Sociopaths, as a group, tend to be predatory personalities. But does the converse always hold? Are predatory personalities, by definition, sociopaths?
Is it possible to prey on innocent people, and victimize them, yet not be a sociopath?
I think the answer to this question is yes…it is possible to be a predator and not a sociopath, although let me state as strongly as possible that, sociopath or not, the predator’s exploitation is no less damaging.
How one defines the predatory personality makes a difference. For purposes of this discussion, here’s how I’m going to define it: The predatory personality recognizes (if not actively seeks) opportunities for personal gratification, and seizes those opportunities knowing full well that, in doing so, he or she will cause someone else to feel victimized.
This must be a pattern of behavior to constitute predation.
While hardly comprehensive, this will be my working definition.
Predatory behavior can be driven by compulsion, but not all predatory behavior is compulsively driven. When it’s not, as a matter of fact, I think that sociopathy is a virtual given.
Compulsion can be a driving feature of predatory behavior. And many of us can attest personally to the power of compulsion. Compulsion is, by definition, an incredibly hard force to resist. When we feel compelled to do something, even knowing it’s an unwise thing to do, we often do it anyway…and sometimes again and again. Resistance to the compulsive urge proves enormously difficult.
We also know that sometimes, what “compels” us, at the same time violates our general standards and personal values (causing most of us, in these cases, internal disturbance).
This makes compulsion a quite fascinating experience, among other reasons for its seeming power to drive us to actions or thoughts that sometimes fly in the face of our self-respect, and sometimes respect for others.
Of course, not everyone who feels compulsively driven to perform self-violating or violating behaviors even has an underlying value system to be contravened. In these cases, I’d again suggest that sociopathy is likely to apply.
But things grow murkier in cases of individuals who, otherwise seeming to possess and adhere to reasonable moral standards, find themselves “compelled” to actions that profoundly transgress their standards—actions, especially, that leave a wake of victims in their trail.
Theoretically these may be cases where the urge to perpetrate the behavior—the compulsion itself—is so powerful that it’s as if it overrides and corrupts the standards the individual normally applies, and from which he or she draws his or her self-esteem.
In such cases, shame, self-contempt, guilt, and conscious or unconscious acts of penance can follow.
In August an interesting story broke in The New York Times headlined “Star Pediatrician Fights Accusations of Sex Abuse.” It concerned a pediatrician, researcher and writer, Melvin Levine, MD, who is recognized for his work on children’s learning styles and differences. Levine has written several popular psychology/education books on children, and his innovative research has been embraced by school districts across the country.
The front-page story (Aug. 6) reports that multiple former patients, either directly or else through their families—victims who could not possibly have known each other—alleged that, over a period of decades, Levine sexually molested them in the course of physical examinations he conducted with them alone.
Some of the accusations surfaced while Levine was still practicing, others later. None of the accusations, it turns out, was rigorously investigated, as a result of which Levine was never made professionally accountable at any point.
Levine has denied the allegations despite the fact that the complaints were spread across different states, over long stretches of time, contained virtually identical descriptions of his sexual abusiveness and, as noted, were made by disparate, disconnected patients. Thus, the probability of some sort of conspiracy to undermine him begs credulity.
Who, then, is Melvin Levine, MD, assuming the allegations are true and that, over a period of decades—as he was simultaneously contributing undeniably meaningful work to the better understanding and academic growth of children—he was also selecting some of them to sexually molest?
Is he, by definition, a sociopath? Certainly, if the accusations are true, he meets the criteria of a predator. But does this necessarily make him a sociopath?
I could be wrong, yet I can imagine that Melvin Levine falls into that category of individuals who find themselves in the throes of a compulsion that insists as if tyrannically on its expression. I can imagine that Melvin Levine has secretly despised himself from his first, and every subsequent, capitulation to his compulsion.
I can imagine that Melvin Levine has been filled, over the years, with a private self-mortification, believing himself to be incorrigibly corrupted and beyond help or forgiveness. And I can imagine that his good works—his career that, so oddly, has been devoted to the same children he’s abused—derived and evolved from a genuine need to contribute his talents to society in a meaningful way.
I can imagine that Dr. Levine has been living for decades in awful confusion, trying to reconcile his good, perhaps even admirable values,with behavior that’s made a shameful mockery of those values.
Of course, it’s possible that Melvin Levine is a sociopath, and that I’m giving him way too much credit. But I entertain the possibility that he isn’t; that instead, from the first time he indulged his compulsion, he began digging himself as if into a psychic hole of shame and self-corruption so deep and inescapable that, at some point, his survival came to depend on denial and lies and, of course, his capacity to compartmentalize.
Skepticism here is valid. Where do you draw the line? How about serial rapists? Or serial killers? After all, isn’t a monster a monster, regardless of the role compulsion plays in his or her deviance? Who cares what the diagnosis is, one can rightfully object! It’s the behavior that marks the man (or woman)!
I’ve merely scratched the surface of this discussion, and intend to continue it in a future post.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)