Thursday, August 25, 2011

How Psychopaths Understand Remorse.

I know of one psychologist who has none of the otherwise all too common tendency to reject as bad and not human those of us who's emotional life is not quite like that of normal people. Dr. Robert is really unique in this respect and was one of a very few people who played a role in making my own wish to understand how normal people see someone like me become more than just a vague idea.

Dr. Robert's view on what psychopathy is differs from the view of most others in the field of psychology and psychiatry first of all in that he focus only on the emotional aspect, not on behavior, but also in that he doesn't place lack of capacity for the emotion Empathy as a distinct marker for psychopathy. Instead he gives lack of capacity to feel the emotion Remorse this position as the sole distinguishing factor.

I always saw it almost in the opposite light. I know most think of lacking empathy and lacking remorse as more or less equally important factors, but I never could take Remorse as a significant emotion serious and focused on empathy, which I believe I have capacity to feel.

When I found out about Dr. Robert's view on Remorse as the central element I began to focus more on finding out why this one thing can make such a difference to so many people, when to me it seems slightly comical and definitely funny that anybody would judge a whole 1 % of the population based on this. I wanted to understand why, so I contacted Dr. Robert again and eventually placed a post on his forum asking if he could explain to me why Remorse is seen as such an important and central emotion.

Anybody who visits Dr. Robert's forum and website will see that this is not a man who lacks understanding or knowledge. In fact, I believe he could do a lot better than several of the foremost psychologists who presently play a part in defining psychopathy. And yet it seems that my question about Remorse is not one that can be answered easily.

After giving it some time I concluded my question would not receive an answer and wrote the following:

Okay, I guess it isn't an easy question to answer. How to describe the color blue to someone who can't see blue and therefore isn't capable of recognizing it?
But I wonder, is that really what this is? I can see the color blue in the paintings others create, and I can and do create paintings myself that look a lot like other people's paintings with various shades of blue in them.
My problem is not that I can't see the color blue but that I can't understand it's usefulness. I understand that it is important to others, and that's why I asked.

I usually say that once you pose a question there is no such thing as receiving no answer. Silence is also an answer, if perhaps less specified and detailed.
Maybe another day, another time, I will somehow hear it.
And yet I wonder: Do I really not understand why others think of remorse as important and central? In a way I'll say 'Of course I understand!'. But it seems to easy to argue against those reasons, and maybe this is what I really would like to see a response to.

Logically there is no good use for remorse. It helps nobody, it changes nothing.

An argument would be: If you know how remorse feels the notion that you may feel it if you perform a certain activity can deter you from doing so. Yes, that makes sense. And yet it does not, because it lacks reason and makes you susceptible to manipulation.

Feeling bad because of an action should be based in the effect the action has, not in how you feel about the action itself, because in that case there should be no such action to begin with. Why do something you feel bad about? Why ask the question at all?
Maybe you had no choice! Well in that case there's nothing to feel bad about, is there? If you truly didn't have a choice it wasn't your fault!

I love my brother and will miss him and not have the fun times we had together if I kill him, therefore I will not kill him.
Everybody have a better time if everybody in the family are happy and content. My family will be discontent, sad and moody if my brother suddenly dies a violent death, therefore I will not kill my brother.

Those two are understandable and sensible reasons for not killing my brother. That I will feel bad because I did something bad is not a valid reason, for why do something I consider bad in the first place?

If it is about choosing a lesser of two evils, what good will it do to feel bad because the lesser evil was still not exactly good? It doesn't make it good that I feel bad about it!

This is still how I see it. Maybe some of my normal and non-psychopathic readers can help me with some input?


Bella said...

"Feeling bad because of an action should be based in the effect the action has"

"Maybe you had no choice! Well in that case there's nothing to feel bad about, is there? If you truly didn't have a choice it wasn't your fault!"

I get this 100%.


If I got drunk, or had a manic episode, or flew into a blind rage, and I had my child with me (if I had one) and slapped it hard, or I mistakenly allowed it to be in harm's way (my "accidents" -poor judgment) I would feel remorse.

Did I have a "choice" ? I would wonder about that. I would go back and forth in my head. Eventually, I would come to the conclusion it wasn't my fault, but that would take time, and I would still wonder whether my actions impacted my child's impressionable mind.

Zhawq said...

Yes, I recognize the psychology behind the thought line you describe. I've used it to my benefit with others on occasion (it's very easy to play on people's self doubt).

What I am arguing here is that it does nobody any good. I see what you're saying: It's not something you have control over. But people say that this is good! Do you agree? Wouldn't you rather be without this kind of mental flagellation?

