Thursday, May 31, 2012

The question of sociopathy.

I've been thinking lately about what people think of as "psychologically healthy" in our society, and how value-laden the term is. I think a "healthy" person is defined as someone who can have loving, stable ties with others, can be a productive member of our society, doesn't do unnecessary violence to persons or animals, and is prepared to take personal responsibility for his/her own problems. I think a person like this is generally fairly content with life, which is probably a huge factor in one's health. Perhaps more importantly, if everyone were healthy in this way, our society overall would be a thriving one.

Of course, not everyone is "healthy." Interestingly, it is accepted by most psychologists that there are sociopaths among us, people who were born with wiring that is very different from most people's. The sociopath, I understand, is an individual who lacks the ability to form meaningful lasting ties with other people because the sociopath does not possess empathy. The sociopath doesn't see the "personhood" of other people; he tends to see others as a means to an end, and is sometimes willing to do violence to people if he thinks he can get away with it. He also lacks the ability to experience or process feelings of guilt. Some sociopaths are made, through horrific abuse or neglect from caregivers. But not all abused children grow up to be sociopaths. In fact, very few do. Most abused kids grow up to be quite lovely people themselves. The reasoning is, therefore, that sociopathy arises organically in some individuals. In other words, sociopaths are born with the natural tendency, and then their horrible parents bring it out in them.

Why would this be, though? Evolutionary theory posits that most traits present in the population of a social species are there because in some way those traits benefit the species as a whole. This may not be true for all traits or for all species, but natural selection tends to work pretty well. In other words, it tends to help useful traits survive in a population, and it tends to suppress traits that don't work well. (The operative word being "tend," because there are some traits, like armpit hair, that persist for no real reason. But that's another essay.) So assuming natural selection is acting on our population still, it has found a balance. The human population tends to produce pretty nice people who are good at working together and who find plenty of other people to like and love. But it also tends to produce a few members of the society who don't think like this, who are willing to do violence when they think it's necessary, and who, it seems, are actually pretty good at it.

If you look at history, it becomes pretty clear that sometimes these sociopaths rise up to lead their tribe, their clan, their nations. Stalin, Hitler, Hussein... There is a long depressing list, and I'll stop there. Somehow these crazy nut-jobs get the healthy people to follow them down a rabbit hole of horrors. Why?

I'm no evolutionary psychologist, but I have a theory about this. (I doubt I'm the first, but whatever. It's my blog.) Most of the time, the healthy personality thrives, and helps everyone else thrive too. The healthy people work together to create a vibrant, happy, healthy community that is stable and safe for its members. This worked very well for thousands, maybe millions of years of human evolution. But sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes there is a horrible threat from outside, a threat from other people, and sometimes the healthy people have to take up arms, go against their kinder natures, and do violence.

In these conditions, the sociopath shines. The sociopath doesn't look at the onrushing tribe with their stone axes and think about how he'd rather hide and hope for the best than kill other people. The sociopath looks at them and says to himself, "Remove the threat, permanently." Unlike the healthy people who are preoccupied with empathy and guilt, he coolly and efficiently sees the most expedient way to remove that threat. Instinctively, the healthy ones see how efficient the sociopath is under warlike conditions, and suddenly they're willing to do all kinds of things to make themselves and their kids safe again. In other words, for a time, they're willing to act like the sociopath.

And that is where we get war.

So the question arises: What is "healthy?" If you define healthy in terms of evolutionary survivability, then in some more turbulent milieu, can it be argued that the sociopath the "healthy" one?


Naturally, I don't think serial killers or Hitler have a use in society. These are bad people and we need to get rid of them and control them. I'm just wondering how it's possible that, sometimes, perfectly nice people give the sociopath power. I mean, it's weird, right? So maybe in our ancient past, there was a reason for having these nasties around. In a small band of twenty-five people, the sociopath probably couldn't do that much damage. Not compared to now, when humans organize themselves into thousands and millions... Then the crafty sociopath can do all kinds of damage.


  1. Herein lies the other value-laden term: "productive member of society." Can it be argued that the sociopath is productive as they lead to investigation, research, cures, etc.? Was Hitler a "productive member of society?" He was a driving force in the production of the "volkswagon" or peoples car.

    Is the buddhist monk who does nothing but meditate considered a productive member of society? What is his/her contribution?

    Every member of society must be viewed as productive and important, otherwise why would they choose to be here at this time?

