A couple years ago, a friend of mine on Facebook (question for people reading this in 2016: Is Facebook still ubiquitous, or is it Friendster yet?) asked “Does anybody know anything about Sociopaths?” I went and googled “Sociopaths” and that landed me on a fascinating blog: Sociopathworld.com. I discovered a candid, articulate exposition hosted by a self-acknowledged sociopath who goes, online, by the initials “M.E.”
M.E.’s frank discussion (with LOTS of interesting, relevant comments by readers) of topics such as “Do Sociopaths Love?” “Do Sociopaths Know They Are Sociopaths?” “Sociopathic Children” triggered in me a lightning storm of thoughts about, not only sociopathy, but more wide-ranging questions about general human nature.
Right around the same time, it seemed like you couldn’t put NPR on your radio without hearing an interview of some author with the latest book on the subject. These people have a lot of useful information for most readers, but, honestly, for the real uncensored insights made possible in an anonymous blog written by someone close to the topic, M.E. is da man. (Actually, upon returning to the blog, I just discovered that M.E. is a woman! Of course, it’s interesting that I assumed otherwise.)
So, here is my perspective, a musing about human nature inspired by contemplating sociopathy, with tons and tons of deference to 1) The psychology and mental health professions, and 2) M.E..
Definitions and Terms:
(Disclaimer – these are MY definitions and terms, for the purposes of this discussion. I may not be using the terms exactly the way others do, which is why I am taking the time to explain them here.)
Empathy: An involuntary response to another person’s experience, such that we feel some echo of the suffering or happiness that we perceive them feeling. In this essay, I use empathy, sympathy, and compassion interchangeably, switching around just so I don’t get tired of one term.
A sociopath is someone who does not have the same level of built-in, hard-wired empathy for other humans and animals that most people have. Sociopaths simply do whatever is in their perceived narrow self interest, that they calculate they can get away with.
Sociopath vs. Psychopath: A lot of people use these terms interchangeably. Meanwhile, mental health professionals have left both terms behind and refer to “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” For my discussion, I continue to use the old, popular terms, and I maintain the distinction that I believe formerly came along with them. A psychopath is a sociopath who also suffers from a mental disconnection from reality on some level. The people who commit horrible murders and who abduct and torture people are probably psychopaths. A sociopath, while perhaps feeling the same lack of sympathy for the victims as a psychopath, would be more tuned in to societal norms, and possible personal repercussions for such extreme behavior. Also, psychopaths are more likely to be driven by “crazy” things, such as voices in their heads, or outlandish and uncontrollable urges. A sociopath, on the other hand, is more likely to be motivated towards their acts of cruelty out of a need to alleviate boredom, pragmatic selfishness, or intellectual curiosity about the psychology of the victims. I am mostly interested in talking about “mere” sociopaths. Psychopaths are so extreme that they tell us less about broad humanity than sociopaths do. And I’m actually happy to use the scientifically outdated term, with the hope that it partially gets me off the hook for my amateur arm-chair theorizing.
Empathy, Sociopathy, Game Theory and Evolution:
When asking the question “Why would sociopaths exist, from an evolutionary standpoint?” I quickly find myself changing the question around: Why have most people NOT evolved to be sociopaths? Simplistically, one might expect natural selection to favor those individuals who are most psychologically disposed to take advantage of every opportunity to better their own situation, unencumbered by an irrational involuntary prioritization of the needs of others.
This would be true if it were not for the facts that 1) Humans (like many other animals) succeed by cooperating with other individuals. 2) Because of the way brains work, the most essential, life-preserving mental processes need to take place on an automatic (unconscious) level, not on a level of higher (but slower) reasoning.
Being able to factor in the needs of others is adaptive for an individual on several levels. At the core is the family. Most obviously, parents who tune in to their child’s needs will be most successful at helping those children survive and mature and pass along their genes to future generations. However, it is also in the survival interests of a child to do what they can, within their abilities, to be helpful to the parents, because parents who are healthier and stronger are better able to care for their children. Similarly, it is in a child’s survival interests to look out for the well-being of their siblings, and any other family relatives with whom they must cooperate and rely upon day to day. And same goes with non-family members who are part of the close-knit tribe, even if they are not genetically related, or only distantly so. For small children, this is mostly a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” principle; for older children and adults, with their capacity to reciprocally share resources and skills, it becomes “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
Now, in addition to the adaptive benefits that come from having a tendency to aid others in one’s social group, there is also a benefit simply in being perceived by others as a reliable non-threat. Since humans operate in groups, and must live and act in proximity to each other, it would be a great drain on our mental focus if we needed to be constantly vigilant against the possible threats born by those around us. Likewise, it would be a drain on the capacities of those upon whom we relied for cooperative efforts, if they needed to be constantly vigilant against us. In order to be someone who does not elicit a vigilance response in the other humans that we regularly interact with, or even just share space with, it is important to have a sense of their point of view, and their needs, and the motivation to take those needs into account as we construct our own behaviors. If we are able to successfully anticipate the needs of others whom we are frequently in proximity to, and enact that sense through our behaviors, then those others can learn to relax their vigilance around us, in other words to trust us. When we are trusted, we receive support, cooperation, and, at the very least, the freedom to pursue our goals without challenge and obstruction.
