Thursday, August 8, 2013

Breaking Bad: Is Walter White a Sociopath?

AMC's hit show, "Breaking Bad" returns this Sunday and some are asking "How Walter White Found His Inner Sociopath".  The show details the exploits of a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin who finds his hands getting dirtier and dirtier until he seems to lose most of his humanity. Or does he? A.O. Scott writes for the NY Times:

In truth, though, his development over five seasons has been less a shocking transformation than a series of confirmations. Mr. Gilligan’s busy and inventive narrative machinery has provided plenty of cleverly executed surprises, but these have all served to reveal the Walter White who was there all along. The sides of his personality — sociopath and family man, scientist and killer, rational being and creature of impulse, entrepreneur and loser — are not necessarily as contradictory as we might have supposed.
***
Walter may have wanted us to believe — and may, at moments, have convinced himself — that he was a decent man driven by desperate circumstances to do terrible things, but that notion was either wishful thinking or tactical deceit. Viewed as a whole, in optimal binge conditions, with the blinds pulled down and the pizza boxes and chicken wrappers piling up around the couch, “Breaking Bad” reveals itself as the story of a man mastering his vocation and fighting to claim his rightful place in the world. 

But is he really a sociopath? He is great at lying. That's probably one of the most entertaining parts about the show. He is amazing at coming up with an answer that fits the facts, like a sort of WebMD for excuses that fit the symptoms perfectly yet innocuously. Where did all of this cash come from? He has a gambling problem. Why did his wife just have an emotional breakdown? She was having an affair and her lover is in the hospital. He is the master of deflection and playing upon not just people's emotions, but especially their expectations about him (as a loser, but ultimately harmless) and the world (that bad people are not your friends, relatives, and neighbors but people who seem "off" to you).

However, I don't think he is a sociopath. He may act like how one expects a sociopath to act (ruthless, disloyal, power hungry), but his motivations seem all wrong. If he was a sociopath, why does he constantly cling to an image that he's a good dad/husband/friend making the most of a bad situation? From the NY Times:

Walter is almost as good at self-justification as he is at cooking meth, and over the course of the series, he has not hesitated to give high-minded reasons for his lowest actions. In his own mind, he remains a righteous figure, an apostle of family values, free enterprise and scientific progress. 

For instance:

Walt: "When we do what we do for good reasons, then we've got nothing to worry about. And there's no better reason than family."

Here he extends his typical self-justification to his wife:

Walt: Skyler, you can't beat yourself up over this thing. Please. You didn't set out to hurt anybody. You made a mistake and things got out of control. But you did what you had to do to protect your family. And I'm sorry, but that doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you a human being. 

Skyler: Stop it, Walt. Just stop. I don't need to hear any of your bullshit rationales.

And an incredibly insensitive and oblivious moment of self-absorption:

Walt: So how are you feeling? 

Jesse: Okay, I guess. Broke it off with Andrea. I had to. She's gonna tell Brock. I'm still gonna take care of the rent and stuff. It's the right thing to do, but, you know-- 

Walt: (interrupting) I meant this. (gestures behind) How are you feeling about the money?

And finally the over the top but insincere display of emotions and taking huge offense when the sincerity is questioned:

Walt: I am just as upset as you are. 

Jesse: Are you? 

Walt: Really? How can you say that to me? Jesus! I mean, I'm the one who's the father here. What, do I have to curl up in a ball in tears in front of you? 

Walt in all of his self-centeredness clearly thinks that not only do his ends justify any means he chooses, but it's clear that this process of justification is important to him. If he were a sociopath, why he would care at all? As a corporate executive put it upon seeing Walt and his team balk at killing two innocent witnesses, "I thought you guys were professionals." But there's hardly anything professional about them. Despite being extremely clever and calculating (he fakes an emotional breakdown in his brother-in-law's DEA office to tap his phone), he seems like a prototypical narcissist who lets his emotions rule him, particularly his feeling that his talents were never truly appreciated and so he is finally going to make them realize that he is a force to be reckoned with. A sociopath would not care what people thought of him, as long as he was getting and doing what he wanted to get/do.

Walter White is also a great example of why I don't value people's "good" intentions--because they're incredibly subjective, often misplaced, and sometimes used to justify horrible atrocities. People never feel that they have done anything wrong as long as their intentions were not malicious. It reminds me of this recent comment from a reader:

Intentions don't matter. Hitler's intentions were good. What are good intentions? It depends who you're talking to. If you talk to the chicken just before you kill it and tell it "Hey chicken, my intentions are good, I don't want to be misunderstood, I'm just gonna eat you and share you with my family."

