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Lack of remorse more significant of sociopathy than lack of empathy?

Sometimes I like to revisit, churn all over again, a prior concern around sociopathy. A number of colleagues were recently stressing the defective quality of empathy in the more sociopathic clients they work with, while I found myself stressing the quality of remorselessness in the more sociopathic clients with whom I work (and have worked).

In my view, remorselessness is a much more serious indicator of sociopathy than lack of empathy per se. I know I’ve stated this in previous pieces, but well…here I go all over again.

Many people lack empathy for a great many reasons, depending on how one even defines empathy. But clearly this is true—many of us have a relatively difficult time emotionally stepping into another’s shoes and genuinely, emotionally inhabiting (as it were) his or her experience; that is, feeling their experience with them, for them.

I’d venture to say that a rather high percentage of the general population fails pretty badly at meeting this pretty classical criterion to be considered “empathic.” Of course, nothing is black and white: sometimes we find ourselves experiencing empathy in surprising circumstances, almost unaccountably; otherwise, sensing that empathy is clearly indicated in certain situations, we might find ourselves in suprisingly, uncomfortably short supplies of it?

And so the experience of pure empathy eludes many of us, perhaps even the majority of us, often…more often than we might even want to admit.

However, remorselessness is a whole different kettle of fish. A typical case involving a nonsociopath goes like this. One partner, a good communicator, says to her husband, “What you said to me last night in front of our company was humiliating. You have no idea, I’m guessing, how much that hurt me and pissed me off. If you ever do that again, I swear I may never forgive you.”

Her husband, if he’s really honest, might say, “You know what? I really don’t have any idea. I didn’t see, and still don’t, why what I said was that big a deal. I was trying to be funny. I didn’t think you’d take it so personally.”

This husband, we might say, lacks empathy. We don’t even need to know what he said that aroused his wife’s ire to surmise that, here, in this example, taken from a couples session I facilitated recently, he is demonstrating less than optimal empathy.

But he also added, sincerely, “I’m sorry. I am. I’m sorry I hurt you so much. I won’t do that again.”

His wife was only somewhat appeased by his apology because, while it expressed  remorse, it didn’t reflect much, if any, empathy. And she wanted more than remorse. She wanted empathy.

I believe it is entirely possible, even common, to express remorse, sincerely, even in the absence of empathically appreciating the impact of the original behavior for which you are expressing the remorse. This is because, if you are not a sociopath, you can really feel bad for hurting someone even without quite understanding why what you did was so hurtful.

Now, in the example above, the partner chastised for his previous night’s insensitivity could have responded differently, reacting to his wife’s feedback with, “You know what? Too damned bad. So you felt hurt? Well…get over it.”

This would be a response not only lacking in empathy but also in remorse. As an isolated, occasionally defensive, hostile response, it wouldn’t necessarily suggest the presence of sociopathy; but as a patterned kind of remorseless reaction it may very well signal the presence of sociopathic tendencies.

In the vast majority of cases, the relatively non-empathic individual reacts with some form of true remorse upon learning he or she has been experienced as damaging, even if it comes as a real, confusing surprise to learn this. Again, the typical response might be along the lines of, “Really? I had no idea.” (reflecting defective empathy) “But I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you like that.” (reflecting remorse).

Where remorse is missing from acts that have been experienced as hurtful, we find ourselves in much more seriously disturbed territory. Sociopaths, of course, may feign remorse, although many times not. But feigned, shallow remorse—remorse that serves his self-interest, not yours—is worth less than no remorse.

A chronic theme of weak, or absent, remorse is thus much more indicative of the sociopathically oriented individual than the measure of his empathy. Oddly enough weak, or even sometimes missing, empathy, doesn’t necessarily preclude some form of meaningful connection with another (although it won’t be empathically-based).

But weak, or missing, remorse fatally does preclude such a connection, ensuring only the possibility of a damaging, exploitive experience.     

(This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake only, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaiors discussed.)



