Sunday, November 18, 2012

Freud and the Snopes Psychopath Test

Some people worry themselves needlessly over the meaning of disturbing dream content

On Snopes the other day I came across a rather amusing hoax email that claims that there is a simple psychological test that will reveal whether or not a person is a psychopath. Here are the details:

The Snopes article goes on to explain why this supposed test is absurd. Even psychopaths are sensible enough to realise that there are less sinister ways of getting the attention of the opposite sex, such as simply talking to the man. The article does not say how this hoax originated (presumably some person who thought it would be more fun to remain anonymous). When I read this though, I was struck by a parallel with a case reported by Sigmund Freud  in The Interpretation of Dreams. A young woman patient dreamt that her sister's young son was lying in a coffin. Freud discounted the idea that she wished for the death of her nephew, as she was not that cruel. She told Freud about a time when her other nephew, her sister's first born, had actually died. At that time,  her ex-fiancĂ©, a professor, made a a condolence call. The woman still loved him but rarely saw him since they had broken off their engagement. During his visit, she had a chance to be near him as he looked at the dead child lying in the coffin. Freud could then make his interpretation: "If now the other boy were to die, the same thing would happen . . . and the professor would be certain to come to offer his condolences, so that you would see him again under the same conditions as the other time. The dream means no more than your wish to see him once more, a wish which you are inwardly struggling against."

Back when I was teaching psychology students, I would tell them about this dream to illustrate Freud's dream theory. I'd finish off by joking that this seemed like a drastic way just to get a date! The story in the psychopath test seems to involve a similar kind of thinking - meet a man you like at a funeral, then wish that there could be another funeral to have an excuse to meet him again. Admittedly, Freud's patient did not actually plan on killing her poor nephew!

I can only speculate but I think there's some chance that the fake psychopath test was inspired in some way by Freud's account of his case study. Perhaps part of the appeal of the fake psychopath test is that it promises that it can reveal hidden features of someone's personality through a symbolic story. Freud's theory of dream interpretation also claims that hidden features of one's personality can be revealed through the symbolism of dreams. However, research into dreams has not confirmed Freud's belief that dreams have hidden meanings that can be revealed through free association. (In recent years psychoanalyst and neurosurgeon Mark Solms has claimed that discoveries in neuroscience confirm Freud's dream theory. However, Solms' attempt to revive Freud's theory has not been widely accepted. For example, see this document for a rebuttal of some of his claims by neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson.) Unfortunately there do not seem to be such quick and easy ways to plumb the depths of the human mind as promised by both the fake psychopath test and Freudian psychoanalysis, although the fantasy remains as appealing as ever.