The surface of the psychopath, however, that is,
all of him that can be reached by verbal exploration and direct examination,
shows up as equal to or better than normal and gives no hint at all of a
Nothing about him suggests oddness, inadequacy, or moral frailty. His mask
is that of robust mental health. Yet he has a disorder that often manifests
itself in conduct far more seriously abnormal than that of the
Inwardly, too, there appears to be a significant difference.
Deep in the masked schizophrenic we often sense a cold, weird indifference
to many of life's most urgent issues and sometimes also bizarre,
inexplicable, and unpredictable but intense emotional reactions to what
seems almost irrelevant.
Behind the exquisitely deceptive mask of the psychopath the emotional
alteration we feel appears to be primarily one of degree, a consistent
leveling of response to petty ranges and an incapacity to react with
sufficient seriousness to achieve much more than pseudo-experience or
quasi-experience. Nowhere within do we find a real cause or a sincere
commitment, reasonable or unreasonable.
There is nowhere the loyalty to
produce real and lasting allegiance even to a negative or fanatic cause.
Just as meaning and the adequate sense of things as a whole are lost with
semantic aphasia in the circumscribed field of speech although the technical
mimicry of language remains intact, so in most psychopaths the purposiveness
and the significance of all life-striving and of all subjective experience
are affected without obvious damage to the outer appearance or superficial
reactions of the personality. Nor is there any loss of technical or
With such a biologic change the human being becomes more reflex, more
machinelike. It has been said that a monkey endowed with sufficient
longevity would, if he continuously pounded the keys of a typewriter,
finally strike by pure chance the very succession of keys to reproduce all
the plays of Shakespeare. These papers so composed in the complete absence
of purpose and human awareness would look just as good to any scholar as the
actual works of the Bard.
Yet we cannot deny that there is a difference.
Meaning and life at a prodigiously high level of
human values went into one and merely the rule of permutations and
combinations would go into the other.
The patient semantically defective by lack of meaningful purpose and
realization at deep levels does not, of course, strike sane and normal
attitudes merely by chance. His rational power enables him to mimic directly
the complex play of human living. Yet what looks like sane realization and
normal experience remains, in a sense and to some degree, like the plays of
our simian typist.
In Henry Head's interpretation of semantic aphasia we find, however,
concepts of neural function and of its integration and impairment that help
to convey a hypothesis of grave personality disorder thoroughly screened by
the intact peripheral operation of all ordinary abilities.
In relatively abstract or circumscribed situations, such as the psychiatric
examination or the trial in court, these abilities do not show impairment
but more or less automatically demonstrate an outer sanity unquestionable in
all its aspects and at all levels accessible to the observer. That this
technical sanity is little more than a mimicry of true sanity cannot be
proved at such levels.
Only when the subject sets out to conduct his life can we get evidence of
how little his good theoretical understanding means to him, of how
inadequate and insubstantial are the apparently normal basic emotional
reactions and motivations convincingly portrayed and enunciated but existing
in little more than two dimensions.
What we take as evidence of his sanity will not significantly or
consistently influence his behavior. Nor does it represent real intention
within, the degree of his emotional response, or the quality of his personal
experience much more reliably than some grammatically well-formed, clear,
and perhaps verbally sensible statement produced vocally by the autonomous
neural apparatus of a patient with semantic aphasia can be said to represent
such a patient's thought or carry a meaningful communication of it.
Let us assume tentatively that the psychopath is, in this sense,
semantically disordered. We have said that his outer functional aspect masks
or disguises something quite different within, concealing behind a perfect
mimicry of normal emotion, fine intelligence, and social responsibility a
grossly disabled and irresponsible personality. Must we conclude that this
disguise is a mere pretence voluntarily assumed and that the psychopath's
essential dysfunction should be classed as mere hypocrisy instead of
psychiatric defect or deformity?
Let us remember that his typical behavior defeats what appear to be his own
Is it not he himself who is most deeply deceived by his apparent normality?
Although he deliberately cheats others and is quite conscious of his lies,
he appears unable to distinguish adequately between his own
pseudo-intentions, pseudo-remorse, pseudo-love, and the genuine responses of
a normal person.
His monumental lack of insight indicates how little he appreciates the
nature of his disorder.
When others fail to accept immediately his "word of honor as a gentleman,"
his amazement, I believe, is often genuine. The term genuine is used here
not to qualify the psychopath's intentions but to qualify his amazement. His
subjective experience is so bleached of deep emotion that he is invincibly
ignorant of what life means to others.
His awareness of hypocrisy's opposite is so insubstantially theoretical that
it becomes questionable if what we chiefly mean by hypocrisy should be
attributed to him.
Having no major values himself, can he be said to realize adequately the
nature and quality of the outrages his conduct inflicts upon others?
A young child who has no impressive memory of severe pain may have been told
by his mother it is wrong to cut off the dog's tail. Knowing it is wrong he
may proceed with the operation. We need not totally absolve him of
responsibility if we say he realized less what he did than an adult who, in
full appreciation of physical agony, so uses a knife.
Can a person experience the deeper levels of sorrow without considerable
knowledge of happiness? Can he achieve evil intention in the full sense
without real awareness of evil's opposite?
I have no final answer to these
Attempts to interpret the psychopath's disorder do not, of course, furnish
evidence that he has a disorder or that it is serious. For reliable evidence
of this we must examine his behavior. Only here, not in psychopathologic
formulations, can we apply our judgment to what is objective and
Functionally and structurally all is intact on the outside. Good function
(healthy reactivity) will be demonstrated in all theoretical trials. Sound
judgment as well as good reasoning are likely to appear at verbal levels.
Ethical as well as practical considerations will be recognized in the
A brilliant mimicry of sound, social reactions will occur in every
test except the test of life itself.
In the psychopath we confront a personality neither broken nor outwardly
distorted but of a substance that lacks ingredients without which normal
function in major life issues is impossible. [...]
Simon, Holzberg, and Unger, impressed by the paradox of the psychopath's
poor performance despite intact reasoning, devised an objective test
specifically to appraise judgment as it would function in real situations,
as contrasted with theoretical judgment in abstract situations.
workers are aware that the more complex synthesis of influences constituting
what is often called judgment or understanding (as compared to a more
theoretical "reasoning") may be simulated in test situations in which
emotional participation is minimal, that rational factors alone by an
accurate aping or stereotyping can produce in vitro, so to speak, what they
cannot produce in vivo.
Items for a multiple choice test were selected
with an aim of providing maximal possibilities for emotional factors to
influence decision and particularly for relatively trivial immediate
gratification impulses to clash with major, long-range objectives. The same
items were also utilized in the form of a completion test.
The results of this test on a group of
psychopaths tend to support the hypothetical interpretation attempted in
If such a disorder does indeed exist in the so-called psychopath, it is not
remarkable that its recognition as a major and disabling impairment has been
long delayed. Pathologic changes visible on the surface of the body
(laceration, compound fractures) were already being handled regularly by
medical men when the exorcism of indwelling demons retained popular favor in
many illnesses now treated by the internist. So, too, it has been with
Those characterized by gross outward manifestations
have been accepted as psychiatric problems long before others in which a
superficial appearance of sanity is preserved.
Despite the psychopath's lack of academic symptoms characteristic of those
disorders traditionally classed as psychosis, he often seems, in some
important respects, but not in all, to belong more with that group than with
any other. Certainly his problems cannot be dealt with, medically or by any
other means, unless similar legal instrumentalities for controlling his
situation are set up and regularly applied.
I believe that if such a patient shows himself grossly incompetent in his
behavior, he should be so appraised. It is necessary to change some of our
legal criteria to make attempts at treatment or urgently needed supervision
possible for him, the most serious objections are primarily theoretical.
Perhaps our traditional definitions of psychiatric disability can stand
alteration better than these grossly defective patients and those about them
can stand the present farcical and sometimes tragic methods of handling
This is not to say that all people showing features of this type should be
regarded as totally disabled. It is here maintained that this defect, like
other psychiatric disorders, appears in every degree of severity and may
constitute anything from a personality trait through handicaps of varying
magnitude, including maximum disability and maximum threat to the peace and
safety of the community.
