Friday, July 12, 2013

A rose by any other name

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."

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.
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?


  1. This is not an answer to the question immediately above.

    Isolation totally affects whether you develop a discernible conscience.

    That being said I wonder whether more sociopaths (real ones) in the US are from urban or non-urban areas. Since a majority of sociopaths in the US are privileged, white, and predominately male, I venture to guess that more are from the non-urban areas.

  2. i think the real test lies 100 per cent in that moment when you decide whether or not you are going to act on the impulse.

    i am certainly an empath, i know because i have been around sociopaths all my life. i realize it's probably because i am somewhat of an enabler or an accessory. i am always hitler's albert speer, along for the ride but never quite involved with the actual mayhem. i love the games, but when the time comes to actually execute the plan, knowing i can do it is enough. my sociopaths always have to take the next step. to me, knowing i can ruin lives and end marriages and such with so much as a phone call gets me off more than actually doing it.

    i don't know if others think like me. maybe a lot of us would have stabbed or blown up the bull frogs, or at the very least, wondered about it. acting on the impulse is what outs the sociopath, not the thought process.

    if skip had been a shintoist, i doubt he would have cared what his beliefs were for the moment as far as respecting life. my soon-to-be ex husband considers himself to be a man of faith (fart noise) but that has always been very easy for him to push aside when there's something more interesting that conflicts with his beliefs.

    if you could truly blend in, would you? skip showed his sister what he was doing, and from what i've seen, anytime one of my sociopaths is doing something sociopathic, he always has to show someone he shouldn't a peek of what he's doing, which often leads to his plan going over less than perfectly.

    in more group-oriented societies, this kind of behavior probably wouldn't be met with the fear and alienation that we respond to it with here. this response, from what i've seen, makes social climbling that much easier.


  3. "...perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation."

    My guess would be, on the darker side of the coin, a seeming "cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation" for a Shinto sociopath would be another guise, influenced by underlying opportunities (or lack thereof)"to break the rules with positive result" within that society; overriding social values and influential power components in its culture.

  4. For Ex.


    Short answer:

    The thoughts and impulses make the sociopath. Not necessarily, the behavior.

  5. Having read her book, I believe Dr. Stout would believe the Shinto version of Skip to be a sociopath. A sociopath is not defined by his actions (any of us can use others) but by his (or her, obviously) lack of conscience, emotional bonds with others and the intense emotions that go along with those bonds.

  6. The problem is that psychological labels are based upon behaviours, which are subject to environment as well as underlying neurophysiology, so that behavioural labels don't define a person by their genes or their brain structure.

    All that matters, is that Skip has a certain kind of brain regardless of behaviour.

  7. The Cherokee Legend of Two Wolves seems applicable here.

    What I struggle with most is the glorification of "conscience"- and the idea that emotional impulses to act in a conforming manner are where "goodness" is located within the human soul. There's a fine line between conscience and conformity. Conformity is prosocial until you run into a sick power structure that takes over an organization (or a government). The "herd" mentality is respectful of human life until a Hitler type figure is able to channel the collective latent hostile impulses within his multitude of followers. That rage, which has been sublimated into service of the collective, can now be weaponized for the purposes of whoever sits at the the power structure.

    Sociopaths don't buy into the herd mentality. If they participate in scapegoating that leads to genocide (and similarly hateful acts) it's because going along with the group acts as a smokescreen for their inherent love of killing. It's certainly not for "love of country". The human tendency to scapegoat is the achilles heel of a conscience in a person who otherwise wants to be good. Nonconformity to culturally mandated conscience can produce a unique quality of virtue to a culture whose morality has been hijacked by an evil individual who has the capacity to manipulate groupthink for his own darker purposes.

    Although I am not suggesting that there is no merit in guiding young sociopaths down a path that enables positive social participation, I do not believe that "proper socialization" is the root of virtue. Virtue is born from the individual right to choose. Getting back to the "two wolves" legend I've referenced above, I think that people with sociopathic wiring "hear the wolves" louder than the rest of us do. Empaths hear the whispers of primitive conscience that calls them to conform so they are less aware of the battle of the two wolves within. Primitive conscience is driven by an external locus of control.

    The sociopath has no primitive conscience, yet is capable of moral action. Because of the fierce individualism of this temperament, the locus of control is internal. From that place, virtue can be chosen, just as evil is chosen. Society fears those who can not be easily manipulated. Empaths make "better" social animals. But- make no mistake about it- all of us have the capacity for evil, regardless of socialization.

