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A Discussion of Psychopathy

November 6th, 2017 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 94 views | Print this Article

by Robert DePaolo


The following discussion revolves around the ideas of neuropathy, singularism and social detachment as central factors in the developent of a sociopathic personality. It also discusses specific antecedent, developmental factors that could determine the degree of sociopathy as well as the probability that an individual with such developmental tendencies will act out.

Post-natal Incongruence

Research has shown that social detachment can be a precursor to sociopathy (Bowlby, 1952) but such a trait needn’t be the result of trauma or other severe psychological conditions. Indeed the very nature of child development suggests it can take shape from fairly innocuous origins. Many types of mammals imprint based on initial visual and tactile contact (Immelman, 1972). The criteria for human bonding between mother and child and are a bit more complicated. For example Freud felt feeding and general nurturance created closeness between child and mother (Ainsworth 1969). Since his early writings other factors have been added to the mix. One of these is intriguing, both because of its relevance to mother-infant bonding and because of its far ranging implications for the life long development of personality. It has to do with the behavioral and affective congruence between child and caretaker; in simpler terms a perceived emotional and perceptual correlation between the infant’s actions and those of the mother or caretaker (Lichtman 2014).

A child is obviously born under very dependent, symbiotic circumstances. In utero, there is no essential biological separation between mother and child. Both eat and drink the same nutrients, share the same cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive experiences. It is only when the child begin to move, i.e. “kick” in the womb that a first functional separation occurs.

Just how much cognitive or perceptual processing occurs on the part of the infant at this stage is unknown. Whether the pre-born infant “knows” there is a sudden distinction between host-mom and himself, the actions and feedback sensations between mother and child do begin to drift into separate directions. One could argue that this is the point in child development when a sense of self begins.

At birth the dam of independence really bursts. On being separated from the mother the child becomes capable of experiencing duress on its own and in the absence of symbiotic biological support from the mother’s physiology, duress increases, requiring a remedy. To restore equanimity a re-symbiotic relationship must be established.
While the infant cannot yet speak, he can, in a sense calculate his own experiences – particularly when under duress. In doing so the child must be able to establish trust, i.e. a bonding foundation based on whether the sudden transition from “us” to “me” can be re-worked to, in effect recapture the security of the womb.

Say me…Say you

While, as mentioned above Freud focused on feeding and nurturance (both of which alleviate discomfort) as criteria for bonding, there are many other stressful circumstances the newly bio-independent child experiences after birth; for example various manifestations of physical distress, loneliness, insufficient stimulus levels and fatigue. Because so many possible stressful experience can occur the only way for the child to process and truly “feel” the bond is to take what might be called an infantile overview; couched in a very primal kind of calculation. This consists of approximately the following appraisals: Does the behavior of my caretaker coincide generally with mine? When I tussle in the crib does she pick me up to alleviate irritation of my backside? When I laugh does she laugh; and if my apparent grinning is in fact stomach distress can she tell the difference? Also is she playful in response ot my playfulness, sad in response to my sadness, content in the face of my contentment? In other words does she have good social-reciprocal intelligence?

While this might seem an advanced level of cognition on the part of a child, there is little question that congruence regarding the actions and feelings between human beings at any age and on every level is a required element in bonding.

Carl Rogers discussed this as a central factor in positive therapeutic outcomes via his notions of congruence and empathy (Mearns, 1988), (McLeod 2015), In fact empathy (the perception of both self and other within a single experience) is seen as a highly effective social skill in maintaining all relationships, including that of marital partners, parents and children, teachers and students and even foreign diplomats trying to work out a trade agreement.

With regard to the bonding experience between mother and child, this would suggest (somewhat hyperbolically) that bonding involves the infant subjecting its mother to a social IQ test, with only one question: Does she know how to respond in a way that is congruent with my own behavior? Such behavioral-emotional reciprocity would alleviate the trauma of post natal separation, restore the infant’s equanimity and create a psychological facsimile of the biological symbiosis that occured in the womb.

The Binary Cognitive Stage

While congruence offers comfort so does independence. The child’s first movement in the womb was probably an invigorating experience; a first step on the road to what all humans seek throughout their lives – a sense of control. Despite the need for support the child is not willing to give that up readily and under normal circumstances he doesn’t have to. Once the child can learn to take bonding for granted he can seek more control and independence without concomitant anxiety. He can move for himself, think to an extent for himself, need and want for himself and even by age two-ish, rebel against the commands of his previous life-line – the mother.

