Living strangely in time: emotions, masks and morals in psychopathically-inclined people

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Psychopaths appear to be ‘creatures apart’ – grandiose, shameless, callous and versatile in their violence. I discuss biological underpinnings to their pale affect, their selective inability to discern fear and sadness in others and a predatory orienting towards images that make most startle and look away. However, just because something is biologically underpinned does not mean that it is innate. I show that while there may be some genetic determination of fearlessness and callous-unemotionality, these and other features of the personality may arise from developmental failures in the interpersonal reception of their emotions, needs and their sense of self. One is unlikely to be able to own inner experiences if shamed for having them, or if, having them, one does not know how to regulate and soothe. So psychopaths may learn to attend away and suppress them. Rather than a fully inherited difficulty, they may have become unable to reflect on inner states, so meta-emotions and self-reflective emotions like guilt and shame do not fully arise. They retain enough sensitivity to know their difference, and hide. I suggest that psychopaths are characterised by a nested sense of self, arising from the surprising effect of shame on these seemingly shameless characters. They do not have an integrated sense of self across context or across time or in relation to a generalised social other. With a nested sense of self, diminished intensity and scope of affective experience (in both directly experienced and vicarious forms) they lack textured access to a personal, owned and integrated past. Thus they lack the kind of access to the past required for a motivationally compelling planning of the future. They lack the emotional investment in the future that enables us to overcome the motivation to act opportunistically and myopically. These individuals live strangely in time. They have a fugitive sense of self and live nimbly among many pasts. They present an elegant and coherent mask to the person they are addressing in the moment and generate possible futures without conviction.
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Archival date: 2015-10-25
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