America: breeding ground for psychopaths

by Martha Stout

from the book The Sociopath Next Door

[note: The title of this piece does not come from Stout. In her book this section is simply titled "culture."]

It is entirely possible that the environmental influences on sociopathy are more reliably linked with broad cultural characteristics than with any particular child-rearing factors. Indeed, relating the occurrence of sociopathy to cultures has so far been more fruitful for researchers than looking for the answer in specific child-rearing variables. Instead of being the product of childhood abuse within the family, or of attachment disorder, maybe sociopathy involves some interaction between the innate neurological wiring of individuals and the larger society in which they end up spending their lives.

This hypothesis is bound to be disappointing to some people, because though altering the conditions of pregnancy, childbirth, and child treatment on a massive scale would be no small project, changing the values and belief systems of an entire culture is an even more gigantic undertaking, with a time horizon that seems distant and discouraging. We might feel a little less daunted if we were to identify a set of child-rearing practices that we could try to correct in our lifetimes. But perhaps society is the true parent of certain things, and we will eventually find that, as William Ralph Inge said in the early twentieth century, "The proper time to influence the character of a child is about 100 years before he is born."

From recorded observations, we do know that sociopaths, by various names, have existed in all kinds of societies, worldwide and throughout history. As an illustration, psychiatric anthropologist Jane M. Murphy describes the Inuit concept of kunlangeta, which refers to a person whose "mind knows what to do but does not do it."

Murphy writes that in northwest Alaska, kunlangeta "might be applied to a man who, for example, repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and does not go hunting, and, when the other men are out of the village, takes sexual advantage of many women." The Inuits tacitly assume that kunlangeta is irremediable. And so, according to Murphy, the traditional Inuit approach to such a man was to insist that he go hunting, and then, in the absence of witnesses, push him off the edge of the ice.

Though sociopathy seems to be universal and timeless, there is credible evidence that some cultures contain fewer sociopaths than do other cultures. Intriguingly, sociopathy would appear to be relatively rare in certain East Asian countries, notably Japan and China. Studies conducted in both rural and urban areas of Taiwan have found a remarkably low prevalence of antisocial personality disorder, ranging from 0.03 percent to 0.14 percent, which is not none but is impressively less than the Western world's approximate average of 4 percent, which translates to one in twenty-five people.

And disturbingly, the prevalence of sociopathy in the United States seems to be increasing. The 1991 Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, reported that in the fifteen years preceding the study, the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder had nearly doubled among the young in America, It would be difficult, closing in on impossible, to explain such a dramatically rapid shift in terms of genetics or neurobiology.

Apparently, cultural influences play a very important role in the development (or not) of sociopathy in any given population. Few people would disagree that, from the Wild West of the past to the corporate outlaws of the present, American society seems to allow and even encourage me-first attitudes devoted to the pursuit of domination. Robert Hare writes that he believes "our society is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some instances actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklist -- traits such as impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of remorse."

In this opinion he is joined by theorists who propose that North American culture, which holds individualism as a central value, tends to foster the development of antisocial behavior, and also to disguise it. In other words, in America, the guiltless manipulation of other people "blends" with social expectations to a much greater degree than it would in China or other more group-centered societies.

I believe there is a shinier side of this coin, too, one that begs the question of why certain cultures seem to encourage prosocial behavior. So much against the odds, how is it that some societies have a positive impact on incipient sociopaths, who are born with an inability to process interpersonal emotions in the usual way? I would like to suggest that the overriding belief systems of certain cultures encourage born sociopaths to compensate cognitively for what they are missing emotionally. In contrast with our extreme emphasis on individualism and personal control, certain cultures, many in East Asia, dwell theologically on the interrelatedness of all living things.

Interestingly, this value is also the basis of conscience, which is an intervening sense of obligation rooted in a sense of connectedness. If an individual does not, or if neurologically he cannot, experience his connection to others in an emotional way, perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation.

An intellectual grasp of one's duties to others is not the same attribute as the powerfully directive emotion we call conscience, but perhaps it is enough to extract prosocial behavior from at least some individuals who would have behaved only in antisocial ways had they been living in a society that emphasized individualism rather than interrelatedness. Though they lack an internal mechanism that tells them they are connected to others, the larger culture insists to them that they are so connected -- as opposed to our culture, which informs them resoundingly that their ability to act guiltlessly on their own behalf is the ultimate advantage. This would explain why a Western family by itself cannot redeem a born sociopath. There are too many other voices in the larger society implying that his approach to the world is correct.

As a tiny example, had Skip the American been born into a strongly Buddhist culture, or Shinto, would he have killed all those frogs? Perhaps, or perhaps not. His brain would have been the same, but all the people around him would have maintained that respect for life was necessary. Everyone in his world would have been of the same mind, including his wealthy parents, his teachers, his playmates, and maybe even the celebrities he saw on television. Skip would still have been Skip. He would have felt no honor for the frogs, no guilt if he murdered them, no repugnance, but he might have refrained from doing so because his culture had unanimously taught him a lesson, something on the order of proper table manners, about how to fit in -- a lesson that his perfectly good intellect had mastered. Sociopaths do not care about their social world, but they do want, and need, to blend in with it.

Of course, I am implying that our own culture would teach a child like Skip that he could torture small animals and still be passably disguised among us, and regretfully, I think this reflects a fair assessment of our current plight.