What Can We Do About Psychopaths?

On my long trip from Maine to Seattle for Green Fest, I read journalist Jon Ronson’s new book, The Psychopath Test, about psychopaths in our society. It was a fascinating, unsettling read by a exceptional writer. That Ronson can take a grisly subject like psychopathy and actually fill it with witty and pleasurable-to-read writing is quite a feat. Ronson is never one to research a subject from afar; for him, a book on psychopaths requires intimate and indepth contact with psychopaths. Which means we readers have an inside view into such minds.

The title of the book comes from a checklist of questions that comprise a psychopath test created by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. Hare’s study of psychopathy reveals enough consistency that if someone scores high on the test they are likely to be psychopathic, without conscience or the kinds of fears that “normal” people have. They are, he attests, not curable or treatable.

And this creates a thorny problem. If psychopaths are not curable or treatable, and if, as the book reveals, they make up one percent of the general population, 25% of the prison population, and scariest of all, four percent of those at the top of the corporate ladder, we have a big problem. Psychopaths appear normal, but without conscience, with no restraints on causing harm and suffering to others; and, with honed manipulative skills and a penchant for pathological lying, they wreak havoc. When they are in positions of power (as corporate, religious, media, or political leaders), they harm thousands, even millions. A psychopathic criminal who rapes, mutilates, and kills stirs our terror, but their victims are far fewer in number than those skilled, but still psychopathic Wall Street moguls, religious manipulators, government leaders, and media heads.

And because humanity is easily manipulated, swayed, and susceptible to influence (note the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments and the brown eyes/blue eyes exercise), the potential for harm by psychopathic manipulators is even greater.

So what to do?

It will come as no surprise to readers of our blog that my best suggestion is this: humane education that is dedicated to teaching critical and creative thinking skills and fostering reverence, respect, and responsibility. Only when we have these skills honed, practiced and employable 100% of the time, are we able to discern misleading and manipulative words and behaviors. These skills are hardly foolproof, but they are a good start. When psychopaths mastermind religious, political, media, and economic control, and an easily manipulated populace blindly follows – as we so often do – we should not be surprised by the outcomes. When a generation truly taught to be investigative thinkers, to deeply self-reflect, to understand connections between behaviors and outcomes, to be system-analyzers and system-changers, and to hold fast to their deepest values, which they are taught from the earliest ages to cultivate with conviction, then there is hope that that powerful 4% of conscience-less people will not go unchecked.

I recommend Ronson’s book for a fascinating, albeit disturbing, view into the mind of psychopaths and to hone your own skills in recognizing psychopathy for your sake and the sake of our world. And I recommend the resources and programs at the Institute for Humane Education for training in this field that offers real hope for combating the power of psychopaths in our midst.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: "The World Becomes What You Teach"

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