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6 minutes reading time (1275 words)

Jimmy Saville, psychopaths and you and me

The controversy surrounding Jimmy Saville raises many crucial issues, and stirs up powerful feelings, as it should.  We should be shocked and disgusted by what has happened to his victims, and appalled that he was allowed to carry on in the way he was in institutions which we have trusted and relied on, such as the BBC, hospitals and prisons. Shock, disgust, anger and blame are appropriate and expectable emotions in the face of such unthinkable behaviour, and the collusion of too many people with those behaviours.

At the same time I feel like urging a note of caution. Not in a way that will condone anything that has happened, but rather about our reactions, and particularly the inevitable braying for blood and revenge and the need to hold people to account and punish, which while it makes sense on one level, can also be a dangerous route to follow. The note of caution I want to sound is that if we put all our energy into condemning, litigation and revenge we are far less likely to be able to make sense of what has actually happened.

 

Jimmy Saville was it seems a paedophile with extreme psychopathic tendencies. He was what some call, rather unfortunately, a very successful psychopath. Researchers such as Raine [1]have found that successful psychopaths, those that do not get caught, seem to have slightly different brain structure to those who do. They are compelling and cleverer, and give away few warning signs. We should remember that most psychopaths can be very convincing. Another researcher Christian Keysers found that some of the worst offenders appeared to be almost innocent lambs if you took their self-reports at face value  [2].

It is easy to condemn those who did nothing about Saville or turned a blind eye, but we have to remember, and also acknowledge to ourselves, that we do not want to believe that these things are happening, and that the nice person near us might be doing them. Martha Stout, who has published on sociopathy, has argued that there are more sociopaths around that one might imagine, she suggests maybe as many as 4% of the population, certainly enough that one would expect to walk past one each time one goes shopping or goes to work [3]. It is hard to believe that others do not feel empathy in the same way as most of us, feel no remorse and do such vile acts with no second thought. Part of the problem here is the human tendency to block out what we do not want to know about. It is perfectly possible for any of us to know something and not know it at the same time.

A hallmark of many psychopaths as well is extreme confidence, charm,  charisma and the ability to get others to trust them. It is no coincidence that Saville managed this. Bob Hare, one of the most important writers about psychopaths has suggested that there are 4 times more psychopaths running large corporations than in the rest of the population  [4], as well as many (unsuccessful ones) in prison, and more successful ones in politics. Kevin Dutton in his recent book [5] suggests that society needs psychopaths to do tasks many of us could not manage, such as staying calm in battle. Indeed he found many not only in the armed forces but also consultant surgeons as well as in finance. There is a lot of research about psychopaths nowadays. Typical is a study published this week which looked at how psychopaths tend not to understand that others might be experiencing feelings like fear or distress, and they also do not get what is and is not socially unacceptable [6]. What many such as Stout suggest is that we have created a world in which it is far more possible for such people to flourish than in the past, due to the ease with which it is possible to be anonymous, as well as the way in which we are in thrall to power, strength and decisiveness. Indecisiveness and uncertainty win few votes these days, as Obama's recent mauling demonstrated.

The other note of caution worth sounding is the condemnation of the likes of Saville as sub-human and in every way ‘different from us’. It might be easier to distance ourselves than to admit that we might be more capable of evil acts than we like to admit. One only has to think about what seemingly decent German citizens went along with in Nazi Germany. Dehumanisation is what psychopaths manage, and many paedophiles. We all have an ability to dehumanise and make some people beneath contempt, normally those not in our in-group, whether of another class, ethnicity or culture. The poor, unemployed, drug addicts or those begging on the streets often evoke responses of disgust, as recent research has shown, with a brain area called the insula very central to such processes [7].

Whether we are all capable of having paedophilic urges is a more controversial issue. Freud would have argued that we do and that these are repressed and managed in most people. The neuroscientist David Eagleman [8] reported many extraordinary cases such as Alex, a normal man who suddenly was overtaken by paedophilic desires that he could not inhibit. In his case a tumour was discovered in his frontal lobe, and on removal his paedophilic urges disappeared. Eagleman suggests that maybe he, and any of us, might have such desires lurking in us, desires which are usually inhibited by our brain areas central to executive functioning. This is harder and more controversial territory, even the more so in that of course most active paedophiles have had horrendous lives and childhoods and have all too often been subject to abuse themselves. Their acts and fantasies tend to be very different from those of most of us.

Of course we all have the potential for two kinds of aggression, the ‘hot’ reactive anger, such as we see when threatened, and a more ‘cold’ ruthless kind that all predators activate when hunting their victims. These are needed traits and thankfully for most of us the cold aggressive tendencies are balanced by a more empathic and moral side. Not so in many psychopaths it seems.

My main point though is that while we do need to condemn what has happened, we also need to be able to be self-reflective and honest. We are all capable of being misled by charismatic people, and few of us are capable of believing that those near to us are capable of such inhuman acts. Maybe more importantly, it is very hard to acknowledge that we might also be capable of acts that are distasteful and that we all too quickly condemn in others.

 

[1]        Y. Gao and A. Raine, ‘Successful and unsuccessful psychopaths: A neurobiological model’, Behavioral sciences & the law, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 194–210, 2010.

[2]        C. Keysers, The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press, 2011.

[3]        M. Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books (A Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc), 2007.

[4]        R. D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, 1st ed. Guilford Press, 1999.

[5]        K. Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths. London: Heineman, 2012.

[6]        A. A. Marsh and E. M. Cardinale, ‘Psychopathy and fear: Specific impairments in judging behaviors that frighten others.’, 2012.

