The Psychodynamic Perspective

Classical psychoanalysis holds that the individual is forever gripped by inexorable conflicts between the instincts of the id and the forces of socialization. Freud imagined three structures in the mind: id, ego, and superego. The id, the most primitive part of the personality and the only part present at birth, works on the pleasure principle. Sexual and aggressive urges are to be gratified immediately and directly: If someone angers you, you kill them; if someone excites you, you mate with them.

This strategy certainly has its appeal, but real life requires that such impulses be rechanneled or postponed. Within the psychodynamic perspective, normal development works toward the delay of self-centered, immediate gratification. First, reality itself imposes certain constraints on free action that make delay necessary. Sometimes, reward can be obtained only following a particular sequence of behaviors; for example, a new car requires enough money, which requires a decent job, which usually requires some kind of training. The job of relating the needs of the organism to the practical constraints and opportunities of the real world belongs to the ego, which works on the reality principle.

Second, constraints on immediate gratification are imposed by the superego. Socialization is a long and complex process that begins with early attachment experiences and continues until early adulthood. Through firm but loving role models, normal children learn that others are separate beings who have their own lives, feelings, and potentials that are different from, but just as valuable as, their own. In normal persons, a mature superego develops as parental values and prohibitions are internalized as the conscience and ego ideal. The conscience consists of restrictions and prohibitions—what you should not do—and the ego ideal consists of values that direct self-actualization—what you should do to obtain self-esteem and fulfill your unique potential as a human being. The process by which the superego forms is called introjection, which literally means "a putting inside." Because the superego operates according to what Freud called the moral principle, breaking moral codes results in feelings of guilt, and satisfying the ego ideal results in feelings of pride and self-respect.

The antisocial personality is easily understood from within this classic psychoanalytic framework. The ego develops, but the superego does not. Instead, the total personality remains dominated by the infantile id and its pleasure principle (Friedlander, 1945). Because intellectual functions and reality testing remain intact, such individuals appear, in the words of Prichard, "morally insane." Just as classical psychoanalytic theory holds that the id is completely centered on its own immediate needs, antisocials impulsively and egocentrically violate shared standards of social living. Just as the id is dominated by sex and aggression, so is the behavior of most antiso-cials. Just as the id demands immediate gratification, antisocials focus on the short term, failing to think ahead or anticipate the consequences of their actions. Just as the id is seen as closed off from the outside world, antisocials are egocentric and unable to appreciate the entityship of fellow human beings. Just as the id knows only its own urges, antisocials know mainly the selfish pursuit of their own satisfaction, acting without reflection, remorse, or regard for others. Just as the moral principle is irrelevant to the id, social conventions and ideals have no intrinsic value to the antisocial personality. Just as the id has no tolerance for frustration, neither do antisocials, who seem incapable of delaying action in the face of reward, unless deterred by the threat of concrete punishments.

In fact, lack of conscience is perhaps the most stunning characteristic of the antisocial personality, if only because the inhibitory controls that the superego normally provides appear necessary to its development. Though Freud was not much concerned with such individuals, he did recognize (1916/1925, p. 333) that among criminals are those who "commit crimes without any sense of guilt, who have either developed no moral inhibitions or who, in their conflict with society, consider themselves justified in their actions." Antisocials have little in the way of an inner voice or internal censor to moderate their actions. Compared to the immediacy of their own impulses, urges, and desires, societal constraints seem abstract, nebulous, distant, and irrelevant, hardly salient enough to interrupt and inhibit impulsive, destructive, and reckless behaviors. Without a conscience, other persons become the raw material for gratification. Convicted for rape, one antisocial stated, "She had a nice ass, so I helped myself" (quoted in Hare, 1993). In fact, the social and legal consequence of massive violations of fundamental human rights and dignities may never enter conscious awareness. When social rules do interrupt behavior, they exist mainly as nagging nuisances to be circumvented in whatever way might prove successful.

Although a deficient conscience would seem to be common to all antisocials and psychopaths, there are individual differences in the degree to which the reality principle is developed that strongly affect their presentation. Some are highly intelligent in circumventing social constraints to exploit others and satisfy their own needs. Just as remorseless and egocentric as more impulsive antisocials, these individuals are more subtle and planful and, therefore, more deceptive and more dangerous. As Hervey Cleckley (1988) would say, they wear the "mask of sanity." Without a conscience to restrain it, the ego is free to pursue any avenue to gratification that the intellect might imagine. Other human beings are part of the furniture of existence, to be manipulated, used selfishly, and then discarded. Honoring social rules is a practical necessity connected to the avoidance of punishment, not a moral consideration.

Although most antisocials and psychopaths find the tender emotions incomprehensible, these individuals learn to adapt to a world in which emotional expression is the very currency of communication, developing a sensitive intellectual awareness of social conventions and an ability to size up interpersonal situations. Their knowledge of human relations allows them to feign empathy when necessary, to deceive and manipulate (Bursten, 1972) their victims with chameleonlike charm, even to make their way in the most respected professions of society (Cleckley, 1988). Cold and calculating, their existence shows us what happens when the id is mated with intellectual cunning. Moreover, it also shows us that the capacity to reason cannot alone define what it means to be human.

In terms of defense mechanisms, antisocials are especially sparse. Because their personality works mainly on the reality principle, they have little to defend against. Most persons experience anxiety and guilt in connection with the expectations of others. We fear letting someone down, people will be disappointed in us, they will believe we have not done a good job, and so on. These are our parental introjects, the socializing internalized voice of mother and father and other role models. When feelings of hostile aggression exist in normals, they are repressed, displaced, transformed, or converted into overconformity, as with the compulsive personality. Anxiety thus requires a capacity for empathy, an ability to take the perspective of others and evaluate how the self might be perceived. Many antisocials are impervious to shame or embarrassment (Stone, 1993), affects that assume a capacity to understand how others might view some unattractive aspect of the self in comparison to his or her own ego ideal.

Many brag about their violent crimes to impress their listeners but do not disclose more petty offenses. Such antisocials enjoy "getting one over on someone" as a means of indulging a sense of narcissistic grandiosity (Bursten, 1973). As an innocent man convicted of murder noted on his release: "At least it was murder, 'because then you get some respect'" (quoted in Lykken, 1995).

With no life goals and no capacity to appreciate the opinion of others, antisocials seek a life of untroubled indulgence. Neurotic worry is not part of their existence. When they do experience anxiety, it relates mainly to fears of getting caught and being punished: the realistic anxiety of the ego, not the moral anxiety of the superego. When caught in a lie, for example, antisocials learn how to lie better, if they learn anything at all. Normal persons rationalize their behavior to themselves; antisocials, however, rationalize to develop accounts of their behavior that are plausible to others. When held accountable for their actions, they regularly minimize major violations of socials norms (McWilliams, 1994). Thus, a case of domestic violence becomes a "difference of opinion" and theft becomes a case of "poor judgment." When frustrated, antisocials do not contain themselves; they act out, transforming conflict into action. Projection may accompany acting out as a means of justifying preemptive aggression. Thus, antisocials read malevolence into the motives of others and then "defend" themselves by counterattacking. The need for restitution warrants actions by the antisocial, who now sees himself or herself as the persecuted victim.

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