Greek Gods, Narcissists and Psychopaths:
What Do They Know about Empathy?
by Debra Kaplan
I am often asked how I went from Wall Street commodity option trader to trauma and sex addiction therapist. The leap might sound rather incongruous, but in reality it was natural in a left-hemisphere, right-hemisphere kind of way. I began my business career in the early 1980s trading physical commodities for what was at the time, the world’s largest commodity trading firm. My career in business eventually brought me to Wall Street where I began to trade for a large investment bank in high-yield bonds (also known as junk bonds due to their less-than investment grade status), and later to the floor of the New York Commodity exchange. The world of floor trading gave new meaning to intensity —adrenaline, sex, drugs, and money. Traders are, by their nature, self-indulgent and prone to excess, and if excess and intensity were good, then more excess and intensity was better.
Gradually, I grew more fascinated with human behavior than I was with the markets and I became captivated by the dynamics in the trading pit when fear took over or cold and calculating intensity switched on in the height of a trading frenzy. While not in those moments, the markets do exhibit psychological states. In 2002 that thinking led two researchers (Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and Vernon L. Smith, George Mason University) to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty and “for having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms.”1 The newly emerging field of neuroeconomics addresses this very phenomenon — a combination of neuroscience, experimental and behavioral economics, and cognitive and social psychology. If there is one area to which the phrase heady stuff applies, it is here. Add sexual and financial exploitation to the mix and we’re really looking at a robust field of inquiry.
Eventually my interest in the personal dynamics related to money, sex, and relationship control – fueled by my own personal therapy – overtook my fascination with the marketplace and I changed careers, though I have never quite abandoned my interest in attachment; be it between humans and to all things monetary, sexual, and powerful.
Of Men and Greek Gods
My years of experience on Wall Street introduced me to a wealth of men who engaged in power grabbing behaviors and impression management. (Greater numbers of women eventually climbed their way to loftier bastions of power but that wasn’t until a decade or so later.) In the go-go years of the ‘80s and ‘90s, investment banks were brimming with throngs of young, gluttonous traders and bankers riding the crest of financial excess and glory. The stories of men who enjoyed a meteoric rise to professional and personal heights, only to then plunge into a financial and personal crash and burn (known as a “blow-out”), were legendary. Some men saw their “fall from grace” as a painful summons to a deeper, more introspective place, yet many more continued to addictively pursue the never-ending cycle of self-destructive behaviors – financial shenanigans, moral superiority, and sexual excess – while remaining oblivious to the inevitable; refusing to believe their shameless monetary and sexual escalation would once again inevitably lead to collapse. And as they repeated this self-destructive downward spiral one could only postulate what fueled their never ending pursuit of all things gluttonous.
I’ve told you all that in order to explain this: It was on Wall Street that I first came into contact with individuals who were blindly driven by an inner compulsion for success and excess and an ambition that was inured to empathic sentience. Nowadays, I am reunited with that emotional indifference only this time it’s in a therapeutic setting and the world of the addict. Addicts of all types, especially sex addicts who are in the throes of their addiction often exploit with sex and money, regardless of their level of wealth or income, and they don’t have to be psychopaths or even narcissistic to do so. But, what do addicts, narcissists and psychopaths share in common?
Kevin Dutton, a psychologist and Research Fellow of the Faraday Institute at St. Edmunds College, UK, believes that psychopathy often flourishes in professions like politics and finance, where the ruthless, fearless, and (dare I say) charming qualities typically lead to success, power, and prestige. As Dr. Dutton writes:
“It has traditionally been thought that psychopaths are all bad. Psychopaths are very good at persuasion due to a trait known as cold empathy. Our personalities are a mixture of elements with some turned up, and others turned down. There are jobs where high scores on the psychopathic spectrum can be advantageous, such as some areas of intricate, high risk surgery. People think that psychopaths do not have empathy, and that is true in the sense that they don’t have hot empathy, they aren’t able to really feel what you and I might be feeling. But what they are very good at is gauging cognitively and dispassionately what we might be feeling. They’re very good actors. And of course if you don’t have those attendant hot buttons that go with sensing what state another person might be in, you can very easily push those buttons yourself without getting caught up in the heat of the moment.”2
Given that their narcissistic wounding neither often allows for inward reflection nor for others to truly know them, the emotional burden of seeing the light defaults to those entwined in their relational webs of manipulation and their deceptive interpretations of reality
If, according to Dr. Dutton, psychopathy flourishes in professions like politics and finance, then none of this is a revelation—to most, that is. Early childhood psychosocial dynamics can set in motion an individual’s continuous and ever increasing need for external approval. Left to its natural progression, that level of self-promotion and fulfillment will ultimately fall short, necessitating a need for an even greater level of psychological reward all in an all-out effort to mask one’s inner void – the core belief that one is inherently unworthy.
In my book, For Love and Money: Exploring Sexual & Financial Exploitation in Relationships (Oct 2013), I detail the exploitation due to absence of empathy that allow many of my clients and ex-colleagues to employ on a quasi-psychopathic manner in order to shield themselves from their internal sense of “nothingness.”
