As a follow-up to the sociopathy = criminality? post, this selection from Martha Stout's Sociopath Next Door on whether culture plays a role in creating a sociopath, or even more interestingly, "curing" one:
Apparently, cultural influences play a very important role in the development (or not) of sociopathy in any given population. Few people would disagree that, from the Wild West of the past to the corporate outlaws of the present, American society seems to allow and even encourage me-first attitudes devoted to the pursuit of domination. Robert Hare writes that he believes "our society is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some instances actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklist—traits such as impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of remorse."I'm curious whether Dr. Stout believes that the Shinto version of the sociopath Skip would still be a sociopath. In other words, if Skip's brain is the same, if Skip is still Skip and wanted to kill those frogs but refrained from cultural/spiritual beliefs or influences, does he remain a sociopath? Is a sociopath his behaviors or his thoughts and inclinations?
In this opinion he is joined by theorists who propose that North American culture, which holds individualism as a central value, tends to foster the development of antisocial behavior, and also to disguise it. In other words, in America, the guiltless manipulation of other people "blends" with social expectations to a much greater degree than it would in China or other more group-centered societies.
I believe there is a shinier side of this coin, too, one that begs the question of why certain cultures seem to encourage prosocial behavior. So much against the odds, how is it that some societies have a positive impact on incipient sociopaths, who are born with an inability to process interpersonal emotions in the usual way? I would like to suggest that the overriding belief systems of certain cultures encourage born sociopaths to compensate cognitively for what they are missing emotionally. In contrast with our extreme emphasis on individualism and personal control, certain cultures, many in East Asia, dwell theologically on the interrelatedness of all living things.
Interestingly, this value is also the basis of conscience, which is an intervening sense of obligation rooted in a sense of connectedness. If an individual does not, or if neurologically he cannot, experience his connection to others in an emotional way, perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation.
An intellectual grasp of one's duties to others is not the same attribute as the powerfully directive emotion we call conscience, but perhaps it is enough to extract prosocial behavior from at least some individuals who would have behaved only in antisocial ways had they been living in a society that emphasized individualism rather than interrelatedness. Though they lack an internal mechanism that tells them they are connected to others, the larger culture insists to them that they are so connected—as opposed to our culture, which informs them resoundingly that their ability to act guiltlessly on their own behalf is the ultimate advantage. This would explain why a Western family by itself cannot redeem a born sociopath. There are too many other voices in the larger society implying that his approach to the world is correct.
As a tiny example, had Skip [previously mentioned sociopath in the book] the American been born into a strongly Buddhist culture, or Shinto, would he have killed all those frogs? Perhaps, or perhaps not. His brain would have been the same, but all the people around him would have maintained that respect for life was necessary. Everyone in his world would have been of the same mind, including his wealthy parents, his teachers, his playmates, and maybe even the celebrities he saw on television. Skip would still have been Skip. He would have felt no honor for the frogs, no guilt if he murdered them, no repugnance, but he might have refrained from doing so because his culture had unanimously taught him a lesson, something on the order of proper table manners, about how to fit in—a lesson that his perfectly good intellect had mastered. Sociopaths do not care about their social world, but they do want, and need, to blend in with it.