In attempting to account for the abnormal behavior observed in the
psychopath, we have found useful the hypothesis that he has a serious and
subtle abnormality or defect at deep levels disturbing the integration and
normal appreciation of experience and resulting in a pathology that might,
in analogy with Henry Head's classifications of the aphasias, be described
Presuming that such a patient does fail to experience life adequately in its
major issues, can we then better account for his clinical manifestations?
The difficulties of proving, or even of demonstrating direct objective
evidence, for hypotheses about psychopathology (or about ordinary subjective
functioning) are too obvious to need elaborate discussion here.
If the psychopath's life is devoid of higher order stimuli, of primary or
serious goals and values, and of intense and meaningful satisfactions, it
may be possible for the observer to better understand the patient who, for
the trivial excitement of stealing a dollar (or a candy bar), the small gain
of forging a $20.00 check, or halfhearted intercourse with an unappealing
partner, sacrifices his job, the respect of his friends, or perhaps his
Behind much of the psychopath's behavior we see evidence of relatively mild
stimuli common to all mankind. In his panhandling, his pranks, his truancy,
his idle boasts, his begging, and his taking another drink, he is acting on
motives in themselves not unnatural. In their massive accumulation during
his career, these acts are impressive chiefly because of what he sacrifices
to carry them out. If, for him, the things sacrificed are also of petty
value, his conduct becomes more comprehensible.
Woolley, in an interesting interpretation of these patients, compared them
with an otherwise intact automobile having very defective brakes. Such an
analogy suggests accurately an important pathologic defect which seems to
exist. In contrast with an automobile, however, the braking functions of the
human organism are built into the personality by reaction to life
experience, to reward and punishment, praise and blame, shame, loss, honor,
love, and so on.
True as Woolley's hypothesis may be, it seems likely that
more fundamental than inadequate powers to refrain is the inadequate
emotional reactivity upon which the learning to refrain must be based.
Even with good brakes on his car, the driver must have not only knowledge of
but also feeling for what will happen otherwise if he is to use them
correctly and adequately.
Some of the psychopath's behavior may be fairly well accounted for if we
grant a limitation of emotional capacity. Additional factors merit
consideration. The psychopath seems to go out of his way to make trouble for
himself and for others.
In carelessly marrying a whore, in more or less
inviting detection of a theft (or at least in ignoring the probability of
detection), in attempting gross intimacies with a debutante in the poorly
sheltered alcove just off a crowded ballroom, in losing his hospital parole
or failing to be with his wife in labor just because he did not want to
leave the crap game at midnight (or at 3 A.M.), in such actions there seems
to be not only a disregard for consequences but an active impulse to show
off, to be not discreet but conspicuous in making mischief.
Apparently he likes to flaunt his outlandish or
antisocial acts with bravado.
When negative consequences are negligible or slight (both materially and
emotionally), who does not like to cut up a little, to make a bit of
inconsequential fun, or perhaps playfully take off on the more sober aspects
of living? Dignity might otherwise become pompousness; learning, pedantry;
goodness, self-righteousness. The essential difference seems to lie in how
much the consequences matter.
It is also important to remember that
inclination and taste are profoundly shaped by capacity to feel the
situation adequately. A normal man's potential inclination to give the
pretty hatcheck girl $100.00 would probably not reach awareness in view of
his knowledge that this would result in his three children's not having
shoes or in his having to humiliate himself by wheedling from a friend a
loan he will never repay.
If, as we maintain, the big rewards of love, of the hard job well done, of
faith kept despite sacrifices, do not enter significantly in the equation,
it is not difficult to see that the psychopath is likely to be bored.
bored, he will seek to cut up more than the ordinary person to relieve the
tedium of his unrewarding existence.