And also from this NY Times review of Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

Traits we evolved in a dispersed world, like tribalism and righteousness, have become dangerously maladaptive in an era of rapid globalization. A pure scientist would let us purge these traits from the gene pool by fighting and killing one another. But Haidt wants to spare us this fate. He seeks a world in which “fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.” To achieve this goal, he asks us to understand and overcome our instincts. He appeals to a power capable of circumspection, reflection and reform.

13 comments:

  1. I am not sure exactly where you get the idea that psychopaths never seek to justify their actions. In fact, recent studies indicate that they are perfectly capable of rationalizing their behaviors:

    In a more recent replication, the severity of the psychopath's deficit in discriminating moral and conventional wrongs was revealed (Blair and Cipolotti 2000). While the overall pattern of results is consistent with previous research, the published ranges of performance by psychopathic and nonpsychopathic individuals are revealing. As before, psychopaths were found to overreport the number of conventional transgressions that would be wrong in the absence of a rule. Psychopaths on average reported that 16.8 out of 18 conventional wrongs would be wrong even without a prohibition, with a range from 16 to 18 across the sample. Alternately, nonpsychopaths on average reported that only 7.4 would still be wrong, with a range from 4 to 10.

    In summary, psychopaths appear to be capable of classifying moral violations and conventional violations into separate categories. However, their moral reasoning capacity and, in particular, their ability to provide justification for the wrongfulness of the violation and the ability to recognize moral violations as less malleable than conventional ones show that they are not capable of moral reasoning even at the level typically attainable by a normally developing four-year old.


    Consider also the study which unequivocally demonstrated that psychopaths, when asked to rate the moral severity of various scenarios, tended to be much more lenient towards the executors of accidental harm. Neuro-typical individuals were likely to assign at least partial blame to the person responsible for causing the accident, whereas psychopaths accorded far less culpability to the perpetrators. (Journal of Abnormal Psychology, "Psychopathy Increases Perceived Moral Permissibility of Accidents", http://moralitylab.bc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/YoungKoenigsPsychopathy.pdf)

    This would suggest that psychopaths are adept at employing rationalizations in order to justify harmful outcomes.

    In my opinion, whether or not someone employs rationalizations to justify vile behaviours is less an indicator of sociopathy than it is a gauge of their level of introspection and personal honesty.

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  2. I notice that you make many references to the arts when dicussing sociopathy.
    Ocassionally you discuss music.
    No study of music in sociopathy would be complete without analizing the music
    of "The Doors."
    The Doors were a rock band from the 1960's. They were like an American
    version of The Rolling Stones. Thier leader Jim Morrison certainly sounded
    like a sociopath. He had a devil-may-care-approach to life. He called
    himself "The Lizard King." He was obsessed with DEATH and he died young at 27.
    He cut to the chase with all his songs. If you want a percise description
    of lust you should listen to his song, "Hellow, I Love You." He also wrote "Light My Fire" "Break On Thru To The Otherside" and "This Is The
    End." He sings about being a sociopath outcaste in "When You're Strange."
    But the greatest of all his hits was "Riders On The Storm" an song existentialist song about the hopelessness of life.
    A rewvier said about the Doors: "Just like the boys next door; If they
    come from jail or a mental institution."

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  3. I think he's a malignant narcissist in this category - dictators and serial killers.

    Although Walt is cold and callous, he's normal to high-anxiety, like a secondary psychopath. He does risky things because his desire (which is stronger than average) overpowers his fear. As he becomes less and less fearful (from having gotten away with stuff), he offends more and more, because he's addicted to the rush he feels when he asserts his dominance.

    His rigid sense of self - you'll hear him say things like, "I'm not a criminal - and no offense to any present who are," or "I'm in the empire business," show that he's got a lot invested in his image. That's narcissistic.

    Walt uses his intellect to rationalize why it is OK for him to do the "bad" things he wants to do. He corrupts other people (e.g. his wife) partly to convince himself that he's done the right thing. That's a bit like Lance Armstrong bullying other riders on his team into cheating; if they were all doing it, it was a good thing.

    Mike, Todd and especially Gus strikes me like a sociopath in M.E.'s mold: low-anxiety, flexible, trying to give people what they want, always focused on getting ahead.

    Real life people like Walter White: Osama Bin Laden, Steve Jobs, Lance Armstrong.

    I suspect normal people can become like Walter fairly easily - just give them power.

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  4. On a more practical note - if people would like to see mean, manipulative, selfish people disappear, they can do something about it: stop having sex with such people.

