Let’s discuss our amygdalae, shall we? That’s the part of the brain responsible for fear and primitive emotions.
(Don’t worry, your’s is just fine — all pink, healthy and functioning at optimal capacity. How do we know this without running you through an MRI? If you are reading this progressive blog in the first place, and not poised to write a right-wing nastygram in the comments, then it’s safe to assume you have a keen mind and a kind heart and are not ruled by irrational fears.)
This is not the first time Democracy Tree has dabbled in the neroscience of politics — a topic that never fails to fascinate and frighten.
Several months ago when we delved into the neuroscience of art as it relates to political orientation, it was revealed in a study published in Current Biology that conservatives tend to have slightly enlarged amygdalae. Since this brain part governs fear and primitive emotions, it is not surprising that in a presidential election year we can hardly turn on the TV, read a newspaper, open our mail, answer the phone, or surf the net without being bombarded with fear-based conservative political hogwash.
The sad thing is, they really are afraid.
Amygdalae, as it turns out, can also be undersized and inactive in some people. Between 1 and 4 percent of humans fall into this category. The are called sociopaths (or psychopaths). Not the same as a psychotic person who has lost touch with reality, a sociopath knows exactly what they are doing and are very aware of how they are functioning socially.
Sociopaths share many (but not necessarily all) of a defined set of specific characteristics:
- Glibness and superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Cunning/manipulative behaviors
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Lack of empathy
- Pleasure in cruelty
- Need for stimulation
- Prone to boredom
- Poor behavioral control
- Sexual promiscuity
- multiple marriages
- criminal versatality
It is probable that you know more than a few people that possess a number of these traits. If the prediction that up to 4 per cent of all people are sociopaths is accurate, as author Martha Stout asserts in her book The Sociopath Next Door, then we may assume that you couldn’t walk a city block or ride a bus without being shoulder to shoulder with multiple master manipulators.
Stout’s book is focused on defining the prevalence of the personality disorder, how to recognize it and how to deal with it. Not surprisingly, in her expert advice the best defense is to avoid these people at all costs — they are life destroying….and sometimes they literally do kill others.
Yet, there is another place these people congregate in greater numbers — leadership roles in both the private and public sector — CEOs and politicians in particular. (Scroll back to that list of traits and think: Donald Trump and John Edwards. Yup…check and check.) You could easily spend the remainder of the day naming potential sociopaths — which would be an entertaining pastime — but a more enlightening exercise would be to examine the question: Why do we put sociopaths in positions of such great power over us in the first place?
In the book The Psychopath Test, author Jon Ronson describes how a parade of sociopathic CEOs at the helm of Sunbeam Corporation decimated community after community as they slashed jobs and closed plants. One in particular, Al Dunlap, took immense pleasure in the process, and to this day brags about how he crushed the lives of so many thousands and thousands of people as if the were weakened prey.
However most sociopaths are considerably more artful and prefer not to brag openly of their predatory desires. Roger Smith, of General Motors comes to mind. He has successfully eluded the ever persistent Michael Moore for over two decades. Moore would have merely asked him to explain to Flint, Michigan, and the world, why he did what he did. But Smith would have none of it. He was simply a smarter and more cunning breed of sociopath than Dunlap.
And yet to the puzzlement and dismay of Moore we continue to appoint and elect these social parasites in record numbers.
My network of friends and neighbors was impacted by a person who was clearly sociopathic. Few of us used that particular label, he was instead described as cocky, charismatic, know-it-all, with selectively employed passive-aggressive tendencies, deceptive, and misogynistic. (One time when he entered a friend’s home their affable puppy, who never growled at anyone, got his hackles up and barred his teeth, somehow sensing the man’s duplicity and malevolence veiled behind his whitened smile and crisp polo shirt). This individual had a clear history of doing some pretty nasty things just to crush people. We imagined his motto to be that famous Ghengis Khan quote: “It is not sufficient that I succeed — all others must fail.”
Yet some members of our circle adamantly insisted that we just didn’t understand him, that he was really a very nice and intelligent person. They defended him almost to the point of personal social destruction.
What made them behave this way? How were they different from the larger group?
It turned out they were considerably more politically conservative. They were more cautious about, and more worried about the consequences of their actions and words. Timidity, with a touch of fear, marked their everyday behaviors.
An MRI would likely have shown an enlarged amygdala in these friends.
From progressives to conservatives, we all fall for the occasional sociopath, but one group is clearly more vulnerable to the lure of the master manipulator. Sociopaths study those people who possess emotions that they can best exploit — and fear is their hands-down favorite. It’s just so easy, hardly requiring any effort. The sociopathic leader knows just how to push all the right buttons of those most fearful, then how to make false promises of reassurance if offered the loyalty of their followers.
There are plenty of politically progressive speculators and neuroscience dabblers who hold to the opinion that all conservatives are themselves sociopaths. I disagree. They claim that since Ayn Rand was a sociopath (no argument there), and because most conservatives generally lap-up her ego-centric ramblings and declarations as if they were social and political gospel, that it follows that they too must be sociopathic.
Not so fast!
Rand was, and continues to be long after her death, a disgusting, yet somehow empowering figure for the frightened masses. She cleverly leveraged their insecurities and fears to great personal advantage and aggrandizement. She was the quintessential sociopathic leader. Indeed she makes Rush Limbaugh look like an amateur.
And that even scares progressives — with their normal-sized amygdalae.
Amy Kerr Hardin