If we think of a theater half-filled with
ordinary pubertal boys who must sit through a performance of King Lear or of
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, we need ask little of either imagination or
memory to bring to mind the restless fidgeting, the noisy intercommunication
of trivialities, the inappropriate guffaws or catcalls, and perhaps the
spitballs or the mischievous application of a pin to the fellow in the next
Apparently blocked from fulfillment at deep levels, the psychopath is not
unnaturally pushed toward some sort of divertissement. Even weak impulses,
petty and fleeting gratifications, are sufficient to produce in him
injudicious, distasteful, and even outlandish misbehavior.
attractions are not present to compete successfully with whims, and the
major negative deterrents (hot, persistent shame, profound regret) do not
loom ahead to influence him. If the 12-year-old boys could enjoy King Lear
or the Ninth Symphony as much as some people do, they would not be so
reckless or unruly. [...]
In a world where tedium demands that the situation be enlivened by pranks
that bring censure, nagging, nights in the local jail, and irritating duns
about unpaid bills, it can well be imagined that the psychopath finds cause
for vexation and impulses toward reprisal.
Few, if any, of the scruples that
in the ordinary man might oppose and control such impulses seem to influence
Unable to realize what it meant to his wife when
he was discovered in the cellar flagrante delicto with the cook, he is
likely to be put out considerably by her reactions to this. His having used
the rent money for a midnight long-distance call to an old acquaintance in
California (with whom he bantered for an hour) also brings upon him censure
or tearful expostulation.
Considering himself harassed beyond measure, he
may rise from the dining room table in a petty tantrum, curse his wife
violently, slap her, even spit on her, and further annoyed by the sudden
weeping of their 6-year-old daughter, throw his salad in the little girl's
face before he strides indignantly from the room.
His father, from the patient's point of view, lacks humor and does not
understand things. The old man could easily take a different attitude about
having had to make good those last three little old checks written by the
son. Nor was there any sense in raising so much hell because he took that
dilapidated old Chevrolet for his trip to Memphis.
What if he did forget to
tell the old man he was going to take it? It wouldn't hurt him to go to the
office on the bus for a few days.
How was he (the patient) to know the fellows
were going to clean him out at stud or that the little bitch of a waitress
at the Frolic Spot would get so nasty about money? What else could he do
except sell the antiquated buggy?
If the old man weren't so parsimonious he'd want
to get a new car anyway!
And why did he (the father) have to act so magnanimous and hurt about
settling things last Saturday night down at the barracks? You'd think from
his attitude that it was the old man himself who'd had to put up with being
cooped in there all those hours with louse-infested riff-raff! Well, he'd
thanked his father and told him how sorry he was. What else could a fellow
do? As for that damned old Chevrolet, he was sick of hearing about it.
His grudge passing with a turn of thought, he
smiles with half-affectionate, playfully cordial feelings toward the old man
as he concludes,
"I ought to tell him to take his precious
old vehicle and stick it up his _____!"
Lacking vital elements in the appreciation of
what the family and various bystanders are experiencing, the psychopath
finds it hard to understand why they continually criticize, reproach,
quarrel with, and interfere with him. His employer, whom he has praised a
few hours before, becomes a pettifogging tyrant who needs some telling off.
The policeman to whom he gave tickets for the barbecue last week (because he
is such a swell guy) turns out to be a stupid oaf and a meddler who can't
mind his own business but has to go and arrest somebody just because of a
little argument with Casey in the Midnight Grill about what happened to a
few stinking dollar bills that were lying on the bar. [...]
It is not necessary to assume great cruelty or conscious hatred in him
commensurate with the degree of suffering he deals out to others.
knowing how it hurts or even where it hurts, he often seems to believe that
he has made a relatively mild but appropriate reprimand and that he has done
it with humor.
What he believes he needs to protest against turns out to be no small group,
no particular institution or set of ideologies, but human life itself. In it
he seems to find nothing deeply meaningful or persistently stimulating, but
only some transient and relatively petty pleasant caprices, a terribly
repetitious series of minor frustrations, and ennui.
Like many teenagers, saints, history-making statesmen, and other notable
leaders or geniuses, he shows unrest; he wants to do something about the
situation. Unlike these others, as Lindner has so well and convincingly
stressed, he is a "rebel without a cause."
