Is every violent person a sociopath? Are all sociopaths violent? What is the relationship between violence and sociopathy/psychopathy? These are the questions we will think about here. I welcome your comments and stories.
In his book “On Aggression” Nobel Prize winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz expressed deep concern for the human race. He pointed out that other social animals have “releasers;” these are inborn signals that turn off aggression. For example, when wolves fight, if one animal turns over on its back, the fighting generally stops. The purpose of aggression in social species is simply to enforce dominance, so when the victor gets the signal it is dominant, the fighting stops.
Lorenz said screaming and crying act as releasers for humans as these tend to inhibit aggression. The problem for humans is that we have created weapons that enable aggression to occur at a distance so the natural releasers don’t have a chance to turn it off.
Yet we also know there are those who enjoy seeing other people suffer. In these individuals there is not only no mechanism to stop aggression, there is also a positive incentive toward violence. An extreme example of this is serial killers who seek out victims to enjoy the act of killing them. Some people are fascinated and mystified by the behavior of these serial killers, but actually the behavior is pretty simple to understand. I’ll explain it using two other pleasures with which you are familiar- eating and sex. These are two examples that illustrate the way the pleasure system works.
First, let’s consider eating. The purpose of eating is to nourish the body, but eating is also much more than that. Eating gives us pleasure and can even reduce anxiety. Why it is that eating feels good is likely connected to our need to overeat during times of plenty. Eating during times of plenty allows us to become fat and thus protected from famine. If eating stopped once the body was nourished, we couldn’t get fat. So to keep us eating more and more, Mother Nature made it an enjoyable act.
There are different was to get pleasure from eating. Foods that are sweet, sour, fatty, or meaty all stimulate different nerve cells. People also differ with respect to the pleasure associated with different tastes. Some people don’t like sweets very much and some people are repulsed by meat.
Now consider that sex is the same as eating in many ways. The “purpose” of sex is procreation, but it also strengthens social bonds, is pleasurable and reduces anxiety. We are prone to becoming “oversexed” just as we are prone to becoming obese. There are also different flavors of sexual pleasure.
The dominance system is another instinctive behavioral system just like the feeding and sex systems. The pleasures associated with the dominance system come in different “flavors.” One “flavor“ or pleasure associated with this system is winning at a competition. Whether the competition is a chess or baseball game, winning is a pleasure.
In social groups the dominant members are the “enforcers” as they get to administer rewards and punishments to others. Helping people can actually be a function/pleasure of the dominance system. Similarly, enjoyment of hurting others is also part of dominance. The alphas get to punish those who don’t do what they want and they take pleasure in inflicting this punishment.
What we see in some sociopaths is a type of “fetish” of the dominance system. Just like some people are excessively turned on sexually by underwear, some sociopaths are excessively turned on in the dominance sense by violence.
If you think about what I am saying you will see that there are two pathways to violence in sociopaths. The first is an immediate impulsive response to threats to their dominance. The second is a premeditated seeking out of the pleasure associated with hurting. Both of these occur and the presence of one correlates with the presence of the other because an over active dominance drive underlies both.
Lack of empathy is important to the development of the enjoyment of violence because a person who lacks emotional empathy, lacks the releaser Lorenz talked about so there is nothing to turn off the violence. But it is also possible that some sociopaths have a modicum of empathy that is drowned out by the pleasures of dominance.
The take home message for you is that if you are involved with a person who is preoccupied with dominance, control and manipulation you have to wonder what violence they are capable of. It is like the sexual pervert, you may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg. We just do not know how to pick out those sociopaths who lead secret lives in which they kill. If you know a sociopath who has a track record of violence, please assume the person is potentially very dangerous.