Sociopaths: How Much Influence do They Have Over Us?

Paul Rosenberg, editor of A Free Man’s Take, recently wrote an interesting piece on sociopaths. These are people who lack the ability to empathise and as such have no conscience, which means whenever they act in ways that cause suffering to others they see no reason to refrain from committing those actions again in the future. Sociopaths are incapable of recognising and ‘sharing’ the emotional pain of someone else who is, say, crying because they feel sad; they just see someone with water coming out of their eyes.

In clinical literature a distinction is sometimes made between individuals who lack a conscience but are not violent and those that are, the former are referred to sociopaths and the latter psychopaths, although there is no universally agreed standard for using the two terms. For the sake of clarity I shall adopt Rosenberg’s approach of using the two terms to mean the same thing: an individual who lacks a conscience.

Although most of us would reserve the term ‘psychopath’ for serial killers and murderers, the fact is very few psychopaths physically harm people; mostly it’s psychological and emotional harm that they inflict. They “…make careers out of bleeding our souls…” as Rosenberg puts it.

The author discusses how common sociopaths are:

“At least 2% of the overall populace are sociopaths, and some estimates are double that. Perhaps 75% of them are male, though no one knows why. That means that at least every thirty-third man is a sociopath, and every hundredth woman. Most of us have a feeling that everyone has some goodness in them. This is generally a useful feeling, but it’s only true for 49 out of 50 humans. That last one is a predator without a conscience.”

Their nature and behavioural characteristics:

  • “Sociopaths have a profound lack of empathy for the feelings of others. They lack the internal feedback system by which normal people monitor themselves. (Most people call this “conscience,” which is probably as useful a term as any.) Sociopaths do not have this and don’t feel bad about abusing other people. It’s not that they feel bad and ignore it—they don’t feel it at all.
  • Sociopaths understand that they are different from normal people and learn to mimic normal behavior. This mimicry has a purpose: It gets the sociopath what he or she wants.
  • The sociopath hides his or her difference. After letting it show a time or two—and probably being punished by a parent as a result—the sociopath covers up the truth and keeps it covered. But the reason for hiding it is not embarrassment (the sociopath doesn’t feel embarrassment), but because it hinders him from getting what he want.
  • Since sociopaths have no empathy for others, making use of normal people feels just fine to them. Likewise, they feel no remorse.
  • Empathy, as viewed by the sociopath, is a weakness, and he considers himself superior, because he isn’t burdened by it.
  • Because they lack an internal feedback system, sociopaths are excellent liars. For example, they can often pass lie detector tests, since those tests register the effects of our internal feedback system, which they don’t have.
  • A sociopath is likely to maintain a group of people who believe whole-heartedly that he is a good, kind, honest person. He’ll work in calculated ways to create and maintain that opinion in them.”

And the science that is showing us the likely cause of sociopathy:

“Recent brain scans indicate that sociopaths have unusually small amygdalae (the part of the brain associated with emotional reactions, decision-making, and memory processing). A region of the brain’s frontal cortex, called the orbitofrontal cortex, seems problematic as well. This region, which communicates with the amygdala, is also involved with decision-making. So, the cause of sociopathy is almost certainly organic. Someday it should be curable with genetic engineering, but for now, there is no cure at all. That means that you have zero chance of talking a sociopath into behaving well.”

This doesn’t fully answer the ‘why’ question, of course, because we also need to know how sociopaths came to have these physically different brains in the first place. Were they ‘destined’ to have such brains, in other words was it written in their genes, or did their brains develop according to the environment they were raised in? We don’t seem to be able to answer this question yet, but there is some evidence that it might be a combination of both – i.e. that certain genes necessary for the condition were activated as a result of how they were treated by their parents, genes which otherwise would have remained unexpressed.

Rosenberg goes on to argue that “…training people to recognize and avoid sociopaths would eliminate a serious percentage of human suffering”, which is an interesting proposition, but it’s questionable how effectively we could recognise and avoid sociopaths without being able to resort to forcing everyone to take brain scans. I certainly agree in general, however, that it would be beneficial for us all to have a greater understanding and awareness of the phenomena.

Sociopaths are like normal human beings in the sense that they will seek to achieve their goals with the least effort, which is why they are naturally drawn to environments where there are hierarchies because they represent a socially acceptable way to gain power over people. Some may be content with being the chairman of the local neighbourhood watch scheme, or some may desire the kind of power that comes with being the CEO of a corporation. And some might desire even more. As has been the case since the Greek and Roman States millennia ago, if power and control over as many people as possible is what an individual craves, then there is no better place for him to be than in government. As Rosenberg observes “governments…are havens for sociopaths”. An institution like government provides everything the most insatiable of sociopaths could want, more so than a corporation where there is no power of life or death over people; the ultimate power.

Having read Rosenberg’s piece I had a thought: what if we psychologically assessed every person in the world who holds a position of power in a government in order to determine what percentage of them are sociopaths?

I suspect there would there be a disproportionately large number of them given that governments have been growing rapidly over the last several decades. If that is the case, then this would raise some serious questions about what it means to obey the laws and regulations people in government impose upon us. According to the theory of democracy, the law is the way we enforce morality and the way we achieve virtue. But if sociopaths are having some degree of direct influence on the nature of the law, then rather than being good and achieving virtue by obeying the law we could often be actually behaving in ways that suit those who have no conscience. And that’s the opposite of what any sane society would want to do.

Having sociopaths determine the law is like asking one to help you decide upon a set of moral principles to guide your behaviour. The guy who, when you mention morality, tilts his head to one side like a confused puppy is the last person you should ask for advice on how to be good.

If I may be crude: governments attract sociopaths like shit attracts flies, which might be a cliché but it’s true. From society’s point of view that’s the worst place for sociopaths to be because governments control and monopolise the most important aspects of society – such as money and credit supply, interest rates, and conflict resolution; things so economically and socially profound that they determine economic stability (or rather instability) and whether the general standard of living rises or falls over generations, and how well individual liberty is protected (or not).

For the time being sociopaths exist and walk among us, and we may never be able to prevent this if the cause of sociopathy is as much the result of abuse in childhood as it is genetics. But we do have control over whether governments, the ultimate playgrounds for sociopaths, exist. The only way we can minimise or eradicate the impact sociopaths have on our lives is by fully utilising the one thing we have that they don’t in order to withdraw our moral sanction for the State: our conscience.

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