Issue #94 The number of psychopaths watching Bradford City and the impact that has on football supporting

As told by Michael Wood

150 psychopaths

If I told you that somewhere in Bradford 150 psychopaths would be getting together you’d probably only want to know where that get together was so you could avoid going at all cost but I am going to tell you that and you are going to go to that get together.

Medulla Oblongata

The word “psychopath” has been mangled by popular culture.

When we use the word we mean a kind of a mad axe-murder set apart from society. Alfred Hitchcock, Thomas Harris, and Bret Easton Ellis have given us the timid psychopath, the charming psychopath and the slick psychopath underlining the fact that psychopaths can come in many forms but the word is always linked in our minds to murder.

This is a problem for people who study “psychopathy” because the personality disorder itself was not medically defined as being linked to violence. Some psychopathy researchers used the term “sociopath” to try get around the horrific connotations. In the precise world of medical research licence is given for the terms to be used interchangeably.

It is thought that psychopathy is caused by a misfiring in the brain so the unconditioned fear stimulus in the medulla oblongata does not work in some people as it does in what we call “normal” people.

Because of this they lack the ability to comprehend how other people have fear, and so in some cases they think that other people’s emotional states are a facade. They cannot feel what it is like to be someone else, because they cannot feel or at least a large amount of feeling is not open to them.

Most people do not understand the ramifications of that (including myself) until they are spelled out.

A psychopath has no empathy. They don’t feel bad about bad things they do.

How to find out if you are a psychopath?

According to author and Harvard lecturer Martha Stout you are not a psychopath if you have enough sense of your feelings to ask if you are one.

So worry not, dear reader.

Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door postulates that one in a hundred of the general population is a sociopath and that the condition is much more common than we give it credit for.

Stout’s research presents us with the sociopath as a mimic and as a Little Hitler. They try to copy other people’s emotions to fit in with society not because of a need to join society but to try exploit society to control their part of it.

If by now you are thinking that you know a half a dozen psychopaths then you are not alone and owe it to yourself to read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Ronson learns how to spot psychopaths from the man who wrote the checklist that defines what psychopathy is: Robert Hare. The list is the PCL-R and when answering the twenty questions on it one can spot a psychopath.

And when Bradford City play Shrewsbury in the first game of next season we can expect a crowd of around fifteen thousand people you will have plenty of practice because – as I promised and as Stout suggests – you will willingly get together with around 150 psychopaths.

Why Mark Lawn is not a psychopath

The ability to empathise is what stops people from doing all manner of things.

It is what stops you cutting queues in traffic understanding how angry people cutting queues in traffics makes you. Its what stops you from cutting the throat of someone who does cut a queue because not only can you imagine how horrible murder is, you always imagine how bad the family would feel, and how bad prison would feel for you, and you going to prison would effect for your family.

Of course if you do not feel empathy you might cut the queue. In fact having no empathy allows you to cut all sorts of things. Like jobs. Being good in business is about making hard decisions – or so the cliche goes – but decisions like who to put out of work are far easier if the person making the decision does not think about the emotional effects on the person out of work, on their family, on their community.

In fact a lot of the business cliches are about removing emotion from the world of work. “Leave it at home”, “Don’t bring it to the Office” and so on. You can hear phrases like this banded about every office and not by the percentage of people who are psychopaths but by many people. The workplace in this sense he been shaped to lack empathy by people who have no empathy.

Stout and her peers suggest that the business world has been remodelled around the most successful people in the business world and that the most successful people in the business world are psychopaths.

The higher up in business one gets – Stout et al say – the more instances of sociopathic behaviour one finds. At higher levels rather than one in a hundred people being a psychopath, one in twenty-five are.

This is not, oh cynical reader, building up to a claim that Mark Lawn is a psychopath.

In fact his obvious emotional outpourings on TV and in interview, his emotional attachment to the club which struggles for most of his life, and many, many other things would see him score low on the PCL-R.

