An Occidental Accident?
"When I was one-and-twenty"
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.'
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.'
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
A. E. Housman (1896)
A.E. Houseman's "When I was one-and-twenty" from his A Shropshire Lad is about love and heartbreak and by all odds, it could not have been written by a sociopath because he or she would be unable to understand what the poet means by "‘Tis paid with sighs a-plenty and sold for endless rue'". Most people pity those who are unable to experience the loftier human emotions associated with love, empathy and even shame or guilt as they are an integral part of that basket of emotions that define conscience and make humans unique along with the negative emotions of anger, fear, and disgust. Those that lack a complete palette of emotions, particularly those viewed positively such as love and empathy, are regarded as incomplete human beings. Indeed some would consider them inhuman; if not in a strict sense, then at least in terms of their behavior. Yet in the West, at least, it is estimated that one in twenty-five people is a sociopath. In absolute terms, this means that in the United States alone, there are about 12 million sociopaths.
Complicated and contradictory as human nature is, it seems only natural to feel a certain thrill for the same things one fears; this is the relationship society has with its sociopaths. What is a sociopath? - An individual that "deceives, takes what he wants, and hurts people without any remorse. Sociopaths don't feel guilty. They don't feel sorry for what they've done. They go through life taking what they want and giving nothing back. They manipulate and deceive and convincingly lie without the slightest second thought. They leave a path of confusion and upset in their wake" (Khan).
Although there is some variation in reports regarding the number of sociopaths in a given population, for the United States the figure is estimated to be at around four percent overall. Others estimate the rate at four percent of males and at one percent of females. This difference may be attributed to the fact that women have learned to place a higher value on "caring" or "interpersonal responsiveness" based on familial experiences with their mothers as role models (Stout 176). This is a curious finding given that females have a greater genetic proclivity for sociopathy, the difference can then be attributed to the greater impact environment and learning have on males than on females (Mealey). Also in some Asian societies (Japan, China and India), the figure is lower possibly because there is a greater emphasis on family and familial responsibility at an early age (Stout 178). Specifically in Japan and China the figures are estimated to be between 0.03 and 0.14 percent! How can one explain the hundred-fold increase between the rates in the US and in Asia? Is it that Western culture is toxic/deleterious? Does Western culture promote sociopathy? Or does Eastern culture discourage it?
Perhaps sociopathy is a Western disease. In the United States the demise of not just the extended but the immediate family as well, the high divorce rate, the over-emphasis on individualism, exalting maverick behavior, anonymity and the lack of a sense of community, are all environmental factors that could contribute to the high rate of sociopaths. Yet to be determined is whether Asian cultures that are embracing to a large extent Western culture experience a commensurate increase in the number of sociopaths in their societies as they ‘progress'.
What is the difference between sociopaths and the more commonly known psychopaths? Absolutely nothing, they are in fact the same thing. The original name for a disorder now classified under the broad spectrum of disorders categorized as "antisocial personality disorders (ASPD)" (Khan) was "psychopathy" but the media as well as the general population continued to mistake "psychopaths" as "psychotic" or "psycho's". This confusion surrounding what a "psychopath" was prompted the change of name to "sociopath" clearly a more appropriate term for the condition.
What exactly is a sociopath though? "Sociopathy stands alone as a "disease" that causes no dis-ease for the person who has it, no subjective discomfort" (Stout, 12). Sociopaths time and time again are actually quite pleased with not only their lives but also more frighteningly themselves.
From a neurobiological perspective numerous studies have been conducted to identify sociopaths and the psychological and physiological factors that characterize them. Sociopaths are characteristically high-risk individuals who seek new experiences with high stimulation and are not risk averse; they also feel little or no need for rewards. Considering these factors one would expect that measures of serotonin and norepinephrine would be low in a sociopath's brain and levels of dopamine would be high, which is consistent with what data indicate.
Studies on sociopathy (as cited and described below in Mealy) have resulted in the following findings:
- Low levels of dopamine-beta-hydroxylase (DBH) are associated with undersocialized conduct disorder and psychopathy whereas high levels of the enzyme were associated with socialized conduct disorder and secondary sociopathy [Zuckerman (1989)]
- High sensation-seekers...and other individuals scoring high on measures of impulsivity and aggression have lower levels than others of serotonin metabolite, 5-HIAA. [Magnusson (1985)]
- High sensation-seekers and sociopaths are more likely than lows and normals to show orienting responses to novel stimuli of moderate intensity, whereas lows and normals are more likely to show defensive or startle responses. [Brown and others (1979)]
- High sensation-seekers and delinquents differ from lows and nondelinquents in the amplitude and shape of cortical evoked potentials; extraverts and sociopaths show less physiological arousal than introverts and normals in response to threats of pain or punishment and more tolerance of actual pain or punishment.
- Testosterone is likely to play a dual role in the development of sociopathy, just as it does in the development of other sex differences: one as an organizer (affecting traits) and one as an activator (affecting states). [Drigotas & Udry (1993), Halpern, Udry, Campbell & Suchindran (1993)]
Although psychologically "conscience is a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment to another living creature (often but not always a human being), or to a group of human beings, or even in some cases to humanity as a whole" (Stout 25), neurologically it must be based on activity in the specific areas of the brain that control emotion as the above findings indicate. Unlike those individuals that suffer from various mental illnesses and often times have feelings that are incongruous with their thoughts (e.g., cry when they hear jokes or laugh when they learn about a tragedy), sociopaths do not experience this because certain feelings are missing from their emotional repertoire; in particular love, empathy and guilt. Interestingly, sociopaths do experience feelings such as anger, jealously and hate resulting in an uncontrollable need to control.
