Lack of Empathy and Insanity

Central State Hospital for male psychopathics, Petersburg, VA, 2012

39 And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?

40 The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.

Lk 6:39-40

I recently wrote about narcissism and how it can be a very real problem for spiritual leaders.  Even more to the point, we should heed Jesus’ words above and not be led into destruction by following such deceived leaders.  Think about what it means that “the disciple is not above his master”.  If someone is following a man, that disciple will not rise above him, and if that master is left out of the Kingdom of God …

Many psychological disorders have an overlap in traits.  One of these is quite often the lack of empathy.  For example, the list of traits and signs of narcissism according to Wikipedia are:

  • An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
  • Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
  • A lack of psychological awareness (see insight in psychology and psychiatry, egosyntonic)
  • Difficulty with empathy
  • Problems distinguishing the self from others (see narcissism and boundaries)
  • Hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults (see criticism and narcissists, narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury)
  • Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
  • Haughty body language
  • Flattery towards people who admire and affirm them (narcissistic supply)
  • Detesting those who do not admire them (narcissistic abuse)
  • Using other people without considering the cost of doing so
  • Pretending to be more important than they really are
  • Bragging (subtly but persistently) and exaggerating their achievements
  • Claiming to be an “expert” at many things
  • Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people
  • Denial of remorse and gratitude

Traits of psychopathy, however, are more complex, and requires psychopathy checklist, only part of which I will list:

Factor 1

Facet 1: Interpersonal

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative

Facet 2: Affective

  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotionally shallow
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

As you can see, there is some overlap.  However, it is important to not jump to conclusions, as a narcissist may tend to be antisocial but not necessarily violent or criminal, which tends to distinguish psychopaths from others.  Also, a narcissist will tend to want things to stay the same as long as their need for admiration is being fulfilled, whereas a psychopath has a “need for stimulation/proneness to boredom”, which may be some of what leads to their sometimes criminal behavior.

Here is the strange thing, however.  Recent research suggests that it is not the case that psychopaths cannot be empathetic, but rather they do not have it activated by default.  IOW, as the BBC News puts it, “Psychopathic criminals have empathy switch” whereas normal people do not need a trigger to turn theirs on.  This research is new, but if true it might give insights to being able to work with them.

In all the years I’ve looked at sociological and psychological issues, though, it seems the one thing that differentiates most normative deviants from the rest of the population is an apparent lack of empathy.  The only real exception I can think of are co-dependents, and they tend towards a reverse problem where their own needs are neglected at the expense of another’s, usually due to fear of what will happen if the relationship ends.

Let’s shift this to what we’ve always been told:  There is a wa of get, and there is a way of give.  There is a way of selfishness, and there is a way of love (outgoing concern for others).  In other words, this world runs on the notion of selfish get, which means pushing empathy aside at least occasionally.

And is this not an insane world?

We are supposed to come out of this world.  It is a world filled with egotistical, narcissistic and despotic tyrants.  Even in “democracies”, we see the effects of the grabbing of power, prestige and money in our economy, national health and even in what we allow in our food systems.  We are supposed to be giving our allegiance to a world to come which will not have these things.

So, why do so many want to follow a leader that pays lip service to these things but still live as though he is part of this mad world and listening to the spirit that is in charge of it?  Why do they want to follow them into the ditch, where vehicles are overturned, people are crushed and killed?  Why be the disciple of a leader that will not go into the Kingdom of God?

We have many exhortations throughout the Bible, but particularly in the NT, to have empathy.  Sure, “empathy” isn’t in the Bible, but the idea is.  “Do unto others…” we often say, but how do we know how to treat them?  By putting ourselves into their shoes and imagining how they must feel!

We say we are here to build godly character.  We are to build godliness.  We are supposed to be building patience, mercy and forgiveness.  Can we do any of these without empathy?

You know, even inherently selfish people have empathy!  If nothing else, as the study above says, when followed to the source report, empathy causes people to feel bad when others feel bad, so they are likely to act if for no other reason than they themselves feel bad!

Shouldn’t we in the Church of God go at least one step better?  How about two?  How about not only developing empathy for empathy’s sake, but how about following leaders who actually practice it?


  1. Sl Ross on Facebook

    Excellent analysis, John.

  2. John D Carmack on Facebook

    Thank you, Sl.