Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Psychopathology in the age of social media

A friend on Facebook recently posted the following joke image:

Now, the point of this joke is that people go googling whenever they or someone they know is sick; they check the symptoms against internet medical sources and then pronounce a diagnoses, based purely on their googling (or "binging") ability, their "google-fu," as it were. This tendency is even addressed on an episode of the television show The Big Bang Theory, when Sheldon determines he has some obscure disease, based on an internet check of his symptoms (the specific episode escapes me at the moment).

All humor aside, there is a serious element at play here: most people are not medical doctors and an internet search is not a sufficient replacement for an actual educated medical opinion when it comes to one's health. What to do when one is nauseous? Sure. How to treat a cold or basic flu-like symptoms? No problem. But any sort of persistent problems, serious pain, or strange symptoms? Get thee to a doctor or a hospital.

But internet doctorates aren't limited to the field of medicine. Many people have internet doctorates of history, of political science, of economics, etc. In fact I have all three, as frequent readers of my blog no doubt already realize. But one internet doctorate I do not possess is that of medicine. Because giving advice to someone about their health is a very different thing then telling them who they should or shouldn't vote for, isn't it?

Still, many people on social media are not deterred in the least in this regard. They'll offer all sorts of diagnoses, treatments, and even remedies, for everything from a splinter to cancer. And similarly, there are a lot of internet psychologists and psychiatrists out there, as well (remember, psychiatrists can write prescriptions because they have medical training that psychologists do not have). They'll offer all sorts of pronouncements about people, including celebrities, politicians, people and the news, and yes, even fictional characters (the above-mentioned Sheldon Cooper, for instance, has been roundly diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome), insist that this person or that person should be on medication, be it Ritalin or what have you.

In this regard, people love to proclaim that so-and-so is a sociopath or a psychopath, has borderline personality disorder, or suffers from some other mental disorder (the study of mental disorders is known as psychopathology, by the way). This is particularly true with regard to politicians (and for many people, Hollywood). If one listens to social media, Congress is quite literally full of sociopaths or psychopaths.

For purposes of this discussion, it is useful to understand the generally accepted differences between "sociopath" and "psychopath." From Psychology Today (and yes, I realize I'm guilty of googling symptoms here):
Key traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share include: 
  • A disregard for laws and social mores 
  • A disregard for the rights of others 
  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt 
  • A tendency to display violent behavior
Got that? Now, what separates the two:
Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules. In the eyes of others, sociopaths will appear to be very disturbed...

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature...
The article goes into some more depth with regard to criminal behavior, but that's really not what concerns me here. Note the key differences: education level, the ability to hold a job, the ability to "fit in" with society. It's the psychopath who tends to be better educated, who can keep a job, and who can fit in. Thus, it's the psychopath who is harder to spot, to identify, as a matter of course.

People like to toss around sociopath, I think, because it sounds better somehow than psychopath, perhaps because it is (or maybe was) a less-used term. Calling someone a sociopath is bad, but somehow people think maybe it's not quite as bad as a psychopath? Now that might actually be true. Psychopaths could very well be more dangerous on average than sociopaths (I can't really say). But in general, the public figures being diagnosed as sociopaths, the ones in Congress or Wall Street or elsewhere, they don't fit very well under the sociopath umbrella. They're not living on the fringes of society, they are well educated, and they appear to able to generally get along in everyday society, internet diagnosis or not.

For instance, there's this recent turkey who has been in the news of late, a rather young Edward Lewis type (Richard Gere's character in Pretty Woman) who gobbled up a pharmaceutical company, then jacked up the price on a very specific drug in the hopes of scoring a quick billion. You know who I'm talking about now, don't you? Since that all thankfully turned to shit for this turkey, he's been whoring around social media, engaging in small-minded braggadocio and other generally narcissistic behavior. He's what I would usually call an ass clown (shout out to Chris Jericho).  But look around the internet. There are many articles, blog posts, and discussions labeling him a sociopath.

Yet he doesn't really fit the definition, does he? He's educated, very smart, makes money, and is no where close to living on the fringes. And there are plenty of people more than happy to pal around with him, work with him or for him. So maybe he's a psychopath (to be fair, many articles and posts have noted this distinction and labelled him a psychopath all along)?

I don't know. I do know that I think he's an ass clown. And I do know the people willing to cozy up to him (because he has money) know exactly how he is but simply don't care. Using him is more important to them. Which of course is fine with him, because he is doing exactly the same thing.

Still, the question is: is it valid to label someone like this a psychopath at all? Or a sociopath? Do armchair psychiatrists on the internet have enough information in this regard? And following that, is such pseudo-diagnosing helpful in some way?

Last question first: no, I don't think it is helpful. In fact, I think this diagnosing is itself symptomatic of an internet-based nastiness that is slowly working it's way into real life exchanges. This goes beyond insults and name-calling. I'm talking about a worldview, wherein people pass judgment on others first and foremost to stroke their own egos. In my opinion, people heavily (and I do mean heavily) involved in social media have one of two purposes/goals: 1) trolling or 2) ego-stroking. Really, trolling can be seen as a form of ego-stroking, so we might even say there is just one purpose/goal. Regardless, the great majority of the dogpilers out there, the people who jump on others, claim to be "social justice warriors, " what have you, there disingenuous, in my opinion. They care far less about the cause they are championing than they do about getting recognition for their actions or for simply being seen as a part of something bigger than themselves, for simply belonging.

And look at that, in just one paragraph I've slipped into my own game of diagnosing the behavior of others, of putting on my analyst hat and passing judgement on people I don't know, will never know! Ahh, the internet...

Of course, I'm not dealing with a specific person and I'm not defining people with specific clinical labels. So to the second question: the short answer is no, people do not have enough information to label someone a sociopath or a psychopath. The longer answer involves understanding that despite the apparent vastness of information available on the internet, we can't really know people we don't actually know. And understanding that everyone has an agenda and that therefore things cannot always be taken at face value.

Thus, the answer to the first question seems apparent: it's not valid to label people psychopaths or sociopaths on the internet as a matter of course. The people doing the labeling lack the necessary first-hand knowledge and—usually—the intellectual background (sometimes actual psychiatrists and psychologists do this, label people on the internet, and they're wrong, too) to do what they are doing.

Still, I have hunch that this kind of labeling is only going to increase, not only because it's fun and easy (for those desperate for an ego-stroke), but also because the explosion of information about people on the internet is only going to provide more targets. And in turn, this is only going to breed more nastiness on the internet that will slowly filter back into real life.