What do psychologically healthy individuals actually look like?

This article was originally published online by the London based Institute of Art & Ideas ( under the title: Everything you know about happiness is wrong, What does good mental health look like? (July 2021).

While I was in graduate school in the late 1970’s, a short-lived, student-run newsletter published under the banner: Freedom From Disabling Anxiety Press  – a play on the common “Free Press” moniker. 

We were training to diagnose the human condition in terms of a nosology founded on a medical model that defined “mental health” as the absence of psychiatric illness. The term “mental health” refers to disorder, disease and infirmity, and not actual health or well-being. Positive psychological health is referenced in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) only by way of a code number for “no diagnosis.”

As students of psychology (not psychiatry), we were also aware that “mental health” is a misnomer for another reason. Adaptive human functioning involves more than just thoughts and cognitions, our mental life. To identify both the healthy and the troubled souls among us, it is more accurate to refer to mental, emotional, behavioral, social and bio-psychological health.

The term psychological health includes all of the above, and it enables a discussion about what people who fall on the positive end of that axis actually look like. 

In the 1960’s, the idea that people should expect something more from life than just freedom from disabling anxiety gave rise to the Human Potential Movement – a popular counterculture  face for a series of emerging existential, humanistic, Jungian, Gestalt and self-psychology theories. The academic-intellectual face for the movement was provided by psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose seminal text Toward a Psychology of Being was published in 1968,  edited from lectures dating back to 1954.

At midcentury, there were two central currents in psychology. The Freudian-analytic enterprise, broadly defined, was focused on the dynamics of psychopathology. The Behaviorists were intent on explaining human motivation and action as analogous to a “black box” with stimulus inputs and response outputs. Maslow argued that a “Third Force” was coalescing around the idea that individual consciousness is essential to the human experience and that psychology must consider “both the depths and the heights of human nature.”  

In the deterministic Freudian and behavioral models, personality is created from a combination of instinct (nature) and influence (nurture or reinforcement). Maslow accepted that people have a given “inner nature” that becomes shaped by experience, but he added that because life involves a continual series of choices, the self is largely “a creation of the person himself … a ‘real’ person is his own main determinant.” 

In Maslow’s construction, the most important shaping of a healthy personality comes from the gratification or satisfaction of innate needs and impulses, among which he includes an instinctual drive for growth, individuation and ultimately, self-actualization. In hierarchical fashion, a person must first meet their survival, safety and security needs, and the need for love, belongingness, self-esteem, dignity and self-respect, before reaching the higher stages of personal growth.

Individuals are said to look psychologically healthy when they are moving in the direction of self-actualization, either “being” or “becoming” an authentic self, with “unity of personality” and “full individuality.” In this formulation, the psychologically healthy individual is a moral person who is introspective, honest, creative, expressive, truth seeking and efficient at perceiving reality. Conversely, according to Maslow, “general-illness of the personality is seen as any falling short of growth or full humanness.” 

With Maslow’s endorsement, the Human Potential Movement was expected to herald the dawning of a new age in human relations, with universal “harmony and understanding,” therapy groups, hot tubs and yoga. 

The above conceptualization of psychological health did not, however, retain much currency into the 1970’s. The evolved, superordinary personalities imagined appeared to be detached from reality. Missing from the equation was the fact that in ordinary life, there is no freedom from fear and anxiety or any escape from stress. Anxiety is a consequence of sentience and stress is ubiquitous. 

In 1977, existential psychologist Rollo May published his masterwork, the revised edition (from 1950) of The Meaning of Anxiety. In May’s view, anxiety is a force that animates life, providing the tension and creative motivation necessary for survival and health. May viewed anxiety as “an expression of the capacity of the organism to react to threats,” including the existential threats of non-being or of living a meaningless existence. 

Following from Kierkegaard’s “school of anxiety” concept, Rollo May said that by confronting and working through anxiety experiences, individuals become better prepared to “move ahead” with courage, “without being overwhelmed.” It is an act of  “courage that consists not of the absence of fear and anxiety, but of the capacity to move ahead even though one is afraid.” In May’s formulation, personal growth and psychological health are forged from that struggle: “it will release the individual’s capacities and permit greater expansion in the development of his own powers, as well as enhancement of his relations with other human beings.”