Of course, survival also depends on knowing how to perceive and fight off threats from other people who are not intent on cooperating. There is a branch of mathematics, called Game Theory, that formally studies models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent decision makers (thank you Wikipedia.) In computer simulations, game theorists have found that the most adaptive strategy in a multi-player setting that requires a balance of cooperation and self-protection is one that they have named “Tit For Tat.” The approach of “Tit For Tat” is to offer tentatively helpful, trust-building behaviors, and continue this way as long as the other player reciprocates. If, on the other hand, the other player at some point responds aggressively to cooperative gestures, then the Tit-for-Tat program will retaliate, and lower it’s estimation of that players trust-worthiness until the other player adjusts it’s behavior to a more cooperative style.
Compassion as Instinct
I believe that for most humans (and probably most social animals) something similar to “Tit-for Tat” has evolved as a basic aspect of our psychology. This allows us to relax our vigilance around trustable people, so that we can gain the full benefits of social cooperation, while still being primed to defend against those who show themselves to be threats. I believe that that the capacity to feel the pain, joy and needs of others (who have not disqualified themselves for this consideration) has evolved in most humans as an instinctual response, similar to hunger, thirst, tiredness, or sexual attraction. We don’t have time to pause and calculate with our rational, conscious minds, in every situation, “what might this other person be feeling? Will it ultimately benefit me, even indirectly, to support them?” just like we don’t rely on conscious reasoning to decide that it’s time to eat, or that our body needs to lie down at this time of the day. Instead, we feel hungry, we feel tired, and we (or most of us, at least) instinctively feel sympathy/compassion/caring/identification for/with other people.
Sociopaths Lack (Or Are Free From) the Compassion Instinct
If you have read this far, thank you, and let me tell you that I am now getting to the point. I have argued that we should look at compassion as an evolved, hard-wired instinct that drives the behavior of most people, because it is an effective social strategy. Similarly we can view sociopathy as an alternate social strategy, one that is adaptive for an individual who is embedded in a culture of people who are mostly hard-wired for empathy. On an instinctual level, the sociopath has nothing driving his/her behavior except the basic motivators of hunger, sex, thirst, curiosity, power garnering, sensual pleasure, and thrill seeking. The sociopath is not restricted by any built-in sense of caring about the pain or pleasure of others and thus experiences greater freedom than most people in pursuing self interest. Compared to people with standard wiring, a sociopath has many more options in any given situation. Not only is the sociopath more free to follow the basic instinct to pursue personal pleasure, but the sociopath, compared to a person with an instinctual sense of sympathy, has an intellect that is more free to follow pure logic and utilize unemotional reasoning and problem solving. Ironically, this detachment can at times help a sociopath to be effective in helping other people. Therapists, lawyers and mediators, for example, who are sociopaths, can offer their clients a detached, calculated perspective that is unencumbered by ordinary human sentimentality.
Although there are obvious benefits to a sociopath in not being instinctively tethered to feeling sympathy for other people, there are significant drawbacks as well. As I discussed earlier, one of the benefits to an individual of treating others well is that it leads to being treated well reciprocally; to being included as a trusted member of the group. Meanwhile, behaviors that reveal a lack of hard-wired caring for other humans will mark the perpetrator of such behaviors as a hostile outsider not deserving of the trust and protection of the group. In order to receive the trust of others and not become a target, the sociopath needs to constantly, consciously, and very calculatedly fake the sort of feelings of concern, caring and compassion that come automatically to normal people. Furthermore, I believe that along with a built in sense of compassion, ordinary humans have evolved an instinct for sniffing out sociopaths and their attempts to fake ordinary human empathy. We are hard-wired to be on the look out for the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sociopaths, once they are found out, get treated as less-than-human monsters, thus sociopaths must work very hard to blend in. Those sociopaths who are successful at hiding their true nature while stealthily taking advantage of their lack of hard-wired scruples are therefore probably on the high end of the intelligence scale for all people. Those who are not suitably intelligent will tend to end up in prison, not get hired for jobs, or find themselves rejected by society in some other fashion. So, I would speculate that there is evolutionary pressure for sociopathy to be paired with above average intelligence, even though the sociopaths who are visible may not tend to be among the smartest of them.
So these are my most basic thoughts about what sociopaths are and how they fit into the overall scheme, the moral eco-system, if you will, of human society. As I’ve explained, my plan for this blog is to ramble about various topics, some weightier than others. This post is meant to be number one in a series on sociopathy interspersed with the others. Please check back for my further explorations.