An article in Slate claims to have detectected a ‘logic hole’ in how much sympathy we feel for people with mental illness as both psychopathy and autism are ‘biological disorders’ that people ‘can’t help’ but we feel quite differently about people affected by them.
The ‘logic hole’, however, doesn’t exist because it is based on misunderstanding of the role of neuroscience in understanding behaviour and a caricature of what it means to have ‘no control’ over a condition.
Here’s what the article claims:
In the piece [recently published in The New York Times], Kahn compares psychopathy to autism, not because the two disorders are similar in their manifestation, but because psychologists believe they’re both neurological disorders, i.e. based in the brain and really something that the sufferer can’t help.
This caused me to note on Twitter that even though the conditions are similar in this way, autism garners sympathy and psychopathy doesn’t. In fact, most social discourse around psychopathy is still demonizing and utterly unsympathetic to the parents, who are often blamed for the condition. It struck me as an interesting logic hole in our cultural narrative around mental illness, since the usual assumption is that sympathy for mental illness is directly correlated with inability to control your problems.
Clearly the author has good intentions and aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness but in terms of behavioural problems, everything is a ‘biological disorder’ because all your behaviour originates in the brain.
The idea that because a disorder is ‘based in the brain’ it therefore follows that ‘really something that the sufferer can’t help’ is a complete fallacy.
Psychopathy, autism, depression, over-eating, persistently losing your keys and constantly getting annoyed at X Factor are all ‘based in the brain’ and this fact has nothing to do with how much control you have over the behaviour.
Putting this misunderstanding aside, however, there is also the unhelpful implication that someone ‘has’ or ‘has not’ control over their thoughts, behaviour, emotions and propensities, especially if they have a psychiatric diagnosis.
Conscious control varies between individuals, is affected by genetics, is amenable to change and training, and depends on the specific task, situation or action.
This does not mean that everyone with autism, psychopathy or any other diagnosis can just decide not to react in a certain way, but it would be equally stigmatising and simply wrong to assume that current difficulties are forever ‘fixed’.
The article finishes “I was just interested in the fact that there’s no relationship between how much we care about those with a mental disorder and how much those with it can help having it.”
In reality, sympathy for people with disorders is a complex phenomenon and the perception of ‘how much control the person has’ over the condition is only one of the factors. The (often equally bogus) moral associations also play a part as does the seriousness of the condition and the medical speciality that treats it.