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Understanding the Sociopath: Cause, Motivation, Relationship

The sociopath remains largely misunderstood.

Key points

  • Sociopaths have no real attachment to anyone and treat others as objects.
  • Many sociopaths feel inner rage which they use to justify their negative behavior towards others.
  • Very little is understood about what causes sociopathy, although one meta-analysis found 56% of it could be explained genetically.

I've been reflecting a lot lately on sociopathy as a function of commenting on television about Jodi Arias, the woman tried for the 2008 murder of her boyfriend. I've come to ask myself some very basic questions about those who are sociopaths, as I very much expect that Arias qualifies as one. Further, recently reading former Harvard professor Martha Stout's book, The Sociopath Next Door, I've been reminded how mysterious sociopathy remains.

Are sociopaths bad people?

Part of what makes sociopathy so fascinating is that we understand very little about what causes it. The sociopath overall is little understood, manifested primarily in the conventional belief that the sociopath has the malicious intent to harm others. The truth, however, is more complex than a single answer allows.

Are sociopaths bad people? It's easy to utter a full-throated "Yes!" for so many reasons, but the reality is that sociopaths don't necessarily have malicious feelings toward others. The problem is that they have very little true feeling at all for others, which allows them to treat others as objects. The effect of their behavior is undoubtedly malicious, though the intention is not necessarily the same thing.

Ultimately, the sociopath typically emotionally destroys those who are close to him or her, but the sociopath destroys them in a way consistent with their unique approach to others: They take them out like your average person kills off characters in a video game. Those in the wake of the sociopath suffer because they have the liability sociopaths don't — actual human feelings that stem from a deep sense of social obligations to others, a moral anchor that is supposed to be part and parcel of having relationships.

An underlying sense of rage

The sense of entitlement that comes with sociopathy is astonishing to those who abide by the social laws and conventions of our culture. Where does the entitlement come from? It stems from an underlying sense of rage. Sociopaths feel deeply angry and resentful underneath their often-charming exterior, and this rage fuels their sense that they have the right to act out in whichever way they happen to choose at the time. Everything is up for grabs with sociopaths and nothing is off-limits.

In relationships, sociopaths are the epitome of Machiavellian creatures. If they were astrological signs, they would be Geminis, with two distinct "selves" at work. They are duplicity incarnate, with a polished self shown to the world and a covert, hidden self that has a rigid and calculating agenda: Assume the highest level of the social hierarchy and win, win, win. It is often the kindest and most trusting individuals who suffer the most at the hands of sociopaths, and the healing process for these individuals continues long after the relationship has ended. Those in the wake of the sociopath are often left wondering, What happened to me? Why does this one individual have such a powerful effect on me?

Causes of sociopathy

In the media, I'm often asked what causes sociopathy. One of the most frequently asked questions is: "Are they born this way?" The truth is that we don't know. Stout (2005) sums up the research well, explaining that as much as 50 percent of the cause of sociopathy can be attributed to heritability, while the remaining percentage is a confusing and not-yet-understood mixture of environmental factors. (Notably, a history of childhood abuse among sociopaths is not always present.) Similarly, Ferguson (2010) conducted a meta-analysis and found that 56 percent of the variance in Antisocial Personality Disorder, the formal disorder of sociopathy, can be explained through genetic influences.

Do sociopaths deserve empathy?

I'm hard-pressed to say that I have vast reservoirs of empathy for the sociopath. At the same time, to see the life trajectory of a sociopath, it's hard to not feel sad that the sociopath has an existence that separates him from the vast majority of "normal" people. They often end up in prison and never truly know what it feels like to love and trust. Just imagine what that existence is like, not just for a week or month or summer, but for life. Do they even know what they're missing? No, but they live in a constant state of hypervigilance, viewing the world in a sterile, game-like manner. They have no real attachment to anyone.

Given the major role biology appears to play in creating or planting the seed of sociopathy, are sociopaths deserving of some empathy? If, as the research suggests, sociopaths are born with a predisposition to sociopathy, it means that they don't have total control over their behavior. To think that a poor child is born with such a horrific, life-long liability is a terribly sad reality. After all, no child deserves to carry around that kind of baggage.

As I write this, I'm reminded of a post I wrote for Psychology Today about a British model who was the victim of a horrific crime in which a man threw acid on her face as she walked on the sidewalk of a crowded city street. At the time, many people responded to the news in the media and called the criminal "evil." My take on the subject was that evil was not a sufficient term for the man who committed the crime, favoring instead the notion that the criminal was mentally ill. In fact, as a psychologist, I don't believe true evil exists. Instead, I see this situation — and the larger issue of sociopathy — as a source of malfunctioning, as if a robot gone wild. We can try to call it whatever we wish, but the truth remains that we don't fully understand it and, unless brain research proves otherwise over time, we may never fully understand the etiological process underlying sociopathy.

The current Jodi Arias trial has brought the psychological maze of sociopathy back into American culture, a trend that emerges every few years when a legal case has all the fixings for a super-sized sensational trial. Day after day, Arias sits in the courtroom, affectless, as if a character in a movie instead of her own life.

While my sense is that Arias is a true sociopath, to see her each day in the courtroom is to see a woman who appears incredibly lost, lonely, and emotionless. In so many ways, she appears to be the perfect face of sociopathy: ever-changing, highly guarded, and empty. At the end of the day, she is a powerful reminder of how complex, dangerous, and, yes, misunderstood the sociopath remains today.


Ferguson, C. (2010).Genetic Contributions to Antisocial Personality and Behavior. Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (2), 160-180.

Stout, M. (2005) The Sociopath Next Door. Crown.

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