    1. Define scapegoating, please.

    2. Empaths are less aware of the battle of good and evil? Your delusional. Your whole post is a lie.....

    3. @ 6:08 -Scapegoating is choosing a target (usually a person or people group) to bear the full weight of your aggressive impulses, even if they were not the original cause of the distress leading to those impulses. Human sacrifice is the ultimate example of this; a people group is cleansed of collective "badness" through the elimination/sacrifice of a designated scapegoat.

      On a singular level: Jesus Christ served as a scapegoat for the Roman authorities and Pharisees and his death was sanctioned by the ambivalent Pontious Pilate with the hopes of preventing an uprising of the Jewish population that was seeking a messiah to liberate them from enslavement.

      On a group level: Hitler encouraged the German people to scapegoat and murder Jews, homosexuals and other "deviants" as the price of ushering in a Third Reich.

      @6:11- wow- to pick a fight so early you must've had a lot of coffee.

      You are entitled to your opinion, but I'd like to clarify that I did NOT say that empaths are less aware of the battle of good and evil. I said that empaths hear more whispers of primitive conscience so they are less aware of the constant battle of the "two wolves". By that I meant that empaths must deal with a lot more "white noise" because they care what other people think. The sociopath can tune out that noise and be more attuned to an internal battle between the warring drives of good and evil that exist within us ALL.

      It's not that an empath is morally inferior to a sociopath- it's that the first version of conscience an empath manifests is usually an amalgam of cultural/parental influence. The behavior is prosocial, but there is little thought given to the "why" something is good. It's blind obedience to indoctrination because the internal sensation of guilt provides a zap of punishment when the individual violates group norms.

      When children learn to ride a bike, they often use training wheels to help them balance. What keeps young children from hurting others is a desire to avoid punishment/receive praise. (corresponding to Kohlberg moral development stages 1 and 2, possibly 3) Early conscience keeps behavior on the metaphorical straight and narrow in a similar fashion. Good action is achieved, but not because of the skill or consciousness of the actor.

      A sociopath skips the first step of conscience. They don't have guilt. They are able to be influenced by positive reinforcement (Kohlberg stage two) but are completely impervious to a fear of punishment (stage 1) and are equally unimpressed by the argument of "be nice so you are good" (stage 3). BUT- if they develop cognitive empathy and make an internal choice to act pro socially, they can enter into moral reasoning at stage 4, where they act pro- socially to maintain a social contract they deem to be valuable.

      I am not saying the sociopath or the empath is morally superior. The empath's moral choices are more complicated by emotions and cultural programming, which usually leads to better action when a person's capacity for moral reasoning is underdeveloped. The empath conscience is like having wind in your sails towards the goal of right action.

      The sociopath has no such wind. They have to make it to a place of moral reasoning and choose virtue over evil (no small feat) if they are to live lives of productivity and meaning. It is no small feat to do this, and nearly impossible for the disadvantaged sociopathic child. BUT- if the sociopath develops to this point, they can actually think more clearly (no white noise to tune out) and be capable of doing good purely for virtue's sake- not just because they have been guilted/manipulated into right action.

      Ultimately- what everything comes down to is free will. Empaths and sociopaths alike each have the choice: good or evil? Virtue is not revealed in our sentiments. Virtue is demonstrated through constructive action.

    4. I think what you said about empaths and sociopaths and the wolves is interesting. I would like to disagree and say background and experience can make empaths such as myself very aware of the wolves.

      I grew up in New York City. I saw a lot at a young age and i learned a lot about people. I think i learned more than someone who grew up in a small town int the midwest.

      I think i am a very intuitive person. I always have been. I recognize wolves quite well.

    5. Your exposure to more than one way of thinking likely contributed to your critical thinking ability and caused you to mature earlier in this way. It's not that empaths can't or don't eventually think about the wolves- it's just that they usually think about "good" and "bad" in terms of pleasing their caregivers. Sociopaths are more self focused. Just a different way of looking at the world.

      I'm a bit confused by your third paragraph. The wolves I referenced are not people- they are the conflicting drives within a person- are you saying you know the struggle between good and evil well or that you are good at spotting dangerous individuals.

    6. I am actually saying both. I have desires and thought like all people. I would never torture or kill or anything like that.

      But there are other ethical dilemmas that are more situational for me.

