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Is Norman Osborn really a psychopath? A psychiatrist looks at the Green Goblin

Is “psychopath” even a thing?

In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.

Disclaimer:  This is a massive generalization and should not be identified as a direct, actionable diagnosis of a real person. If you or someone you know would benefit from mental health professional care, please contact your healthcare provider. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the appropriate emergency number for your local area immediately. Remember,you are not alone, and help is out there.

In Marvel Comics, they call Norman Osborn a psychopath. What does that mean? It’s actually a bigger question than it seems.

As a psychiatrist trained in an allopathic U.S. medical school, my expertise is geared towards knowing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the “DSM,” now in its fifth editon) inside and out. I’ve heard the term “psychopath” used interchangeably with other terms like “antisocial,” “sociopath,” and “criminally insane.” This remains confusing to me, and as a result, loses meaning in my clinical practice.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

I’m biased, because only one of those terms has an official diagnosis in the DSM: Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s also child/adolescent diagnoses that are relevant (perhaps as precursors), such as Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Does any of this apply to the Green Goblin? Probably.

There are other tests to specifically identify traits of psychopathology, such as the aptly named Psychopath Checklist Revised (PCL-R). Although it’s a metric that includes questions more suited to a structured interview, rather than the gestalt style frequently practiced in a clinical setting, I noticed a significant overlap with the DSM diagnoses already mentioned. Let’s see if Gobby qualifies.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Lack of empathy

If a person doesn’t connect emotionally with others and blatantly disregards the idea that other people’s emotions matter, they’re likely to act in a manner that is more selfish and to harm others (intentionally or not). Osborn is portrayed frequently as someone willing to step on anyone to maintain power at Oscorp or other organizations

Intense emotional reactions

Wait, doesn’t this apply to just about every mental diagnosis conceived? Not exactly. Okay, yes, but stick with me. I’m specifically targeting irritability, anger, and the effort to inflict negative emotional responses by others to complete the cycle.

When he’s in the Green Goblin costume, Osborn may look like he’s grinning, but that’s a facade. Heck, his businessman look is a ruse, too. Avid readers may recall some (conveniently orange) USB drives that Norman rigged to substitute as pumpkin bombs to interrupt a meeting!

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Any insult requires revenge. Impulsivity is key as well. He may scheme as much as anyone, but a well-placed verbal jab can really throw that out the window. No wonder Spider-Man antagonizes him!

Violence

Make no mistake, a person does not require a diagnosis of any sort to be involved in a violent act in their lives. However, one person starting or incorporating themselves into multiple altercations over their lifetime qualifies. I don’t think I need to expound on this.

Looking for trouble

This can show up in myriad ways. Lying to his own son. Manipulating groups of antiheroes and villains to his whim. Flaunting his successes, even to his detriment and incarceration.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

The difficulty to “treat” it

Although it’s not a criterion per se, we’ve come to the one secret of this type of diagnosis that’s been a mainstay, its perceived recidivism. Indeed, the cohort studies for testing checklists often resulted from the efforts of the criminology system as much as from the psychology realm.

This is a painful reality, but it’s not hopeless. Ironically, the justice system can be an opportunity to create a structured environment, and a model of behavioral rewards that hopefully connects with the individual’s chronic, misguided motivations.

One problem is the fragility of any equilibrium. If Osborn is captured and declares rehabilitation, is he mirroring for the sake of escape and secretly plotting against Spider-Man? (hint: yes). If he demonstrates his intelligence in a positive way, will he abuse that positive karma to gain an imbalance of power? (crystal ball shows Iron Patriot. Yup). If he shows remorse for how he’s treated his son Harry, does it allow the cycle of abuse to be broken? (hmm … take a guess).

Image credit: Marvel Comics

I’m actually hopeful for real patients, though. Patients with consistent sessions can have gradual improvement in their interpersonal skills. In the real world, there’s no motive to have a relapse to keep the storyline going.

Then again, it’s best to keep the truly brutal villainy on paper, and have our reality be a little more boring. It’s much safer that way!

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!

Credit: Marvel

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