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Which to believe?

Here’s an epistemological puzzle. What’s the right way to be a skeptic when it comes to thinking about a possible psychopath? I don’t mean a serial murderer or anything, but a more everyday kind of psychopath – you know, no conscience, compulsive lying, good at manipulation, persuasive, charming, successful.

You know a number of people who suspect that X is a psychopath of that type. You too know X and have always found X charming and persuasive.

What’s the skeptic thing to do? To doubt the people you know? Or to doubt your own sense of X? As a good skeptic, you know that people can be charming and persuasive and still be psychopaths, but you also know that not all charming and persuasive people are psychopaths, in fact most are not. As a good skeptic, you know that people can be wrong about other people, but you also know that that applies to you as well as to other people.

It’s tricky, isn’t it.

Comments

  1. says

    I would look at all the available evidence, and go with what is more probable. It would also mean realizing that I could be wrong.

    That’s a tough question, and you can’t really fully know until its too late sometimes.

  2. karmacat says

    In any kind of relationship, it is always best to take your time getting to know someone. I have found that good people never ask for money no matter how poor. A public defender told me that people who are litterbugs are always criminals. Obviously, his opinion was not based on scientific observation, but it is an interesting idea

  3. Shatterface says

    I’m not sure what ‘the right way to be when it comes to thinking about a psychopath’ means here.

    Do you just mean ‘do I accept that X is a psychopath’ or do you mean ‘should I treat them differently because they may be a psychopath?’

    Psychopathy is a pretty vague term: it’s not recognised in either DSM-5 or ICD 10. It is often considered synonymous with antisocial personality disorder or asocial personality disorder but those diagnoses require a history of criminal activity and the more succesful psychopaths – including surgeons, fire fighters, sports people, etc. – don’t have that history.

    I’ve met plenty of psychopaths through work with ex-offenders but those tend to be unsuccesful by definition. The ‘successful’ psychopaths – those who stay on the right side of the law – I’ve met mainly online because they sometimes post on neurodiversity sites. They’re kind of the flipside of aspies; they read emotions well enough but don’t share them; we share emotions but have difficulty reading them. They have cognitive empathy; we have affective empathy.

    Some of the issues psychopaths face are tge same as aspies; if ‘normal’ peoole sense their feelings aren’t reciprocated they can become hostile. Marginalising people who don’t share your emotional horizons doesn’t make you a better person. Should you trust a psychopath? Well that depends upon their behaviour just as it does with non-psychopaths.

  4. Shatterface says

    I should point out those psychopathic ex-offenders I’ve met aren’t exactly Hannibal Lector, just repeat offenders with low impulse control and an inability to learn from mistakes. Also pretty lacking in the more ‘positive’ psychopathic traits like charm (superficial or otherwise), fearlessness, cool under pressure, etc. Want to know why prison doesn’t work? Talk to a psychopath.

  5. screechymonkey says

    “It’s tricky, isn’t it.”

    Nah. Just figure out if X hates the same people I hate!

  6. says

    It doesn’t seem remotely tricky to me… for one simple reason: “no conscience, compulsive lying” is a good enough reason to cross someone off your list. The negative behaviors that would make you even think of the word “psychopath” are enough to treat someone as persona non grata. Also take into consideration what the actual consequences are to the potential psychopath versus your own. If you cut a potential psychopath out of your life, personal affairs, and professional affairs where possible, you’ve just added that person to the BILLIONS of people who you don’t actually deal with every day. If you don’t, you’ve invited in a potential threat to your well-being for absolutely no good reason and at least one decent reason why you shouldn’t have. Seriously, how often in life are we confronted with a situation where the ONLY choice we have is to deal long-term with a potential psychopath?

  7. Shatterface says

    It doesn’t seem remotely tricky to me… for one simple reason: “no conscience, compulsive lying” is a good enough reason to cross someone off your list. The negative behaviors that would make you even think of the word “psychopath” are enough to treat someone as persona non grata. Also take into consideration what the actual consequences are to the potential psychopath versus your own. If you cut a potential psychopath out of your life, personal affairs, and professional affairs where possible, you’ve just added that person to the BILLIONS of people who you don’t actually deal with every day. If you don’t, you’ve invited in a potential threat to your well-being for absolutely no good reason and at least one decent reason why you shouldn’t have. Seriously, how often in life are we confronted with a situation where the ONLY choice we have is to deal long-term with a potential psychopath?

