Sunday, May 22, 2016

Situational Sociopathy

The term may or may not be new, but the concept is not.  Milgram (1963), developed an experiment in which he was able to obtain obedience from just about everyone he used, compelling them to shock a subject (or so they thought) until severe pain or death.  Ordinary people, with no claim to fame other than that they had been happening to walk past the experiment site, were recruited and demonstrated, unwittingly, that just about anyone can behave in a sociopathic manner. He did not, however, obtain 100% compliance, and there were those who would not continue with the experiment, regardless of what they were told.  Also, in all fairness, Milgram used props to manipulate the research subjects, such as having the researchers use lab coats, and use the most convincing of tones and dialogues, and doing other things to make the site look very official.  So, the participants were convinced this was a real situation, and that their compliance was important.  If they balked, the experimenter would intone "The experiment must go on."  The bottom line is, the majority of people, when put in a situation in which they are able to be convinced they must harm another, or must engage in behavior they would typically find reprehensible, will harm the other, or will engage in the reprehensible behavior.  I refer to this as 'Situational Sociopathy.'  For, for at least a brief time, the person behaves as a sociopath would, without being a sociopath.

What is a sociopath?  If you look at the wikipedia definition of it (, a sociopath is one who is bold, disinhibited, and mean.   They have low empathy, are cruel, and have destructive excitement-seeking.  They want instant gratification, and do not control their behavior well.   The majority of the population does not have these traits consistently; if they did,  they might be eligible for the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder; perhaps you would run across one of these individuals in a federal penitentiary.   Or, you might find them running a large corporation, or running a particularly aggressive law practice.  However, the majority of individuals, in my opinion, who exhibit sociopathic behavior do so only some of the time, and perhaps have only behaved in this manner once in their life, and then never again.  This is why I use the term Situational Sociopath.  These are individuals who have, for whatever reason, given themselves permission to step into that realm.  The person may have done so because they feel they are a victim, or because they feel they must in order to punish someone who seems to 'deserve' it, or because the goal they are attempting to accomplish requires a brief foray into that realm and there is no other perceived way of getting there.  Most of the people who do this struggle afterwards; they are hit with extreme feelings of guilt or dysphoria, or regret, and they may work hard to reverse what they accomplished during their brief time as a sociopath.  However, there are some who do not go back, and instead attempt to dispel their thoughts and feelings regarding that situation.  However, it seems unlikely that this will work, long-term, because there are the memories, and there is the victim.  Also, those who venture into the territory of the sociopath repeatedly run the risk of becoming dependent on those forays as their main way of coping.  Eventually, they may be indistinguishable from a true sociopath, because they are essentially functioning as one.  However, the difference is there; while the true sociopath continues blithely on their way, year after year, perhaps stopped only by law enforcement or death, the chronic situational sociopath develops chronic medical issues or chronic mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, and slowly descends into their own personal hell.  It is not a desirable fate.  I've heard people say "Why doesn't that person get their karma?," but what they do not see is that the person HAS gotten their 'karma'...their Karma is their life, which, if examined closely, is not a life you or I would choose.

For those who have, at times, been a situational sociopath, all is not lost, in my opinion.  Because the majority of humans have probably been there, it is not outside of the normal human experience.  Learn from the experience, and evolve.  When you evolve, you develop an aversion to giving yourself permission to take a foray into the sociopathic realm, and instead, find other ways of accomplishing your goal.  Or, you modify your goal.  Sometimes the only thing that will stop self-destructive behavior is for the individual to no longer enjoy it, and instead to feel nothing but anxiety in such situations.  But that is only the beginning.  Watch the movie "Unbroken," and you will see what I am referring to...Compassion.  When one is able to feel compassion, AFTER they have reached a point in their life that they were feeling anxiety about their behavior, and after they have 'crashed and burned,' they will be able to feel true compassion.  But, IMO, it must be 'true' compassion, not the compassion a child feels for a bird with a broken wing, but the compassion an adult feels after they have been brought to their knees by life, repeatedly.  It is the compassion perhaps explained by the graphic of a soldier, wounded in battle, lying on the ground, reaching over to another soldier also lying on the ground, and trying to bandage their wound so that they can survive until the medic reaches them.  Compassion, it seems, overrides everything else, and is the emotion that seems to compel the person to rise above their basic human urges and behave a little better.

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