Origins of Sociopathy
the etiology of guiltlessness
I’m returning to Dr Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door as a basis to explore the origins of sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder).
Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a deeply ingrained and dysfunctional thought process that focuses on social exploitive, delinquent, and criminal behavior most commonly known due to the affected individual's lack of remorse for these behaviors.1
As I’ve mentioned before, the causal factors for sociopathy are likely to be a combination of genetic predispositions and environmental factors. In other words it’s both “nature” and “nurture”. Heritability studies have found a very strong correlation2 between identical twins who show psychopathic traits in contrast to fraternal twins who do not demonstrate the same degree of correlation. This doesn’t mean we can test for a certain “sociopathic gene” as personality traits are underpinned by a complexity of genes in conjunction with the unique neural architecture of the individual that’s partly shaped through experience (the environmental factors). But we do have some hints at what is happening at a neurobiological level.
…sociopathic subjects showed increased blood flow to the temporal lobes, relative to other subjects, when they were given a decision task that involved emotional words. To enable our concentration, you or I might exhibit such an increased cerebral blood flow if we were asked to solve a mildly challenging intellectual problem. In other words, sociopaths trying to complete an assignment based on emotional words, a task that would be almost neurologically instantaneous for normal people, reacted physiologically more or less as if they had been asked to work out an algebra problem. (Stout, 2021, p.125)
The sociopath has an altered processing of emotional information. Neuroimaging studies show low activity in a number of affect (emotional)-processing areas of the brain, particularly the amygdala3 and anterior insula4, to emotional information. There is also a dampening of reactivity to emotional stimuli (but can be dependent on the type of stimuli). And there is also an increase in parts of the brain that are associated with reward processing and cognitive control (ventral striatum and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) when there is moral processing, decision making and reward5. There seems to be a general inability to process emotional experiences in the way most people would.
To state the situation concisely, and maybe a little too clearly for comfort: Not to have a moral sense flags an even more profound condition, as does the possession of conscience, because conscience never exists without the ability to love, and sociopathy is ultimately based in lovelessness. (Stout, 2021, p. 126)
So the reason sociopaths fail to conform to social norms, and fail to meet social/emotional obligations, is that to feel obliged to such things requires an emotional connection to people that matter to you (be it country, family, or spouse). People do not matter to a sociopath in that sort of way, and so there is no impetus toward obligation of any kind. People are treated dispassionately like game pieces, and the only emotion that may arise are immediate reactions to pain or pleasure, frustration, anger or rage6. The sociopath may marry and have children but is unable to truly love them. They can appear to display the right emotions but it is contrived and doesn’t come from the heart, but is a practiced skill, like a second language, never native.
From the environmental perspective there doesn’t seem to be correlations with early childhood abuse and the emerging of sociopathy - as one might imagine. However psychologists thought there may be some correlation between attachment disorders and sociopathy. Attachment being that natural connection of love and security between an infant and parent that creates a ‘secure base’ both physically and psychologically for the child. When there is a breakdown of such attachment, and the lack of a secure base, a child can grow up with some predictable insecurities. This breakdown doesn’t always look like abuse, it can simply be disengaged or otherwise distracted parents, something that can happen in large families, or when another sibling has a chronic illness, or the mother is depressed, the list is endless.
The classic story of attachment disorders comes from the former Communist Romania in the early 1990s and the orphanages that were kept secret under the psychopathic ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu.7 These Romanian orphans were kept in terrible state-run institutions that had 1 staff member for every 40 children. The children were given enough food to keep most of them alive and they had minimal contact with adults or each other. They were totally deprived of love and attention and certainly no tactile affection. Once the institutions were exposed, compassionate Westerners adopted these children to nurse them back to health. But it was a difficult journey…
…a couple in Paris would discover that their beautiful ten-month-old Romanian daughter was inconsolable, and only screamed louder when they tried to hold her. Or a couple in Vancouver would walk into their three-year-old son’s bedroom, to find that he had just hurled the new kitten out the window. Or parents in Texas would finally have to admit to themselves that they could not keep their adoptive five-year-old son from spending his days staring into a corner, and that he sometimes viciously attacked their other children in the middle of the night as they slept. Western Europe and North America had imported an attachment disorder nightmare created by a sadistic Romanian sociopath who was no longer even alive. Having been completely deprived of attachment in infancy, many of these rescued children were loveless.(Stout, 2021, p. 132)
This was a very high profile case of attachment disorder that looked like it was leading to traits of sociopathy. Children suffering from this extreme form of neglect demonstrated traits of emotional coldness, violence, and other antisocial traits, as has been noted in other studies in many parts of the world.
The thing that doesn’t make sense about the attachment disorder theory of sociopathy is that those who do have serious attachment disorders are either withdrawn, anxious, clingy and have a low self-esteem, or they are cold and aloof and don’t want to rely on anyone for anything. These two extremes are very different to the sociopath who can put on the charm, read people well, and know how to manipulate them for whatever ends.