      For example, When I was young I saw a man slammed to the ground by security for stealing food at a grocery store. I asked my grandfather, you was European, what was happening. He told me that bum is stealing because he is hungry.

      That made sense to me. I thought they should have let him take the food. That is what my grandfather was implying.

      People who have lived through wars and financial struggles, etc. Have to do thing others don't. I see things in a logical way. That is what I was taught.

  8. Is a sociopath his behaviors or his thoughts and inclinations?

    Perhaps neither.

    Character may turn out to be a red herring, one of the many relics of folk psychology that we’ll end up discarding in favor of more accurate ways of understanding human behavior. To label someone a sociopath is to make a prediction about that person’s future actions. It’s to say that this person can be counted on to behave in purely selfish and antisocial ways. But statements like that could be examples of the fundamental attribution error. It places the blame for an individual’s actions entirely on her “heart”, while ignoring the specific situation that person was in when she did what she did. The effect of circumstances on behavior is stronger than most people know or care to admit.

  9. Did you ever read a book by the Canadian author Eliot Leyton called
    "Haunting Humans?" The title is taken from what a mass murderer named
    James Hubberty told his wife before he set off for a McDonalds resturant
    in California. He slaughted 22 people before he was put down by a police
    Leyton's thesis is that mass murderers and serial killers are NOT wild eyed
    straggly haired mad men but embitterd social outcasts who have been denyed thier partisipation in the American dream. They feel cheated in
    otherwords. They are what would be called "injustice collectors."
    They believe themselves excluded from the acclaim and social acceptance
    that they feel is thier "right."
    We can see this in our celeberity/sucess oriented culture. The murderer
    wants to be a "winner" but is marginalized.
    Leyton uses the examples of Ted Bundy,Ken Bianco (The Hillside Strangler)
    Edmund Kempler and David Berkawitz. He shows that these people, for what-
    ever reason could not make it in America so they become emibtterd and
    They select thier victims from a higher social class then they are.
    They derive a special satisfaction from having the victim under thier
    control and sexually exploiting them to boot.
    Edmund Kempler was a genius abused by his mother. He targeted hitchhiking
    co-eds. Ted Bundy was an aspiring lawer who couldn't cut the mustard.
    Bundy went after higher class coledge girls. David Berketwitz selected
    his victims from the bourough of Queens N.Y. where he was more likely to
    encounter higher class girls. Before he was apprehended he had plans to
    go to the Hamptons and open fire in nightclubs out there.
    Leyton claims that these killers are jealous and striking back at society
    that slights them. We can certainly see this with the school shootings.
    These Asper guys usually can't "get" the girls in the normal way, so they
    opt to "get" them in another way!

    1. I haven’t read the book you refer to, but just going off your comments, I’d say the argument is incorrect because it’s based on an insufficient sample size. I haven’t looked at any numbers or statistics, but I’m guessing that there are more kinds of serial killers than the ones you list. If I’m right, then Leyton’s argument is instantly invalidated. Perhaps he is actually much more cautious in his book though. If he is describing a subsection of serial killers, a certain type of serial killer, then he could be right. If he is making an argument that he thinks applies to all serial killers however, then he’s committed the hasty generalization fallacy.

    2. Leyton claims that these killers are jealous and striking back at society
      that slights them. We can certainly see this with the school shootings.
      These Asper guys usually can't "get" the girls in the normal way, so they
      opt to "get" them in another way!

      Oh, and this was funny, but no. There is no evidence which links Asperger’s with the kind of premeditated violence displayed in Newtown.

    3. I agree with Birdick here. It seems like the author is describing a TYPE of serial killer, not all serial killers. The profile here seems to be covert narcissism that has taken a turn for the malignant. Sociopaths (who are also capable of being serial killers) don't see to care so much about what people think of them. The certainly don't get their panties in a wad over things like class.

    4. book sounds very good though- you've piqued my interest.

    5. That is very true, Daniel. He had more than Asperger's.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Frogs don't show much pain or any perceivable emotion whatsoever when they're being killed or tortured.
    Speaking out of experience stemming from years of frog gigging.

    1. frogs are going in the direction of endangered species.

    2. They say that about fish too. I do not fish or hunt.

    3. I was not thinking that you fished or hunted, but that is nice to hear. Why are we talking about frogs??

  12. Actions define us.

  13. M E Thomas - I don't find you at all "charming."

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