A friend sent me a copy of Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry. He just wanted my opinion of the book, I think. (But it did remind me of another friend who gave me a six-pack of Tic-Tacs for my birthday.)
The book is a very interesting journey. By page 97, you finally get to the 20 items of the psychopath test. By page 168, you are screening most of the people you know according to these items—I identified at least two, no active pastors (the one I considered had retired), no CCEF colleagues, but I was certainly looking forward to identifying many more with my new found knowledge. By page 211, I realized that I had just fallen prey to that diagnostic fever you get when you learn a new way to identify behavior and are suddenly on the prowl for it everywhere. By the end of the book I came back to sanity: there are some truly nasty people out there who are devoid of compassion, but there are not very many, and I do not have to keep looking for them.
Psychopaths, also known as sociopaths, are described as charming, manipulative, and lacking conscience, empathy, guilt and remorse. The well-known ones are men. The checklist, which is not officially sanctioned in modern psychiatry, also includes need for stimulation and proneness to boredom, pathological lying, shallow emotions, promiscuous sexual behavior, unrealistic goals, inveterate blaming, and unstable relationships. Among the most eerie descriptions is that they have no warm emotions but study the emotional responses of others so they can use those emotions to their advantage. Now you are probably thinking about some people you know too.
No empathy and compassion
It is the matter of empathy and compassion that raises a question for biblical counselors. Psychopaths do register very little empathy and compassion as measured by amygdala functioning (the amygdala is an area of the brain that seems to be involved in emotions). Does this mean that someone can be neurologically wired to be unmoved by the pain and suffering of other people? And does this mean they are unable to change?
Here is a proposition to consider: compassion and empathy—the ability to enter into a person’s world and be moved by it—are unequally distributed throughout the population. Some people are good at it, others are not so good. I know people who are moved, even disrupted, by the day’s news stories and often pray for people they have never met. And I know others, who are barely moved, even by tearful pleas for engagement from loved ones. The range is broad, even in the non-psychopath population.
Is there hope?
Can those who, by nature, are less emotional, less empathic and less compassionate grow in such things? After all, some physical impairments never improve, and we do not expect them to. For example, we do not expect someone with a damaged spinal cord to be healed, even if the person has a growing relationship with Christ. But that’s okay because God does not say we must walk. He does, however, call us to grow in compassion (e.g., Col. 3:12) and with any calling he provides grace to fulfill it.
So the answer is clear: constitutionally passionless people can grow in compassion (though they might never be as proficient as some would like). They might never have strong emotional responses to the joys or miseries of others, but they can learn how to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. The criteria is not how brilliant they are in their compassion; it is their humility and willingness to grow that is important. If there are neurological predispositions, they set limitations but these limitations are malleable.
The “up side” of the fear of man
There is one other theme in the book that interests us. Ronson, at times, wonders if there is an inner psychopath in him, and leaves readers wondering about themselves. That is: Am I a psychopath? Ronson rejects the diagnosis for himself because he is so prone to anxiety. To be more specific, he cares what people think of him. This means that we have finally found something good about the fear of man! Though we want to do battle with it, be encouraged that, as long as the fear of man is palpable in our life, we are not closet psychopaths.