When Empathy Switches Off

January 22nd, 2024

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

Guest writer for Wake Up World

After studying children brought up in orphanages and other institutions in the 1930s and 1940s, the British psychologist John Bowlby developed his maternal deprivation hypothesis. He suggested that if a young child’s attachment to a mother figure is broken, this is likely to severely damage their social, emotional, and intellectual development. A lack of attachment could result in what he called affectionless psychopathy, the inability to empathise with other people or to form meaningful relationships.1

Certainly, as Bowlby’s theory predicts, a common theme of people with psychopathic traits is traumatic and emotionally deprived childhoods. In DisConnected,2 I refer to such people as hyper-disconnected. They are completely self-absorbed and detached from others, treating their fellow human beings as objects. I examined the childhood experiences of serial killers and fascist dictators and found a pattern of severe childhood trauma and neglect.

Serial killers such as David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, and Joel Rifkin were rejected or abandoned by their mothers. The female serial killer Aileen Wuornos (portrayed by Charlize Theron in the film Monster) was abandoned by her mother at the age of 4 and raised by her grandfather, who abused her physically and sexually. A recent study found that 50 percent of serial killers experienced psychological abuse during childhood, while 36 percent experienced physical abuse, and 26 percent experienced sexual abuse.3

The European fascist dictators Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco were all the children of violent alcoholic fathers. Hitler’s mother was deeply traumatized by the loss of three previous children, and unable to form an emotional bond with him. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s father and older brother both had died shortly before his birth, leaving his mother so traumatized that she rejected Saddam, who was taken in by his uncle. As the only child of a single mother, he was constantly bullied and beaten and learned to be violent in self-defense.

This pattern of childhood trauma is especially relevant in view of the lack of any clear genetic or neurological basis for psychopathy and related conditions. For example, a recent review of the genetic correlates of psychopathy found no clear link with any specific genetic or biological factors. As the authors concluded, ‘heritability estimates for the facets of clinical psychopathy were low. Molecular genetic findings were inconsistent and mostly unreplicated. Further, replicated findings were contradictory.’4

How Empathy Shuts Down

Why do childhood trauma and emotional deprivation result in hyper-disconnection?

In my view, if a person receives little empathy and affection during their early years, it may impair their ability to experience empathy and express emotion during their later years. As a defence mechanism, some children respond to deprivation and trauma by closing in on themselves, unconsciously disconnecting themselves from other people and from the world. They don’t allow themselves to form emotional bonds with others, as this could be a source of further pain and trauma. They also become disconnected from themselves, by repressing their feelings and their memories of traumatic experiences. They build a kind of armor to protect themselves from emotional pain and from other people. This armor also helps them to cope with the challenges of their lives, providing a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Effectively, then, some children who go through deprivation and trauma unconsciously switch off the ability to empathise. And once empathy has been switched off, it usually stays off. Once a psychological armor has been built, it usually stays in place, leading to permanent disconnection.

Transcending the Trauma

However, many people who undergo intense trauma during childhood do not become disconnected. In fact, they may grow up to be highly empathic and altruistic people. In some cases, their own experience of trauma seems to heighten their sensitivity. Their own experience of suffering may intensify their desire to alleviate the suffering of others.

One example comes from an acquaintance of mine, the clinical psychologist Anna Baranowsky. As she told me, “My parents were Holocaust survivors. Dad was in concentration camps as a young child and Mom escaped to Siberia as a child. Dad was one of the sweetest and gentlest people I have ever known. Mom was generous and loving. Probably my parents should have been monsters but instead gave me a loving and supportive home. They were not perfect for sure, but they were certainly good.”

Somatic

There isn’t any clear reason why people from similarly traumatic backgrounds develop in such different ways. Perhaps it is due to personality traits. Perhaps there is a link to the concept of post-traumatic growth. Some people undergo great personal growth in the aftermath of trauma, partly due to an attitude of openness and acknowledgement, and innate reserves of resilience.

However, my view is that, as Bowlby emphasized, it is the very early years of a child’s life—the first two years, specifically—that are significant. If a child has a secure parental attachment during these first two years, then they may become more resilient against trauma in later childhood. If those first two years have been fairly harmonious, then it is highly unlikely that they will develop psychopathic traits, no matter how much trauma they are exposed to later.

It is mainly those first two years that determine a person’s degree of connection. As Bowlby recognized, those two years may be the most important of our lives.

References:

1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. Basic Books.

2. Taylor, S. (2023). DisConnected: The Roots of Human Cruelty and How Connection Can Heal the World. Iff Books.

3. Marono, A. J., Reid, S., Yaksic, E., & Keatley, D. A. (2020). A behaviour sequence analysis of serial killers’ lives: From childhood abuse to methods of murder. Psychiatry, psychology, and law, 27(1), 126–137.

4. Stephanie Griffiths, Jarkko Jalava, Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen, B. Emma Alcott, Genetic correlates of PCL-R psychopathy: A systematic review,
Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 66, 2022, 101765, ISSN 1359-1789, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2022.101765

Originally published at Psychology Today and reproduced with permission.

About the author:

Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His latest books in the US are The Calm Center and Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. He is also the author of The Fall, Waking From Sleep, and Out Of The Darkness. His books have been published in 19 languages. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.

As the author of Out Of The Darkness, one of Steve’s research interests is “awakening experiences” — moments when our normal awareness intensifies and we feel a sense of connection and meaning. What causes these experiences? Is it possible to control them? Steve’s work also examines the sources of psychological suffering — Why is it that human beings find it so difficult to be contented? His research also shows that many awakening experiences are triggered by intense psychological turmoil, such as depression and loss.

Connect with Steve at StevenMTaylor.com.


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