    It is the viewing of others as "sick", "non-productive", "different", "useless" and the matching desire to rid society of them---in order to produce a "healthy society" that brings about the states of war and conflict of which you speak.

    An unreltated side note: I think this is a personal record for quotation marks in one response. ;-]

  2. Hi Amy - This is my first trip to your blog.

    This is a really fascinating question. From an evolutionary standpoint, if the sociopath is sort of a Nietzsche-ian Ubermensch, then they were probably pretty good and ensuring their line continued and it makes sense that we still have them. As to why they evolved in the first place, that's such a broad and interesting question - war's a good thought and maybe also civilization in general? How much of society can be attributed to the work of sociopaths?

    As a side note, the NYTimes recently published an article about detecting sociopathy in children as young as 3 years old. Here's the link:


  3. My ex's second ex (who is a Nurse Practioner) swears that our ex is a sociopath. He has no empathy, feels no guilt, and is only concerned with himself. Your blog was really interesting and enlightening!

  4. Well, I would hesitate to say that Hitler was "productive". I think he's a contender for the most destructive person to have ever lived. The Volkswagon is a pretty paltry contribution considering his record as the cause of the most horrific genocide in all of history. I certainly don't mean to suggest that Hitler and people like him are good for society, not in the least. Nor do I think sociopaths are good for society as a whole. I am just wondering if there is an evolutionary explanation for their presence among us.

  5. Its good to see people are finally starting to think about this topic as a valid avenue if research. When I first heard of it, the idea that the child can be born with the tendancy was foreign. I knew a man whose sister was born with no empathy, and unfortunately also no pain receptors. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for the family as they had to watch her constantly to ensure she didn't harm herself or others. She didn't understand the purpose of the rules they set for her. I can guess it was made all the harder for them without the help of anyone in the medical profession. The queztion always remains though regarding what their life would be like as an adult: can they truly ever become independent?

  6. I've had the unfortunate experience of dating two sociopaths in the the 9 years since I've been divorced. I've also met very nice men, as well. The fingerpint of a sociopath is obvious: lies at will, doesn't seem to have any remorse or shame for their lies, and actually tries to blame you, the victim, for it. It's truly sick and can result in months, or even years, of a rollercoaster ride that is sooo unproductive, it's an utter waste of time when you could just be happier alone, or with someone else. I have learned so much, the hard way. I wish I knew what to look for before I met these crazy men.

  7. Just want to add that - this guy initially told me what a great dad he was to his son, saw him all the time - truth was, hadn't seen him in over 2 years. Left his wife and son to produce porn in AZ. I fixed the relationship and made him get caught up on child support. "There's nothing else to tell you - I swear that's it". Okay. He proposed to me, we were together for over 18 months, I was friends with his "ex" wife...we were planning a wedding. When it came time to finalize the details, he then decided to tell me they never actually divorced. Then found out he hadn't filed tax returns in 10 years, when his bank account was frozen. Then found out the house he supposedly owned was bought by his parents. Then found out he had 3 repossessed cars. It never ends. These guys are parasites, lie on a whim and have NO sense of remorse or shame. None. thank god I never let him live with me or spend time with my kids. I'm still dealing with him - I dumped him over a year ago and he still texts, calls...asking me out for dinner, etc. Then freaks out when I say NO. Stalked me on a dating site - hacked into my profile - paid to do background checks on men I was talking to. THEN he made a fake profile and reported me as being inappropriate, and my profile was deleted, never to be restored. I finally blocked his number, texts, emails and contacted the police. They spoke to him - and he said it was ME who was stalking HIM!! Worst thing - they bought it! Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit!!!

  8. Thank you for writing this article, Amy!
    My question is this: you said that these people need to be controlled/removed.
    Is there no other way? They could have been born a sociopath. They did not ask for it. They may commit horrible acts and degrade others, but where is the line for those sociopaths who simply just follow a code of conduct merely out of a need to not "get caught". If they are not committing horrible crimes, they're still a sociopath, but without the scarier characteristics of a murderous, violent sociopath. What about those sociopaths who have no "blood lust" or whatever you want to call it. I guess I wonder what society should do with them.
    Again, thanks for writing this article.

    1. Sorry, I didn't see this right away. Interesting question. I think you can't put someone in jail if they haven't committed a crime. If someone with this personality disorder is able to function without injuring others, I think they should enjoy the full rights of citizenship.

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