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Hello Doctor Saltzman,

My name is Brian Lipmann, I read your conversations with the sociopath who wondered if he would ever find love, the father of the sociopath, and the dangerous sociopath, and was intrigued. I did find one problem with your thought process. You constantly declare, Koch-esque, that one cannot reform or treat a sociopath due to their nature. I respectfully disagree, I believe that one can communicate values and morals to them, one need only speak their language. From what I've seen, most sociopaths do consider themselves superior to the rest due to lack of compassion or empathy, but they believe they have something to fill this hole. Most sociopaths I have met claim to hold logic as their highest value. This may be more of your classic sociopathic manipulation meant to instill some form of fear in me, or perhaps they really do worship logic. If so, it would be simple to justify a system of morals to them if you could only convince them that a given set of morals and principles were logical. You were quite right when you said that at the first mention of morality/compassion/love, the average sociopath automatically gets a feeling of smug superiority, effectively closing the door, yet if one were to come at them from their perspective. My best example of this is a young man I once met whose real name i will not disclose. Therefore, let him be Bob. Bob exhibited all the signs of a classic sociopath. He was generally callous to the mishaps of those around him, he was moderately narcissistic, he saw the world as having problems that he intended to rectify in his own way, and though he was the very image of a friend to those around him, he always seemed to navigate himself to a point where they depended on him and he could get them to do whatever he wanted. Despite this, from what i saw, he never let those he was with know any more than he could control, and often spun very believable fabrications of his past for no better reason than the fact that it amused him to see how well he could flesh it out. Yet Bob was very open to criticism, and in fact welcomed it. Likewise, he appreciated anyone who could defend their position with logic. On multiple occasions, he would get into a debate with someone as a staunch supporter of one side of an argument, and if the opposition was rational enough, would leave the argument with an entirely new stance.

This is but an example, and i would like your opinion. Perhaps my diagnosis of Bob was wrong, perhaps he was simply schizoid. Perhaps he was just good at interpersonal politics, but perhaps if therapists were to abandon any kind of morals when entering negotiations (for lack of a better word) with sociopaths, one would be able to see actual reform.

Wishing you well,

Brian Lippman

Hello, Brian--

Thanks for your well stated and well founded letter. If I have left the impression that trying to work therapeutically with a psychopath is useless or hopeless, I have failed properly to communicate my views on this matter. Yes, as I will illustrate later, such a project is always difficult, inevitably fraught, but what I meant to express in the articles to which you refer is not that psychopaths shouldn't receive therapy if they want it--of course they should--but that psychopathy, despite the unfelicitious "pathy" syllable in its name, is not, in my opinion, a mental disorder such as, for example, depression, but rather a personality style, most likely primarily genetic in origin, which became a permanent part of the human genome because in certain circumstances, and across countless eons, it had positive survival value, not just for the individual, but even for the group of which the individual was a part.

In other words, psychopaths are not by definition abnormal, troubled, or "sick," although some may be, but rather people who are
born psychopathic in the same way that someone is born with green eyes—not in the majority, but not abnormal either. (Possibly, in addition to comparing psychopathy to eye color, it might also help to compare it with colorblindness, a genetic lack of a certain ability--to see the sailboat in the illustration below, for example--which most people have but some others, completely beyond any choice or self-control, are born without.)

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If you will continue to read the articles on my site pertaining to psychopaths (sociopaths), I believe this will become clear. Nevertheless, this does not mean that psychologists should refrain from trying to help psychopaths, but simply that any treatment must be based in real understanding of the psychopathic personality without illusions of trying to
convert the psychopath into a so-called "normal" person in the way that some religions try to convert sinners by teaching them to be "good."

For example, in reply to a letter from a self-described psychopath who asked me, "Either to help rehabilitate me or help me understand this disorder more," I wrote the following:

I am aware of no method of treatment which can change a sociopath or psychopath into the more usual type of human being who feels guilty about behaviors which injure others, and who is capable of compassion, respect, and sometimes even love. Nevertheless, given your desire to be helped, and the motivation to change obvious in your last paragraph, I suggest that you look for a hard-nosed therapist—a bleeding heart type won't do—willing to take you on.

To take another example, I received a question about what would be a good occupation for a psychopath, which included these words: "I am a high anxiety sociopath that always requires high levels of stimulation to achieve for fulfillment. Can I take something besides pot to calm myself down? If I could calm down I know I could prevent a self destruct. Would it benefit me at all to admit what I am? Would they give me medication to calm myself down or should I just continue my criminal ways?" And I replied as follows:

I suggest that you seek treatment with a good psychologist. That person will be able to help you with advice about what occupation might work for you (judging from your letter it would best be something stimulating and challenging—the military might work), and will be able to counsel you about possible medication which might be more effective than cannabis.