Rollo May was just as much a humanist as Maslow in rejecting “the belief that mental health is living without anxiety.”  He differed, however, with respect to the belief that positive health is produced through an ascending gratification of intrinsic needs and values. According to May, psychological health is achieved through the process of engaging life as a challenge. People look psychologically healthy when they persist in seeking meaning and purpose, despite the vicissitudes of life and despite the anxieties that are a byproduct of our consciousness. 

In the decade following the Human Potential Movement, it became apparent that if one engaged in experiences directed towards becoming healthy, relaxed, and one-with-one’s-own-self, that in itself would be an active and adaptive response to stress and anxiety. What also emerged at this time is the conviction that psychological health and medical health are intricately correlated. 

In 1950, physician Hans Selye published his treatise Stress – introducing the concept of “wear and tear on the body” caused by a depletion of “adaptation energy.” By 1968, it had been shown that people who are free from distress use less medical care of all types and cost less to insure. What this means is that positive psychological health can be measured in relation to somatic complaints and healthcare seeking behavior.

In a series of insurance cost studies at the Rand Corporation, investigators developed inventories to measure both distress and well-being in normal populations. A factor analysis of their measures showed that psychometrically and for purposes of prediction, psychological health is represented by a balance between two positive and three negative emotional factors. The model is validated by its correlation with measures of general medical complaints and with healthcare utilization patterns. 

From the Rand questionnaires, an individual looks psychologically healthy when they can say that during the past month, the amount of time they have felt happy and the amount of time they have felt calm and peaceful exceeds the amount of time they have felt either nervous, downhearted and blue, or “so down in the dumps that nothing can cheer them up.”

In other words, from the measured health perspective, individuals experience positive psychological health when they feel mostly calm, peaceful and happy, and mostly free from worry, sadness and despair. 

This measurement, however, does not provide any theory about how individuals achieve that state of wellness or how it is represented psychologically. In 1979, Aaron Antonovsky, an Israeli medical sociologist published Health, Stress and Coping, the first of two efforts at a unified theory of well-being. 

The starting point for Antonovsky was a health study that included concentration camp survivors. What puzzled Antonovsky was not that two thirds of them remained troubled years later, but that a full 29% had remained emotionally healthy. Antonovsky’s insight was that an understanding of health and resilience cannot be found by studying how people get sick. Instead, one must look at how people become healthy or how they create health, especially in the context of trauma and adversity.

Antonovsky presented a salutogenic model – a model focused on the genesis of health creating, salutary experiences. His argument was that the most salient coping resource an individual can possess is a confident, enduring and dynamic outlook on life based on a tripartite Sense of Coherence.  

In Antovosky’s model, an individual experiences coherence and looks psychologically healthy when they (1) have a sense of comprehensibility – a feeling that life events are understandable and generally predictable; (2) a sense of manageability – a feeling that things can be handled and are within control; and (3) a sense of meaningfulness – a feeling that life is a source of pleasure and satisfaction and that life has purpose and is worth living. According to Antonovsky, an individual who is confused and overwhelmed will retain the capacity to survive and to thrive if they maintain the belief that life has meaning and purpose.

The concept of positive psychological health, as opposed to the medical-mental health model, has remained a consistent thread in psychological practice and theorizing throughout my professional career. Humanistic therapies are still prevalent. Mind-body, new age healing practices still permeate the popular culture. Hot tubs and yoga have survived. Consistently, however, the topic of positive psychology garners less attention than it deserves. 

Perhaps that is good. Perhaps in the same way that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” the mass of psychologically healthy individuals may just lead lives of peaceful calm, happiness and satisfaction, purpose and meaning, and freedom from disabling anxiety.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.


In the Midst of a Recession, You Should Expect to Feel Depression.

I originally published this article under a slightly different title in January 2009. The country was entering what would come to be called "the greatest recession since the Great Depression." The stock market had staged a rally on an exceedingly bad jobs report - the thinking was that the news was so bad, surely the government would take effective action and quickly. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Obama "stimulus package") would be signed the following month.

