawyers, politicians) and NPD and antisocial traits.

My sense with ASPD is that the Dhamma might be helpful for some with the capacity to want to use an ethical and kind roadmap in order to navigate their world more successfully, even if their motivation is self-serving. It may be that some cognitive behavioral therapy that integrates aspects of the Dhamma might be helpful, even if the training is only to provide the person with ASPD traits the ability to utilize a roadmap that allows them to avoid, for example, rejection by family or incarceration.

I know that I am repeating some of the excellent points already made above, as yes, as Bhante points to, there seems to have been a propensity for NPD and ASPD traits to flourish in western “Buddhisms” in recent times; people looking to control, to abuse, and to enrich themselves within the guise of a dharma teacher.

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is narcissistic personality disorder.

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Oh, I remember that fellow (have forgotten his name) in England who was championing the Nirvana Sutra as the penultimate Buddhist teaching. He posted to a website the only complete English translation we have (still) from the 1970s that was not very well done, and kept claiming to have commissioned a new one, though it never materialized.

In any case, yes, you’ve hit on an interesting classical parallel to the modern concept of a psychopath. It was presumably someone criminally insane in some way because they had not a shred of good roots on which to build any spiritual progress.

The MPS was a hugely influential text in China and caused a big controversy as Chinese Buddhist intellectuals tried to formulate an understanding of its underlying philosophy. A particular leading thinker named Daosheng, who had worked with Kumarajiva during his translation project, was actually excommunicated for a time because he insisted that icchantikas must have Buddha-nature too, even though the smaller version of the Nirvana Sutra said otherwise. Then, when a much larger version was translated a few years later, he was vindicated because the later chapters seemed to take it back and say icchantikas weren’t really devoid of Buddha-nature, they just appeared to be. Something along those lines.

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I worked in the financial industry in NYC for many years. Psychopaths could thrive in that industry as money making was rewarded and thinking of the human costs (for the most part) wasn’t.

That said, I think it is important to note that the majority of people thriving by prioritizing money and self gain over people were not psychopaths. A psychopathic system will create psychopathic behavior in people who are not by nature psychopaths.

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