From that point on, child development and (with apologies to political theoreticians such as Aristotle, Hegel and Kant perhaps the development of all social systems and people per se) becomes a function of binary social processing framed in a dualistic human theme. The needs for individuation and self assertion operate alongside the needs for affiliation and bonding such that all individuals and groups, whether based on race, economic-social systems, political parties or religions move through history under the impetus of that existential dichotomy.


The key to resolving the dilemma lies in a capacity to learn how to apportion and accommodate both needs. (As an aside one could argue that this conflict, might, as much as Freud’s clash between id and superego be central in the development of the ego.
Beyond apportionment lies still another task, because while both elements are crucial in psychological development they can both complement and conflict with one another. Thus in addition to apportionment there must be a capacity to integrate the two. For example, being able to empathize with others requires some sense of how one would react in similar circumstances. That implies the foundation of affiliation lies in early experiences of self fulfillment wherein the child learns what disturbs and pleases him clearly enough so he can extend that realization to others later in life.

If that is the case then the oft-referenced supposition that indulging a child necessarily interferes with empathic development might be at least partly inaccurate. Perhaps that’s why Freud suggested that any child who is deemed special by the mother is probably headed for a life of confidence and success – Mrs. Freud often referred to him as “Mein Goldener Siggy” (Margolis 1969).
Information and sociopathy

In that context, it would appear that the formation of a socially functional personality, and prevention of a sociopathic one involves both conguent experiences between child and caretakers to establish a firm, sense of self and solid expectations of need gratification and secondarily, a capacity to apportion and integrate self and other, both in an overall conceptual sense and also moment by moment in the course of daily experience.

The Proportionate Brain

Interestingly, that apportionment of concerns has neurological implications. In order for the mind/brain to be able to apportion and integrate the binary options of self and other entails certain requirements. For one thing, chronic and momentary arousal levels must be moderate enough to allow for multi-access among various circuits in the brain that house memories, motivations and cognitions regarding social and emotional phenomena. Without such access moral figure-ground perception will tend to be overridden (Easterbrook,1959). Secondly, anxiety levels, which can foster compulsive “adaptations” to override anxiety-provoking memories must be controllable. Once one track mindedness takes over the neuro-cognitive breadth and multi-access needed for self//other apportionment becomes eclipsed. As has been suggested in research and theory, neural hyper-arousal (fight/flight mode) typically compromises ego functions (Keiser, 1969).
Another intriguing possibility lies in the development of frontal lobe maturation and related language development. It would appear the pre-frontal and fronto-parietal cortical lobes are the latest neural systems to develop in human evolution (Lui, Hansen et. al 2011). More recently evolved traits can be more susceptible to anomalies – simply because nature and propagation have not had enough time to mix genes and insulate against mutative or abnormal developments. The frontal and pre-frontal lobes are prime generators of language activity. While studies have shown that a high percentage of prison inmates have language-related learning disabilities, many sociopaths clearly do not (for example Ted Bundy, Ted Kaczinski (the Uni- Bomber) and Dennis Rader (the BTK killer), who had strong language and intellectual capacities). On the other hand, there are two kinds of language; one more covert than the other. As Luria has proposed, covert language also emanates from pre-frontal cortical areas (1973). This is the language not of communication but of self-direction, i.e. conscience. One could have a capacity to speak eloquently with others but lack an ability to, in effect talk covertly to one’s self. This phenomenon is perhaps best described via Lazarus’ concept of cognitive appraisals (1991). It is the latter skill that holds back impulse, utilizes sequential logic to avoid guilt and legal repercussions and possibly serves as modulator between self and other. However since no studies have shown correlations between neuro- pathology (for example frontal hypoplasia) and sociopathy, this would have to remain in the realm of speculation.

Finally, and possibly related to this phenomenon, certain learning disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder can by virtue of a brain-based difficulty controlling arousal and integration skills create a one-track cognitive style. In fact it is sometimes the case that the speed at which individuals with ADHD process experience is so fast that there is seldom enough time to weigh both self and other in their experiences. In a sense such individuals have “bad social timing.”