    You, see? There’s absolutely no other group of people who are so comprehensively demonised. Substitute any other group for ‘psychopath’ in that paragraph and any poster would feel ashamed to post it here.

    This kind of proves my point; ‘empathy’ is in-group. It doesn’t extend to people outside that group.

  8. says

    Joe – well I should have added “and haven’t yet discovered the lies and manipulations” to “You too know X and have always found X charming and persuasive.”

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    You know a number of people who suspect that X is a psychopath of that type. You too know X and have always found X charming and persuasive.

    What if X suspects he’s a psychopath?
    I knew someone who wondered. His wife of twenty years died and he mourned and concentrated on his work and found another wife within a year. They seemed happily married, but wife number two died a few years later. Our friend was in his early fifties and looked like following the same ritual when he wondered whether he’d actually loved either wife or his children or whether he’d just been behaving conventionally without thinking and never actually felt anything.
    WAs this self-perception or a kind of breakdown?

    Equally, I’ve known people like this: “no conscience, compulsive lying, good at manipulation, persuasive, charming….” who had and presented no social difficulties at all. They might borrow money and never repay it, but the amusement and entertainment they gave more than compensated for it.

  10. says

    Shatterface,

    I”m going to be as polite as I’m capable of here… I’m not required to treat someone who shows “no conscience, compulsive lying” as anything other than a conscienceless compulsive liar. That’s not demonising, that’s just self-preservation. I’m not bashing people with mental illness. Shit, I suffer from major depression and anxiety. That doesn’t mean I think that everyone else is required to put up with the negative consequences of my mental illness. Sometimes I can be absolutely horrible, and no one else should be forced to pretend that it is OK or gloss over that fact. “Empathy” means that I can feel for people. It doesn’t mean I should ever in a million years let them hurt me and then excuse it because I empathise with them.

    Ophelia,

    In that case you trust but verify, depending on how much you trust the people who are making the accusations. And maybe ask other people who aren’t so close to the situation to also keep an eye on the person if necessary. And as always, better safe than sorry isn’t bad advice.

  11. says

    sc_77etc @ 10 – that’s interesting. But it sounds more like shallow affect than psychopathy. On the other hand I heard an interview not long ago with a guy – a researcher in psychopathy I think – who discovered that he himself is a psychopath.

    Oh I remember, it was fMRI scans, and when he peeled off the tape on one of the diagnosed psychopaths it was his scan. In the interview he said his wife said that didn’t surprise her. Sort of with amusement, he said it.

  12. says

    Personally I don’t refuse to interact with someone merely because they have or seem to have a psychiatric “condition.” It’s more a matter of how they treat me and my friends and whether I can live with that.
     
          Two very close relatives have suffered from severe mental illness, enough to get them hospitalised, in one case for over a year, and, having been left with the responsibility of caring for them, I discovered things about the mental health profession that I don’t much like. There seems to be some built-in misogyny – In order to assess how well a man is fitting in with society he will be asked questions like “Do you find it easy to mix with your friends in the pub?” or “How is your job search going?” whereas a woman might be asked “How are you coping with the household chores?” There seems to be a built in assumption that society has to be a certain way and anyone who deviates from it has some sort of disorder. Personally I suffer from severe depression from time to time, not enough to get me hospitalised but enough to completely wreck my life. So I have experience of the mental health profession from more than one angle.
     
          I’m somewhat suspicious of most psychiatric classifications especially when, as is the case for psychopathy, the criteria are actually different for men than for women. I would certainly think it a bad thing to disengage with anyone merely on the grounds that they met the criteria for being a psychopath or met the criteria for any other psychiatric diagnoses. On the other hand I would and do distance myself from anyone who does not treat me or my friends with a modicum of respect, whether or not they meet any such criteria. For what it’s worth, I just took the on line test myself and appear to have a personality disorder unknown to medical science. Here is the result:

    There is no clear indication that you might have a
    psychopathic / antisocial personality disorder.

