Dear Doctor Robert,
Can you become a sociopath?
I am now 18 and I believe that I am in a constant struggle with who I really am. I no longer feel for anyone and when I need to I fake emotions to these people who supposedly care for me. The strange thing is that I have not always been this way but my memories are fading away. It's like sand running through my fingers as I remember loving these people and feeling empathy but I never feel that way now. When I reminisce I can feel a tiny bit of what I used to and it shocks me and hits me really hard. I have placed the relative time of me changing personalities (based upon a majority of my friends and relatives testimonies) when my dad married an emotionally abusive woman and having to live with her for 5 years with the marriage ending with an assault upon myself and their immediate divorce. Now I browse the internet and see the sickest images and the saddest stories and I just laugh. Nothing has made me feel sad for the past three years and this truth hit me very hard when my girlfriend was sad about her grandmother's death and I felt nothing. I could not feel her sadness nor her pain but I faked it just as I fake everything else. I don't hurt animals or people but I get strong urges to do so (consequences are the only thing stopping me, and if I think about it my fear of being able to do it) yet I like things too but from what I read from your other story of a psychopath that doesn't make me not a sociopath. I am a hyper realist and intelligent with a very strict and useful rational thought. A few examples would be my disbelief in any God, the knowledge that abortion is indeed murder but that doesn't matter as human life doesn't matter, and the fact that there is no meaning of existence. I am not depressed but my lack of empathy and other circumstances has caused me to often be unhappy. I'm sorry I'm babbling but I guess my main point is that I'm changing into someone who wouldn't care if they watched another suffer, who only has relationships for their benefits be them immediate or long term backups, and there seems to still be enough of the person I once was to want that to not happen. I don't know what to do. Please, any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Yours is a rather desperate letter. I feel your pain and confusion. I will respond to your question, "Can you become a sociopath?," but first I want to address your description of yourself as an intelligent realist with "a very strict and useful rational thought." Sorry, but I find neither much intelligence nor much realism in your examples. Let me take them one by one.
First, "disbelief in any God": OK, atheism is fine by me, but I do not see it as a demonstration of any particular intelligence. Many intelligent people believe in a higher source of wisdom than the mind of man, and that belief is neither unrealistic nor unintelligent in my view. It may be incorrect, but neither you or I knows that for certain. At best, atheism is only an opinion which may be based on some kind of intelligent understanding or simply founded upon unintelligent prejudices. I would never see atheism alone as a proof of any intellectual power whatsoever.
Next, "the knowledge that abortion is indeed murder." That is simply false. Murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being. A foetus is not a human being by any definition, so abortion is not murder. No matter what you may think of abortion, it is not murder. And the attached idea: "but [murder] doesn't matter as human life doesn't matter," is about as unintelligent an idea as I can imagine. Who are you to say that human life does not matter, and then to claim "realism?"
Finally, we come to what you call the "fact" that existence has no meaning. How do you know that? For how long and with how much commitment have you been searching for meaning in life? You are eighteen years old. You are barely an adult—not even an adult--and still lack a lifetime of experiences, which, if you gave yourself time to live them, might reveal a great deal of meaning. Intelligence demands an open mind, not a bunch of premature, cynical judgments which call themselves "facts," so I hope you will understand that your point of view is not nearly as intelligent as you like to believe. Admitting to yourself that you know a lot less than you have been imagining is the doorway to intelligence. Right now you have that doorway blocked off entirely by a bunch of sophomoric, half-baked ideas.
I do not say this to insult you. Not at all. Clearly you have a good mind, but you have been misusing it. Now you have become so entrenched in your contemptuous attitudes that your comprehension is closed to possibilities which you have never even considered. Your disappointment and cynicism have rendered those possibilities invisible to you. Now, in this moment, as you read this, OPEN YOUR MIND so that you can properly use whatever IQ you really do have.
Please stop imaging that you already understand the important issues in life. You do not, and that is part of your problem. I believe that you are confusing your cynicism with psychopathy. The two are not the same. No one becomes psychopathic. As I have written often on my web pages, I believe that psychopathy is an inborn genetic variant of human personality. The official diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder (the unfortunate newer term for psychopathy and sociopathy) in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), require that the person "have a documented history of a conduct disorder before the age of 15." According to your letter, you do not have such a history, so you are not psychopathic by that definition, which is the one used by the majority of psychologists. Since you know my website, you probably know that I do not like the DSM definition, and prefer to see a psychopath simply as a person who lacks the capacity for guilt. By my definition you are not psychopathic either, for you do feel guilt. You even regret and feel guilty about your present cynical attitude, and wish to change it. The psychopaths I know--and here I am generalizing a bit--never feel a shred of guilt, and certainly do not ask for help in becoming "un-psychopathic," for they feel superior to others, and imagine that their totally self-centered point of view has distinct advantages over what they see as the excessive emotionality of non-psychopaths.
So, if you are not becoming a psychopath, what is going on here? In my opinion, when the abuse happened, you defended your ego by retreating into a generalized cynicism about life, and now have convinced yourself of the logical correctness of that attitude. "Life is senseless, nothing has any meaning, so I don't give a damn. Nothing gets to me." This is what I call a premature cognitive commitment. You are just so sure. No questions remain, only cynicism. That looks like fairly desperate ego-defense to me, not psychopathy. I understand that it was the best you could do at the time to protect yourself against an abusive harpy and a ruined family, but now you need to drop that armor, and find something better—something which will serve your real needs as an about-to-be adult human being.
My advice: You require expert psychotherapy aimed at restoring your once loving, open, non-cynical attitude which was perverted by the unfortunate meltdown of your family structure. Since you regret your present lack of love (a sure sign of non-psychopathy, in my view), I feel certain that the necessary healing can happen, and that such healing might not even take very long. Please, get into therapy right away before you convince yourself any further that life is "meaningless." The intelligent people I know all seem to have found meaning in their lives or created it, and not by self-deception either, but by open-minded, open-hearted living. I wish the same for you.