People with deep narcissistic wounds and a gaping insufficiency of self are driven entirely by their obsessional focus on conquest, achievement, and adulation. American psychologist Henry A. Murray published his “Icarus Complex” theory in 1955, suggesting that human behavior is driven by an internal state of disequilibrium. “We have a LACK of something and this drives us. We are dissatisfied and we desire something.”3
Consider the following analysis of Murray’s work:
“The Icarus Complex is a constellation of mental conflicts, the degree of which reflects the imbalance between a person’s desire for success, achievement, or material goods, and the ability to achieve those goals; the greater the gap between the idealized goal and reality, the greater the likelihood of failure.” 4
Empathy and the God Particle
How do we become who we are and where in the nature versus nurture debate can we find the roots of empathy? A recent study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences was published in the Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013. The study ascertained that the tendency to be egocentric is innate for human beings – but that a part of your brain recognizes a lack of empathy and autocorrects. This specific part of your brain is called the right supramarginal gyrus. When this brain region doesn’t function properly—or when we have to make particularly quick decisions—the researchers found one’s ability for empathy is dramatically reduced. This area of the brain helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion. The supramarginal gyrus is a part of the cerebral cortex and is approximately located at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. Neurobiologically speaking, without a properly functioning supramarginal gyrus – our brains have a tough time “seeing” itself in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” And, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Psychopathy is a defined as personality disorder and characterized by ‘a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness.’ When individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, researchers have found that brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and compassionate decision-making.
A September 2013 study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago published in the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, claims to have found the neurobiological roots of psychopathic behavior. According to the study, when participants (deemed clinically pathological) imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. The increase in brain activity in these regions was unusually pronounced.
In, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton adroitly illuminates the differences between warm and cold empathy. Psychopaths, for example, are sensitive to the thought of pain but are unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel that pain. Dutton pulls from a 2005 study that compared personalities of business leaders with those of hospitalized criminals (The Broadmoor psychiatric hospital in Berkshire, England) to reveal that a number of psychopathic attributes were arguably more common in the boardroom than the padded cell: notably superficial charm, egocentricity, independence and restricted focus.
The twenty-first century versions of Narcissus and Icarus are the type-A personalities I used to see on Wall Street and that I now see on many days in my therapeutic practice. These mostly men and women (Kevin Dutton tweeted on January 17, 2013- Much greater incidence of psychopathy in the male population than the female population) are driven by their inner compulsions for success, domination, and admiration. They operate from a sense of entitlement and false power, and they are compelled to reenact their deep psychological wounds for attention and adulation.
When you’ve been a God, becoming a mortal is not exactly satisfying. The attempt to overstep human limitations is what the Greeks refer to as, hamartia. Mark Sanford, Gary Hart, John Edwards, and Mark Foley are but some of the names that round out a political list of twenty-first century Icarus men.
JP Morgan Chase and Co. (the biggest U.S. bank) and its current CEO, Jamie Dimon, (who ironically hails from Greece and is from a long line of Greek bankers), experienced his Icarus moment in January 2013. His firm’s unbridled exposure to high-risk debt helped to contribute to the 2007 – 2012 global financial crisis and near nuclear meltdown of our nation’s financial system. Of course JP Morgan was not alone in their high-flying predatory frenzy but in his January testimony to Congress, Dimon called his firm’s loss of over $6 billion (to date one of the steepest losses ever experienced by a multinational bank), “an embarrassing mistake,” and one for which he professed, “I am absolutely responsible.”5 Dimon’s admissions to Congress and to his investors at JP Morgan Chase eventually cost him a fifty percent pay cut – substantial by any person’s standards but one which only brought a yawn by Wall Street’s. It’s hard to summon sympathy when a pay cut of fifty percent results in a take-home salary of $11.5 million. Still, Jamie Dimon’s penance was a mere drop in the larger U.S. economic devastation that resulted from and began with the 2008 collapse of the U.S. housing bubble and the sub-prime mortgage market – the worst economic U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression.
To simply label these individuals as narcissistic or addicted does not capture the full breadth of the internal psychological discrepancies that are at odds within them. Essentially, these men can, with outward impunity, engage in their self-protective behaviors at the expense of their authentic selves – sometimes never examining their deeper issues. Perhaps finding the neurobiological roots of empathy vs. psychopathy can help us find ways to teach the ruthless and cold-hearted to experience the glow of warm empathy.
- The Science Show – ABC Radio National, “The Psychopath in Us All,” Oct 15, 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/the-psychopath-in-us-all/3591116#transcript, Accessed: July 7, 2012
- W. Preston Lear, The Modern Icarus Complex: A psychoanalytic complex manifest in BASE jumpers and other action sports athletes, (ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2011), Accessed on December 5, 2012.
- Needs as Personality: Henry Murray, http://www.wilderdom.com/ personality/traits/PersonalityTraitsNeedsHenryMurray.html (July 27, 2004), Accessed: March 23, 2013.
- “JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon: London Whale Was ‘The Stupidest And Most Embarrassing Situation,’” Huffington Post Online, April, 11, 2013, Accessed: May 3, 2013
You can read more about Debra on the Web at www.debrakaplancounseling.com”