    Score: 7 of 38 [7:2/4/1]

    There is no indication that you might have a narcissistic personality disorder.
    You might have certain traits of narcissistic personalities but certainly not in a form that would justify a personality disorder diagnosis according to the standards.
    Score: 3 of 9

    There is no indication that you might have a histrionic personality disorder.[D:1/I:1]

    You meet 80% of the range of general personality disorder criteria.
    However, there are no clear indications of you having a psychopathic/antisocial, narcissistic or histrionic disorder, so there might be another problem not captured by this test.
    Thus, is strongly recommended you seek a professional diagnosis to be sure what exactly you are dealing with.
    It might turn out useful to print the previous page including your selections and take it to a psychotherapist, psychiatrist or psychologist.[G:4]

     
          The on line test is somewhat weird. There seems to be an assumption in some questions that the culture in which you grew up was sane and any deviation from it is a sign of some sort of disorder. For instance question 29 is:

    My behavior or the way I feel is different from what is expected or accepted in the culture I grew up in in at least 2 of the following areas:
    a) the way I perceive and interpret things, people, and events
    b) the range, intensity of my affects or the ‘appropriateness’ in the way I display my emotions
    c) control over my impulses and gratification of my needs
    d) the way I relate to others and handle interpersonal situations.

    with choices: “doesn’t apply to me,” “somewhat applies,” “fully applies to me.” I answered “fully applies… ” which probably bumped up my psychopathy score, but if I were a psychopath I might well have lied at this point.

  13. says

    What’s the right way to be a skeptic when it comes to thinking about a possible … everyday kind of psychopath – you know, no conscience, compulsive lying, good at manipulation, persuasive, charming, successful.

    Your criteria suggest solutions.

    *no conscience
    Conscience is a replacement here for functional empathy. They literally are able to put themselves in the place of others and often can’t help it. The implicit ability to put yourself in the place of another is likely where our conscience comes from. This is complicated by the fact that empathy may not break down into one thing, and it’s likely that we can be selectively empathetic just as many can be selectively rational.But in general look for evidence that the person displays empathy.

    *compulsive lying
    I took the path of honesty when I decided that my head could in no way fit all those alternate realities that you have to keep consistent (It’s an effort anyway). Because each lie is a separate reality that we present to another. Detecting repeated pervasive inconsistency in the realities that a person presents to you, or several people is what works here. I have a feeling that politicians hate our multimedia culture. May the right ones all go grey and get ulcers.

    *good at manipulation
    This can conflict with the above one. A compulsive liar is going to leave a trail. What matters is collecting the evidence and getting people to accept it. So to make up for the inconsistencies the liar has to explain the inconsistencies. This is where the group politics comes in to play really strongly. The rest of your list is a subset of this, or a description of the results. If you want a set of facts to go away you have a limited number of choices on each specific item and the means will likely be emotional: attack, retreat, obfuscate.

    -persuasive
    The people that trust this person often don’t want to believe that they have been lied to, or can be lied to. A good manipulator uses motivated reasoning to their advantage and will functionally manipulate logical biases with logical fallacies. Or they will be very non-specific and speak about things in terms of “feelings about X” but won’t do very much actual objective description of the inconsistencies in question. They will flee from getting specific. They will use the strong word objects that are akin to psychological triggers that spin emotions in the desired directions that their group practices (feminists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, right-winger, left-winger, they more than descriptions in the right groups).

    -charming
    I’m less sure about this one. Charming is very subjective. You have to look at the community that the putative psychopath is a member of to get an idea of what charming is. But what passes for charming will be something that the psychopath will practice, on certain people. I believe that there are moral people with psychopathic tendencies that choose to be moral and I’m assuming that these people won’t be detectable because they will make sure that they treat everyone the same. The psychopath you are interested in will be charming to the powerful and influential. Watch how they treat those they are in control of, and especially watch how they treat people when they might think no one will find out.

    *successful
    A successful psychopath will be able to minimize the inconsistencies within and between their false realities, and be practiced at manipulation in explaining away the things that can’t be rationalized by what means are at their disposal including emotional social manipulation. They will be knowledgeable about the little codewords, rituals, and other aspects of culture that they can use as tools to try to attack, retreat from, or obfuscate about the inconsistencies in the realities they present to others. Finally they will be charming to the right people in order to control their social environment as much as possible.

    What’s the skeptic thing to do? To doubt the people you know? Or to doubt your own sense of X?

    I don’t know about the skeptic thing to do. But I know about the rational logical skeptic scientific thing to do. If there is a hypothesis that someone is a psychopath you hear out the claims. You that keep the nugget in your head and you use your reason to evaluate the evidence and logic in the claims by collecting data though observations. You apply your skepticism by testing the claims because skepticism is disbelieving without evidence for both the person who is claiming another might be a psychopath, and the alternate hypothesis that they are not.