Now you wrote, "I believe that one can communicate values and morals to them, one need only speak their language." But in my experience this is not often possible. Yes, the preaching about values and morals may be understood on the logical level, but the feelings behind the values will not. If the psychopath has a need to ingratiate himself or herself, or otherwise to manipulate the therapist, he or she might pretend to be influenced by the values which have been offered, while inwardly seeing the doctor as weak, foolish, or sentimental, but the "values and morals" which you imagine can be taught derive their power only from an emotional commitment to the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), which, for the psychopath is, by definition, a commitment which cannot be made.

To wit: a blog called SociopathWorld conducted a discussion about an earlier "ask dr. robert" in which an argument ensued about my handling of the letter to which you refer from the father of a psychopath. As you know, in his letter to me, the fa†her glorified such people as Genghis Khan, and Hitler, and then went on to praise Dick Cheney as having been "of service to Halliburton shareholders," and I replied to him, saying in part:

Have you no feeling for the immense suffering involved in the tragic misadventure in Iraq, which still continues to maim and kill, not only soldiers--bad enough--but total innocents? How could you possibly consider such a thing a service to anyone?

In order to try to get through to the father regarding his confusion in falsely crediting himself with an excess of empathy, I added a couple of photos depicting the horrible physical suffering provoked by Mr. Cheney's so-called "service," explaning that, "Empathy would require looking at this image and putting yourself in the place of that poor man, feeling his pain, and feeling remorse for the crimes, including this one, of your country, not prattling about stockholders."

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On the SociopathWorld blog, someone called Daniel Birdick took me to task for my reply to the father, saying in part that, "The psychologist goes on to whine about the horrors of war, bla bla bla."
After a visitor to my website brought the blog to my attention, I decided to add a comment to that discussion, and what I wrote included the following:

Specifically, your saying that, "the psychologist goes on to whine about the horrors of war, bla bla bla" leads me to wonder why you would so callously deprecate the psychologist's obvious distress at the horrific nature of the father's correspondence to him by using the word "whine" to describe my honest revulsion towards glorifying war, and then compounding that deprecation by using the phrase "bla, bla, bla," as if caring about the human cost of warfare were somehow boring or passe.

In response to my comment, Mr. Birdick wrote this: "Hate to break it you doc, but it is [boring and passe]. The words ‘whine’ and ‘bla-bla-bla’ seem apropos. My first reaction to the war pictures was along the lines of 'Oh for pity’s sake!' What are we supposed to feel exactly when we look at that man? Sadness? Anger? An overwhelming desire to protest the Iraq war and become peace activists? I felt nothing but disgust for the transparent attempt at emotional manipulation that those pictures represented."

So you see, Brian, this is what almost always happens when a person who is not psychopathic attempts to convey to a psychopath what you have called "values and morals" (by the way, I dislike the word morals, which means rules, usually based on some religious doctrine or another, and would rather speak of ethics, but that is another discussion altogether). The psychopath—in this case Mr. Birdick—simply cannot fathom concern for any suffering but his own, nor why anyone should or would regret causing suffering. That is why he asks what we are supposed to feel when looking at a picture of a maimed and suffering human being, why he imagines, totally incorrectly in my view, that my adding that photograph to my reply was a form of manipulation, and "whining." A person who can feel would never ask what one is supposed to feel; he or she would simply feel it. My adding such a photo to my reply to the father was certainly not manipulative, but simply illustrative of the father's misunderstanding of empathy, as I am sure most fair-minded, non-psychopathic people, upon reading the article and viewing the photo, would immediately understand.

But trying to explain sympathetic feeling for the suffering of another to a person like Burdick is like trying to get a colorblind person to see the full spectrum of a rainbow—simply impossible due to genetic limitation.

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Further, as Birdick's sarcastic comments make plain, the psychopath not only fails to comprehend compassion for suffering, but often despises compassion as ignorance of "reality" ("Hate to break it you doc") with which the psychopath imagines he or she is in touch, while the non-psychopath is not.

Now, from my point of view, Mr. Birdick's absolute failure to recognize concern for the suffering of others as an abiding human emotion is a delusion, for manifestly compassion does exist; I certainly did not invent it. If Birdick is incapable of concern for others, that does not mean compassion is a figment, any more than a colorblind person's inability to see red, for example, means that red is only imaginary. Sad enough, in my view, that Burdick lacks the capacity to identify with and so to feel for others, but sadder still that he imagines a superiority in his deficiency (some psychopaths are not so narcissistic, and those may more easily be helped) and so maintains the misbelief that those who care for others--therapists, for example--must be foolish, sentimental, and weak. But this, you see, is one of the chief difficulties in trying to provide therapy for a psychopathic person, particularly one who imagines being superior to the non-psychopaths of this world.

Be well.

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