Anonymous said...

How would you feel if you had gone to a party and destroyed your ears? And if it would have made your ears ringing and made the sounds painfull, you wouldn't be able to listen to loud things without having a pain in your ears? Would it change your mood in any way? You wouldn't regret having gone to the party, so I'm wondering what you'd feel.


Anonymous said...

Remorse has no value in the moment as you say Zhawq, but I think the value of remorse lies in the ability of most people to learn from their social mistakes using emotional guideposts that most people are born with. I believe the lack of remorse goes hand in hand with the inability or stunted ability of psychopaths to learn from their mistakes within certain social/emotional realms.

I thought I had felt remorse before but as it turns out I was only sorry things turned out a certain way for me, while remorse requires a certain form of empathy that is entirely foreign to some people. It's not a matter of it being right that they feel remorse or that you don't, or vice versa, what is, is.

I can appreciate the importance of wanting to fit in better. There is a book called The Five Languages Of Apology which helped me gain some insight into this issue. I hope it helps.

Bella said...

What I am arguing here is that it does nobody any good.

I think remorse can be useful. People do altruistic things from feeling bad. They in turn feel better about themselves. It is a matter of turning weakness into strength, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Bella, What I'm arguing is that remorse can be useful to those whose innate character find it useful, and there's nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with finding it useless either, but those who find it useless in and of itself need to at least understand what it is and how to emulate it or it will lead to weakness.

Either way works just fine

TNP said...

A conscience is certainly useful, and highly underrated. When you don't have one, life will be very difficult when you're young.

Remorse? No. Feeling guilty in the moment, feeling guilty shortly after, these elements help people refrain from antisocial behavior. But remorse, I imagine it's not much more than a scar that only you can see and feel, one that serves no purpose other than to drag you down.

I don't agree with Dr. Robert here, I think a lack of a conscience, and predatory sadism are the two distinct factors of the psychopath and the sociopath. Several mental variants have no or limited empathy, and some lack remorse too due to flat affect. That doesn't make them a Psychopath. It's a spectrum with an array of common traits, not a binary single factor.

Welcome back, Zhawq.

Zhawq said...

How would you feel if you had gone to a party and destroyed your ears? ... Would it change your mood in any way? ... I'm wondering what you'd feel.

I would be in rage at first. I might take it out on others too. Pain and loss (any kind of loss) infuriates me if I know I can't change it.

After some time during which I would be forced to get accustomed with my new situation, anger and frustration would return from time to time, but more important, I would do two things:

1. I would acquaint myself with all the knowledge and research relating to hearing, loss of hearing, and the mechanisms surrounding the pain, everything of this nature that I could dig up. I would do this so that I could get treatment immediately if and when such became possible, and in the meantime I would try to influence the research and the planning of research that will be done from then on.

2. I'd make a point of remaining capable of singing and participating in every way just as I've always done. I would have to get the band positioned differently on stage, and I would make a show out of it. - The idea is to turn the disaster into a different kind of victory.

Would I regret that I went to the party in the first place? No, I don't even think the thought would enter my mind.
If I somehow caused the accident I would go through it in my mind and find out what I did wrong. I wouldn't be able to change anything, but I would want to understand. That's how my mind works. I would do the same if it wasn't me who caused it. And I Might seek revenge (I probably would).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering my question so fast, sir. I really like your blog, so I hope you'll keep posting things! :)

Anonymous said...

TNP - I completely agree with your comment on the limitations of dichotomous thought process. The universe is comprised of infinite shades of gray, or color, as we individually see it.

Psychopathy is certainly no exception to that. Some people have an ego-driven need to be special, almost always driven by feeling deeply unspecial, and therefore need to use such labels and apply it to themselves. I personally find labels to be both limited and limiting, particularly the Psychopathic label, and have no need or wish for such a label to apply to me.

I am who and what I am, and I am completely content with that. We all as individuals are just trying to find our way in this world and improve our experience of what is. In that regard I believe we all share a common ground which is why we're here, regardless of labels.

Zhawq - Very insightful post. There is some genius in your madness :)

Zhawq said...

Anon 9:54,

it turns out I was only sorry things turned out a certain way for me, while remorse requires a certain form of empathy that is entirely foreign to some people

I agree. I am certain empathy is necessary for someone to be able to feel remorse.

I'd say I don't really feel I don't fit in in spite of being different. I never really felt any discomfort about being different because to me it was always differences that gave me advantages also to those I held as friends.

But I have met people who described how such a feeling can poison a person's life, so in that sense I understand why someone would give fitting in more attention.

