Maybe they're born with it, maybe they had a bad childhood...
July 6, 2018 7:34 PM   Subscribe

I've come across a few abnormally cruel or sadistic people, and I just keep wondering why they think and act that way. What motivates them? How did their empathy chip get broken?

I understand that no two villains are the same, but these people are an enigma to me, and I would really like to understand them a bit better. Is it genetics/epigenetics/circumstances - what's going on inside their heads??

Looking for articles, anecdotes, personal stories, viewpoints, books, studies - anything relevant. If you are an everyday villain, I really would like to hear your POV. Thank you! :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow to Human Relations (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Good article from the NYT: Can you call a 9-year-old a psychopath? Has an interesting description of a summer camp for psychopath children.
posted by Melismata at 7:41 PM on July 6, 2018 [12 favorites]

Maybe the book Puzzling People by Thomas Sheridan? I know there are lots of great podcast interviews you can find with him out there if you search.
posted by jbenben at 7:43 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

It might be, at least in part, biological. A neuroscientist was looking at PET scans of psychopaths and his own scan fit the profile.
posted by klanawa at 9:02 PM on July 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Extremely dense but:
Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self

Tldr; our mental maps of emotion, self and other is formed by our early attachments.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:40 PM on July 6, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm the parent of a 9 year old that can go in an instant from super-adorable to kicking a friend in the gut because they decided they want to play inside. Getting punched in the face and/or bitten because I enforced a rule happen to me at least once a month. I can't keep a pair of (my) glasses intact for more than a year tops.

When I read those stories about child psychopaths (linked by others above, also eg The Atlantic: When Your Child is a Psychopath) I cry because that's *not* my kid, and I'm so grateful and can't imagine what those families are going through.

So to answer (ish) your question, yeah, some people are just like that. It sucks. Families can do a lot to try to mitigate, but one's mileage varies.
posted by colin_l at 9:44 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend Behave, by Robert Saplosky. He tackles bad (and good) behavior by deconstructing it, level by level.
posted by maya at 9:46 PM on July 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

In a bit more detail (and since I love that book and want to do it justice) the negative feelings we cannot accept in ourselves is projected outwards and then tried to destroyed in others. So like any hint of feeling weak or bad about ones self triggers of such a painful and violent rage that the person does not consiously feel but instead dumps on the other person, who they then must destroy in some fashion so as to avoid feeling any whisper of pain.

Truly terrifying.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:50 PM on July 6, 2018 [12 favorites]

After listening to the Moth story of the neuroscientist linked above, my husband dropped the bomb on me that he really identified with the speaker. And... yeah, I'm married to a "pro-social psychopath." The mister has a really rigid moral code but does not feel empathy and has difficulty comprehending the emotions of others. In a way, finding this out was actually a relief, because, well, this was an eye-opener for both of us, and he was able to realize that some of his past behavior was not acceptable and I had a better framework for communicating with him. I don't really want to get into too deeply here, but if you have any questions about what it's like living with a lawful neutral psychopath, feel free to message me.
posted by Ruki at 10:40 PM on July 6, 2018 [14 favorites]

In a bit more detail (and since I love that book and want to do it justice) the negative feelings we cannot accept in ourselves is projected outwards and then tried to destroyed in others.

Everyone is pointing you to resources about psychopaths, who get a bad rap. There are plenty of perfectly functional psychopaths. Psychopathy is not a predictor for violence. I believe what you are asking about, OP, is sadism, which is a completely different thing. Even predatory violence in psychopaths isn't automatically sadistic.

But after periodic, casual, non-academic reviews of the science, I think it's a biological pre-disposition, and that overt, negative behavior can be triggered by attachment disorders.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:22 AM on July 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

Another avenue for research is regarding Adverse Childhood Experiences - commonly referred to as ACEs. There is compelling evidence linking childhood experiences to adult behavior.
posted by eleslie at 5:53 AM on July 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Cruelty can be a very successful strategy, evolutionarily speaking. So it persists.
posted by killdevil at 8:02 AM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

I worked with a group of inmates in a maximum security prison for a couple of years back in the 1980s. I'll never forget the discussions I had with one of the men. He told me that even in a place like that he thought that only 1% of the inmates were truly evil. He said everyone he knew had just made an escalating succession of bad mistakes.
posted by mareli at 8:12 AM on July 7, 2018 [12 favorites]

It's my theory that bullying continues because it's effective. Read Behave by Sapolsky, and I also recommend Primate's Memoir, watch his Stanford courses and other lectures. Read about dominance behavior. Bullying (unkindness, unfairness, preying on weaker individuals) is how some individuals increase and/or maintain their rank. As long as bullies have rewards, they'll keep it up.
posted by theora55 at 8:20 AM on July 7, 2018 [9 favorites]

A different approach to this would be through art.

Read Peter Shaffer's play EQUUS. He leaves open the question of nature/nurture. And you see that for all of the naming and diagnostics of psychiatry, the solution remains a mystery.

Not really the answer you are looking for, but sometimes approaching an inquiry from a less 'expert'-saturated mindset can bring you insights you wouldn't have arrived at otherwise.

Your question is a powerful one. I mean, consider the president of the US presently.
posted by zenpop at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you would find the Roots of Empathy program interesting. It’s one attempt to tackle the problem.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:16 PM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Read Peter Shaffer's play EQUUS.

Unless you are viscerally disturbed by animals suffering, in which case don't read EQUUS.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:26 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

From the "Key Points" section of a 2013 review in Nature:
Heritability studies implicate a genetic contribution to these impairments; however, molecular genetic information on this disorder remains in its infancy.

Environmental variables that affect the development of the amygdala, vmPFC and caudate have been identified, but their role in the development of psychopathic traits has not been clearly demonstrated.
In other words, we think that there's some genetics involved, and we think that there might be some environment involved, but we haven't figured out the details of either one.
posted by clawsoon at 4:36 AM on July 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

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