Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Natural or nurtured? Are sociopaths born or made?

It seems as though I've written about sociopaths from the time I typed my first lede 27 years ago. I started my journalistic life as a cop reporter and, now 27 years later, I'm still interviewing criminals with at least some passing interest in understanding the "why" of their acts.

But last week, a true-crime reader friend who is even more intensely interested in criminal behavior asked me if I believed sociopaths -- the politically-corrected word for what we once called "psychopaths" -- were the products of genetics or their circumstances. Not having any bonafide psychological training beyond what I've picked up on the street -- and you know what Mom said about picking up things on the street -- I equivocated. I told her I believed criminal sociopaths were the product of a "perfect storm" of nature and nurture ... incomplete souls who are born into poisonously fertile homes or neighborhoods. Some piece is missing in them and they are made worse -- made criminals -- by their families, neighbors or times.

But the fact is, I have no idea.

Smarter people than I have looked at the question, and they disagree. One of the best books on the matter is Dr. Martha Stout's "The Sociopath Next Door." Stout surmises that 4% of us are sociopathic, charmers living without conscience, but with a compulsion to dominate. Not all sociopaths are criminals ... but all criminals are sociopaths.

For all the headiness of the phrase "natural born killers," I wonder if there is truly such a thing. We deal with sociopaths every day in the office, the block, the gym, church ... but what keeps most of them from becoming crime stats?

My most intimate contact with a classic sociopath was rapist-killer Ron Kennedy, who very nearly checks every box on a psychiatrist sociopathy checklist. In 1973, he abducted two young childhood friends of mine, raped one of them and threw both from a dizzyingly high bridge into a remote canyon in Wyoming. One died and one lived ... at least for a while. (The harrowing story is told in my 2007 book, "FALL: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.")

Kennedy was born into mean circumstances on the wrong side of the tracks. By the time he committed the rape and murder that landed him on Death Row briefly more than 30 years ago, he'd already spent more than half his life in jail, reformatory or prison. In 14 hours of prison interviews, he blamed his criminality -- although he wouldn't call it that -- on the world's sundry prejudices against him. But since many people were born in his circumstances and never became rapist-killers, there was clearly more to it.

At the true-crime blog where I first posted this, In Cold Blog, we have some of the most critical observers of human behavior -- especially criminally. I didn't come to answer questions, but to promote a discussion of this topic, which lies at the heart of every true crime we write, read, investigate, prosecute, or mourn. I wanted to know from them -- and now from you:

Is a criminal born or made?


James said...

Good question...hmmm....I think that there is the capacity for such acts in each of us, but its the environment, whether mental illness or external influences, that triggers the choices we make, and the justifications we apply to them. When I say environment, I mean the cage our minds operate in. Our minds are slaves to our bodies, the chemicals and hormones that are produced by our interaction with the world partially controls the way we think and rationalise our choices. A good example would be PMS.

So I say its a good mix of both. We are born with the potential for sociopathic behaviour, and driven to it by our environment.

I'm not an expert or anything, this is just my thoughts, none technical as I can be.

Christina Colwell said...

I wish I knew. This is the question I have been asking myself. With respect to one individual I know, is "salvation" possible or is this person hardwired for dishonor?

Anonymous said...

In response to the question "is a sociopath born or made?", I can speak only for myself. I don't know how often you see a comment from a sociopath on a thread like this, but I hope I can shed some light on this question.

I was born a sociopath. I was also born into a southern, church going, two parent, four kids, and a dog family. I was by no means the "perfect storm" the author described. I, however, was not aware of what I was until just after my 19th birthday. Now, James, you were onto something when you said "We are born with the potential for sociopathic behaviour, and driven to it by our environment". I agree. The raising of the parents I was given instilled in me a set of morals I chose to adhere to when I became self-aware. Mostly because without those, I would have no other guiding force.

To answer the question in short, from my experiences, we are born. The idea that sociopaths are made is flawed, because the haste with which you classify violent offenders as sociopaths is due mostly in part to the fact that you just don't know why they did what they did.

If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask. I would love to clear up any misconceptions that plague your minds.

Anonymous said...

Both. It has been said that Sociopaths are genetically predisposed to be such. While abuse or a bad home enviornment may exaserbate the personality, I don't believe it causes it. The charactaristic had to be their in the first place. There are plenty of people in society who were severly abused in their homes and grew up to change for the better and do great things, likewise their are many people who grow up in good homes where the parents tried their best and the child still turns out "bad" so to speak. So a Sociopathic personality is going to be just that regardless of how they were raised. The abusive situation is basically just going to feed into their delusional reasoning more.