  14. says

    I’m siding with Shatterface here.

    A psychopath can develop an intellectual appreciation and respect for social rules. It’s a bit like how folks like autistics and myself need a more intellectual approach on some things, with their own specific shape to the problem. People with psychopathic tendencies are not all psychopaths. Those that do choose a more pro-social path should be supported and rewarded by their communities. Often they can tell you more about people in general than can believe possible. Reward the good ones and they can be a benefit to communities that help them with their particular roadblocks.

  15. says

    What’s the skeptic thing to do?

    Well, “psychopath” isn’t really a diagnosis anymore. So the dictionary skeptic would say there is no such thing.

    I sort of agree with that. A big problem with psychology is that it is pretty much a cataloguing of symptoms rather than underlying causes. So they can say “this set of behaviors, we will diagnose as such-and-such” but there isn’t a way to diagnose that’s – what’s the right word – reliable? Certain? Causal? It’s not like there is some broken thingie you can find in a person’s brain and then say “aha, this is broken, they are a psychopath” or whatever.

    That is, exactly, an epistemological problem – how can you claim knowledge about another person’s mind when all you’re going on is their behaviors and those behaviors can be changed? It’s especially tough when you’re dealing with self-reported information and part of the symptomology in question is that the subject lies easily?

    To me, the response to psychology’s inventory-of-symptoms based approach is to deal with the symptoms and not even attempt grouping or classification. Why bother going to all that trouble, just to slap a label on someone? If someone is a violent, manipulative, liar it doesn’t matter if you call them a “sociopath” or an “asshole” if you base your actions vis-a-vis them on the fact that they exhibit those behaviors. We really can’t know someone else’s inner states at this point in time, so if someone says “I’m not manipulative” but you think they’re manipulating you, it’s up to you how much time you invest in wondering “do they know what manipulation is? are they lying? am I wrong?” I’ve actually experienced that in real life – I was dealing with someone whose behaviors made me suspect they were manipulating me, and when I confronted them on it, they trotted out a wonderful analysis that argued that I was being passive-aggressive. And I could have replied to them that that would be exactly the sort of response a manipulator would produce, but instead I decided they weren’t going to be in my life anymore and it saved me a lot of time.

    Psychology has to try to answer these questions (so far, it sucks at doing so) because that’s what it claims to be all about. Those of us who aren’t taking a patient’s money with the idea that we’re going to help deal with a disorder don’t have to confront the hard problem psychology has, which is defining what a “disorder” is in the absence of reliable and repeatable root cause analysis.

  16. says

    PS – DSM V no longer has a diagnosis for “psychopath”, it’s now “anti-social personality disorder” (which has a list of subjective properties) Personally, I don’t think “anti-social personality disorder” is any better; it’s even more vague.

    But, if you run into someone (e.g.: a television psychologist) talking about “psychopaths” they practicing pop psychology.

  17. Stacy says

    Those that do choose a more pro-social path should be supported and rewarded by their communities. Often they can tell you more about people in general than can believe possible. Reward the good ones and they can be a benefit to communities that help them with their particular roadblocks.

    I agree that they should be supported if they behave ethically.

    In this case, though, Ophelia described the kind of person she’s talking about:

    no conscience, compulsive lying, good at manipulation, persuasive, charming, successful

    This is not a purely hypothetical question.

  18. Silentbob says

    What’s the skeptic thing to do? To doubt the people you know? Or to doubt your own sense of X?

    “There seem to be many people who simply wish to be told an answer, any answer, and thereby avoid the burden of keeping two mutually exclusive possibilities in their heads at the same time.”

    - Carl Sagan, talking about whether or not there is life on Mars, but he made the same point about the necessity of a “tolerance of ambiguity” in other contexts many times.

    Who says you have to choose one of the two options? What is wrong with, “I have evidence both for and against, but neither is compelling, so I accept that either possibility may be true and – pending further evidence – withhold judgement”. I think that’s the “skeptic thing to do”.

  19. says

    @ Marcus Ranum

    Well, “psychopath” isn’t really a diagnosis anymore. So the dictionary skeptic would say there is no such thing.

