There is increasing evidence that psychopathy results from an interaction between genes and environment. In fact the genes responsible and their interactions with early life experiences have already begun to be elucidated. (See Bad Nature Bad Nurture). Eventually individuals we call sociopaths will be shown to have extremes of physiology that contribute to the disorder. Note that I say extremes of physiology; there will always be people who have various physiological findings in common with individuals with psychopathy who do not manifest the disorder.
I spend many hours a week talking with people who have been victimized by psychopathic individuals. This past week, a severely affected psychopathic man gave testimony in court that painted himself in a good light. Specifically, all of the testimony was a lie and everything he does wrong, he denied and replaced these acts with the correct course of action. In my opinion, this indicates this psychopathic man has full awareness of:
1. What he did.
2. How others would view what he did.
3. What the correct course of action should have been.
With this little story, I have set the stage to discuss something that is not talked about much. That is the severity of the manifestation of psychopathy is a choice. For various and even random reasons a person with abnormal physiology could make good choices and that would change the course of the disorder. I view the “disorder” as a condition that makes the choice to harm others more likely. I also think that decisions to harm others can start very early in life for these people, but a sizable percentage don’t start with the choices until their 20s. Joey Buttafuocco is a good example of that kind of person. For more see Getting It Through My Thick Skull: Why I Stayed, What I Learned, and What Millions of People Involved with Sociopaths Need to Know
This past week an article about how Judges might consider psychopathy in sentencing was published in science and discussed on NPR. When Judges had knowledge the person was psychopathic they tended to give longer sentences. However, when Judges received evidence of psychopathy and physiological disturbance they tended to give shorter sentences. The shorter sentences presumably resulted from the belief that physiology diminished choice. Punishment is based on the notion that a choice was made to perform the crime… less choice less punishment.
Logically, it doesn’t make sense to give a person who has diminished choice a shorter sentence if that means the person will return to society to do more bad things that are beyond their control.
In Just Like His Father (2006) I ask the question, “If society were to stop holding psychopaths/sociopaths accountable for their actions what would we do with them?” This question will be increasingly important as science progresses.