Re: Mealey

From: Wright Jon (
Date: Wed May 13 1998 - 18:35:36 BST

        There are two interesting issues (among others) raised by Mealey,
which caused quite a lot of discussion in the peer commentaries.
a - whether a dichotomy could be made between primary (genetic) and
secondary (environmentally contingent) sociopathy, and
b - what 'solutions' could be employed.

She addressed both these issues in her reply:

> 2. Category or Continuum?

> Gangestad and Snyder (1985) have argued that there is an unwarranted
> prejudice against the idea of personality types, and believe it is
> important that psychologists address this question afresh; perhaps
> this is a good place to begin.

        There were seven commentaries preferring a continuous phenotype, one
commentary supporting the categorical interpretation and four
reserving judgement.
        The idea for a continuous phenotype seemed more reasonable
as with most personality variables, there are normal ranges. There
may well be a genetic influence but it is only that - an influence,
not an unavoidable destiny. Environmental risk factors (life events,
social groups) and genetic risk factors (neurotransmitters, hormones)
form a continuous range.
Mealey replies:

> While secondary sociopaths will exhibit
> variability in physiology, personality, and behavior reflecting the
> underlying risk continuum, primary sociopaths constitute a type that
> results from an as-of-yet unknown genetic threshold, trigger, or
> epistatic interaction

> Harris, Rice & Quinsey (1994) found support for the contention that what I have referred to
> as primary sociopathy (and they refer to as psychopathy) is indeed a
> discrete taxonomic class, and that what I call secondary sociopathy
> (and they refer to as criminality) is not.
        The purpose of identifying psychopathy as a discrete or continuous
variable is treatment. Even continuous variables can be cut off at an
arbitrary point and those with the highest scores can be given the
most consideration, so why does it matter?
        If there is a basic genetic tendency it is proposed that the
chemical bases could be identified by behavioural genetics research
eventually leading to intervention at a genetic level. Furthermore,
the environmetal risk factors might be easier to analyse and control
for if the genetic factor could be ruled out. The distinction
matters for the purpose of tidy policy making, legislating against a
clearly discriminable, risky group.

> 6. Solutions.
> the simple fact that we are a social creature
> sets up conditions of cooperation, and therefore, an exploitable niche
> for cheaters. This means, as Snyder so aptly summarizes, that "there
> are few or no (existing, common, naturally occurring) environments"
> that will prevent the development and expression of sociopathy.

> the frequency of secondary sociopathy is expected to vary
> contingent upon a multitude of environmental factors, [...] such
> as better prenatal, perinatal and child care (Raine), parent education
> and support programs (Lykken, Machalek), family therapy (Snyder),
> social skills training (Bergeman & Seroczynski), and reduction of
> socioeconomic stratification (Futterman & Allen, and Machalek).

As well as increasing the punishments and the liklihood of being
caught (traditional policing techniques),..

> It is also perfectly logical (though not a single
> commentator suggested it) to reduce the perceived costs of other
> alternatives- eg., such as extended education.

> manipulation of the perceived benefits associated with
> alternative strategies can also be accomplished by reducing the
> perceived benefits of criminal activity and by increasing the
> perceived benefits of alternatives.
        These are certainly good ideas but clearly apply to the population
at large. The best way to change behaviour is by the changing of
underlying attitudes, not by punishment. Sociopath convicted
criminals are unlikely to be deterred from re-offending by prison
sentences, instead being more careful not to be caught. It is the
purely rational approach, ruthless, unremorseful.
        Drug treatment (an 'unnatural' intervention) is a particularly
difficult issue.

> that choice would have
> to be made by parents or other adults, rather than by the child. On
> the other hand, similar choices are already being made, as when drugs
> are prescribed to combat childhood hyperactivity or to promote
> growth...

> In any case, while I do believe that manipulation of standard
> environmental parameters will not reduce the incidence of primary
> sociopathy as a physiological and psychological type, there is no
> reason to believe that we cannot channel such individuals into
> perfectly acceptable- and even desirable- behavioral roles.

> even
> primary sociopaths have socially redeeming attributes that can be
> directed into positive and constructive outlets

Very likely. It has been shown that sociopathy, at a low population
frequency, is a useful behavioural strategy. It is an ESS and need
not be eradicated but could be more constructively channelled. To
eliminate it would remove from society a potentially extremely
successful set of businessmen, negotiators, merchants, lawyers,
The most important assumption behind all of this is that primary and
secondary psychopaths can actually be identified reliably. Even to
do that may not be desirable, possibly leading to labeling and
prejudice against psychopathically predisposed individuals.

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