    I sort of agree with that. A big problem with psychology is that it is pretty much a cataloguing of symptoms rather than underlying causes.

    A fair point. It’s getting better though.

    @ Stacy

    This is not a purely hypothetical question.

    I did not think it was given problems with certain people in positions of authority in the skeptical community. That answer is how I would look for a person fitting the behaviors.

  20. Hj Hornbeck says

    Dammit, Shatterface @3 beat me to it AND did a better job.

    I don’t think “is person X a psychopath?” is a question worth pondering. “Is person X without conscience or a compulsive liar” is much, much more worthy of your time.

  21. yahweh says

    “no conscience, compulsive lying, good at manipulation, persuasive, charming, successful.”

    not the right column for ex-wife jokes, I suppose?

  22. Silentbob says

    @ 22 yahweh

    Certainly not. Conceivably a forum for ex-partner jokes, but in the original formulation you would need to make a case for why immorality, lying and manipulation should be considered particularly wifely characteristics. (Good luck with that.)

  23. latsot says

    I think I’d start by asking our mutual acquaintances for specific examples of X showing apparently psychopathic traits. If I recognise some of these behaviours, I’d have to ask myself whether I might have interpreted them wrongly. If they seem to resonate with other behaviours I’d observed in X, I’d have to take seriously the idea that I’d misjudged X.

    Being me, I’d then want to make sure my model of a psychopath was at least well-informed. I’d want to know especially about false positives. And then I’d observe X in the light of our mutual friends’ concerns and my new knowledge.

    There are some difficulties though. I know from reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (a possible source for your story at #12, Ophelia) that diagnosis is difficult, even with training. Ronson himself attended Bob Hare’s training course and he and his wife suddenly started seeing psychopaths *everywhere*. So I don’t think I’d trust my conclusions very much.

    Another problem is the one of how far to go to get evidence of psychopathy. For example, I don’t think I’d be comfortable setting up situations attempting to catch X out in a lie, but perhaps I’d be prepared to set other little traps (and probably hate myself for doing it). But if I did that, there’s a good chance I’d give positive (in the sense of the trap being sprung) results more weight than they deserve and dismiss negative results as inconclusive.

    So I agree with Ophelia that it would be difficult.

    In practice, I don’t think I’d go that far. I’d probably take my friends’ concerns on board, especially if they’ve been hurt in some way by X and I might be a little more vigilant when dealing with X. I don’t think I’d shun X though, even if I became convinced that X was in fact a psychopath, unless I had evidence that X had hurt me or my friends.

  24. anne mariehovgaard says

    Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t immediately change your mind to agree with other people, but don’t assume they’re wrong (/evil). Look for evidence: why do those other people see them that way? Are you left with a choice between “This person is not as nice as I thought” and “All these other people are lying about them and spreading vicious rumors for no reason”? How do they themselves talk about other people? Are all their exes, former co-workers, people they have any kind of conflict with evil monsters, crazy, liars and/or sluts? What do they say when confronted with the things said about them? “It’s all terrible lies told by my enemies, who hate me because I’m so awesome”?

    There’s absolutely no other group of people who are so comprehensively demonised. Substitute any other group for ‘psychopath’ in that paragraph and any poster would feel ashamed to post it here.

    This kind of proves my point; ‘empathy’ is in-group. It doesn’t extend to people outside that group.

    These people* should not be part of the group. Treating them as you would anyone else will harm you and/or others. And if you feel sorry for them because you have affective empathy and (involuntarily, subconsciously) put yourself in their place, you are wasting your energy. They don’t react the way you would, and they won’t reciprocate.

    *It doesn’t matter what you call them, they are an identifiable group – personally, I think it’s probably best to avoid using a diagnosis; they’re not “suffering from” a psychiatric condition. In fact they suffer a lot less than other people (under the exact same conditions – they tend to be pretty much fearless and a lot less bothered by punishment than most people). They just make other people suffer.

  25. Minnow says

    You know a number of people who suspect that X is a psychopath of that type. You too know X and have always found X charming and persuasive.

    Presumably you mean you have found X charming and persuasive but also of good conscience, unmanipulative and honest, otherwise there would be no problem in dropping X pretty hastily and agreeing with your friends. In which case it isn’t really very difficult, you should trust your own instincts unless you have good reason to think they are unreliable (they are usually unreliable for example) or because you have proof that you are wrong (in which case again, no problem). If your other friends do not have evidence of psychopathy that is strong enough to overturn your direct experience, you should treat their ‘suspicions’ as malicious gossip and ask them to keep them to themselves.