I’m not entirely sure that the same could be said for everyone who has been in the Bradford City boardroom though and Stout’s findings would suggest that it is absolutely not the case and that at some point presently, or past, on of the people inserting a control on Bradford City is a psychopath.

The same is true about Prime Ministers and Presidents. The higher up you go the more the prevalence of psychopaths. Obviously some have held the top jobs. Christopher Hitchens stated that Henry Kissinger – who he charged with responsibility for the massively destructive Vietnam war – had “the mind and record of a psychopath.”

Robert Hare and others are of the belief – and I paraphrase – that psychopathy is what makes the world go round.

Deep breath, and back to football

Football is a microcosm of the world. If it happens in the world it happens in football and so if we are prepared to consider the suggestion that psychopathy is the driving force in the world it stands that we should consider if it is the driving force in football, and, in football support.

The game itself is governed by a set of practical laws and punishments. The reason to not handle a ball is not because it will make the other team feel bad, it is because the punishment will follow in short order. I’m sure that there is something to be said for the role of psychopathy in creating determination in players but it is beyond my (limited) understandings.

Off the field though what are we to make of football’s level of empathy? Very obviously not much. The FA accuse FIFA of acting badly while in turn being accused of only acting for The Premier League who propose ideas which seem massively out of step with the Football League and on and on downwards.

But Hare et al have an approach which says that structures like these are shaped by people – the people in them – and as such a question like “Are Manchester City a psychopath?” is wrongly phrased.

I think that a lot of – but not all – people at boardroom level are exonerated too. I am certain that there are people working at and owing football clubs who would score highly on the PCL-R but only because they are the product of a merger between the corporate world and the world of football support. So perhaps it is worth looking at the world of football support to see how it is shaped by psychopathy.

Where is the psychopathy in football?

The first thing to point out is that the PCL-R is a nuanced tool and that it is not applicable to entire subcultures in any other way than to look at specific people within that subculture. I’m not about to declare that football support is a psychopath.

What I wonder though is is football support (inside and outside of the structures of the game) shaped by psychopathy in the way that Stout et al suggests business is? If we look at the PCL-R do we recognise the traits we see in football supporters beyond the 150 psychopaths at a Bradford City game.

Some of the traits on the list we strike off immediately as not being knowable: Sexual promiscuity (point eleven) and the tendency to many short-term marital relationships (point thirteen) for example.

Others leap from the page at us. Who could not say of the modern football supporter that they do not display a need for stimulation. This is the third point on Hare’s PCL-R and one only need to think about the 24 Hour Sky Sports News or the relentless monitoring of players on Twitter to underline how football support seems to need that constant stimulation.

Points two and thirteen on the list are “grandiose estimation of self” and “lack of realistic long-term goals” which are a given in football. It is rare that there is not a football supporter who genuinely believes that his club is different and by different we mean better than others and often the thing that stops that being better is that the people running the club are seem to be holding it back and if only they would do differently then the long term future would be glorious.

Others one may make a case for. Over a third of football clubs have been in some form of administration over the last twenty years but rare is the supporter who takes responsibility for their role (often a minor one as a supporter) in cheering the signing of a Benito Carbone or a Seth Johnson which led to financial problems. This could be point sixteen: failure to accept responsibility for own actions if one wanted to make the case.

I could carry on mapping on the traits the PCL-R covers to the world of football but to do so would be to labour the point, and to take empathisis away from the disproprtionality that psychopaths represent.

Me. I like a laugh, me

Last season, after the Doncaster Rovers defeat, Oli McBurnie and Aaron McLean shared a joke on Twitter. If you missed this moment do not be surprised. Of the things that matter most it could hardly be more remote but it was the cause for some complaints. The two players, strikers for a team which was then struggling, should have been focusing more on scoring and less on joking was the inference as if the one took away from the other.