I began the article with a story that was told by Ronald Reagan about a child who wakes up on Christmas to find a pile of manure:  excited, the child begins digging, assuming their must be a pony in there somewhere.

The story is about false optimism. My point at the time was that things were going to get worse before they get better and that people should expect to experience feelings of depression. 

A similar situation exists today in 2020 - people are facing an entirely uncertain future and there is a false sense of optimism afoot in the land. This time however, unrealistic expectations are being promoted in the context of political strife. 

The article was primarily addressed to individuals who had lost their job - people experiencing a life-challenging sense of loss. 

When the report came, showing that the economy had shed more than half a million jobs in November, the stock market staged a brief rally. The thinking was that with news this bad, surely the government would step in to help. It's like the story of the child who wakes up on Christmas to find a pile of manure: excited, the child begins digging, assuming their must be a pony in there somewhere.

It is not at all likely, however, that those who have been thrown out of work in recent months will be looking to find a silver lining.

There is an extensive literature on the connection between unemployment and psychological well-being, and the news is not good. In a recent report on work and health from the American Psychological Association, it was noted that: "the loss of work has been consistently linked to problems with self-esteem, relational conflicts, substance abuse, alcoholism and other more serious mental health concerns." In every respect, and not just financial, one's quality of life is at risk when unemployed.

The fact is that work is often essential for psychological health. It is the "playing field" for our dreams and aspirations, and an important source of pride and satisfaction. Work is where we find challenges and a sense of meaning, and the chance for self-determination and personal empowerment. It is not just a matter of survival and security. Work plays a complex role in our social lives. It is a link to the broader cultural fabric of life and a regular source of social support.

Clinical depression is a common and expected result of the experience of loss. Beyond the sense of loss, those who have been displaced from the economy can expect to experience shame, fear and uncertainty, and a whole series of stress factors related to survival and adaptation. Imagine what happens to your identity when you are no longer a breadwinner or when you suddenly become dependent on an unemployment check. Imagine the adjustments you might have to make in your lifestyle or your role in the family or your daily routine.

The effects will also be felt by those who remain on the job. Their future is no longer certain, and it is often observed that they can suffer "survivor's guilt." It is a whole new stress at work: "Am I next?" Time that was previously devoted to productivity and engagement will be spent worrying, wondering and watching.

Depression is a genuine and significant health concern. The current unemployment numbers are pointing towards a potential public health crisis.

So how should you respond if you have become one of the "walking wounded?"

First, if you are feeling depressed, don't worry about it. It is normal and expected. There is no reason to worry more about the fact that you are worried. You don't want to be depressed about the fact that you are depressed.

Watch for the signs. What you may notice is: you are feeling sad or empty most days; life no longer feels interesting or satisfying; you can't sleep or you can't eat, or you are eating too much; you are unusually restless or fatigued; you are feeling worthless or guilty; it is harder to think or to concentrate; or you seem to have unusual pain or physical discomfort. These are the symptoms of clinical depression.

If you are depressed, you might also notice that you are drinking more, fighting more often with your spouse, and more likely to be irritable and impatient with your kids.

If you have thoughts of death or suicide, that is the only sign necessary to know that you are depressed.

If you are depressed, don't hide from it. Don't pretend it's not happening to you. Talk to your friends, your family and the people you love. If you are a person of faith, talk to your faith leader.

You also want to stay active. Stick to a routine, exercise regularly and think about working as a volunteer. When you are out of work, a real good use of your time is to go back to school. Classes will keep you occupied, interested and motivated. Education is a good way to fill that hole that is starting to grow in the middle of your work history and to prepare yourself what comes next in your career.

Unemployment cannot readily be cured. Depression, however, can be cured. If it is becoming too much to handle, speak to your Doctor or find a therapist. Get help. Don't be ashamed. (Take the Psyris Depression Screening.)

This recession is going to be deep. The rates of depression are going to rise. The research shows quite clearly that many who suffer emotionally will not fully recover, even when they return to work. We all need to understand that we are facing a pile of manure and that there is no pony to be found.

