A few sociopaths achieve great notoriety, but most live their lives as unknowns.
Some estimates suggest 4% of adults are sociopathic, anonymously living without a conscience. This does not mean they are serial killers. They might not want that kind of heat or be interested in killing at all. They choose to exercise their lack of conscience in other ways, all of which are damaging to other people.
If you have ever had a run-in with a sociopath, you will never forget it. Besides being in shock that someone would treat you that way, it is downright confusing. Most people have learned to expect a degree of human regard from others. When you get NONE of that, you tend to get confused.
There are several theories on how sociopaths are created. Some claim it involves a simple matter of genetics. Others credit severe childhood trauma or frontal lobe damage. Still others argue a complex relationship between nature and nurture.
Here, I’d like to present another option. In this article I’ll speculate that a twisted conscience, or even an apparent lack of conscience, can reasonably develop over the course of time as a result of personal choice. I’ll rely heavily on the work of philosopher C. Terry Warner, although I have no affiliation with him and he has not endorsed this view.
To be clear, this article is pure speculation. I’m curious what you think.
Do people choose to be sociopathic?
No, I don’t think an average person wakes up one morning on says, “What the heck, I think I’ll become a sociopath!” It is not that kind of choice. Most people live fairly grounded in the reality that others are more than mere objects.
However, choice does factor in, according to my argument here. Some people may be capable of becoming sociopathic over time, if certain human tendencies are grossly abused. Here is how it works.
I’ll give an example of how I might become a sociopath in the next few years, if some key poor choices are left unchecked, beginning with small choices I could begin making right now.
My path toward sociopath-hood could develop in three phases: 1) typical wrongdoing 2) chronic wrongdoing 3) sociopathic wrongdoing.
Here’s the situation: I was about to take off for work and noticed that the kitchen trash was overflowing. It is typically my job to take out the trash and I had the distinct impression that I ought to grab it on my way out the door so my wife, Hope, wouldn’t have to empty it later. I think it is fair to say that in that moment I saw Hope as a person who deserved consideration.
Yet, I didn’t take out the trash. I walked right by it.
Most people, when they go against what they feel is right, are compelled to justify their actions. After all, by going against themselves, they are doing wrong in their own eyes.
In my case, I simply muttered to myself the words, “She can do it for once. Maybe this will make her appreciate me more.” That was all I needed to justify my wrongdoing in leaving the overflowing trash for Hope. I left the house accompanied by a feeling of subtle self-righteousness.
For the record, Hope appreciates me deeply and shows it. In that self-justifying moment, however, her appreciation was lost on me. In my self-justifying state, Hope was apparently not capable of appreciating me the way she should and deserved to learn a lesson.
This scenario is so common and simple that you’d hardly call it significant. I did the wrong thing and shifted the blame. If you confronted me about it later, I might become defensive and resist taking responsibility, insisting that Hope really does need to appreciate me more and, who knows, make all kinds of excuses for my actions. Typical.
On another level, this little anecdote shows interesting correlations to sociopathic behavior
For one, I was doing wrong and felt no remorse. In fact, I felt self-righteous. Secondly, I came to see my wife as “less than.” In the moment of my error, Hope was no longer a person who deserved my help, but a hindrance. If it weren’t for her lack of appreciation I might have taken out the trash, according to my little story.
In this mini-sociopathic episode, my world turned upside down. I came to see a person whom I love as a convenient object of blame – a less than deserving, unappreciative type who ought to learn a lesson. In fact, I might even convince myself that it was “for her own good.”
At this point, am I at risk of becoming a sociopath? No. At worst, I am just another average schmuck making excuses for being lazy.
Chronic wrongdoing – a step closer
Imagine that I persist in my wrongdoing, however. For example, at work I have another thought that I should really call Hope just to say hello and apologize for leaving her with a full trash can. But, I don’t do it. Next come the excuses.
“Nah, I’ll pass!” I say to myself. “Why doesn’t she ever call me? Seriously, that woman NEVER calls me! Guys around here complain about how much their wives call them. Me? Nothing. The woman doesn’t care how my day is going!”
I don’t call. Seeing Hope this way, it is easy not to call. This is the nature of self-justification. We do it to cover our wrongdoing.
On the way home from work, my conscience really bothering me now, I feel like I really need to let it all go, bring home some flowers and apologize. Again, I let that thought pass and the self-justification comes in a rush.
“Right! After all this, and now she gets flowers, too? How ironic! I was about to give flowers to a person who doesn’t appreciate me. What a sucker I am. I really need to keep myself straight here. Sheesh!”
