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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Published: Monday, 4/30/2001

Was Samson actually a sociopath?

Ancient biblical strongman Samson shares something with modern political power Bill Clinton, aside from woman trouble. Samson was undone by the temptress, Delilah, of course, and the former president had trouble with Monica Lewinsky.

Samson has joined famous individuals whom psychologists have suspected as being “anti-social personalities.” Speculation about Mr. Clinton appeared in medical and popular publications throughout the Lewinsky controversy.

Yes, it is hard to think of Bill Clinton as “anti-social.” That's because the common meaning of the term differs from the mental health context. When a psychologist or psychiatrist calls someone anti-social, it doesn't mean that the individual shies away from socializing.

It means the person is a “sociopath” and has antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). A personality disorder is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and behavior that creates difficulties at work, home, school, and in social situations.

The American Psychiatric Association says that ASPD involves at least three of the following:

  • A failure to conform to society's accepted standards of behavior.

  • Deceitfulness, impulsiveness, and failure to plan ahead.

  • Aggressiveness and irritability.

  • Disregard for work and family obligations.

  • Disregard for safety of oneself and others.

  • Lack or remorse or regret.

    ASPD symptoms usually appear by age 15 and are two to eight times more common in men than in women. Researchers estimate that about 35 out of every 1,000 people in the United States have ASPD. Many get into legal trouble and wind up in prison. Studies indicate that up to 80 percent of imprisoned men and 65 percent of imprisoned women are sociopaths.

    “The word `slippery' seems to have been invented to describe the sociopath,” an article in last December's Harvard Mental Health Letter noted. “Often he has an ingratiating manner and considerable superficial charm or even powers of fascination. He may seem unusually poised and sure of himself because he lacks the scruples or self-consciousness that make others hesitate.

    “He practices deceit constantly in many forms - outright lying, evasiveness, distortion, pretending to forget. He lies so freely and so often that he fails to cover his tracks and he is regularly exposed. Then he may confess, offer superficial rationalizations or insincere apologies, and go on to tell new lies, as if he is indifferent to being recognized for what he is.”

    Dr. Eric Altschuler of the University of California at San Diego started wondering about Sampson and ASPD after reading the strongman's story in the Old Testament Book of Judges (1, 13-16.) He and a group of associates wound up publishing a report in the February issue of the journal, Archives of General Psychiatry.

    “Appreciation of the diagnosis of ASPD for Sampson may not only help us better understand the Biblical story, but it may also increase our understanding of and awareness of instances when a leader has ASPD,” they wrote.

    The researchers concluded that Sampson met six of the seven conditions for being diagnosed with ASPD. Sampson, for instance, scoffed at social norms by torching the Philistines fields and then refusing arrest; repeatedly lied to his parents, including the lie about not killing a lion; got into fights and bullied people, and showed no remorse after violent deeds, including the killing of 1,000 Philistines.

    In the end, Sampson was undone by his own anti-social behavior, when 3,000 fellow Israelites delivered him to the Philistines.

    Sampson may have reformed and abandoned his destructive behavior in a few more years. About half of people with ASPD get better by age 50.

    Today, some cases of ASPD can be treated with medication and psychotherapy. Scientists don't know what causes ASPD, but think it may be due to abnormal development of the nervous system.

    Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.



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