Search Box

Friday, April 1, 2016

Are there as many female sociopaths?

A commenter recently suggested:

John, you should write an article on female sociopaths as a category, how it presents in them, etc. I think there's this myth flying around that most are male, and I know your experience belies this.

My reply (in edited form):

Actually, most of the literature on sociopathy states that it's more common among males than females. The figure most commonly cited in some of the textbooks from 15 or 20 years ago was that 3% of the male population is sociopathic, but only 1% of the female population is. The explanation given was that males, due to their hormonal mix, are more aggressive and fearless, and thus by nature harder to socialize.

I'm not sure I buy that. If a young female has no close bond with an adult in the first couple years of her life, she is going to have that same lack of capacity for positive emotions that male sociopaths do. The only difference is that she'll express her sociopathy in less overtly aggressive ways: she won't beat people up, physically bully them, shoot them, etc. But that doesn't mean these women aren't just as poisonous on the inside.

I understand why the textbooks said what they said, though. The ultimate crime -- sociopathic or otherwise -- is murder, and men commit roughly ten times as many murders as do women. So, male sociopaths are simply more visible. A female sociopath like the one described here is more likely to go through life flying under the radar, undiagnosed. She spread dissension, brought false sexual harassment charges, got others at her company fired, was a lousy mother and wife, and in general left a small trail of destruction in her wake. None of it was quite dramatic enough to land her on the front pages, or even get her tossed in jail; but her behavior was all insidiously destructive in its own way.

Anyway, yes, female sociopaths are more common than thought by many. Not sure if there are exactly as many as there are male sociopaths; but the ratio is more than one to three.


Mark Caplan said...

John Craig wrote: "If a young female has no close bond with an adult in the first couple years of her life...."

Cold, unemotional mothering was once blamed for a child's developing schizophrenia and autism. Today, though, we know that your genetic inheritance mainly determines your personality. I suspect sociopaths are mainly born and not made, as depicted in the film We Need to Talk About Kevin.

A cruel sociopathic mother is more likely to produce a sociopathic offspring, but that is probably more because of the sociopathic genes she passes on to her child than the cruel environment she creates for the child. Maybe there are identical twin studies that shed more light on this topic.

John Craig said...

Mark --
We're going to have to agree to disagree here. I come down on the nature/genetic side of the argument (rather than a nurture side) on virtually every other human characteristic: intelligence, most mental illnesses, etc. But sociopathy is the one thing where I keep seeing a strong parental (or, rather, lack of parental) correlation with the syndrome. There are just too many feral children who grow up in orphanages and children of alcoholics and children whose mother died early who turn out to be sociopaths for that to be coincidence.

I"m old enough to remember what use to be called "schizophrenogenic" mothers, i.e., mother who would say "I love you" but then refuse to hug their children, leaving those children confused, and, ultimately schizoid. This was obviously a completely specious theory. And there are plenty of families with one autistic child and the rest are normal, showing that that's not a matter of parental influence too.

I haven't head of any identical twin studies on sociopathy, but that would be a fascinating topic. The twins would have to be separated right at birth, though, and it's a little harder to test the adoptive families for character than it is to give them IQ tests. But, I'd love to see those results.

Steven said...

The way I understood it is men on average have less empathy than women for hormonal reasons; they cluster further to the low empathy end of the spectrum (not by an enormous amount I expect but by some), so statistically there will be more men at the very low empathy end.

If sociopathy involves both genetic predisposition and poor socialization, and more males are predisposed, then more males who receive inadequate (but not non-existent) socialization will end up that way. Its not just a matter of parenting but the child's capacity to bond, and individuals may bond more or less easily and some may be able to form a bond on less input. Not many people will receive no positive parental attention at all. I guess that's the argument for more male sociopaths but what you said makes sense too.

Steven said...

"Today, though, we know that your genetic inheritance mainly determines your personality."

The information I've seen from Jayman said that some things like intelligence and schizophrenia are highly heritable (like 0.8) while other personality traits (like the big five) are only moderately heritable (around 0.4-0.6).

John Craig said...

Steven --
True, the whole maternal instinct/empathetic thing would predispose women less to being sociopaths, that's a factor too.

There are people who receive no positive parental attention. Everybody who grew up in an orphanage fits that bill. And there are parents who are sadistic, who give their children attention, but it's mostly abusive attention. And there are parents who are alcoholic, i.e., who end up loving their chemical fix more than they do their children. I've always been struck b the number of sociopaths I read about whose mothers were alcoholic.

John Craig said...

Steven --
What are the "big five?"

Steven said...

Big Five personality traits/five factor model:

extroversion, agreeableness (aggression), conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness

Big Three: positive emotionality, negative emotionality, constraint.

Table of heritability estimates here:

Steven said...


I think when we say that it doesn't make much difference what household you grow up to how intelligent you turn out, that assumes a basic level of nourishment and care, meeting minimum standards for that society. If neglect and deprivation are severe enough, a child will certainly be stunted in both physical and neurological development. Hence there is every reason to believe that non-existent or abusive parenting, a kind of extreme deprivation of love, is a significant environmental factor capable of having a big impact on character development. What such a seasoned observer has noticed time and again about the importance of bonding is no doubt correct.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you. I guess that's something I should have known.

Yes, of course environment makes a difference in terms of intelligence, and extremely deprived environments can have stronger effects. But in the West, there are few who have such extremely deprived environments.

And yes, thanks, it does seem that the lack of parental bonding makes a huge difference in people's characters.

Anonymous said...

My dad is a narcissist and I suffer from OCD, Body Dysmorphia, severe anxiety from the stress of living with someone who liked to keep me in constant terror.

Its nurture not nature IMO.