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Greenson, R.R. (1949). The Psychology of Apathy. Psychoanal Q., 18:290-302.

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(1949). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 18:290-302

The Psychology of Apathy

Ralph R. Greenson, M.D.


Apathy may be defined phenomenologically as a state of affectlessness (11). It is a term frequently used in the description of various psychopathological states. Apathetic reactions have been noted in catatonic schizophrenics and in depressives. It has been observed as a psychological sequel to organic diseases of long duration, and it is known to occur in otherwise apparently healthy human beings as a concomitant of boredom. In all of the above-mentioned conditions apathy was only a secondary or unimportant manifestation. During the war, however, it was possible to observe apathy as the predominant feature in certain types of war neuroses.

The most striking characteristic of the apathetic patient is his visible lack of emotion and drive. At first glance he seems to be depressed; closer scrutiny, however, reveals lack of affect. He appears slowed down in his psychic and motor responses; he shows an emptiness of expression and a masklike facies. These patients are often found lying in their bunks with their eyes open, staring endlessly at the ceiling. They exhibit no startle reaction; they do not tremble, nor do they sweat profusely. In general, they spend a good deal of time in bed, sometimes with their eyes closed, apparently asleep, but they can be roused instantly. They are well-behaved, complying with all the rules and regulations. They complain rarely and make no demands, all of which is in marked contrast to other psychiatric casualties of the war. In 'bull sessions' they listen to the stories of the other men, but contribute none of their own. They drink little and are not interested in women. They are often admitted to the hospital ward with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.


Read at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Washington, D. C., May 16, 1948.

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