Sociopath Treatment: Can a Sociopath Change?
Is there treatment for sociopaths? Is it possible for the sociopath to change? While terms such as sociopath and psychopath are frequently used by the general public as well as professionals, the technical name for the disorder is antisocial personality disorder.
As a personality disorder, sociopathy is pervasive; it impacts every facet of someone's life. It's also consistent and stable over time. The biological seeds are present in the brain of a sociopath from birth, and they're nurtured by people and events in the childhood environment. Given the depth and nature of sociopathy, are there effective treatments to help the sociopath change?
Sociopath Treatments That Don't Work
A fairly common conception in society is that the sociopath has been indulged and spoiled (Sociopath Causes: The Making of a Sociopath). For a sociopath to change, it's reasoned that people must stop enabling him. A dose of reality packaged in a container of tough love, without the packing peanuts to cushion it, will certainly cure a sociopath. Right? Unfortunately, this thinking is too simplistic and such an approach is doomed to failure.
Not wanting to give up on the sociopath, professionals have attempted many other sociopath treatment approaches.
- Punishment, including prison. After repeated failures with punishment, experts have learned that punishment is a very ineffective sociopath treatment. Sociopaths are unable to learn from either mistakes or punishments. They're unable, and they don't care. Punishment doesn't affect them in the least. They go after what they want, and they aren't concerned for the consequences. They have no fear and no remorse, so punishment is lost on the sociopath. If anything, punishment simply provides the excitement of a new opportunity, new people to exploit.
- Therapy/counseling. Research shows that at best, therapy is a useless sociopath treatment. It requires collaboration between client and therapist as well as a desire for changes. Sociopaths don't want to change, and they are unwilling to work with someone if it doesn't benefit them. At worst, therapy can actually worsen sociopathic behavior because it's a new game for the sociopath.
- Medication. Currently, no medication exists to treat sociopathy. It's a personality disorder rather than an illness.
- Threats and pleas. Threatening, pleading with, or offering rewards to a sociopath gives him another point in his game. If he can get people to react in this way, he scores. He's ready to keep playing. Threats during a relationship with a sociopath don't work as a sociopath treatment, but they do encourage him to keep doing what he's doing.
- Teaching empathy and emotion. Trying to teach empathy and emotion to a sociopath is like trying to teach a cellphone to cook a pizza. If it sounds ridiculous to teach a phone to cook a pizza, it's because it is. A phone isn't wired to cook, and it's not bothered by this fact. Likewise, a sociopath's brain isn't wired to feel empathy or other emotions, and like the phone, the sociopath isn't bothered about it.
Sociopath Treatment That Works
- Confronting the problem head-on. Coming to understand the nature and scope of sociopathy, acknowledging that it's complex group of traits and behaviors that function together, and dealing with the whole rather than with little parts of it is a helpful start. Changing one aspect of a sociopath, such as trying to help her stop lying, does nothing to change the nature of a sociopath.
- Adopting a systemic approach. Sociopath treatment has a better chance of working if it's done in every system in which the sociopath functions (relationships, work, activities, etc.). Evidence shows that working with sociopaths in the field is somewhat effective in changing attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, evidence also shows that after initial improvement, the sociopath regresses back to his old self.
When Treatment For Sociopaths Fails
The unfortunate reality is that at this point, there is no evidence to show that a sociopath can change. Currently, there is nothing that has been proven effective as a treatment for a sociopath. Researchers and practitioners aren't giving up, though. Can sociopaths be cured? Experts hope they can.
In the meantime, professionals advise that the best way to deal with a sociopath is to cut off all contact. Doing so may be the best treatment possible, at least for the non-sociopath.
Last Updated: 21 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD