Sociopaths are described as individuals “without conscience.” Specifically, sociopaths lack conscience because they are unable to experience guilt and empathy. To understand how sociopathy develops, we must understand how guilt and empathy develop. Scientists have begun to understand how guilt develops in children. Studies show that children who experience the most fear experience the most guilt. Children who are fearless have little guilt and less inhibition when it comes to violating rules.
Is fearlessness inborn?
It seems that fearlessness is an inborn trait, as children under a year old have been identified with this trait. There are however, researchers who believe that some of our child rearing practices promote fearlessness in vulnerable children. Indeed many in our society may view fearlessness and independence as positive and desirable traits. Boys especially, are encouraged to squash their fears and be “tough.”
In societies where social bonds are greatly valued, young children spend most of their time in the arms of loving caregivers. In our society, many very young children receive little physical contact with others. They learn early in life to face their fears alone. Babies often spend the day in infant seats or carriers, and the night in a room alone. This lack of close physical contact promotes independence, but it also encourages fearlessness.
Preschool boys are bombarded by media that model fearlessness and aggression. On a trip to Target, when my son was 3, he wanted a special cup to drink from. We combed the kid’s cup aisle and were hard pressed to find a cup that did not have the image of a warrior or a princess! We finally settled for Nemo, who was located on the top shelf, initially out of view.
It may be then, that the propensity to be fearless is inborn. However, the way we raise our children further exaggerates this trait.
What about empathy?
Kids also start to develop empathy very early in life. We know that physical affection and expressions of warmth promote the development of empathy. We also know that excessive aggression is not compatible with empathy. I am convinced that since one cannot simultaneously enjoy affection and aggression, there is some sort of competition between these two kinds of pleasure, during development. Such that, the more time kids spend enjoying aggression or enjoying having power over others, the less able to enjoy affection they become. Enjoyment of affection is necessary for the development of empathy.
Thus, the aggressive models and influences that surround our children quench the development of both guilt and empathy. Violence in the media may not breed violence in all children, but it truly makes at risk children more aggressive.
Sociopathy and choice
After reflecting on my life with a sociopath, I was dumb-founded by the choices he made until I understood the nature of the pleasure imbalance that prevents the development of empathy in those with this disorder. We all make choices based on what we enjoy. The sociopath is no exception. The choices sociopaths make are based on love of power (aggression) as opposed to love for people. This pattern of enjoying aggression as opposed to affection began very early in the life of a sociopath and never changed. At any time sociopaths could make different choices, but they don’t because of how they derive pleasure. Since they are guiltless, sociopaths also lack any concern that their pleasures will get them in trouble.