Sociopathy, many experts agree, is a deficits disorder.
The sociopath, in this view, is missing something—things like empathy, remorse, and basic respect for the boundaries of others.
When you think of a deficit—something missing—you don’t necessarily think dire consequences.
You may think, instead, things like less…incomplete…limited.
For instance, the idea of intellectual deficit might spark the association, mental retardation.
Instead of invoking fear, this tends to elicit our understanding, even empathy. The mentally retarded individual is missing something that most of us have—a normal intellectual capacity. You think, this is unfortunate, for that person.
When you think of kids with attentional deficits, you’re likely to bring some extra patience toward the challenges their condition presents. Your accomodation is based on recognizing their behaviors as originating in a deficit.
When dealing with the Asperger’s Syndrome population, you understand their social inaptitude as arising from a neurologic difference. And so in responding to the Asperger individual’s peculiarities, you allow that he or she, on a social level, is operating with less than a full deck.
In general, when speaking of disorders of deficits, we tend, or at least try, not to take the consequences arising from the disorder personally. We recognize the deficit as something the person doesn’t ask for and, at best, struggles to control.
This isn’t to deny, or minimize, the impact of the individual’s difficult behaviors. But in locating that impact in a deficit, we can potentially experience it as less personally injurious.
Sociopathy, however, presents an interesting challenge in this regard. Research increasingly implicates brain differences in sociopaths. Sociopaths, we are learning, fail to experience and process certain emotions like nonsociopaths. Their capacity to learn from aversive consequences appears to be compromised. And they show evidence of certain enduring forms of attentional pathology, involving defective inhibitory and impulse control.
The sociopath, in a word, appears to be a psychologically handicapped individual.
Yet it’s hard to empathize with the sociopath, who himself lacks empathy. And how not to personalize his actions—actions that can cause so much personal pain? And how not to personalize that pain, even if it results from the sociopath’s deficits?
It brings to mind the concept of processing a vicious dog attack. The dog is vicious. It attacks you. It knows it is attacking you. We can even imagine that it knows, on a primitive level, that it is wounding you. The dog needs to be leashed, kept away from others. Improperly secured, it sees you walking down the street, primitively registering your vulnerability. And then it attacks, remorselessly.
While it’s true that we can ascribe to sociopaths (and not dogs) a capacity to evaluate their prey and plot their means of attack, we run the risk, I think, of giving the sociopath too much credit.
After all, if the sociopath’s deficits destine him to interpersonal exploitation, does his exploitation become personal simply by virtue of his capacity to plot it?
Sure, the vicious dog, unlike the sociopath, may lack calculation and plotting skills. But for all intents and purposes, unless locked-up, both will inevitably attack and/or violate. The vicious dog, if it doesn’t attack you, will attack someone else. And if you are lucky enough to escape the sociopath’s transgressions, someone else won’t be.
From this perspective, the sociopath’s deficits will take forms of interpersonal exploitation just as surely as the child with ADHD can be expected to obnoxiously disrupt others, heedless of their boundaries.
From this angle, it’s possible to construe the sociopath’s aggression as tantamount to a hurricane’s damaging your house. The wreckage may be great, and traumatic; but it is the wreckage, ultimately, of an irrepressibly violent, impersonal force.
Arguably, this defines the sociopath: an irrepressibly [interpersonally] violent, impersonal force.
We hope, through our awareness, prudence, and luck, never to suffer its destructiveness. But if less lucky, we can remind ourselves that the sociopath, in the final analysis, is about as pointless, worthless, and arbitrary as a natural disaster.
(My use of “he” in this article was for consistency’s sake, not to suggest that men have a patent on sociopathy. This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)