Many clinicians and parents have reported that sociopathic children refuse to form warm relationships with family members. They tend to pull away, both emotionally and physically. And, of course, so do children with attachment disorders. But very unlike the situation with the sad attachment disorder child, detachment from family is much more likely to be a result of the young sociopath’s way of being in the world than it is to be the cause of it. (Stout, 2021, p. 134)
So we know there are some neurological aberrations that constitute the sociopathic brain, that this is around 50% genetic heritability, but we are not sure about the environmental side of the equation. What about culture? As I’ve been surveying the work of Iain McGilchrist and the nature of the left hemisphere of the brain, it becomes clear that a bias toward one side of the brain can change culture and culture can change the bias toward a particular side of the brain. Could culture be the environmental variable that, under the right conditions, produce sociopaths with the right neurological propensities?
Culturally there is a discrepancy in prevalence of antisocial personality disorder, with as few as 0.03-0.14 percent of the population in East Asian countries compared to 4 percent (and rising) in the West. A study in 1991 reported a doubling of the disorder from the preceding 15 years among the young in America.
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-oriented societies. (Stout, 2021, p. 136-137)
So it may be possible that individualistic Western culture may encourage sociopathic traits whereas collective Asian cultures may inhibit it (or at the very least not give them a place at the decision making table)? Maybe. One place, however, in all cultures, where the sociopath is valued and held in high esteem, is in the war machine.
Sociopaths are fearless and superior warriors, snipers, undercover assassins, special operatives, vigilantes, and hand-to-hand specialists, because they experience no horror while killing (or while ordering killing) and no guilt after the deed is done. By far most people - the bulk of our armies - cannot be so emotionless, and if they are not carefully conditioned, most normal people make forth-rate killers at best, even when taking the lives of other people is deemed to be necessary. A person who can look another person in the eye and calmly shoot him dead is unusual, and in war, valuable. (Stout, 2021, p. 139)
This reminds me of the 2016 movie The Accountant, where the protagonist, played by Ben Affleck, is an autistic assassin come a math savant accountant for mobsters. Affleck’s character shows no emotion, no remorse, no hesitation to kill a lot of bad guys - straight up violent sociopath with keenly honed warcraft. But the character isn’t a sociopath but an autistic who shows kindness to the female lead, to some clients, and ultimately to justice (sort of) - true to the autistic character, he struggles, but at the end of the day has a kind heart (if you’re not one of the bad guys) - very unlike a sociopath. But if you just look at the skilful, emotionless killing scenes, I imagine that’s what a warrior sociopath would be like and why they would be so valued as part of a war machine. It also makes me think that in our Western culture of virtual first-person shooter games, in which vast swathes of our young males spend way too much time, and the role this plays in sociopathic development.
Stout, M. (2021). The sociopath next door: The ruthless versus the rest of us. John Murray Press.
Fisher KA, Hany M. Antisocial Personality Disorder. [Updated 2021 Nov 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546673/
Perhaps up to 50% according to some longitudinal studies. Here are some more details from Fisher & Hany, 2021:
“Although the precise etiology is unknown, both genetic and environmental factors have been found to play a role in the development of ASPD. Various studies in the past have shown differing estimations of heritability, ranging from 38% to 69%. Environmental factors that correlate to the development of antisocial personality disorder include adverse childhood experiences (both physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect) along with childhood psychopathology (CD and ADHD).
Other studies stress the importance of both shared and non-shared environmental factors, including both family dynamics and peer relations on the development of ASPD. Research has focused on establishing the exact gene contributing to ASPD, and much evidence is pointing toward the 2p12 region of chromosome 2 and variation within AVPR1A. Interactions of specific genes with the environment have been an area of study as well, with evidence of variation in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) contributing to the broad ranges of behavior elicited in antisocial personality disorder due to its effect on the influence of deviant peer affiliation.“
Fisher, K. A., & Hany, M. (2021). Antisocial Personality Disorder. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
our early warning system - central to processing fearful/threatening stimuli and emotional responsiveness.
critical in awareness and interoceptive attention (attention towards physiological signals arising from the body)
Seara-Cardoso, A. and Viding, E. (2015), Functional Neuroscience of Psychopathic Personality in Adults. J Pers, 83: 723-737. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12113
Different from narcissism where the narcissist does have a conscience but fails to have empathy. A narcissist will feel the full gamut of emotions but he/she can’t see beyond the self emotionally - they are emotionally blind to others. A narcissist may feel the pain of being alone, without relationship because of his narcissism, and will want relationship but is completely ill equipped to maintain a relationship. The sociopath simply does not care about anyone or any relationship in this way. People are only useful as far as they are a utility.
He was the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989, and the second and last Communist leader of Romania.