Reacting with something that seems not too much like divine discontent or
noble indignation, he finds no cause in the ordinary sense to which, he can
devote himself with wholeheartedness or with persistent interest. In certain
aspects his essential life seems to be a peevish bickering with the
In other aspects he suggests a man hanging from a ledge who
knows if he lets go he will fall, is likely to break a leg, may lose his job
and his savings (through the disability and hospital expenses), and perhaps
may injure his baby in the carriage just below.
He suggests a man in this position who,
furthermore, is not very tired and who knows help will arrive in a few
minutes, but who, nevertheless, with a charming smile and a wisecrack,
releases his hold to light a cigarette, to snatch at a butterfly, or just to
thumb his nose at a fellow passing in the street below. [...]
A world not by any means identical but with some vivid features of both
these underlying situations can be found in Huysmans' Against the Grain and
in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea.
In the satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh, also,
an atmosphere difficult to describe sometimes develops - an atmosphere that
may give the reader awareness of attitudes and evaluations genuinely
illustrative of deeply distorted or inadequate reactions to life. [...]
The leading characters depicted therein show a peculiar cynicism which is
more conscious and directed and purposive than the behavior of the
But none of the characters presented show even an approximate
awareness of what is most valid and meaningful and natural in human beings.
A negative response to life itself, an aversion at levels more basic than
ordinary morals or the infraconscious foundations of taste and incentive, is
conveyed subtly and impressively.
It is difficult to illustrate by incident, by the expressed attitude of the
characters depicted, or by any clearly implied evaluation of the authors the
specific quality of what is evoked in these novels as the essence of an
unhappy, mutilated, and trivial universe in which all the characters exist.
The sense of pathology pervades to levels so deep that rational scrutiny
cannot reach and meet the fundamental implications; nor can inquiry
satisfactorily demonstrate its precise source.
If the actual world and man's biologic scope
were only that conveyed in these interesting works, it would perhaps be less
difficult to account for obsessive illness and for the psychopath's career
as reasonable reactions to a situation where no course is possible except
one profoundly pathologic in one way or another.
Thoughtful contemplation of what is depicted in these works of fiction
suggests a world as fundamentally altered as what Straus presents as the
world of the obsessive patient.
In the effective and terse implication of
general emotional incapacity in these characters, the authors succeed in
evoking awareness of a sort of quasi-life restricted within a range of
This, rather than those aspects of the works
that apparently brought them popularity, may deserve high literary
appraisal as concise and valuable communications of something that is by
no means easy to convey in direct language. Such a superficiality and
lack of major incentive or feeling strongly suggest the apparent
emotional limitations of the psychopath. [...]
What Straus and Havelock Ellis have brought out is not discernible in
the reactions of the psychopath. It is, as a matter of fact, somewhat
veiled in the reactions of most obsessive patients. Observation of the
psychopath makes it increasingly plain, however, that he is not reacting
normally to the surroundings that are ordinarily assumed to exist. I
cannot clearly define the specific milieu which such a patient
encounters and to which his reactions are related.
There is much to suggest that it is a less
distinctly or consistently apprehended world than what Straus describes
as the inner world of the obsessive patient. It is my belief that it may
be a world not less abnormal and perhaps more complexly confusing. We
should remember, however, that we have no direct evidence to prove that
a deficiency or distortion of this sort exists in the unconscious core
of the psychopath.
We can only say that his behavior strongly and
consistently suggests it. This discussion has been based, of course. on
a hypothesis that the psychopath has a basic inadequacy of feeling and
realization that prevents him from normally experiencing the major
emotions and from reacting adequately to the chief goals of human life.
Beyond the symptomatic acts of the psychopath, we must bear in mind his
reaction to his situation, his general experiencing of life. Typical of
psychoneurosis are anxiety, recognition that one is in trouble, and
efforts to alter the bad situation. These are natural ("normal") whole
personality reactions to localized symptoms.