The task now is to survive, to hold on, and to reach for the future. The best way to do that is to take care of yourself, and to remain optimistic, confident, and filled with a sense of meaning and purpose, despite all indications that this is an uphill battle.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.


Why are we so fascinated with murder?

Originally published May 24, 2011.

The public is endlessly fascinated with murder.  When it’s on the news,  we may recoil in shock and horror,  but often and in other media,  homicide is a source of entertainment. We wonder why people kill and we are intrigued by the ways in which the deed is accomplished.

In the real world,  there is in fact a practical duty we share in understanding the means and the motivations for crime.  Understanding is necessary for prediction,  prevention and protection.

But the popular fascination with homicide goes far beyond the practical.  The story lines are a staple of art and literature and a subject for both drama and comedy.  The murder mystery is often most compelling when it abandons reality and is framed in fantasy.


Donald Trump, Insanity, and the Law of Subjective Moral Precepts

If Donald Trump decides to plead insanity in some future criminal proceeding, all the talk about him having a mental disorder is certain to come to an abrupt end. Everyone will say: “he’s not crazy, he knew what he was doing … he can’t get off on that.

For Trump, an insanity plea would not be an irrational defense strategy. The person third in line for Presidential succession, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already said that in her opinion, the President “does not know right from wrong.She also expressed compassion regarding his condition: “it's a very sad thing."

A criminal defendant can be found insane if as a result of mental disorder, they lacked the capacity to know the nature and quality of their act or if they lacked the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. 

Drummond mortally wounded by M'Naughten,
as dramatized by PBS Masterpiece 'Victoria'
Some form of this two-pronged insanity test (“did you know what you were doing and did you know it was wrong?”) is the law in most all U.S. jurisdictions, and is known as the “M’Naughten rule.” 

In 1843, Daniel M’Naughten shot and killed Edward Drummond, private secretary to British Prime Minister Robert Peel. At trial, it was said that M’Naughten labored under delusions of persecution, believing he was being tormented and threatened by Peel’s Tory Party. A jury found M’Naughten insane and the Court was compelled to explain the verdict - the Queen was not happy.

Since 1723, the Common Law insanity standard had rested on the case of Edward Arnold, where the Court noted that “it is not any kind of frantic humour” that renders a person insane, “it must be a man that is totally deprived of his understanding, and doth not know what he is doing, no more than an infant or a Wild Beast. 
M’Naughten did not act like a “Wild Beast.” He was not deranged or delirious, and he was not consumed by manic agitation. He was a “madman” of a different sort.

Justice Tindall explained that a person must also be found insane if they were acting under the influence of a delusion “which if true” would serve to justify or excuse their behavior. In the context of their delusional system, the person does not know right from wrong, even if they are otherwise seemingly rational. 

Pelosi said that Trump was as good as insane after Trump told George Stephanopolous that it is still OK for him to accept foreign help in his election efforts. Trump said he would welcome assistance from Norway and claimed that the FBI Director was “wrong” about the propriety and legality of such collaboration. 

If Trump ever does plead insanity - claiming he believed that everything he did was OK - a forensic examiner will have to determine whether he was delusional or just character disordered. Did a psychotic thought disorder impair his capacity for moral reasoning or does he just happen to have his own set of moral standards that run contrary to those of society?

If Trump has clinically impaired reality testing (i.e., psychosis), he could be found insane. If his actions are simply a manifestation of dissocial and antisocial beliefs (i.e., sick ideas and character pathology), he would be found sane.

In California, the case law that guides an expert’s opinion regarding this distinction is the precedent set in People v. Stress (1988), where the Court articulated what can be referred to as the “Law of Subjective Moral Precepts.”

In November 1985, Stanley Stress killed his wife, leaving “an ax embedded deep in her head.” His belief was that “drastic action” was necessary to gain attention and publicly expose a vast government conspiracy. Extensive psychiatric observation confirmed that Stanley was “a paranoid and psychotic man whose life was taken over by his delusional beliefs.”  

Stress knew that killing his wife was a crime. The trial judge instructed the jury that he therefore must also have known that it was morally wrong. The Appellate Court disagreed, saying that even though he knew his act was illegal, Stress believed it did not violate “society's generally accepted standards of moral obligation.” Because he was delusional, Stress thought that people would agree that he did the right thing. 

