There is no debate about the fact sociopathy is a real condition which interferes with or precludes the capacity for empathy and remorse. However, there is debate about how sociopathy should be viewed, and I take a unique and unpopular position.
The etiology of sociopathy is an important area of research that by no means has produced a final verdict on the cause of this condition. The collective research on sociopathy suggests that there are a number of possible interrelated causes for the condition including cultural, environmental, and genetic factors. As far as I know, there is no research to warrant the conclusion that all sociopaths are born with the condition, nor is there conclusive evidence that all sociopaths are the result of their environment, such as lack of emotional attachment.
Whatever the general etiology and prognosis are for the condition of sociopathy, it should not preclude therapists and other mental health professionals from treating such folks with dignity. This declaration may seem shocking at first, but there is a sensible argument for treating sociopaths with dignity. Regardless of whether sociopathy is caused by genetic factors, environmental factors, or some combination, sociopaths should not be viewed as responsible for their sociopathy because the sociopathic condition is not one that is chosen—it is one that is given, whether by genetic inheritance or life experience.
I’m not suggesting that some sociopaths do not make or intend evil action, nor am I arguing that sociopaths should not be held responsible for their actions. From a cursory review of the 20th century alone—and some of its leading figures—it’s clear that sociopaths are quite capable of evil. Because sociopathy is a condition affecting one in 100 men and one in 300 women, most of us have interacted with a sociopath and many have been hurt, abused, or taken advantage of as a result. I very much understand the kind of destruction and pain some sociopaths can cause as well as the fear, anger, pain, and the inability to forgive which many victims of sociopaths are faced with. I say “some” because not all sociopaths are the violent psychopathic killers that the media portray them to be.
Additionally, it’s important to mention that even though sociopaths do not feel empathy, they do have a cognitive understanding of what is deemed right and wrong by the culture that they exist in. Of course we can imagine how a lack of empathy can debilitate a person, leaving one to make decisions based simply on consequences or self-serving implications. But it is still reasonable to expect sociopaths, or any member of society no matter how unrealistic it might seem, to have cognitive knowledge of right from wrong, to agree to the golden rule even for self-serving purposes, and to control their impulses.
Again, I’m not in denial of the danger that some sociopaths present. Nonetheless, I recommend that regardless of the danger sociopaths collectively pose to society, it would be in everyone’s best interest to develop sympathy for sociopaths and to consider doing what we can to help heal the condition of sociopathy.
Why have sympathy for sociopaths?
Again, nobody chooses sociopathy. One’s genetic and environmental inheritance as well as the family and culture one is born into predisposes and shapes each of us beyond our control. What a horrible misfortune to inherit sociopathy.
Sociopaths miss out on the most uplifting experiences of being human: love, empathy, and emotional connection. (Of course, this view is only held by those of us who actually know what love feels like.)
Many sociopaths make contributions to society through medicine, military service, and many other fields of service.
And there is hope, no? Currently, the odds of an adult without empathy ever developing the capacity to emotionally attach and feel remorse, regardless of the cause of their sociopathy, is probably quite low. Nonetheless, I believe that it’s better to stay open to the possibility that some sociopaths could have the capacity to develop attachment, remorse, guilt, and empathy. The latest research from the field of interpersonal neurobiology demonstrates that the adult brain can develop new neural connections and can even grow new neurons, a finding that offers tremendous hope. If we can envision future technologies developed through neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology and imagine how they could contribute to the understanding and treatment of sociopathy, I believe that there certainly is hope. What if the etiology and variations of sociopathy could be differentiated from each other and understood? What if sociopathy could be treated effectively? If sociopathy was a treatable condition, something we could reverse or heal, the amount of collective harm passed around from human to human and nation to nation could be greatly reduced. With an effective medical treatment for sociopathy, millions of children with sociopathic parents might have a chance to develop a healthy attachment, and a large number of people with sociopathy produced as a result of their childhood experiences could be prevented.
Of course, this will never happen if sociopaths are seen as invaluable, inferior, and are treated as the lepers of society. The irony is that many of us who fear sociopaths or have been hurt by them inadvertently “steal one from their playbook” by reciprocating and viewing sociopaths without sympathy. I encourage you to join me in the hope that someday pro-social groups will join together to contribute the financial resources needed to improve the treatment of sociopathy and, however grandiose, the course of human cultural evolution in turn.
If you’re looking for more information on the causes of sociopathy, this NPR story may interest you.
© Copyright 2010 by Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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