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Shame on Me

I once stole a parking space, slipping my car between the white lines even though I knew another driver had wanted it and was there first. I was in a big hurry, I had a baby waiting for me at home.... Well, you know. The other driver found another spot, and, guilt-stricken, I ran to apologize to him as we both entered the restaurant to pick up our pizzas. He was unmoved. "You've got to live with yourself," he told me.

I have replayed that incident in my head hundreds of times. The baby is now 15.

How is it that I'm still bothered by my relatively minor transgression from years ago, while others appear to be at peace with themselves despite the fact that their actions (in some cases, their alleged actions) have caused ruin and devastation? How can Bernie Madoff and Stewart Parnell and all those bankers and CEOs who've actions have helped botch up the economy live with themselves?

I don't know any of these people, and it's possible that their public facades mask private anguish.

But among them may be some who can simply be described as psychopaths.

That's a term we've come to throw around casually, sometimes shortening it to "psycho." But according to June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, psychopathy is a distinct and well-defined condition.

Luckily, just one percent of the American population fits the description, which includes lack of concern for other people, egocentrism, lack of guilt or remorse for hurting others, a sense of entitlement and feeling that rules that apply to others don't apply to them, and seeing other people as objects, Tangney explains. Psychopaths can be very charming and engaging, she says, which can be dangerous for those around them; they also often are very successful in their careers -- particularly those in which "it's an advantage not to care who you're hurting," Tangney says.

It's not clear what causes psychopathy, Tangney says, though brain studies suggest that psychopaths are "missing a chunk of emotional hardware that makes us human." In any case, being a psychopath "doesn't faze [the psychopath] a bit."

As for my parking-lot debacle, Tangney helps me understand a very useful distinction between shame and guilt. "When people feel shame, the focus is on the self," she notes. "With guilt, the focus is on the bad behavior."

"Thinking 'I'm a bad person' versus 'I did a bad behavior' puts you on a very different path," Tangney says. Of the two, guilt is actually the better emotion, she says, as it allows you to focus on fixing the problem instead of wallowing in self-condemnation. I suppose my guilt drove me to apologize; perhaps it's my shame that has me still beating myself up 15 years later.

I wouldn't mind seeing some displays of shame or guilt in the public arena these days. But I'm not holding my breath.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Psychology  
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I forgive you, Jennifer.

The guys you mention in your third paragraph would take that parking space without a second thought.

I'm ready to see some perp-walks.

-Steve Parker, M.D.

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | February 20, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

My "forgiveness" reminds me of a doctor joke:

What's the difference between doctors and God?

At least God knows he's not a doctor.


Posted by: SteveParkerMD | February 20, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

You are bothered 15 years later because the guy in the restaurant chose to respond rudely to your apology and rub your nose in your behavior. And I bet he hasn't given it a second thought.

Posted by: di89 | February 20, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Dr Robert Carl Parisien MD says: I would forget the incident. I'm sure the other person has although I enjoyed reading your article.

Posted by: DrRobertCarlParisien | February 21, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

That must be why I'm not as successful as I could be.
I'm not a psychopath.
Just moderately neurotic.

Posted by: mhoust | February 23, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

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