The situation is different when a criminal, a narcissist or a sociopath claims that what they did was OK or justifiable, based on their "own distorted standards” or their “prison-influenced standards” of morality.

The insanity rule applies when a defendant with clinically impaired reasoning fails to understand society’s moral imperatives. The Stress Court said that insanity does not apply when the excuse is based instead on “the subjective moral precepts of the accused.” 

In clinical terms, those “subjective moral precepts” are the equivalent of antisocial attitudes, values and beliefs, the markers of character pathology and personality disorder. 

On one occasion, a defendant pleading insanity told me that he killed a fellow inmate at new Folsom Prison because the guy called him a punk. He said that “if someone calls you a punk and you don’t do something about it, then you are his punk … and the voices said I should do it. 

This killer was mentally disordered, but he was also antisocial. He believed that violence and aggression are acceptable methods for resolving various interpersonal difficulties in life. His beliefs were of precisely the same character as Donald Trump’s core belief about vengeance. 

In a speech, Trump expressed his dissocial conviction as follows:
“If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even. And the reason, the reason you do is … you have to do it, because if they do that to you, you have to leave a telltale sign that they just can’t take advantage of you.”
In other words, Trump’s moral creed is precisely aligned with that of a psychopathic killer who told me that you can’t just let someone get away with calling you a punk. 

And that is why Donald Trump will never be found insane. 

The experts might say that he has made some quasi-delusional statements (e.g., “I am the chosen one”), but they are likely to conclude that such utterances are a sign of malignant grandiosity and not evidence of actual delusions of grandeur. 

But the experts will also note that Donald Trump operates on the basis of his own distorted antisocial standards - his own subjective moral precepts. Depending on which crime triggers a prosecution, an expert might observe that Trump thinks there is nothing wrong with using a charity for his own benefit, bribing a porn star to influence an election, sexually assaulting women, obstructing justice or accepting emoluments. 

The question of psychosis versus psychopathy would also be triggered if Trump were ever to explain: “I knew I could get away with it, so I thought there was nothing wrong with shooting that guy on 5th Avenue.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.


Expert Opinion: Donald Trump Does Not Have a Mental Disorder

Never before in history have so many commentators prefaced their remarks about a President by saying: “you’d have to ask a psychiatrist” or “I’m not a psychologist.”

I am a psychologist. During the course of a 40 year career, I practiced as a criminal forensic specialist, visiting clients in jails, prisons and asylums, and testifying as an expert witness.

Having worked primarily in the context of active criminal proceedings, I look at diagnostic questions more critically than clinicians credentialed in academia.  

President "My Sick Idea" Trump 
The most prominent voice in the Diagnose-Donald-Now Movement - aside from George Conway, derisively known as Mr. Kellyanne Conway - is that of Bandy X. Lee, respectfully known as a Yale psychiatrist. In 2017, she published essays from 27 assorted mental health experts under the title: “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” 

In Dr. Lee’s book, a number of the experts bandy about words that are associated with different forms of mental illness, but it remains a discussion about character, personality type, temperament, judgment and behavior. Mr. Trump was excoriated on those grounds, but no diagnostic hypothesis emerged. More importantly, no distinct and unequivocal symptom of mental disorder was described.


Is Donald Trump a moron? 27 experts fail to answer the baseline question.

Book review (originally published at Amazon):

It turns out that the 27 psychiatrists and other experts represented in this collection of essays did not produce any consensus opinion or “assessment” of Donald Trump’s mental health. Instead, they have shared individual perspectives, integrated primarily around the alarm, distress, disgust, angst, fear (and loathing) they all seem to feel in reaction to the President.

To the extent that a unified psychological profile emerges from these essays, the formulation is lacking any comment on the President’s intelligence - a foundational psychodiagnostic measurement. From a clinical perspective, nothing about his behavior should be interpreted without first answering the baseline question: is Donald Trump a moron?

The experts here are silent on the intelligence question.