It is asinine even to mention it were it not for the reaction. Most ignored the joke and the follow up, other responded with utter indifference if they did note it, but a few felt it worthy of their input (point three, need for stimulation) and decided to challenge the players (point fourteen, impulsivity. Point ten, poor behavioral controls.) because they should not be larking around (point eight, lack of empathy) when something so important as a defeat had occurred (point two, grandiose estimation of self).

The thousands of people who did nothing, or did not care, or did care but did nothing are not noticed next to very few (two or three) who did showing the traits. So these traits, these traits that are part of psychopathy, frame our the world of football supporting.

As football supporters we are always being defined by the combination of psychopathic traits because they are present in a few of us but not in all of us. And of course it is dangerous to sit with a checklist like the PCL-R and looking at isolated actions declare that they are the actions of psychopaths. Ronson details how becoming a Psychopath spotter power crazes him and he is right. Once you start studying the PCL-R you start seeing psychopaths everywhere.

Aaron McLean and Oli McBurnie might seem like a storm in a teacup but nothing in the the psychopathic tendency talks about the size and impact of the actions. I’m not saying that anyone involved in that is (or is not) the sort of person who would score high on the PSL-R but many people might conclude that – for example – the people who tell Jessica Ennis they hope she is raped would score highly.

Abuse on Twitter stops players communicating through Twitter. Racist chanting by a hundred people can have a whole stadium closed down. One person can throw something in a town centre on a Saturday and we are all branded hooligans. When we are branded hooligans we are policed accordingly by a Police Force which – logically – is run by a number of people who are psychopaths.

This might sound needlessly pessimistic but I went to football in the 1980s and I stood behind fences, and I was pushed into pens, and I was marched through streets by armoured Police. The people who decided that that was the way to treat a teenage boy who had not committed, nor wanted to commit, an offence seem to convict themselves of lacking empathy and you only need to look at the massive high level cover up that followed the result of that style of Policing at Hillsborough to see lack of remorse or guilt, and the Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.

Let me be clear what I’m not saying here. I am not saying that Hillsborough was caused by mass-murdering psychopaths. I am saying that it was caused (and covered up) by institutions like South Yorkshire Police, The Sun Newspaper and the Thatcher Government which had been in turn shaped by people who would have scored high on the PCL-R.

This is hard for people to accept or understand – and of course it is a contention rather than a statement – but that is because if you are part of the 99% who have empathy you assume that everyone else has it and when you assume that you assume everyone else has the same operational controls as you.

Hare’s work suggests they do not.

So now then

What is to be done? Football is a part of a world and the world is shaped by the traits of psychopathy.

As the Internet opened up communication channels a number of maxims started to fall away from media industries. It was said in newspapers previously that one letter represented a hundred dissatisfied readers but now all hundred readers can tweet furiously and so it has become safer to suggest that one unhappy person represents one person.

Perhaps even that is inadequate. Perhaps knowing the destructive nature of psychopathy we should seek to make sure it is under represented? That we should try exclude the voice from discussion because the voice is in its nature destructive. All domains of expertise exclude destructive voices. Is the psychopaths insight into the community of football support any more valid than his input into any other part of society?

I have trouble with that path of reason and where it ends up but I have similar trouble with how any of the communities I am in is defined by its extreme and destructive elements just as we all have trouble with the idea of those 150 psychopaths at Bradford City vs Shrewsbury Town.

Another week passes and there is another story of how football supporters have behaved in a way that I do not feel reflects football supporters as I know them and this story repeated in an echo chamber by media which has a section which is determined to misrepresent what has happened leading to attacks by politicians who seem to lack empathy and are playing to a different constituency and all the time this is exploited for sales by businesses who only can look at their bottom line.

I end up remembering John Yossarian‘s comment in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 when asked what would happen if everyone felt like him and did not want to fly bombing runs just because the enemy he had never met wanted to kill him, and so did not want to fight in the war.

“Well I’d certainly be a damn fool to think any other way wouldn’t I?”


I heartily recommend reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.