Why do sociopaths feel some emotions and not others? To begin with, emotions are complex in themselves. Robert Plutchik (1980) a psychologist devised an evolutionary model for emotion. In his model there exist eight basic/primitive emotions: loathing, rage, vigilance, ecstasy, admiration, terror, amazement and grief. The primary emotions (and most likely the most primitive) are terror, rage and loathing. These are clearly related to survival and are experienced by sociopaths. Beyond these basic emotions, are "secondary" and "tertiary emotions" that are more complex and in part, are learned through socialization and which are variable by individual and culture (Mealey). These could be termed ‘higher level emotions' and include: shame, guilt, sympathy and love (Mealey); none of which are in the emotional palette of the sociopath. Interestingly, in an attempt to better understand emotions, Robert Plutchik has devised a three-dimensional "circumplex" model of emotions shown below.
The model pictorially describes the relations among emotion concepts, which are analogous to the colors on a color wheel. The cone's vertical dimension represents intensity, and the circle represents degrees of similarity among the emotions. The eight sectors are designed to indicate that there are eight primary emotion dimensions defined by the theory arranged as four pairs of opposites.
"Sociopath" is then a fitting term to describe these individuals in which the social emotions are pathologically absent. What is the natural human state? It would seem that for the survival of the fittest the lack of scruples that define the sociopath would enable him/her to excel. Altruism would seem to be a characteristic inconsistent with individual survival. However, this is not the case, it seems that natural selection prefers Richard Dawkins "selfish gene theory". This theory emphasizes the idea that " the characteristics of a species are determined by genes that cause individuals to think, feel, and behave in ways that maximize the existence of those same genes in the gene pool, regardless of the effects of those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on the individuals themselves" (Stout 168). The "selfish gene" then ‘understands' that there is greater survival potential if the group operates as an entity rather than a bunch of single individuals concerned only about themselves. Therefore in an evolutionary sense sociopaths, rather than abetting survival of the human species, in fact have a built-in capacity to destroy society while at the same time selfishly ensuring their own survival. It is probably safe to assume that humans early in evolution were mostly sociopaths, whose actions and activities were based on fear, disgust and loathing. But over a long period of time social emotions became predominant and shaped human feelings about themselves and others.
There has been considerable discussion about how to deal with the sociopath issue. Does it make sense to try to identify sociopaths - a difficult proposition at best - and to offer them treatment that they feel they do not need? Just like mutations in genes that enhance the possibility that fittest will survive (and that constantly refine or even redefine the fittest) - albeit through the inefficiencies of trial and error - is it possible that a relatively few sociopaths in a society are nature's way of hedging its bets? Can these social mutants actually serve a purpose in society by selfishly and guiltlessly prodding human groups to take chances that they would not normally take? Is it simply coincidence that there seem to be an inordinate number of sociopaths in politics and in leadership positions who have risen to the top simply because they had no scruples or feelings of guilt when they ignored their families and friends and stepped-on and back-stabbed others to get to the top, and without whom humanity could not have moved forward? As distasteful as they might seem to those who are ‘normal', perhaps it was because of sociopaths in society and not in spite of them that certain important (and possibly ruthless) changes in the course of human history took place. To attribute it all to vision, intelligence, perseverance and good intentions might be naïve. That sociopaths have also been responsible for untold and ‘inhuman' suffering of individuals, groups, and whole societies is the other side of the story. In certain respects, it would seem that sociopaths would make the best soldiers never having to suffer from guilt of killing or post-traumatic stress disorder after ‘wasting' villages, torturing prisoners, or unleashing weapons of mass destruction on innocent civilians. Although the ‘father of the atomic bomb', J. Robert Oppenheimer, had significant second thoughts and feelings of guilt after its development, it is clear from subsequent interviews and profiles that the pilot of the plane that dropped it over Hiroshima, Paul Tibbets, never lost a night's sleep after having done so despite having the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands on his conscience (or lack thereof).
Therefore the question remains about what can or should be done about identifying and treating sociopaths. Sociopaths clearly have no conscience and are unaware that they have a problem at all. But if we agree with Martha Stout that "conscience is a creator of meaning" in our lives, then it only follows that sociopaths find no meaning in life. Of course, whether this concerns them or not is another issue.
It seems that the best that can be done as far as treatment is concerned is to try to intervene in their learning at a early age in order to enhance the possibility that they might have at the least, a modicum of understanding about human relations and responsibilities toward others. This approach would be based on assuming that the very low numbers of sociopaths in parts of Asia is the result of culture and less on the genetic make-up of Asians. Sadly, although their behavior might be affected, clearly they would still not feel the positive human emotions that are so pervasive in the lives of normal people as they relate to each other, and even towards other living creatures such as their pets.
Sociopaths present a unique challenge to the study of human behavior. This condition, the result of both inheritance and environment will continue to pose a challenge to those who study it and wish to treat it. Until then, there will continue to be millions whose lives will be negatively affected by their interaction with those who do not have the feelings to know better.
Khan, Adam, http://www.youmeworks.com/sociopaths.html
Mealey, Linda, The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Evolutionary Model,
Plutchik, Robert, The Nature of Emotions,
Stout, Martha, The Sociopath Next Door, Broadway Books, New York, 2005.