Psychiatrist David M. Reiss identified “innate, baseline, intellectual/cognitive skills and ability” as one of five areas of concern regarding “the cognitive abilities of a POTUS.” He concluded, however, that no standards exist for measuring the I.Q. of a politician, and therefore, when it comes to this question, differentiating objective opinion “versus politically based propaganda is an insurmountable problem.”

A concern about an appearance of bias did not stop the other essayists from outlining the now-familiar contours of Trump’s personality type and temperament.


Actions Aside, Trump’s Attitude Towards Sexual Misconduct Remains Disturbing

*This article was originally published at the Huffington Post in October 2016, before that year's election.

Denying, explaining and excusing their behavior, criminal offenders will often inadvertently expose deplorable attitudes, values and beliefs. Failing to heed the standard advice (i.e., remain silent), they offer statements that may not count as a confession, but are nonetheless incriminating. A defendant I recently interviewed was charged with assaulting his elderly mother. His statement to the arresting officer was: “the b*tch deserved it.”

Responding to accusations of sexual misconduct, candidate Donald Trump explained that some misogynistic comments attributed to him were “entertainment” and that he was just bragging (“locker room talk”) when he claimed to be a sexual batterer. He suggested that some women are not sufficiently attractive to victimize.

Trump has questioned his accusers’ motives (seeking fame and fortune) and referred to them as “crazy” prevaricators and unstable “liars.”

Irrespective of whether Trump ever acted on the impulse from the wayward bus, the words, ideas and attitudes expressed in his defense (men are pigs, get over it) remain abhorrent and disturbing. His December 2004 comments on Lindsay Lohan’s status as a sex object are even more disturbing.

On-air, Howard Stern baited Trump, predicting: “eventually, you trade her in for Lindsay Lohan, this Melania.”

The implication was that the soon to be married Trump would soon be seeking a younger wife. Lohan was 18 in 2004 and had never appeared on-screen, other than as a teenager.

Trump responded to Stern enthusiastically. Trump said that he had “seen a close up of her chest” and that to find her attractive, Howard would have to be “into freckles.”

Stern baited Trump again, asking “can you imagine the sex with this troubled teen?”

Trump was quick to imagine and may not have heard Stern use the word “teen.” Be that as it may, Trump proceeded to discuss why “troubled” and “crazy women” can be preferred sex objects (“they’re always the best in bed”). As a criminal forensic psychologist, what I heard was a discussion about how to identify the vulnerable while choosing sexual prey. Trump endorsed the idea of seeking out the emotionally wounded.

This Stern interview reminded me of two different sexual assault cases in which the accused told me that women routinely consent to sex with strangers, after dark, in nightclub parking lots. One said “I didn’t have to force her.” The other said “she was ok with it,” but admitted, “I had to hit her.” Both had sought vulnerable prey, believing that “when they’re drunk, they let you do it.”

Maybe Trump has never acted on the impulses and fantasies he has celebrated. I know that others have.

Offenders are enabled by attitudes and beliefs. Attitudes (like righteousness or entitlement) can serve to “unshackle” impulses. Distorted beliefs can provide an impetus and a justification for behavior.

Trump will never admit to sexual assault and some will always believe him. Still, we should be alert to the attitudes he expressed and the beliefs on display. Young men should not be taught that they are sexually privileged or immune from consequences.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.


Expert opinion: Donald Trump does not have a personality disorder

Special to The Bee

Personality and character are always at issue in a presidential election, as is the sanity of the candidates. When a contender is referred to as a madman or lunatic, the comment is usually understood to be hyperbole.
No one has accused Donald Trump of hearing voices or howling at the moon. However, many have called him a narcissist.

I have qualified in court as an expert in the psychodiagnostic arts. In prisons and in jails, I commonly encounter narcissists, owing to the fact that clinical narcissism is a core component of the psychopathic mind and sociopathic character.
As an expert in diagnosing disturbances of mind, emotion and character, I can state confidently that Donald Trump does not have narcissistic personality disorder – a condition listed in the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.


The "Too Good Be True Test" is a Worthless Aphorism

When it comes to avoiding scams, schemes and other rip-offs, there is no more universal piece of advice than: "if it's too good to be true it probably isn't." This is usually said after someone has been victimized.

