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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Greek Gods, Narcissists and Psychopaths: What Do They Know about Empathy?

By Debra Kaplan, MBA, MA, LPC, CSAT-S  

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. I eventually made my way 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. 
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 perhaps 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. 

Of Mere Mortals

Those 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.
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.  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. 
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 a person’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 in an all-out effort to mask one’s inner void – the core belief that one is inherently unworthy.

Empathy’s God Particle

So what happens to empathy in this unending quest for greater levels of psychological reward? Did the narcissist discard empathy after it was doled out or did he never learn it in the first place? The answer may be in the nature versus nurture debate. A recent study was conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences (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. That 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 neurobiologically speaking, without a properly functioning supramarginal gyrus – our brains have a tough time “seeing” itself in someone else’s shoes.
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 many days in my therapeutic practice. These mostly men and women 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.
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.

Debra L. Kaplan, MBA, MA, LPC, CMAT, CSAT-S is a licensed therapist in Tucson, Arizona. She specializes in attachment and intimacy, complex traumatic stress and sexual addiction/compulsivity; issues that are often rooted in unresolved childhood trauma. Debra is a Certified EMDR clinician and incorporates advanced EMDR protocols in her work with trauma and addiction. Debra lectures internationally on trauma and addiction and authors articles and blog publications. Her book, For Love and Money: Exploring Sexual & Financial Betrayal in Relationships was published in 2013.  
For more information visit debrakaplancounseling.com or email: info@debrakaplancounseling.com