National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

The popularity of the psychopath is a mind puzzle

by Michael Hoffman

Psychopaths, says neuroscientist Nobuko Nakano in her 2016 bestseller “Saikopasu” (“Psychopaths”), tend to share two personality traits. Freedom from fear and anxiety is one. Indifference to other people’s feelings is another.

In an article published last summer in Bungei Shunju magazine, Nakano briefly discussed readers’ responses to her book. Ninety percent of the readers she’d heard from said they knew at least one person who fits the psychopath mold. Psychopath is not synonymous with mass murderer. Few psychopathic types commit crimes. Many, Nakano says, play leading roles in society — as lawyers, surgeons, corporate CEOs and so on. That seems strange at first blush, less so at second.

Powerful people whose decisions affect many lives cannot afford the luxury of over-sensitivity. It would paralyze them. A surgeon must cut into living flesh. A CEO may have to close a branch, throwing tens, hundreds or thousands out of work. People at their level take risks; the higher the level, the higher the risks. When they fail, they fall hard, and rarely alone.

Nakano doesn’t mention political leaders. Why not, one wonders. They would seem the best examples of all. On their words hinge war and peace, boom or bust. They must be made of iron — or at least cloaked in the iron of indifference.

The extreme case best known in Japan is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His regime flaunts its indifference to individual lives as proof of national greatness. Its nuclear capability puts it in a category of its own. Not so its morality. Morally speaking, it has plenty of company.

The international aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) is at work in some of the worst man-made hells on the planet. Here politics and politicians run amok, destroying men, women and children with an indifference that can hardly fail to qualify as psychopathic.

Syria, Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan are the countries covered in the December issue of MSF’s newsletter React. Japanese aid workers are active in all of them. They do what they can. Their means are limited. Everything they and their patients need is in short supply: personnel, money, food, water, toilets, medicine, protection from random violence. They struggle on against terrifying odds. Those alleviating suffering always seem to be overwhelmed by those inflicting it.

Lost lives, lost limbs, lost homes, disease, malnutrition, mental illness — that’s war. Reading about it in distant Japan, where last week a commuter train operator felt obliged to issue profuse apologies for running 20 seconds off schedule, you wonder how people can possibly cope with it all — children especially.

One way is to wreak on others the violence and deprivations wreaked on them. Yuko Shirakawa, an MSF nurse who spent part of last summer at a refugee camp in northern Iraq, mentions in React one of her patients, a child soldier who’d been badly burned fighting with the Islamic State group. The boy’s parents had been killed in a terrorist attack, and he’d fallen into IS hands. “Many Iraqis,” Shirakawa writes, “hate IS” for the genocidal havoc it has unleashed. “But to us (MSF), all children are innocent, to be treated with affection.”

Thus does an island of sanity hold out against an ocean of psychopathy. It’s the same across the war-ravaged spectrum. Health education specialist Aya Sonoda, stationed in South Sudan, writes of refugees numbering in millions, “whose families have been killed before their eyes, who have lost everything they had.” Syria: ditto. Yemen: ditto.

To return to Nakano’s Bungei Shunju article. Two points in particular emerge. One is a seemingly irrational but frequently observed and well-documented human fascination with evil. We like it and often love it, in the sense of being erotically drawn to it.

The second concerns a hormone called oxytocin, familiarly known as the “love hormone.” It’s a factor in social bonding, sexual bonding and maternal bonding. It’s associated with feelings of love, trust, friendship — also, paradoxically, with fear and anxiety.

Five years ago the journal Scientific American published a report, cited by Nakano, on “dark personalities.” “Although most people probably don’t consider narcissism or psychopathy desirable qualities in either their friends or romantic partners, many of us are mysteriously drawn towards people with these personality traits,” says the report. “Mean girls are often the most popular ones at school, and vampires are sex symbols. Recent research has found that people with so-called ‘dark’ personality traits are more physically attractive than others.”

Why should this be? Why should evil be sexy? Nakano tentatively links it to evolution. Traits most civilized moralities call evil signify the strength and hardihood necessary for survival in the pre-civilized state. Strong parents produce strong offspring. There’s a problem, however: Strong males, those strong enough to defy conventional morality, are less likely to commit themselves to raising the offspring they beget. Tough the children may be, but, raised without proper care, their toughness may turn wild, with consequences all too visible in regions where MSF operates.

Japan, says Nakano, harbors relatively few “dark personalities.” The psychopathic type she describes comprises, she figures, 1 percent of the Japanese population, as against 4 percent of the American. Various factors, natural and cultural, combine to tone Japan down. Island insularity is one. The frequent natural disasters Japan suffers are another. They encourage cooperation, as does rice culture, a more collaborative undertaking than wheat culture.

It is disconcerting to learn that a “love hormone” should have a dark side, but research over the past decade suggests oxytocin does. Maybe we should be content to merely like one another. Failing that, toleration would do.

The mirror image of the love we feel for our families, clans and countries is suspicion, hostility and hatred of outsiders. It’s more obvious in the primitive state than in the civilized, or in the unsettled state than in the settled, but civilization is easily unsettled. The example Nakano raises is the Great Kanto Earthquake that flattened Tokyo in 1923. Survivors would have been pumped full of oxytocin. Loving and protecting each other, they formed mobs and turned on Korean immigrants, slaughtering thousands.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”