What creates a sociopath?

by Marc Wilson / 07 January, 2018

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. Photo/Robert Viglasky

When it comes to creating sociopaths, parents and bad childhood experiences are largely to blame.

I record all my classes so that students can use the recordings for revision, catching up or because they’re bored. But I tell them these aren’t an alternative to actually being there: they can’t, for instance, ask questions. I also say that missing all the lectures then sitting down to binge-watch the recordings will not be fun – after all, anyone who’s tried to binge on Game of Thrones will, at best, lose focus after the first eight hours or, at worst, be deeply traumatised.

Against my own advice, I am binge-watching Sherlock. One episode a night. It is a shameful admission that I’ve not watched the high jinks of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman before now, but I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.

That said, one thing that grates is Holmes’s protestations that he is a “high-functioning sociopath”. First, his presentation is more autism spectrum than anything else and, second, I don’t actually know what a sociopath is – even though the term comes up in the context of psychological crime dramas and appears similar to what I’d call a psychopath. Psychopath, sociopath, same wine, different bottles?

The label “psychopath” was coined in 1915 by German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. It pertains to a syndrome that includes personality and emotional deficits – lack of empathy and conscience, unreliability, grandiosity and self-absorption, among others. Psychopathy is most commonly “diagnosed” using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R. The Department of Corrections, for example, has done thousands of PCL-R assessments on the people who find their way into our penal system.

It’s estimated that 1-3% of men are psychopaths, and maybe up to 1% of women, and these percentages are thought to be relatively stable over time, place and social stratum. For this reason (and a few others), those in the know think psychopathy has an evolutionary basis that is reflected in strong genetic foundations.

I’ve written elsewhere about the organisational psychopath: a person who has the personality and emotional deficits, but not the irresponsible lifestyle that often goes along with the condition.

Psychopathic traits are more common in people who study towards commerce degrees, and that may explain part of the interest in the organisational psychopath. Interestingly, non-psychopaths who start commerce studies are more likely to drop out or shift to another degree, whereas high-psychopathy arts (or science) students are more likely to shift into commerce. Clearly, business is seen as a way to grab the goodies.

And the sociopath? To the eye, it’s hard to tell the difference between a sociopath and the psychopath, because they behave in similar ways. To the experts, the difference is in how they come about. If psychopathy is an evolutionary type, sociopathy is, well, social. That’s to say, it’s the product of socialisation.

To quote a beautiful characterisation by US professor of criminal justice Anthony Walsh and assistant professor Huei-Hsia Wu, “Sociopaths develop the kind of emotional calluses that psychopaths are apparently born with primarily through inadequate socialisation and hostile childhood experiences.”

Psychopaths are born, and sociopaths made. By parents, to a large extent. Make sure you hug your kids, particularly your little boys.

Back to Sherlock. Sure, there are numerous examples of high-psychopathy individuals achieving heroic things – psychobiographers have suggested the names of prominent prime ministers, test pilots and entrepreneurs alongside the cult leaders and serial killers.

I suppose Sherlock could rank among them. Except that, to me anyway, he has a moral compass. When he contravenes societal moral norms, it’s for a greater good. All the experts would probably agree on this – it’s the moral deficit that is most problematic for our society, and Sherlock doesn’t have enough of it. Which is not to say he isn’t a bit narcissistic. But if I was played by Cumberbatch, I’d probably feel the same.

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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