When is history predictive of future behavior? Who can change? Who will change? Can sociopaths change? What is meaningful versus unmeaningful change?
I would argue that history is most predictive of future behavior when the mindset of the individual—especially the motivational mindset of the individual—remains static. By this I mean that short of a radicalized mindset, one can assume that the individual’s historical behaviors and attitudes will not change, at least not meaningfully.
So motivation goes directly to the question who is likely, or unlikely, to make changes in historical behavior patterns. One must ask, what is the individual’s motivation to change previous behavior?
This isn’t always easy to answer for several reasons—one, we can disguise our motives; also, we can want to believe that someone’s stated motive is their true motive, when it isn’t (sometimes against our better judgement). Plus, as change-intenders, we can also deceive ourselves about our own motives, further complicating the task of ascertaining the true motive(s) behind an intended change.
In the case of the sociopath, we can be quite sure of this: His motives will be self-serving (which alone isn’t necessarily a fatal problem). What makes the problem “fatal” is that the sociopath’s motives will be exclusively self-serving. Sure, he may be motivated to please you, but it will be, exclusively, to benefit himself (from his pleasing you).
This means the sociopath won’t be looking genuinely to benefit you with his change, but rather, principally (if not entirely) himself.
And so sociopaths, if motivated enough, can make changes. But one can’t stress enough that their motives to change will be shallow. Now it may not look like this on the surface—that is, a slick sociopath can seem to want to change with convincing, genuine intent. But eventually, often much too late for his partner, the underlying, dominating self-centeredness of his agenda will surface.
This is a fancy way of reminding ourselves that the sociopath is manifestly out for himself; thus any changes he endeavors will be pursued with the aim to protect and advance his interests, his gratifications; not yours.
Let’s consider the case of the abusive personality—more specifically, someone with a significant history as a serial emotional, if not physical, abuser. Can this individual change? And, if so, under what circumstances?
If he’s a sociopath, we have our answer—no. The sociopathic abuser is a flat-out hopeless case; he will never stop his abuse in a permanent, reliable way. The reason why is that he’s lacking an essential motivation: to want, genuinely, to cease his role as a cause of his partner’s suffering.
In the sociopath’s case, he lacks this motivation permanently because, basically, he lacks love and empathy for his partner. This is the sociopath’s essential defect—his incapacity to love and empathize maturely. He is primitively, functionally deficient in this respect. Consequently, he has no intrinsic incentives to sacrifice himself meaningfully (including to make meaningful changes), especially in the long-term, for others.
Can the sociopath cease his abuse temporarily? Yes, if the short-term incentives are strong enough. The sociopathic abuser can sometimes suspend his abuse just long enough to recapture what he wants (like renewed sexual attentions), or just long enough to avoid losing what he’s unprepared to lose (like a doting partner who makes his life convenient in many ways).
But bear in mind the shelf-life for his changes will be temporary; also, i think it bears repeating, these changes will be driven to improve his, not your, sense of security and comfort.
Conversely, where you have an abusive individual who is capable of feeling love and empathy for his partner, it is possible that he may reach a point of recognition that he no longer wants to be a cause, through his abuse, of his partner’s suffering. This is where the kernel of hope lies and where the work begins–from the recognition that one can no longer justify, or rationalize, being a source of suffering to another. However this requires a capacity to empathize; and where one feels love, as well as empathy, for one’s victims, then one has a chance to begin to work through one’s abusiveness.
Unfortunately chronic abusiveness is often associated with, and supported by, a highly narcissistic mindset, in which capacities for mature love and empathy are limited. This explains why it is often very difficult to treat successfully chronic relationship abusers.
(This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)