    People like Walt, me and M.E. are the way they are because of their genes, epigenetics, early childhood environment and later environment. If we weren't able to pass on our genes, raise our kids to be ruthless and antisocial (either on purpose or not) and so on, we'd be less and less of a factor.

    That's a fairly sociopathic way to deal with the problem of sociopaths - it is rational, utilitarian, effective, cold and unfeeling.

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  5. Walter White fits the description of a "Reputation Defending Sociopath", actually. Right down to getting furious when his persona of a sincere-and-solid-guy was even mildly challenged. And it's not unknown for sociopaths to covet social standing and/or a 'role' to play, like that of a family man. Some enjoy social manipulation as much, if not more, than economic/business manipulation. Especially to those Dark Triad personalities who have a high bit of narcissism, being seen as good/virtuous/awesome is a great game, a vital cover, and a fun challenge.

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    Replies
    1. I'm not sure I can think of any examples, in the latter two seasons, where Walter finds any need to justify his actions to himself.

      I see the content of his justifications, as well as the methods he employs, changing depending on whether it's family or pure business. I don't think he cares about self-justification anymore. There is no question that he is a pathological narcissist. I think it is so extreme that many psychopathic traits, such as parasitism, are unavailable to him, since he has such a strong need to be self-reliant.

      On the other hand, if one examines the earlier seasons, there are several examples where Walt appears to experience empathy, guilt, and remorse, and if you don't believe that, for sure he is emotionally riddled at times. This makes me wonder about the "empathy switch": if by default it is off in sociopaths, but can be turned on, is it possible that empaths can switch it off? I also wonder, whether the switch can be irrevocably and involuntarily turned off, due to life experience?

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  6. Good article, fan of the show. I came to the same conclusion as well. His ambition is ridiculous, I find myself more into carefully plotting my moves to ensure success, and so i don't get caught.
    -Cain

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  7. Walt is definitely not a classic psychopath, but the Hare Psychopathy Checklist has a couple dozen points, and one does not need to score on all of them to be considered by Dr Hare (the foremost expert on this question) to be a psychopath. There are two major components of psychopathy: narcissism and lack of empathy. Walt has shown elements of both, but also contrary or mitigating characteristics on both, also.

    Dr Hare gives an overarching definition of a psychopath that does not fit Walt at all: "an intraspecies predator." Walt is not any type of predator; he is more an opportunist with great powers of rationalisation. He has elements of grandiose narcissism, and can kill anyone who gets in his way, but he does not go out of his way to kill or hurt anyone; on the contrary, he tends to try every other method before hurting someone.

    Walt's primary dysfunction appears to be an unhealed wound to his ego from the loss of his place in a company that became very successful after his leaving; otherwise, his motives are entirely rational, although he is often reacting to consequences of his own actions that become out of his control.

    Ultimately, Walter White is a supreme rationalist. Not the picture of mental health, but a great example of someone who excels when pushed into extreme positions by the cruel indifference of "life on life's terms," and the machinations and frailties of other human beings.

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  8. Walter is a high-functioning narcissist. He functioned well and below the radar as a science teacher where he could enjoy a sense of superiority over others while maintaining control. You saw how he sabotaged his relationship with Gretchen because she was his equal and he felt inferior to her family, and then nursed a grudge about the business he left because it succeeded without him. Mike understood Walter very well, and Walt's ego could not tolerate being confronted, which is why he killed him. He is also a master at "gaslighting", and narcissist technique, and they made that clear with the visual symbolism of Jesse splashing gas all over Walt's home when he realizes what has been happening.....

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    Replies
    1. I agree with the high functioning narcissist label- and to further refine it- it's malignant narcissism and it's covert. Walt's early hatefulness towards Gretchen (Elliot's wife) was a really masterful piece of foreshadowing that forecasted the trajectory of Walt's character arc in a rather chilling fashion...

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  9. Academic analysis of Walter White: http://www.academia.edu/4619940/Breaking_Bads_Walter_White_the_psychopath_to_whom_we_can_all_relate

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  10. I think Walter White is what is termed a "neurotic psychopath" or a secondary psychopath. Walt seems totally like someone with borderline personality disorder. He is afraid of abandonement (as evidenced in his clingy relationship with Jesse..
    Even letting Jane die in order to make sure Jesse isn't preoccupied with anyone else but him). To me he just screams BPD.

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  11. The fact that he rescues Jesse in the final episode suggests to me he's not a psychopath - a psychopath wouldn't bother, would he? He has nothing to gain from saving Jesse, it's an act of philantrophy.

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