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I don’t understand the expression, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Why? Too lazy?

— Man’s Best Friend, via email

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Dogs have gotten this bad rap since the 1530s. Really. This old-dogs-new-tricks stuff is considered one of the first adages in the English world. From some animal husbandry expert expounding on the mynde of ye olde dogge on yer olde grande estayte. After a long list of clever stuff dogs can do, our old expert, John Fitzherbert, sez, “The dogge must lerne it when he is a whelpe, or else it will not be: for it is harde to make an old dog to stoupe.” By “stoupe,” everyone understood he meant to teach an old dog to follow a scent, as a hunting dog would. Either dogs have a very effective lobbying group or much of the world wonders the same thing you do, because there’s a bushel of evidence to show that an old dog can learn a trick just as well as a young one can. Dogs are shameless pleasers. Learning a new trick to make you happy is what they’re all about. I can only assume that Fitzherbert’s statement struck some sort of chord with the population — not in reference to dogs but to people. The word spread, and pretty soon we’ve got ourselves a bit of country knowledge that because it’s short, sharp, and true of stubborn old codgers (not dogs), it enters the popular lexicon. Even our TV friends the MythBusters taught an old dog a new trick right before our videotic eyes. Old dogs, new tricks? No problem. With a brief nod to Fitzherbert, perhaps old dogs are slower to learn bird or animal tracking, if their noses are like ours and lose their edge in old age. Anyway, you don’t understand the expression because it’s not true.


I am a licensed psychologist and wanted to offer a quick correction regarding your psycho boss column. You mentioned a few times the word “psychotics” while actually describing psychopaths/sociopaths (more properly, individuals with antisocial personality disorder), as a distinction psychosis involves such symptoms as hallucinations, delusions, or tangential thinking.

— Dr. Dan, via email


In case hundreds of other people haven’t told you by now, I’d like to point out that the personality you described in [the January 19] column is one of a sociopath, not a psychotic. Sociopaths have sympathy/empathy problems and are egocentric. Psychopaths may also be sociopaths — these are not mutually exclusive diagnoses — but they’ve got much bigger problems than that.

— lib.,via email

Names and descriptions of these disorders have been morphing for about 200 years. Absolutely right: these days, a sociopath is different from a psychopath, and depending on which definition you use, these toxic businessmen might better fit in the sociopath slot. I used “psychopaths” because that’s the term the two investigating psychologists use. They’re Drs. Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, Hare well known for his work with what he calls “psychopaths” in a criminal environment. He developed Hares’s Psychopathy Checklist (1980), testing for “psychopathic offenders” among inmates. Through work with Babiak (an industrial psychologist), he expanded his test populations into the business world. Perhaps, since their work was an extension of earlier studies using this checklist, they carried on the same terminology, though you’d think they’d be more careful if they didn’t really mean “psychopaths.” Given their description of the bad guys they found in various corporations, Hare obviously was not talking about senior VPs walking the halls talking to large imaginary bunnies. But I did, in error, twice refer to “psychotics.” Entirely my bad. I meant H&B’s “psychopaths.”

Hare and Babiak both have been interviewed by many respected news outlets over the years, and they use the word “psychopaths” repeatedly. Hare: “The corporate psychopath’s record is most often something along the lines of ‘looked good, performed badly.’” Babiak calls the corporate worms “successful psychopaths.” Their coauthored book is titled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.

In the current edition of the DSM, the diagnostic bible of the psychiatric world, a psychopath is defined as a very specific type of disordered person, part of a broader category that includes people suffering delusions and hallucinations. That’s the DSM’s Psychotic Disorders category, which includes schizophrenics.

Antisocial Personality Disorder is in the less-severe Personality Disorders category, lacking the delusions and hallucinations. APD folks are egocentric, nonempathic, nonremorseful, deceitful people. But a note in the DSM write-up on Antisocial Personality Disorder says that APD was formerly called both Psychopathic Personality Disorder and Sociopathic Personality Disorder. So perhaps Hare and Babiak just need a new edition of the DSM to catch up with ever-changing definitions.

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Sixofone Feb. 2, 2012 @ 7:56 a.m.

Yo Matt,

Perfectly reasonable explanation for your use of "psychopath". Can't expect you to use the current term if the experts you interviewed are still using an outdated one.



Matthew_Alice Feb. 2, 2012 @ 11:34 a.m.

Thanks. Seemed reasonable and responsible to me, too.


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