In contrast, the severe psychopath, like those so long called psychotic,
does not show normal responses to the situation. It is offered as an
opinion that a less obvious but nonetheless real pathology is general,
and that in this respect he is more closely allied with the psychotic
than with the psychoneurotic patient. The pathology might be regarded
not as gross fragmentation of the personality but as a more subtle
Let us say that instead of macroscopic disintegration our
(hypothetical) change might be conceived of as one that seriously
curtails function without obliterating form. [...]
Let us think of the personality in the psychopath as differing from the
normal in some such way. The form is perfect and the outlines are
undistorted. But being subtly and profoundly altered, it can
successfully perform only superficial activities or pseudofunctions. It
cannot maintain important or meaningful interpersonal relations.
cannot fulfill its purpose of adjusting adequately to social reality.
Its performance can only mimic these genuine functions. [...]
The persistent pattern of maladaptation at
personality levels and the ostensible purposelessness of many self-damaging
acts definitely suggests not only a lack of strong purpose but also a
negative purpose or at least a negative drift.
This sort of patient, despite
all his opportunities, his intelligence, and his plain lessons of
experience, seems to go out of his way to woo misfortune.
The suggestion has already been made that his
typical activities seem less comprehensible in terms, of life-striving or of
a pursuit of joy than as an unrecognized blundering toward the negations of
Some of this, it has been suggested, may be interpreted as the tantrum, like
reactions of an inadequate personality balked, as behavior similar to that
of the spoiled child who bumps his own head against the wall or holds his
breath when he is crossed. It might be thought of as not unlike a man's
cutting off his nose to spite not only his face, but also the scheme of life
in general, which has turned out to be a game that he cannot play.
Such reactions are, of course, found in nearly
all types of personality disorder or inadequacy. It will perhaps be readily
granted that they are all regressive. Behavior against the constructive
patterns through which the personality finds expression and seeks
fulfillment of its destiny is regressive activity although it may not
consist in a return, step by step, or in a partial return to the status of
childhood and eventually of infancy.
Such reactions appear to be, in a sense, against
the grain of life or against the general biologic purpose.
Regressive reactions or processes may all be regarded as disintegrative, as
reverse steps in the general process of biologic growth through which a
living entity becomes more complex, more highly adapted and specialized,
better coordinated, and more capable of dealing successfully or happily with
objective or subjective experience. This scale of increasing complexity
exists at points even below the level of living matter. A group of electrons
functioning together make up the atom which can indeed be split down again
to its components.
The atoms joining form molecules which, in turn,
coming together in definite orderly arrangement, may become structurally
coordinating parts of elaborate crystalline materials; or, in even more
specialized and complex fashion, they may form a cell of organic matter.
Cells of organic matter may unite and integrate to form the living organism
we know as a jellyfish.
Always the process is reversible; the organic
matter can decompose back into inorganic matter.
Without laboriously following out all the steps of this scale, we might
mention the increasing scope of activity, the increasing specialization, and
the increasing precariousness of existence at various levels up through
vertebrates and mammals to man. All along this scale it is evident that
failure to function successfully at a certain level necessitates regression
or decomposition to a lower or less complicated one.
If the cell membrane of one epithelial unit in a
mammalian body becomes imporous and fails to obtain nutriment brought by
blood and lymph, it loses its existence as an epithelial cell. If the unwary
rabbit fails to perceive the danger of the snare, he soon becomes in rapid
succession a dead rabbit, merely a collection of dead organs and supportive
structures, protein, fat, and finally, inorganic matter. The fundamental
quest for life has been interrupted, and, having been interrupted, the
process goes into reverse.
So, too, the criminal discovered and imprisoned ceases to be a free man who
comes and goes as he pleases. A curtailment in the scope of his functioning
is suffered-a regression in one sense to simpler, more routine, and less
varied and vivid activities.
The man who fails in another and more complex way to go on with life, to
fulfill his personality growth and function, becomes what we call a
schizophrenic. The objective curtailment of his activities by the rules of
the psychiatric hospital are almost negligible in comparison with the vast
simplification, the loss of self-expression, and the personal disintegration
which characterize his regression from the subjective point of view. The old
practice of referring to the extremely regressed schizophrenic as leading a
vegetative existence implies the significance that is being stressed.