Most everyone is familiar with this pithy observation - an aphorism with a ring of truth to it - but it is familiar only because the warning so persistently fails to prevent people from jumping into the quicksand.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that relative to the cost and risk involved, the expected gain was unrealistic. In the rear view mirror, it is obvious that the promises were extravagant, false and empty.

To know whether something is true and to be trusted, we are told that all you have to do is measure how good it is.

The problem is that "goodness" is not a valid or reliable measure of truth. 


Do Psychopaths Genuinely Lack Empathy, Or Are They Feeling You?

The most common observation made about psychopaths is that they feel no empathy. I have said it myself in Courtroom testimony, repeating a truism I picked up years ago: “they fail to empathize and are therefore prone to victimize.”

Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. 

As noted in an essential text (The Psychopathic Mind by J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.) the science unequivocally “supports the hypothesis that psychopathic individuals” (i.e., those with “antisocial personality disorder”) “are autonomically hyporeactive.”  In other words, their biology is such that they do not experience emotions as intensely as others, and therefore, it is thought that they are not inhibited by guilt, fear, anxiety, self-doubt, or remorse. 

This does not mean that con men and criminals have no feelings at all.  As Meloy observed, in situations where an emotional reaction would be expected from “a more socialized, empathic individual,” they might feel little or nothing. But at the same time, they can can display “intense, unmodulated affect that is dramatized by its unpredictably.” 

It is readily observed that psychopaths experience feelings such as anger, resentment, envy and jealousy. Narcissism - a core element of the sociopathic character type - can produce powerful feelings of self-righteousness and entitlement. When caught and in custody, many will feel distress - not every one of them is a cool customer. 
Psychopaths certainly have the capacity to feel a range of emotions. The description of them as having reptilian (snake-like) brains is mostly a metaphor. When you consider how they are able to control, manipulate and dominate people, it is apparent that they are quite adept at understanding and sharing the feelings of others. 

Lack of “empathy” or not, they are typically quite skilled at “feeling you.”

How does a hardened male prisoner convince a female correctional officer to bring him nude photos of herself? How could that happen? An unrepentant killer once explained it to me. Over time, he connected as a real person and engaged her emotions. He shared her feelings, obtained her trust, created an emotional dependency, and then corrupted her. He had done this before, relying on his mastery of empathy to exploit the needs and feelings of others. 

It is no different with the sociopath selling a pyramid-scheme, a Ponzi investment, or a get-rich seminar. They can feel their victim’s greed or desperation, and the potency of their hopes and dreams. Showmen and carnival barkers feel their audience to entice and seduce them, as do all charlatans, hucksters and snake-oil peddlers. 

It is also no different with an aggressively domineering psychopath (aka, “bully”). Bullies operate by exploiting a power differential. It can be real or perceived, and either social or physical. In the interest of dominating, they seek to evoke feelings of shame, frustration, terror or fear. Their attacks are informed by their ability to sense the emotional vulnerabilities of their victims - to feel them and to know how they can be intimidated or twisted, provoked or incited. 

Psychopaths can have rich emotional lives. As narcissists, they strive for love, admiration, and self-indulgent gratification.  As predators, they are aroused by the hunt and the suffering of their prey. They may obtain pleasure in seeing others shamed and may find gratification in an opponent’s misery. It is thought that because they are emotionally hyporeactive, they seek excitement and stimulation. It takes more for them to feel alive, and so it makes sense that they would feed off the emotions of others. 

To say that a psychopath lacks “empathy” is to reach for a broader definition of the term. It is a definition of empathy that involves sympathy and an unselfish, altruistic impulse. It is an emotion that guides us towards feeling the pain of others and treating them as we would wish to be treated. 

When it is said that a psychopath is lacking in empathy, what is actually meant is that they are lacking in compassion, kindness, and a shared vision of morality. It means they reserve justice for themselves and believe that fairness is measured by what is good for them.
Whether in a dark alley or a high-rise tower, the psychopath seeks to dominate others in order to satisfy their own desires. To deploy fear, shame or deceit to acquire your submission, the psychopath needs to know how you feel and how you will react. They do not care about you or empathize in that sense, but you should never doubt that they are feeling you.