  26. newenlightenment says

    I recently completed a Law diploma, as part of the course, I had to do a court visit, and write a report. It was a murder trial. The defendant Dominic Kocher (who was subsequently convicted) had moved to the UK from France some years ago. Three people had subsequently arrived in the UK, Chrstoffe Borgee, and Sebastian Bendou from France, Manuel Wagner from Germany. Kocher, under the guise of helping the settle in the UK proceeded to slowly take over their lives, to the extent that they paid their wages directly into his bank account and cooked his meals for him. In 2009, Borgee went missing, in 2013 Bendou confessed to killing him, at the trial it was established that Kocher had persuaded Bendou – who was Schizophrenic – that Borgee was a spy, out to kill Kocher’s daughter, and needed to be ‘eliminated’. They lured Borgee into a designated ‘kill room’ Bendou smashed his skull in with a claw hammer while Kocher stabbed him in the throuat with such force that he broke the knife. Kocher then procceded to sell Borgee’s car, and loot his bank account. Fairly clear cut psychopath behaviour!

    The two things I found most striking were: A. Kocher was barely half the size of Bendou, and yet was able to control him completely. B. after I heard the prosecutions case, I couldn’t help but stare at Kocher as he left the courtroom. He noticed and glanced up at me with a look of mild surprise, as if it had never occurred to him that stabbing a guy in the neck might be of interest to anyone. He managed to make me feel like I’d made a social faux pa

  27. says

    Minnow @ 28 – no of course that’s not what I mean. I don’t know why you say “presumably”; it’s not presumable at all. If that were the case, there would be no difficulty, as you say yourself. The difficulty is what the post is about, so it’s not presumable that I simply forgot to say the part that would make it easy.

    What does it even mean to say one has found X “of good conscience, unmanipulative and honest” – how does one “find” people that?

    You do realize there’s such a thing as deception, right? You do grasp that people can appear to be one way and actually be another? You’re aware that we can’t just tell that people are honest or not honest, just by looking?

  28. says

    diagnosis is difficult, even with training

    That’s a red flag, right there.

    Psychological states are too subjective to diagnose, so a lot of psychology may as well be feng shui, until neuroscience is able to establish cause/effect relationships in underlying disorders. The idea that psychology diagnoses “disorders” is also interesting to me, because it implies that there is something broken – literally un-ordered in the patient, yet it’s equally possible that some of these things are learned behaviors. At this time we can’t tell whether any given person lacks empathy because:
    - there is an as-yet undiscovered empathy function in the brain, which this person lacks or has damage to
    - empathy is a learned behavior and this person somehow managed to not learn it
    - this person has had experiences that have convinced them that empathy is not worth demonstrating, so they (knowingly or otherwise) don’t show it
    - all of the above
    - some of the above
    - some degree of some of the above

    It is my opinion that these are vague concepts in the philosophical sense (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagueness) which means that epistemologically they may be impossible to know objectively. One can make statements of knowledge about such concepts only in reference to one’s own opinion, i.e.: I know I think that person X suffers from antisocial personality disorder which is easily true, but practically useless.

    If you approach it reductively, you wind up with the same problem – since “antisocial personality disorder” is a list of behaviors, such as:
    - failure to conform to social norms
    - irritability
    - deceitfulness
    etc. Those are also vague concepts. If someone wears white shoes before easter, are they demonstrating failure to conform to social norms, or is the social norm no longer relevant? If someone walks up to another person and licks their face, is that failure to conform, or …? Even “deceitfulness” is tricky – note that the authors of DSM choose the words very very carefully because “deceitfulness” is different from “lying a lot” because “deceit” implies some awareness of the lie on the liar’s part, hedging out someone who is merely mistaken or delusional. And, again, the difference between “deceit” and “mistaken” is vague — all of these are vague concepts.

    A shorter form of what I wrote above is that psychology is largely a game of slapping labels on the downstream consequences of unknowns. Too many unknowns.