Regression, then, in a broad sense may be taken to mean movement from richer
and more full life to levels of scantier or less highly developed life. In
other words, it is relative death. It is the cessation of existence or
maintenance of function at a given level.
The concept of an active death instinct postulated by Freud has been
utilized by some to account for socially self-destructive reactions. I have
never been able to discover in the writings of Freud or any of his followers
real evidence to confirm this assumption.
In contrast, the familiar tendency to disintegrate, against which life
evolves, may be regarded as fundamental and comparable to gravity. The
climbing man or animal must use force and purpose to ascend or to maintain
himself at a given height. To fall or slide downhill he need only cease his
efforts and let go. Without assuming an intrinsic death instinct, it is
possible to account for active withdrawal from positions at which adaptation
is unsuccessful and stress too extreme.
Whether regression occurs primarily through something like gravity or
through impulses more self-contained, the backward movement (or ebbing) is
likely to prompt many sorts of secondary reactions, including behavior not
adapted for ordinary human purposes but instead, for functioning in the
The modes of such reactivity may vary, may fall into
complex patterns, and may seek elaborate expression. [See
Organic Portals for a theory that explains
what Cleckley is trying to express here.]
In a movement (or gravitational drift) from levels where life is vigorous
and full to those where it is less so, the tactics of withdrawal
People with all the outer mechanisms of adaptation intact might, one would
think, regress more complexly than can those who react more simply. The
simplest reaction in reverse might be found in a person who straightway
blows out his brains.
As a skillful general who has realized that the objective is unobtainable
withdraws by feints and utilizes all sorts of delaying actions, so a patient
who has much of the outer mechanisms for living may retire, not in obvious
rout but skillfully and elaborately, preserving his lines.
The psychopath as we conceive of him in such an interpretation seems to
justify the high estimate of his technical abilities as we see them
expressed in reverse movement.
Unlike the general with the retreating army in our analogy, he seems not
still devoted to the original contest but to other issues and aims that
arise in withdrawal.
To force the analogy further we might say that the
retiring army is now concerning itself with looting the countryside, seeking
mischief and light entertainment. The troops have cast off their original
loyalties and given up their former aims but have found no other serious
ones to replace them. But the effective organization and all of the
technical skills are retained. [And utilized destructively.]
F.L. Wells has expressed things very pertinent to the present
A brief quotation will bring out useful points:
The principle of substitutive reactions,
sublimative or regressive in character, has long been known, but Kurt Lewin's (1933) experimental construction of the latter is especially
apt, if not unquestionable mental hygiene.
A child, for example,
continually impelled to open a gate it is impossible for him to open,
may blow up in a tantrum, grovel on the ground, till the emotion
subsides sufficiently for him to become substitutively occupied, as with
fragments of gravel and other detritus he finds there, by which he
forgets his distress about the gate. [...]
The human personality has the adaptive
property of finding satisfactions at simpler levels when higher ones are
taken away, fortunately so if this keeps him out of a psychosis,
otherwise if it stabilizes him in contentment at this lower level
("going native") or if the satisfactions cannot be found short of a
psychosis (MacCurdy, 1925, p. 367).
All such cases have the common
regressive factor of giving up the higher-level adjustment (opening the
gate) with regressive relief at a lower level (playing with the gravel).
Another illustration given by Wells emphasizes
features of the concept that are valuable to us:
Consider, for example, the group of drives
that center about the concept of self-maintenance, the "living
standards" of civilization. This means the pursuit of the diverse means
to surround oneself with the maximum of material comfort in terms of
residence, food, playthings, etc., for the purchase of which one can
capitalize his abilities.
That the normal individual will do this to a
liberal limit is taken in the local culture as a matter of course,
probably more liberally than the facts justify. For this pursuit
involves a competitive struggle beset also with inner conflicts (e.g.,
ethical), which by no means everyone is able to set aside.
regressions specific to this category are those undertakings of poverty
common to religious orders, but this regression is quite specific, since
these orders often involve their members in other "disciplines" from
which the normal individual would flee as far (Parkman, 1867, Chap. 16).
