Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?

There was a fascinating episode of Horizon on BBC 2 this evening, all about psychopathy; in particular, what causes it, and how it’s possible to identify it in people who don’t fit the ‘classic’ psychopathic killer profile. The programme’s currently available on the BBC iPlayer, here.

I found the programme particularly interesting because I’ve recently read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. I’d previously imagined that all psychopaths are highly visible deranged killers, but that’s apparently not so. Some are superficially charming, highly successful and cleverly camouflaged members of society, having recognised early on that they differ fundamentally from the people around them and learned to conceal those differences in order to avoid detection. See here for an article by Robert Hare, who created a diagnostic checklist which is widely used by psychologists to identify psychopaths.

What’s most disturbing is the frequency with which psychopaths apparently occur. Estimates vary, but it seems likely that they make up at least 1% of society. Alarming stuff, if it’s accurate.

If you didn’t watch Horizon this evening then I’d highly recommend nipping across to the BBC iPlayer in order to take a look. I recommend the Jon Ronson book too. Chilling, cautionary stuff, but absolutely fascinating.

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8 Responses to Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?

  1. John J says:

    Fascinating too!

    JJ

  2. JH says:

    “Estimates vary, but it seems likely that they make up at least 1% of society.”

    I wonder how many people read this blog……………….?

    I didn’t see the program, it not being my sort of thing. They say that psychopaths are integrated into society, but is that just journalism and in fact most of these 1% are likely to be out of way in the forces where they’ve at least got a chance of killing somebody legally? After all, what sort of personality do you have to have to join the SAS?

    I also wonder if you can categorise people into neat pigeon holes. Do we all have various personality traits to a lesser or greater degree? Thanks to live global TV modern warfare seems to have become an exciting spectator sport for all the family, which I can’t help think shows a touch of the psychopath in us all. The fact that we’re watching people get killed* in real time seems to do nothing to increase our empathy towards them. Sure, some will be horrified, but for a large part of the population it makes great TV. I’m not saying the man on the Clapham bus is likely to whip a kalashnikov out and massacre his fellow passengers, but the population in general do seem to have a fascination in other people being killed.

    As you’ve probably found now that you’re a country girl, there’s a much stronger culture of killing things in the country – at least, there is round here. Having grown up with people of this persuasion I find it hard to see them in any light except somewhere between pacifist and psychopath, and some of them alarming near the psychopath end of the spectrum. What am I to think when the regular Friday night entertainment for some was to go over to a neighbouring village for a village vs village fight, and then shoot various wild animals over the weekend? But I wouldn’t call them psychopaths, and not just because they might shoot me.

    John

    * Admittedly I mean watching buildings with people inside get destroyed rather than close ups of people actually dying.

    • peewiglet says:

      I didn’t see the program, it not being my sort of thing. They say that psychopaths are integrated into society, but is that just journalism and in fact most of these 1% are likely to be out of way in the forces where they’ve at least got a chance of killing somebody legally? After all, what sort of personality do you have to have to join the SAS?

      What was reported may not be correct, but I don’t think the programme was simply journalism. The book (that’s where I got the statistic, rather than the TV programme) based what it said on research done by Dr. Robert Hare, a psychologist who seems to be pretty eminent in the field of psychopathy. He doesn’t really suggest that psychopaths are integrated into society: rather that some of them are cleverly concealed within it.

      I don’t see a desire to join the army as an indicator of a psychopathic personality, because I’m sure that a desire to kill isn’t what motivates most people to join the services. I suppose it’s inevitable that some psychopathic personalities will see the army as a convenient outlet, but still I’m pretty sure they’ll be in the minority, in the same way that most priests/social workers/teachers are not paedophiles.

      What I found surprising when I read the book (and to a lesser extent when I watched the programme) was that apparently not all psychopathic personalities harbour a desire to kill people. I think I’d loosely assumed that they do, because of the rather casual way in which the word is generally used. Apparently a lack of empathy and conscience lie at the heart of the syndrome, though, and it’s suggested that for that reason some psychopaths have been very successful in business and politics, because a lack of those qualities enables them to get things done without the ‘handicap’ of a concern for human consequences.

      As for whether people can be easily and neatly pigeonholed, I’m sure that they can’t. Robert Hare doesn’t suggest that they can. He regards psychopathy as a syndrome, and he doesn’t suggest that every person who might be diagnosed as psychopathic will tick every box. He suggests that experienced psychologists should administer the test, and results are scores that will fall somewhere on a spectrum. At the same time, though, he does suggest that there are certain characteristic behaviours which should ring warning bells. They’re identified in the pages I linked to in my original post.

      • JH says:

        “I don’t see a desire to join the army as an indicator of a psychopathic personality….”

        No I wasn’t suggesting that, but as you go on to say, if one were a psychopath who felt a need to kill people it would be a convenient career to follow as opposed to most careers. And, as you say, in the minority. If 1% of the population are psycopaths, and only some of these feel the need to kill, and only some of these join the forces….

  3. Robin says:

    Very interesting.

    I wonder where the clowns who caused the financial crisis would be on the scale like Fred the Shred and Dick Fuld (CEO of Lehmans) or, indeed, Gordon Brown.

    The eye opening stat was 1 in 25 in business management are psychopaths. Think of the appalling damage they’ve wrought on so many people’s lives. Perhaps the FSA should introduce a test for senior managers.

    • peewiglet says:

      Hello! I must watch the programme again, because I saw it quite late at night when I was sleepy, and missed that statistic about people in business management.

      Interesting stuff indeed!

    • JH says:

      “The eye opening stat was 1 in 25 in business management are psychopaths.”

      I take back what I said about the forces. It looks like they’ve gone into business management!

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