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Why have sociopaths failed to develop a conscience?

Sociopaths are described as individuals “without conscience.” Specifically, sociopaths lack conscience because they are unable to experience guilt and empathy. To understand how sociopathy develops, we must understand how guilt and empathy develop. Scientists have begun to understand how guilt develops in children. Studies show that children who experience the most fear experience the most guilt. Children who are fearless have little guilt and less inhibition when it comes to violating rules.

Is fearlessness inborn?

It seems that fearlessness is an inborn trait, as children under a year old have been identified with this trait. There are however, researchers who believe that some of our child rearing practices promote fearlessness in vulnerable children. Indeed many in our society may view fearlessness and independence as positive and desirable traits. Boys especially, are encouraged to squash their fears and be “tough.”

In societies where social bonds are greatly valued, young children spend most of their time in the arms of loving caregivers. In our society, many very young children receive little physical contact with others. They learn early in life to face their fears alone. Babies often spend the day in infant seats or carriers, and the night in a room alone. This lack of close physical contact promotes independence, but it also encourages fearlessness.

Preschool boys are bombarded by media that model fearlessness and aggression. On a trip to Target, when my son was 3, he wanted a special cup to drink from. We combed the kid’s cup aisle and were hard pressed to find a cup that did not have the image of a warrior or a princess! We finally settled for Nemo, who was located on the top shelf, initially out of view.

It may be then, that the propensity to be fearless is inborn. However, the way we raise our children further exaggerates this trait.

What about empathy?

Kids also start to develop empathy very early in life. We know that physical affection and expressions of warmth promote the development of empathy. We also know that excessive aggression is not compatible with empathy. I am convinced that since one cannot simultaneously enjoy affection and aggression, there is some sort of competition between these two kinds of pleasure, during development. Such that, the more time kids spend enjoying aggression or enjoying having power over others, the less able to enjoy affection they become. Enjoyment of affection is necessary for the development of empathy.

Thus, the aggressive models and influences that surround our children quench the development of both guilt and empathy. Violence in the media may not breed violence in all children, but it truly makes at risk children more aggressive.

Sociopathy and choice

After reflecting on my life with a sociopath, I was dumb-founded by the choices he made until I understood the nature of the pleasure imbalance that prevents the development of empathy in those with this disorder. We all make choices based on what we enjoy. The sociopath is no exception. The choices sociopaths make are based on love of power (aggression) as opposed to love for people. This pattern of enjoying aggression as opposed to affection began very early in the life of a sociopath and never changed. At any time sociopaths could make different choices, but they don’t because of how they derive pleasure. Since they are guiltless, sociopaths also lack any concern that their pleasures will get them in trouble.



6 Comments on "Why have sociopaths failed to develop a conscience?"

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  1. Thank you for this article. It is truly insightful.



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  2. Lovefraud received this comment from a reader via e-mail:

    I completely agree with the lack of physical contact causing serious issues later in life. I had read about this prior to having children and decided that I would be extra close to them. They slept with me until they were two, nursed for over a year and were almost always rocked to sleep. I cannot tell you how secure this made them feel! Even today we are still physically close…..my daughter and I hold hands while talking and my son hugs me daily and and sits close by me when we talk on the couch. They both still receive ( and give) lots of hugs and kisses on the cheek and it is wonderful ! The value of human touch, so the studies say, is so, so important and is also about feeling connected to others in an often frightening world.

    Enjoyment of affection is definately a MUST for developing empathy. Positive words and actions by the parent toward the child are essential.

    And yes, the sociopath LOVES the power and control. It is so scary. They can’t love people for they cannot love themselves. People are completely and totally replacable to them….it is sick. For example, my ex husband left his first wife for a woman he met at a conveinence store one night (!) and left his second wife for his economics professor ( he was in college with the wife paying for it!!) and left me for a woman 12 yrs. my senior who he had known 30 years before because…. “it was time to move to another situation” Those were his exact words…. another “situation”….telling words, no?

    Since our divorce 6 or so years ago , he has had about 8 girlfriends, ALL of whom he asked to marry him within ONE MONTH of meeting them. When one turns him down, he hangs on until he can get another woman lined up, then devalues and discards the latest girfriend in a nasty break up. He has always written me upon most of these break ups ( via email) whcih I find puzzling, to say the least and outlines why the break up occurred. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, it is the woman’s fault AND she is mentally ill….every single one of them. Of course, he called me mentally ill too! Talk about projection!!!! And he has never ever said that any part of the break up was his fault and I believe that this is because he truly cannot see that anything could be his fault…..they just cannot think that way and are incapable of seeing their part in anything.



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  3. will be okay says:

    AHH.. Little one’s enjoying having power over others… I think that’s what created my ex sociopath and I saw that trend continue with his son. I had wondered what caused it in my ex. His father is incredibly arrogant and condescending, but he is a momma’s boy unlike any I’d ever seen… They let him live rent free in his grandparents old house, they feed him everynight, and his mother pop’s the zits on his back… YUCK!! and he’s 37 years old!!!! Since his mom babies him so much, I wondered what caused it!.. But there it is…Enjoying having power over others!!.. He probably ran the household, just as his son does now.



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  4. awolf56 says:

    I am wondering what is the difference between a sociopath and a narcissist. My ex, who was pathologically commitmentphobic and terrified of intimacy, also had no empathy, no sense of remorse or shame and took no responsibility for his behavior. He would blame others, especially me, for his bad behavior toward me. Is he a sociopath, or a narcissist? And what is the difference.



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  5. Sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy are defined by the damage done to others. All sociopaths and psychopaths are narcissists but not all narcissists exploit people to the degree required for the additional diagnosis of sociopathy.



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  6. arlenejohnson57 says:

    I can not go of loving my children who were disconnected with me. It hurts me to see how loving we were together and now they are so unempathetic. Knowing they may well turn out to be adults the same way as their father is something sometimes I can not bear. I am older so it is not like I can erase those memories nor the bonding> No matter what I do I can not seem to go beyond it. I guess that means your normal I suppose because I always believed in bonding with your loved ones.



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