It is quite certain, though hard to
demonstrate objectively, that many an individual in normal life
regresses from these economic conflicts only in less degree. He does not
take the vow of poverty like the monastic, nor does he dedicate himself
to the simplified life of the "South Sea Island" stereotype, but he
prefers salary to commission, city apartment to suburban "bungalow,"
clerical work to (outside) sales.
A thought expressed by William James in
1902 and quoted by Wells deserves renewed attention:
Yonder puny fellow however, whom everyone
can beat suffers no chagrin about it, for he has long ago abandoned the
attempt to "carry that line," as the merchants say, of Self at all.
With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation.
So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back
ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities
to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretentions are
the denominator and the numerator our success: thus, Self-esteem =
Such a fraction may be increased as well by diminishing the denominator
as by increasing the numerator.
To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified;
and where disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending, this is
what men will always do.
The history of evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its
self-despair, and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest
of possible examples, but we meet others in every walk of life. .
How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young-or slender!
Thank God, we say, those illusions are gone. Everything added to the
self is a burden as well as a pride.
Something relevant to the points now under
consideration may be found also in Sherrington's comment on reactions
(or inlaid precautions) against unbearable pain or stress in the human
Again in life's final struggle the chemical
delicacy of the brain-net can make distress lapse early because with the
brain's disintegration the mind fades early - a rough world's mercy
towards its dearest possession.
There are, it seems, many ways for this to occur
without signs of any change which we yet have objective means to detect,
chemically or microscopically.
Such changes may occur under the stimulus of
agents that do not have direct physical contact with the brain or with any
part of the body.
Withdrawal, or limitation of one's quest in living, appears in many forms.
The decision for taking such a step may be consciously voluntary, but it
seems likely that many influences less clear and simple may also play a
part. In the earliest years of human life a great deal of complicated
shaping may occur, with adaptive changes to promote survival by an automatic
refusal (inability) to risk one's feelings (response) in the greatest
subjective adventures. In adult life such decisions sometimes emerge in
The activity of the psychopath may seem in some respects to accomplish a
kind of protracted and elaborate social and spiritual suicide. Perhaps the
complex, sustained, and spectacular undoing of the self may be cherished by
him. He seldom allows physical suicide to interrupt it.
Be it noted that such a person retains high intelligence and nearly all the
outer mechanisms for carrying on the complicated activities of positive
life. It is to be expected then that his function in the opposite
(regressive) emotional direction might be more subtle than those of a less
highly developed biologic entity.
The average rooster proceeds at once to leap on the nearest hen and have
done with his simple erotic impulse.
The complex human lover may pay suit
for years to his love object, approaching her through many volumes of
poetry, through the building up of financial security in his business,
through manifold activities and operations of his personality functions, and
with aims and emotions incomparably more complicated and more profound than
that of the rooster.
When complexly organized functions are devoted to aimless or inconsistent
rebellion against the positive goals of life, perhaps they may enable the
patient to woo failure and disintegration with similar elaborateness and
His conscious or outer functioning may at the same time maintain
an imitation of life that is uniquely deceptive.
Perhaps the emptiness or superficiality of
life without major goals or deep loyalties, or real love, would leave a
person with high intelligence and other superior capacities so bored
that he would eventually turn to hazardous, self-damaging, outlandish,
antisocial, and even self-destructive exploits in order to find
something fresh and stimulating in which to apply his relatively useless
and unchallenged energies and talents. [...]
The more experience I have with psychopaths over
the years, the less likely it seems to me that any dynamic or psychogenic
theory is likely to be established by real evidence as the cause of their
Increasingly I have come to believe that some subtle and profound defect in
the human organism, probably inborn but not hereditary, plays the chief role
in the psychopath's puzzling and spectacular failure to experience life
normally and to carry on a career acceptable to society.
This, too, is still a speculative concept and is
not supported by demonstrable evidence.