    If you’re concerned about someone’s behaviors (as you perceive them) it’s best to forgo the process of labelling and try to deal as honestly as possible with the behaviors themselves. Acknowledge that those are also vague concepts and labels. But if you are a skeptic you would want to reduce things to facts and let your listener decide. So rather than saying “Marcus exhibited failure to conform to social norms” you can boil it down to “Marcus licked a stranger’s face, and said that’s what he does instead of shaking hands.” Rather than saying “Fred exhibited lack of empathy” you can say “Fred snapped a kitten’s neck with his bare hands and announced it was ‘interesting’ and showed no apparent emotion.” Skeptics are safest when dealing with what they perceive to be facts, though if you want to be a pyrhhonian you can also add “It appears to me now that…” to qualify your statements in order to ensure that your listener remembers they may be hearing your opinions or misperceptions.

  29. says

    (BTW – I don’t know of a term for it, I haven’t yet encountered one in my reading of philiosophy, but I sometimes refer to “linguistic nihilism” as being the position in which you begin to reject our ability to ground our vocabularies in a shared epistemology. When that happens, communication falls apart. If I say “tomato” how do I know that you understand the word to be a label applied to a red fruit that often appears in spaghetti sauce? What if you’re understanding the word in the 1950s hipster sense and wondering why I’d make spaghetti sauce out of .. whatever. Unfortunately, the only tools we have to communicate about language are languages themselves, which is why I think so much of what we talk about is vague. It’s as if all we do is slap labels on things then pass the labels back and forth, without being able to actually be sure we understand what the things are. There are “moral nihilists” who reject the possibility of objective morality, and I sometimes delve into the scary zone of “linguistic nihilism” in which I reject the possibility of understanding another person. Then I get freaked out and don’t think about it until I fall back into being comfortable using language as a blunt instrument.)

  30. deepak shetty says

    What’s the skeptic thing to do?
    Ask the number of people who believe X is a psychopath for evidence and evaluate it objectively. Cui bono probably applies too.

    it might still apply that its a he said/ she said type of scenario with nothing that could be considered hard evidence in which case wait and watch I guess. I especially dislike when people think the “innocent till proven guilty” type of default that the legal system has applies to real life defaults.

  31. Pen says

    I think the skeptical thing to do is to treat people with benevolent vigilance by default. Presumably, if you know lots of people who are ready to tell you that X is a conscience-free manipulative liar you might expect them to provide at least anecdotal evidence? And even if you can’t directly test whether it’s true or not, it might give you an idea of what, specifically, to be vigilant against. You might even decide to be vigilant on behalf of other people.

  32. latsot says

    Ophelia should offer a prize for the first one of us to be accused of being person X by the usual suspects.

  33. Stacy says

    @anne mariehovgaard #27

    These people* should not be part of the group. Treating them as you would anyone else will harm you and/or others. And if you feel sorry for them because you have affective empathy and (involuntarily, subconsciously) put yourself in their place, you are wasting your energy. They don’t react the way you would, and they won’t reciprocate.

    *It doesn’t matter what you call them, they are an identifiable group – personally, I think it’s probably best to avoid using a diagnosis; they’re not “suffering from” a psychiatric condition. In fact they suffer a lot less than other people (under the exact same conditions – they tend to be pretty much fearless and a lot less bothered by punishment than most people). They just make other people suffer.

    Thank you, anne mariehovgaard. You’ve said what I could not articulate.

  34. says

    It’s true that in general there’s no particular reason to label people, but the thing about psychopaths is that they’re really good at fooling people (as mentioned), and sometimes one may want to warn people in a position to be harmed by X. There can be a credibility problem. There can be a situation where you’re trying to explain to someone, “X did a to me, and b, and c.” The someone may respond with, “X is great, X is fabulous, you’re exaggerating and blowing everything out of proportion.”

    See the bind you’re in? Yes of course the someone thinks X is great and fabulous, because that’s what psychopaths do: they come across as great and fabulous, until they don’t.

  35. Minnow says

    What does it even mean to say one has found X “of good conscience, unmanipulative and honest” – how does one “find” people that?

    I mean in ones own dealings with X you have not experienced them as manipulative or dishonest or of bad conscience. That is the normal way of expressing that isn’t it? And that is implied in your problem, or, as you say, there would be no problem. In which case I see no reason for you to believe the suspicions of others without evidence. And, in fact, you should be suspicious of those who are telling you X is not what X seems unless they can offer evidence. Why should you assume that the whisperers are not the psychopathic ones. Their behaviour strikes me as an attempt at manipulation unless, as I said, they have evidence.

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