Friday, January 11, 2013
The art of the reparative gesture
As a long-term reader in psychology I thought you might be interested in Donald W. Winnicott’s material (from 1950s) on the subject of empathy. Have you read it? His articles are pivotal to understanding why some people develop a sense of concern, and others don’t- it’s a developmental acquisition of the first 2 yrs of life and he elaborates in precise detail how that happens.
It’s a cogent, convincing and rarely researched facet of psychopathy today but an alternative to genetic explanations.
Two chapters from the book The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment:
- Chapter 1. Psycho-analysis and the sense of guilt
- Chapter 6. The Development of the Capacity for Concern
He has numerous other material on this topic but these two will provide an intro if its of interest.
The basic idea is that a sense of guilt/concern is built in developmentally from about 6 months of age to about 18 months. It works like this:
Baby/todler shows aggression daily- eg. biting, screaming, kicking legs, squirming, non-complying, etc. Mother gets pissed off, shows it, and walks out of the room. Baby/toddler begin to get a sense, on each occasion, that they hurt the object that brings them food and cares for them. Kid then -maybe after half an hour, makes a "reparative gesture" when he sees mother again, such as smiling at her, laughing, offering her his rattle to hold or whatever. Mother accepts reparative gesture, and this happens thousands of times in a year of child's life. Through all this the child gets built-in a sense that concern about his ruthlessness and his agressiveness, and of the impact of it on the world around him. In later life the 'reparative gesture' becomes the common 'contributing into society' in a thousand altruistic ways- but underneath that 'contributing in' is the desire to appease over and over again the feeling that one is atoning for recently past wrongs or perhaps for future wrongs..... all of this is unconscious and built in since infancy.
Now, with psychopathy the child basically doesnt get to play out the cycle of aggression-guilt- reparative gesture. His mother might have died at the beginning of this developmental period, or she may be clinically depressed or otherwise self-involved to the degree that she can't participate in the cycle. Or another option is that the mother for personal reasons cannot accept the child's reparative gesture and so the kid doesnt build-in the sense of concern. He grows up with no sense of concern.
Its like learning language, is age specific developmentally speaking. If you miss it, you miss it. BTW, the developmental period during which all this takes place is called 'the depressive position'
Winnicott seems to think a sense of concern may be discovered later in life, but I find it doubtful.
It's interesting because my mother was both very self-interested and clinically depressed while I was growing up. But I also feel like I have come to understand (perhaps through intuiting the principles of multi-stage game theory, in which there are few long-term gains for blatantly ruthless strategies) and apply reparative gestures, at least with those closest and most important to me. Is that what he means by discovering a sense of concern later in life, do you think?