21 paths...

30
AUG
2013

Is Walter White a Psychopath?

 Walt’s pathological and Machiavellian level of manipulation of others, even those who might describe him as a friend, makes us question who the real Walter White is. Is he a psychopath? Is he a guy who suppressed his basic needs so much during his life that that now he’s just having a narcissistic tirade to prove he’s all-powerful as he approaches death? As a psychiatrist, I view the evidence that points in one direction vs. another. As a writer, I see the brilliance in how we’re led into watching his dark side unfold, while still empathizing with him.

Modern psychiatry can’t give definitive answers about a diagnosis for Walt, because the field itself still has debate on even where to draw the line on what makes up a psychopath. Plus he’s fiction.  It does give us some good bearings, though.  There’s the DSM definition (antisocial personality disorder), there’s research models used in forensic evaluations like the psychopathy checklist revised (PCL-R), or the Psychopathy Personality Inventory. There’s Cleckley’s work, and the Macdonald triad (bedwetting, firesetting, cruelty to animals). There’s even ideas floating around of a “multi-hit” hypothesis, with genetics, child abuse sometimes, head trauma all playing a role.  Each of these have some level of support, and all have significant amounts of criticism.

Walt began as an inhibited chemistry teacher, presumably for over 16 years. He obeyed the rules. He paid his taxes. He followed the rules, but he was miserable. Then he passes a turning point. His cancer diagnosis means he has nothing to lose. In a way, his reasons for restraining himself and obeying the rules are removed (or lessened), since living a long life out of jail has less meaning. At the same time the incentive to break the law rises in his mind, which was to help others. In that way his breaking the law seemed justifiable, which makes it easier to follow him as viewers and keep him sympathetic. At least at first. As he descends into the world of methamphetamine production, we see him unleash a very different side of himself. This raises the question for viewers: what kind of a man could do such horrible things and not seem bothered by it?

Now I’m not a forensic psychiatrist, I’m a psychiatrist and writer who tries to follow the research as best I can. So let me do my best to boil down some concepts.

There is not one definition for being a psychopath. Or  a sociopath (interchangeable term for many experts). The wiki page isn’t bad at summarizing some of the different takes on the definition.  There’s specific common criteria, which can include a lack of empathy, lack of conscience, violence or cruel behavior (sometimes impulsively), manipulation, superficial charm, lack of remorse.  As you can imagine, many of these overlap, and someone can have some of these traits without having them all.

“God, I’m so antisocial.” I hear this thrown around a lot by people who don’t want to be around other people. They actually mean asocial, rather than antisocial. Antisocial can be conceptualized as going against social rules, particularly in a criminal form.

The DSM, starting with DSM-III, began listing a type of personality disorder called Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD was intended to list what Cleckley (a grandfather in the field) was finding in those who went on to have dangerous and violent personalities. Unfortunately, like much of medicine by committee, the results didn’t quite map out to be valid in all real world situations. But the forensic psychiatry and psychology fields continued to do research. They developed the idea of psychopathy as possibly more of a trait, supported by the PCL-R.

When we hear the word psychopath, we think of serial killer. Psychopaths would usually meet criteria for ASPD, but not all those with ASPD are psychopaths. I lump ASPD into two categories to simplify an explanation – con men and serial killers. Con men lack a conscience, and generally don’t see external rules as valid. They have a level of narcissism, viewing themselves as superior, and acting in whatever way ultimately serves them. They can be very superficially charming to get what they want.

Serial killers, though, might be a different breed. They have a higher level of the psychopathy trait (think of it like a spectrum from none to a lot). With that comes a lack of fear in circumstances that would arouse fear, possibly explaining the need to be violent to feel physiologically elevated. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist, likes to talk about psychopaths as “intra-species predators.” Think of a wolf hunting its prey. Normal people if they had to follow or hunt someone would get nervous during the chase. Their heart rate goes up. They might be sweating more or deal with conflicted emotions in the process. A psychopath has the opposite physiological response when hunting. They get calmer. Their heart rate goes down. It’s possible that they’re an evolutionary development, which may have been advantageous in tribal times when killing was necessary for the group survival.

Property of AMC TV

Property of AMC TV

Both the con man and the serial killer lack a conscience. They both do what society deems as terrible acts or unacceptable acts for their own benefit. The difference is that the con man does it moreso for his own selfish gain, or to get away with something. The serial killer more likely does terrible acts because he enjoys it, because nothing else gets him excited. Even more importantly, the serial killer more gets excited from physically hurting others, from causing others to suffer. This starts in childhood with hurting animals, which in the DSM is one of many criteria for conduct disorder (considered the precursor to ASPD).

So we come back to Walt. We as viewers are a little shocked because he has gone from a schoolteacher to the most deceptive man in New Mexico. He has lied to his family, co-workers, and many others, all for his own gain. It seemingly all started as a selfless act, that of supporting a family. It eventually grew into the “Empire business,” serving his own ego. Every morally questionable acts that he does, though, is for a particular aim. He’s able to justify it in a twisted logic based on his business. He doesn’t seem to have any of the childhood precursors of conduct disorder (that we know of) such as fire setting, animal cruelty, truancy. He doesn’t seem to necessarily enjoy killing people, but will do it when he deems it “necessary.” So he’s closer to the con man than the serial killer spectrum of psychopathy.

Jesse is even lower on the spectrum.  He probably met criteria for conduct disorder as a kid.  He broke the rules and made meth because it seemed advantageous to him.  He is Walt’s counterpoint.  He seemed like a bad kid who had lost his way.  He was the criminal, and based on the superficial way we think about criminals we’d think he’d be the bad one.  He was a wanna-be criminal, wearing the guise without the internal lack of morals.  He crossed the line with murder.  This triggers his conscience, which makes him question all of his life.  He is less than a con man.  He can barely lie.  He doesn’t fool anyone.  He has remorse.  Interestingly, only by Breaking Bad was he able to find his way back onto a path.

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A deeper curiosity arises from this discussion, portrayed periodically in the media: are there psychopaths among us, who are not criminals? Some theorize that psychopaths with certain environmental circumstances may have social opportunities to channel their predatory instincts. I’m not talking about Hannibal, necessarily. If someone thrives on hurting or taking advantage of others, what job opportunities might fit them? Perhaps those with competition or built in deception? Business, sales, some sports, even some fields in medicine that thrive on competition (I’ve heard ideas about some of my surgical colleagues), all could be possible. Snakes in Suits covers this topic in more depth, where psychopaths can thrive in certain work environments.

Walt clearly has psychopathic traits, but we’re led into liking him in the beginning because he seemed to break the rules for good cause. We follow him, hoping for his redemption. Our curiosity though might reflect our own hidden impulses, played out in a safer way onscreen than in our real lives. It’s not that we are evil, but that with every attempt to force ourselves to be one way, an opposite side can develop to a degree. Thankfully for society, most of us don’t unleash it the way Walt does.

If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, I’ve contributed to a number of articles on Vulture.com about the show.  Find the links on my media page.

About the Author
Dr. Puri is a board certified psychiatrist, in private practice in Los Angeles. He practices multiple forms of psychotherapy, including hypnosis, in addition to managing medications. He attended medical school at University of Rochester, and specialty training at University of California, San Diego. He is currently on the Vol Clinical Faculty at UCLA. In his non-clinical time he writes TV pilots, and designs iphone apps.
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