There is a book called The Five Languages Of Apology which helped me gain some insight into this issue. I hope it helps.

Thank you for the suggestion. I have already noted it!... '^L^,

Ps. I have written an article taking outset in your first passage.

HoboLyra said...

I see nothing illogical about what you've said here, so I can't really add any input. You pretty much type my thoughts exactly, and if such discussions come up with those I know they dismiss me as 'cruel' or 'not understanding'. Even reading this, another was reading over my shoulder and commented that they couldn't agree with a thing you said and that it was flawed, yet all I saw was logic.

Interesting how two minds can find the same thing so very different.

Ettina said...

My response was too verbose for this comment box, so I've posted it on my blog. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't think remorse is a natural emotion.

To me, remorse is a conflict between social mores and an individual's behavior. Some people have an intense natural desire to conform which manifests as remorse when other instincts cause them to act in a non conforming way. It seems like it would be a useful behavior for many people.

I used to feel remorse, but I don't now. I'm not quite sure when it disappeared.

I moved from a religious to a naturalistic viewpoint throughout my life, and I stopped worrying about esoteric and blatantly incorrect notions of right and wrong. I've only seen these ideas in books, not in any person I've met, so I just stopped worrying about them. It seems like many psychopaths are just naturally attuned to this realization.

I do consider the effects of my actions in much greater detail now, perhaps because without remorse the full weight of my actions is on me. I take into account how my actions will effect my family and close friends/acquaintances foremost, because those are who I depend on, but also on my world as a whole.

I want my own memetic and genetic successes, but I realize that most lineages die out, even though the human race as a whole survives, and I share a great deal of genes with everybody else.

So, in between getting what I can to satisfy my own goals, I help out others because my survival, and my progeny, will depend on others. It's a long term selfishness, continuing after I die, and it keeps me entertained.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you zhawq. It seems people are a slave to this unhelpful and illogical emotion.

I would add thouigh that a benefit is when someone pisses me off, if they are remorseful and thus change future behaviours, or at least aim to, I can stop feeling so angry/annoyed towards them.
Although I don't feel remorse, if I have done something to someone I like, then I will go out of my way to show I didn't intend this, and explain my position if needed.

In this way I think I am emulating the effect of remorse, to end bad blood, move on in a relationship to a more positive position.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting blog, I'm glad it exists. :)
I think the OP has some very good points on remorse from a non-subjective, highly rational point of view. It certainly can't change the past, and its functionality as a deterrent for "bad" (read: socially unacceptable) behavior is limited at best. I think for pre-meditated actions especially, people are far more likely to weigh the pro's and con's, than decide based on whether they will feel bad about it afterwards. It's more likely that they would simply group that bad feeling in with the cons.
Remorse is definitely more of a social tool than anything else. Say, for example, you punch your friend, or steal from him. If you express this "remorse" to him and apologize, you seem less likely to do it again.
I've always held a rather cynical view of human behavior, that we are mainly self-serving creatures. To me, the actual feeling of remorse, in a nutshell, is simply the fear that you have somehow lost or damaged social connections in your life. After all, we are evolutionarily social creatures, and, on top of that, many of us have an instinctual fear of change. After punching this friend, you worry that he won't still be a friend: that the nature of your relationship with him will change for the worse. You wish to take back the action. You feel "guilty".
If this is the case, it sort of makes sense then that individuals with ASPD wouldn't completely understand it. They are (and please don't be offended if I'm wrong, this comes from my quite limited knowledge on the subject) rather disconnected from the emotions of social interactions, and some differences in the brain (esp. amygdala, frontal lobe and ucinate fasiculus) make for limited fear processing.
Sorry for the length, I do tend to go on a bit :)

Anonymous said...

The benefit of showing remorse to other people is to help them heal. It can help a person better cope with and reduce their problems of depression and blood pressure as examples. For example, if you attend a funeral you say to the grieving family, "sorry for your loss". Even if you are not sad, this helps the family psychologically and physiologically improve. If you were to gravely injure someone, on purpose, you can say to them or their immediate family "I am sorry". Even if you don't truly feel apologetic or remorseful due to misconnections in the brain, it helps people to hear it in order to be healthier.

Anonymous said...

Remorse, and in fact also Empathy are in my opinion poorly understood emotions because I believe they are felt differently by each individual. Maybe it's time we just acknowledged that everyone is different and let go of labels. That doesn't mean that we should not learn ways to protect ourselves from those that want to harm us, but this would apply to people in general and not only to Psychopaths. We all have something to learn from others, and if we were all the same there would be nothing to learn from anyone. AND it would be an extremely boring word.