329 Comments on "Lack of remorse more significant of sociopathy than lack of empathy?"

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  1. lesson learned says:

    Sky,

    I think mine totally enjoyed throwing versus out there. But RARELY did he expound on ANYTHING about God. I remember we’d sit down to eat dinner. He would always pray or ask me to before we ate. Now that I think about that, I ask myself WHY he did this when NOTHING else in his life was about serving God or talking about God.

    I don’t get it.

    LL



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  2. candy says:

    Ox – pith off the pig (((((((((((chuckling)))))))))))))) That was really funny.

    I’m trying to learn the Welsh National Anthem here. Thought it would give me something to do! The language is really tricky but if I can pull it off I’ll be well pleased with myself. Something is lost in the translation of the words.

    For instance in English we may say park your car between the white lines – in Welsh it’s something like park prettily!

    Bit like spaths – their words are lost in translation too. Mine told me he would not bother giving me his address cos he was moving somewhere smaller the following week. Guess what he did – turned up on MY doorstep.

    He just did the same to his ex. Told her he would be moving out from the place where he was staying on the Monday – and guess what? Yep turned up on her doorstep.

    Singing pigs ((((((hee hee hee))))))))))))



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  3. Ox Drover says:

    Yep, singing pigs and FLYING pigs before a psychopath will “get it.” LOL

    I do not have any aptitude for other languages but I am FASCINATED by how other languages “work” and your example of welch being “park prettily” is sooooo cool.

    Years ago I spent some time in Africa and some of the native languages have sounds like “clicks” that literally we cannot HEAR…much less reproduce. Also the inflection and the length of time a sound is held mean different things in one language, “La’pa” meant “here” but laa’pa meant a little further, and laaaaa’pa meant “way over younder” and the Bantu had single words that would take a whole, long sentence to express in English. Seeing little kids 2-3-4 years old that were tri-lingual was very interesting too.

    The use of language by psychopaths is also interesting, as it is in a way almost a “different Dialect” or sorts because they don’t quite GET the meaning of emotionally based words like “love” and “caring.” etc.

    As Robert Hare points out, a psychopathic woman will say “OF COURSE I LOVE MY KIDS!!!!” but doesn’t get it that “loving” means that she feeds them or cares for them.

    The lack of emotional connect in language between concept and action for the psychopaths I think is something that we must be acutely aware of in order to protect ourselves.

    When we “see” the disconnect between their words of “undying love” and their actions that BELIE “love” we need to do more than just have a WTF? moment and actually take action to defend ourselves from a predator.

    When we OBSERVE that they have dishonesty toward others, we need to realize that their behavior toward others WILL become the same behavior toward us as well. Not “if” but WHEN it will is the only question.



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  4. candy says:

    Ox – Wow the African language sounds pretty complicated.

    Having a ‘aha’ moment triggered by Dr Hare’s comment. I used to tell him I would die for my kids and he would say ‘of course you would, they’re your kids’ BUT I know his kids were taken into care at a young age so bing bang bosh I get it now!!BOINK

    Something he said just came back to me. The health visitor said he and his wife were not feeding the kids properly and he said the health visitor was a liar. Why? Cos he just didn’t get it. He REALLY does not know what love is. If there was little food (as a parent) we would give it to our child even if it meant we went hungry.

    I’ve had a lot of ‘aha’moments today for some reason. The fog must be lifting.



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  5. Ox Drover says:

    Dear Candy,

    Yep, there are still those “ah ha” moments for me, years out of the FOG (fear, obligation and guilt) in both learning about them and in learning about myself…That’s one of the things I think I have learned that is the MOST important is that no matter how much I have already learned, I am only seeing the TIP of the iceberg.

    I was discussing medicine with a physician I worked with and he said something pretty profound I thought. “Learning Medicine (insert any complex subject here) is like trying to drink out of a FIRE HOSE, no matter how fast you swallow or how thirsty you are, most of it gets by you.”

    Learning about the psychopathic type thinking and about our OWN thinking as well is the same way I think—no matter how much we learn or how fast we “swallow” that knowledge, it is difficult to even get a “taste” of what is there to learn. When I was 18 I thought I knew everything, all the answers to all the questions, and now I realize I don’t even know MOST OF the questions, much less the answers. LOL



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