Can you imagine my attitude by the time I walk in the door? There I am, smoldering in my self-justifications, seeing Hope as more and more undeserving of my efforts.
What does she say? “Mike, did you realize you left me with a smelly trash can in the kitchen today? I had to take it out and it was heavy. Please, please remember to take care of it before you leave for work!”
“It figures!” I explode. “After all I do, you need to throw this one in my face! Great. Just great! I can tell we’re in for a wonderful evening!”
Of course, this kind of reaction might inspire some choice words from Hope, which will serve as further evidence to me that she really doesn’t appreciate me at all and doesn’t deserve all I have to offer.
Are we getting closer to the realm of a sociopath?
No way. This is more like a typical bad day in an average relationship. If this kind of dynamic goes on for a few years, however, imagine how hardened I might become toward Hope. The once soft feelings in my heart would slowly turn to stone. I would no longer see her as a person deserving of love and respect. In many cases, treating her with common decency would no longer seem like the right thing to do.
You could now say that I am a chronic wrongdoer toward Hope. My conscience toward her is indeed twisted. Her humanity – her personhood – no longer affects me the way it once did. I may even feel the best course of action is to do everything I can to ruin her.
We see this all the time – ex-lovers out for each other in the worst way, full of vengeance and hate that can last a lifetime. This is the realm of the chronic, self-justifying, hard-hearted wrongdoer.
To arrive at sociopathic wrongdoing, we need go much, much further, twisting and burying the conscience. Imagine my hard-heartedness multiplied several times and now in relation to many people simultaneously. The scenario played out with my wife has been simultaneously playing out toward my parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and a litany of total strangers.
Imagine that I become totally addicted to the self-righteous feeling I get from justifying myself and seeing others as objects, as degenerates who refuse to appreciate me. Imagine my sense of being unappreciated morphing into a sense that everyone, in fact, owes me something. Even new people I meet are greeted with this prejudice. Of course, they will never acknowledge that they owe it, so why not just take it?
At this level, the remnants of my conscience are buried so deep beneath the mountain of self-justification that I’ve lost any conscious connection to it. The world I see is a world of objects that deserve whatever abuse I can dish out, after all.
I am now an average, ordinary sociopath.
Can we poke holes in this theory?
Yes. The first hole is obvious. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the research? There isn’t any and it would be impossible to conduct research to validate this kind of theory.
But let’s look at it from another angle. If what I am suggesting is possible, then the common sociopath is really a person with a buried conscience and a twisted sense of right and wrong. He is an extreme (very extreme) version of the “me” that refused to take out the trash.
If this is true, we can expect the sociopath to justify his behavior. A person with a buried conscience may still feel a need to make his wrongdoing (that he knows is wrong on some level) seem right.
A person without a conscience would not need to justify his behavior at all. To this person, horrific behavior doesn’t need any excuses. It is ordinary. To someone without a conscience, there is no need to justify wrongdoing, because to him, it is not wrong.
What notorious sociopaths have said
We will never know what the anonymous sociopath would say, so let’s draw on words attributed to some of the nastiest minds of the time.
I preyed upon the weak, the harmless and the unsuspecting. This lesson I was taught by others: Might makes right.
– Carl Panzram (Serial killer)
Is this a self-justification that he was merely doing what he was taught by others? Shifting blame is a sign of guilt. Guilt is a sign of a conscience. Is his conscience merely buried? Was it buried by the process I have described?
I will in all probability be convicted, but I will not go away as a monster, but as a tragedy.
– Joel Rifkin (Serial killer)
Is he claiming that he is a victim – that society overlooked him and is therefore responsible? Again, shifting blame.
Nature is cruel; therefore we are also entitled to be cruel.
– Adolf Hitler
Is he shifting the blame to nature to justify his actions?
What I did was not for sexual pleasure. Rather it brought me some peace of mind. I am a mistake of nature, a mad beast.
– Andrei Chikatilo (Soviet serial killer)
Is he blaming nature to justify himself? Is he really just saying, “It is not my fault. It is nature’s fault.” If so, he is defending himself psychologically. Those who defend themselves psychologically do so because they know they are guilty.
Can normal wrongdoing advance this far?
I don’t know. This is all speculation. The logic works. The reality may be different. At any rate, known sociopaths have been compelled to justify their wrongdoing by shifting the blame. This may be evidence that they know what they did was wrong.
This means that they have a conscience that they betrayed.
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