[7]        L. T. Harris and S. T. Fiske, ‘Dehumanized perception: A psychological means to facilitate atrocities, torture, and genocide?’, Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Journal of Psychology, vol. 219, no. 3, p. 175, 2011.

[8]        D. Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain. Canongate Books Ltd, 2011.

interesting new research findings in the last week
Some interesting new research findings from last w...
 

Comments 3

Guest - Liz on Tuesday, 23 October 2012 22:29

thank you - good to think about it without the knee-jerk reaction which I have to admit i was having and very sobering as well.

thank you - good to think about it without the knee-jerk reaction which I have to admit i was having and very sobering as well.
Guest - Robert Glanz on Thursday, 01 November 2012 08:29

Impressively manages to pack in a great deal to reflect on in a very short piece. I particularly think it is brave of you to speak out about the Saville case in this way. I have not read a single article in the media that attempts to provide a space to think about our own feelings and responses in this way. Who could be most other that a psychopathic, high profile media personality who is also a paedophile. Yet we all have urges that we struggle to contain and might if not contained be harmful to others. Surely what distinguishes the criminal psychopath from the rest of us is not their desires, whether it is their sexual desire towards young people or their desire for power and wealth, but whether, faced with the harm they might do to others in seeking satisfaction they pull back from acting on their desires, because they might be able to realise that other people are indeed subjects, like them with feelings and minds of their own. Not all men who desire women are rapists just because they cannot find a sexual partner. Not all Paedophiles rape children just because of their sexuality. The two situations may not be easily comparable but are worth putting along side each other none the less. I wonder how many people are sexually attracted to children but live out a life, complicated by their desire, full of shame and remorse and distress for their thoughts and fantasies, but manage to understand that they can never act on these desires because of the harm they would never allow themselves to inflict on other people.
I thought a wonderful, and serious attempt to portray the experience of the paedophile who struggles with this is the film, The Woodsman a 2004 film starring a moving performance from Kevin Bacon , a paedophile , returning to his home town after twelve years in prison. Worth a watch.

Just another thought. Why is it that generally, psychopaths of all descriptions, paedophiles , city bosses, army generals are usually male? Of course not always but more often than not. What is the relationship to maleness and psychopathy? What is the developmental
pathway that differentiates girls from boys, who sharing the same parental and environmental neglect or abuse, go on to become psychopaths? Is there a relationship between Autism and psychopathy? How might testosterone be implicated in the development of psychopathic states of mind?

Impressively manages to pack in a great deal to reflect on in a very short piece. I particularly think it is brave of you to speak out about the Saville case in this way. I have not read a single article in the media that attempts to provide a space to think about our own feelings and responses in this way. Who could be most other that a psychopathic, high profile media personality who is also a paedophile. Yet we all have urges that we struggle to contain and might if not contained be harmful to others. Surely what distinguishes the criminal psychopath from the rest of us is not their desires, whether it is their sexual desire towards young people or their desire for power and wealth, but whether, faced with the harm they might do to others in seeking satisfaction they pull back from acting on their desires, because they might be able to realise that other people are indeed subjects, like them with feelings and minds of their own. Not all men who desire women are rapists just because they cannot find a sexual partner. Not all Paedophiles rape children just because of their sexuality. The two situations may not be easily comparable but are worth putting along side each other none the less. I wonder how many people are sexually attracted to children but live out a life, complicated by their desire, full of shame and remorse and distress for their thoughts and fantasies, but manage to understand that they can never act on these desires because of the harm they would never allow themselves to inflict on other people. I thought a wonderful, and serious attempt to portray the experience of the paedophile who struggles with this is the film, The Woodsman a 2004 film starring a moving performance from Kevin Bacon , a paedophile , returning to his home town after twelve years in prison. Worth a watch. Just another thought. Why is it that generally, psychopaths of all descriptions, paedophiles , city bosses, army generals are usually male? Of course not always but more often than not. What is the relationship to maleness and psychopathy? What is the developmental pathway that differentiates girls from boys, who sharing the same parental and environmental neglect or abuse, go on to become psychopaths? Is there a relationship between Autism and psychopathy? How might testosterone be implicated in the development of psychopathic states of mind?
Guest - Jane O'Rourke on Monday, 05 November 2012 12:48

I think what is interesting about this article is that it challenges us to think honestly about ourselves. This has led me to think about what it is about psychopaths such as Jimmy Saville that makes them so popular? Somehow it feels distasteful to think about Saville as a wildly famous, popular figure, but during his peak he was one of the biggest stars on television. And for this reason he earnt millions of pounds and used his fame and money to access vulnerable children. If we are being honest, perhaps it is elements of a psychopathic personality – decisiveness, charm, power - that makes these individuals attractive to us, however horribly debased some of them may turn out to be? As a former BBC producer, I worked with many presenters. The best were always decisive, charming and exuded a powerful presence. Oh dear, am I saying they all had psychopathic tendencies? That would perhaps be going too far, but it’s an interesting thought!

I think what is interesting about this article is that it challenges us to think honestly about ourselves. This has led me to think about what it is about psychopaths such as Jimmy Saville that makes them so popular? Somehow it feels distasteful to think about Saville as a wildly famous, popular figure, but during his peak he was one of the biggest stars on television. And for this reason he earnt millions of pounds and used his fame and money to access vulnerable children. If we are being honest, perhaps it is elements of a psychopathic personality – decisiveness, charm, power - that makes these individuals attractive to us, however horribly debased some of them may turn out to be? As a former BBC producer, I worked with many presenters. The best were always decisive, charming and exuded a powerful presence. Oh dear, am I saying they all had psychopathic tendencies? That would perhaps be going too far, but it’s an interesting thought!
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