Beyond neurology is another pathogenic factor: compensatory self-concern resulting from overwhelming feelings of inferiority. Heightened self consciousness, resulting from a shame-based, hyper-critical parental style and/or highly punitive upbringing can also produce one track-mindedness. Having to self-protect, self nurture and self sooth constantly could preclude development of a self/other integrative outlook.

Based on those premises, one could in part attribute sociopathy to a process called hyper-singularization; that is, an over-focused, hyper-aroused personality structure. While other factors could contribute to sociopathy it could be diagnostically helpful and parsimonious to consider this as a core pathogenic element, especially for purposes of addressing the client’s cognitive schemata in the counseling process.


Clinicians and law enforcement officials would probably all agree that not all people exhibiting singularization act out. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. For example singularizing can lead to intense motivation, resulting in vocational and financial success because obsessive traits can often be directed toward goal attainment. In that context singularization can actually minimize distractions and frustrations. Others might have the “core singularization pathology” yet have access to social supports so as to alleviate emotional duress, for example counselors, families and groups, while still others are so preoccupied with jobs and normal daily pursuits that they don’t have time to act out.

Despite test protocols like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which can distinguish between people with psychopathic tendencies and protypical psychopaths, there do not seem to be any diagnostic instruments designed to tap into the singularism trait. Until such time as one is developed there are questions clinicians and law enforcement officers can ask in assessing why sociopaths occasionally commit heinous crimes, for example:

A Quick Screener

1. Has the individual shown a singular focus on themes, persons or objects over an extended period of time? (The themes do not have to be threatening since just the presence of singularization could compromising the ego).

2. Are there developmental or neurological factors that interfere with multi-access in the brain with regard to stored schemes emotions, self and other perceptions?

3. Was there (clinically undetectable) pervasive incongruence between child and caretaker such that bonds were never established, leading the child to live out his life in cold, distant objective terms.

4. Was the individual raised in a shame-based environment such that he had to devote his behavior, attitudes and emotions to extreme and chronic compensatory patterns of dominance, diminution of others’ status and depersonalizing of victims?

5. Has the individual shown signs of extreme anxiety and a tendency toward obsessive thoughts and behaviors as a means of blocking out threats and fears?

6. Has the individual experienced early childhood trauma, which by definition produces chronically high arousal, fight/flight reactions and is thus conducive to singularization.

7. Has the individual developed a singular focus on self due to lack of parenting or caretaking whereby the child with few cognitive/psychological resources had to expend so much psychic energy on self-care that it resulted in a life long pattern of self protection/self soothing and narcissism?

8. Has the individual abused drugs to such an extent that addictions have led to neural damage, an extreme need to feed his habit and one-track mindedness that completely overrides the capacity for self/other apportionment?

These are rough-draft and not necessarily new considerations toward a model of sociopathy. Similar ideas have been presented in the past, including the well established relationship between ego dysfunction and sociopathy. The snag in those ideas and (those presented here) is three-fold. For one thing it is hard to determine which of these factors, or combinations thereof could cause any given individual to become sociopathic. Also, it is hard to tell specifically why some people with the singularism pattern do not act out. Finally it is even harder to determine why such individuals can go on for years without acting out then suddenly do so with horrific results.

Could it be specific triggers, generic sociological tension fomented by scandal-hungry media, themselves singularized with the gathering of listeners and viewers? Or perhaps the sheer proliferation of media such that every tragedy every storm, every foible of very human being on earth is broadcast, making it appear the world is so much more threatening? Is there such a thing as media-induced sociopathy; singularism cropping up as an adaptive obsession to override the overwhelming drum beat of 24 hour bad news? Many such questions are yet to be answered. One hopes clinicians and law enforcement officials can themselves apportion all of this out and arrive at effective ideas for prediction, prevention and treatment.


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Bowlby, J. (1952) Maternal Care and Mental Health. Journal of Counseling Psychology 16 (3) 232

DePaolo, R. Piscean Depression: A Clinical/Remedial Concept. Nienteansia, Psychology and Psychotherapy Articles Oct. 6, 2017

Easterbrook, J.A (1959) The Effect of Emotion on Cue Utilization and the Organization of Behavior. Psychological Review 66 (3) 183- 201

Immelman, K. (1972) Sexual and Other Long Term Aspects of Imprinting in Birds and Other Species. Advances in the Study of Behavior Academic Press 147-174

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NOTE; HARE Test Reference from Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders

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