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 itimplies 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
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.