Monday, July 28, 2008

Can the Joker Be a Psychopath and Have Antisocial Personality Disorder?

In a brief review in Creative Loafing, I discussed whether the Joker was antisocial—whether he had antisocial personality disorder. The answer was "yes." In a previous blog entry, I discussed whether he was a psychopath. The answer was "yes." Are the two terms the same? No. What the difference between the two, and can he be both a psychopath and antisocial?

Antisocial personality disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM, fourth edition). The DSM includes 10 different personality disorders, each of which involves a different set of maladapative behavior patterns. The criteria for antisocial personality disorder require a pattern of at least three types of criminal behaviors (e.g., repeatedly breaking the law, even in small ways, such as disturbing the peace) or somewhat related behaviors, such as being impulsive, irresponsible, aggressive, or lying. To see the complete set of diagnostic criteria, click here. Note that when I said that the Joker had antisocial personality disorder in my 300-word review (!) I was was addressing criteria A1-A7 but not criteria B-D, as Jared's comment, below, rightly points out (thanks, Jared!).

People can engage in these behaviors for any number of reasons: hanging out with the "wrong crowd"; going through a period of being angry at "society" and not caring about the future; being temperamentally driven to seek out stimulating activities, some of which are illegal; or finding the suffering of others to be amusing. The diagnostic criteria are limited to the behaviors themselves, not the underlying reasons for the behaviors.

In studies, about 50-80% of American male prisoners meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder. (I'm limiting this discussion to males because males are three times more likely to have this disorder and there is much more research on them than females with the disorder.)

In contrast, psychopathy (the "disorder" of psychopaths, although it is not listed in the DSM; the term sociopath is used interchangeably with psychopath) focuses less on behavior than on underlying traits that contribute to antisocial behavior patterns. These traits and behaviors can be categorized into two broad factors, and in brackets I note whether each characteristic seems true of the Joker:

Interpersonal/emotional, characterized by:
• Superficial charm [true]
• A grandiose sense of self-worth [no, because his sense of what he can do—what he's worth—seems accurate]
• Pathological lying [true]
• Tendency to manipulate others [true]
• Doesn’t feel guilt or remorse [true]
• Shallow feelings [hard to say for sure]
• Lack of empathy [true]
• Doesn't accept responsibility for his or her actions [true—although he "claims" responsibility, he seeks to evade any negative repercussions of his actions]

Social deviance, characterized by:
• Getting easily bored and needing frequent stimulation [Hard to say—he was able to plan and carryout capers and murders that would be difficult for someone who got bored easily. However, his escalating crimes suggest that he does "need" increasingly outrageous crimes]
• No realistic long-term goals [no; his long-term goal was to get the Batman, and he planned out a series of crimes in order to do so]
• Impulsive behavior [no]
• Having difficulty controlling behavior [doesn’t seem to be the case]
• Irresponsibility [true]
• Behavioral problems that arose at an early age, possibly with juvenile delinquency [unknown at this time]
• Engaging in different types of criminal behavior [true]

So the Joker has almost all the interpersonal and emotional qualities of a psychopath, but fewer of the socially deviant qualities. It would be interesting to know which of the Joker's various origins stories Nolan had in mind when developing the script and directing Heath Ledger, or perhaps Nolan created a new origin story. As a viewer I wanted to know more about how Joker came into being, when and how he crossed the line from being a criminal or mob boss (as in the Jack Nicholson/Tim Burton incarnation of the Joker) to the wildly sick and sadistic individual in The Dark Knight.

Back to the relationship between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy: Only a minority of people (less than 40%) of men with antisocial personality disorder are also considered to be psychopaths. But over 80% of men with psychopathy also have antisocial personality disorder. And lest you think that prisons are overrun with psychopaths, that's not the case—only 15% of males in prison meet the criteria for psychopathy.

[The psychopathy factors are based on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, developed by psychologist Robert Hare, who has studied psychopathy extensively. Two of his books on the subject are Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work and Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight--A Psychologist's View

This second installment of Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman and his world offers a psychologically rich and multi-layered portrayal of characters struggling with all-too-real issues of responsibility, trust, betrayal, the role of physical appearance in forming impressions of people, and of psychopathy unleashed. Whereas Batman Begins explores Bruce Wayne's evolution from anxious child to the Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight brings us a matured Batman battling against a terrifying psychopath whose main motivation appears to be similar to two-year but with deadlier consequences: he does "stuff" just to see what happens.

This film is really about the Joker. We're lured in to his world, where we learn what he's capable of and what he cares about—what motivates him. Learning more about him is like watching a car accident unfold, but worse and more frightening, because it feels like you might be hit next. Nolan's incarnation of the Joker, and Batman's reactions to him, seem so real that The Dark Knight doesn't feel like a superhero movie, but like a documentary on the emergence of a terrorist-cum-serial killer.

I was repeatedly struck by the Joker's cleverness and restraint: [spoiler alert!] He planned three simultaneous murders, Godfather style. [end of spoler alert] That takes extraordinary planning abilities, meticulous attention to detail, and the ability to defer gratification. Sound like anyone else in the movie--like Batman? This Joker is neither impulsive nor capricious, although he may appear that way at first blush. Just as with Batman, the Joker's actions are designed to create a particular impression, an impression that puts his adversaries at a disadvantage: that he's weird and unpredictable. That you never know how far he'll push something, so take him seriously. This, too, is part of the impression that Batman tries to create. But the Joker's got Batman's number because he knows that Batman isn't entirely unpredictable—Batman lives within certain self-imposed and societally-imposed rules. Because of those rules, Batman becomes predictable…at least to the Joker. Two men with similar talents, but in the Joker's case, his talents are used to create anarchy for his own amusement. Is he a psychopath? Let's investigate.

A psychopath is someone who displays personality traits that involve more than simply engaging in criminal acts. A psychopath:

(1) can be superficially charming and manipulative. The Joker is that. Imagine him without his clown makeup—imagine him with a handsome face doing and saying what he does in the film. He'd make a compelling—versus repellant—figure to some, wouldn't he?
(2) is emotionally callous, without remorse or guilt. The Joker lies freely when it suits him (he gives two different stories for how he came to have his scars, both likely untrue). He doesn't feel badly about his dastardly deeds—the lives he taken or ruined.
(3) has a socially deviant lifestyle. Not only is the Joker a criminal, but he seeks out the excitement of his life of crime. His crimes act as a drug and he needs the regular fixes of the intense stimulation his actions bring. Unfortunately, he seems to develop tolerance to the drug, wanting ever-increasing "doses" and so planning increasingly sadistic and elaborate capers.

Hats off to Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and the cast and crew. Heath Ledger's performance deserves an Oscar.

For more about my take on Batman, look for me on the History Channel's Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight and an essay wrote about "What's the Matter With Bruce Wayne?" in the anthology, "Batman Unauthorized."