I know that sociopathy isn't technically in the DSM any more, but what I mean by the term is an individual devoid of a conscience. They don't feel guilt no matter what they do and as such so long as an action would benefit them and they think they can get away with it they have no qualms in doing it no matter how terrible it may be.

I'm toying with a story idea in which a number of prominent people who were sociopaths suddenly were 'cured'. Overnight they develop a well developed conscience and a sense of guilt about all the things they have done in the past. They often go out of the way to decry their former actions, to ask forgiveness from those they harmed, to change any ongoing activities that harm others, and to donate money to charities.

However, this effect doesn't last. In every case the person 'cured' is only cured for anywhere from somewhere between a week to a month or two, at which point they revert back to their sociopathic ways. This pattern has happened enough that people who are develop a conscience are often worried about making lasting effects that will decrease the harm they have done and will do when they fall back to sociopathy.

I'm wondering how the legal system in general, and in the USA in particular, would handle temporary concounse.

To give an example lets say that sociopath Bob suddenly came to the police to make a written confession of numerous evil deeds he has done in the past, and provides e-mail and other evidence to this affect. He also donates most of his wealth to a charity of his choice leaving him nearly broke. He enters contractual deals designed to undo or prevent him from continuing harmful practicies with stiff penalties if he breaks these contracts. Then he switches back to his old self and claims that all those actions were done in a moment of insanity. He tries to have the money donated to charity refunded and the contracts rendered null and void due to claiming he wasn't in a sane state of mind when he engaged in these actions.

Will this argument work? Is Bob likely to be able to get any of the evidence or confessions he made thrown out of court by claiming temporary insanity? Could bob get his charitable donations refunded to him, or alternatively tie up the charity in legal battle for his money so long as to caught the charity as much as the donation would have been worth? Will he be able to break the contracts he made? In short, how much will society, and the legal system, hold these individuals to the actions during their temporary conscience phase?

For the record it is not known why some people are developing a conscience, though the fact that it only seems to happen to well known and rich public figures suggests it may be somehow triggered intentionally by someone rather then being random such as from a disease, which would be expected to also affect less well known sociopaths.

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    $\begingroup$ The law does not operate automatically or in abstracto. It always operates in accordance with the rules of procedure specific to a jurisdiction. So that the sentence "he claims that whatever" has no meaning in itself; you need to specify specifically what action Bob brings against whom. Whom does he sue, and for what? He can't well sue himself, because that is prima facie evidence that he is insane right now. Trying to have the contracts declared null and void would be very steeply uphill battle, given that no psychiatrist can travel back in time to diagnose the former him. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Bob will likely still have access to the sorts of high-priced attorneys that can successfully argue in court that he was taken advantage of and deserves to have his wealth returned to him. These people remember who he is/was, and if they are successful, the payday will be immense. The specifics of the legal arguments are almost besides the point. They will venue shop, lobby Congress, and perform whatever PR will sway things their way. Full success is likely, partial success is virtually guaranteed. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ A Clockwork Orange? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't a person returning to their sociopathic state claim duress, even if imaginary? It's more likely to get them what they want. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP bizarre as it may seem, people have (unsuccessfully to date) sued themselves without being committed law.stackexchange.com/questions/1108/… $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


The Insanity Plea is used in Criminal Law, not Civil Law

Insanity Pleas in the US are generally used to seek alternative penalties for a criminal action. What most people think of as "temporary insanity" is actually a "crime of passion" or "diminished capacity" which can reduce a sentencing, but does not make you innocent under US law. Actual temporary insanity pleas are a subset of Insanity Pleas where you have a treatable mental disorder that you are cured of between the time of your crime, and when you get to court.

While you can be "acquitted" of a crime for reason of insanity, lawyers understand that this is not the same as getting a client free of all punishment. A person who pleads insanity must by definition admit that they are a threat to themselves or others. By doing so, the are almost always choosing to be admitted to a psychiatric facility instead of a penal facility. US law allows this because penal facilities are ill equipped to handle the mental disorder; so, if you harm someone during a PTSD episode, then you can try to claim temporary insanity, but unless you can prove that your PTSD is cured to the point that it will not happen again, then you will still generally be committed to a mental hospital.

In some cases of "diminished capacity", you may be remitted to serve out part of your sentence in a mental health hospital, but if released, still have to serve the remainder of your sentence in a penal facility.

There is also always the chance that a mental hospital will declare you a permeant risk to yourself and others and what would have been a term limited sentence could become a lifetime sentence. The big reason for a lawyer to claim insanity as a defense is not to get his client out of any consequences, but to avoid the death penalty.

How Insanity can effect Civil Law

As for civil issues like reclaiming his donations, etc. US law generally enforces a contract if is was made in a "sound state of mind" by a person who has the right of self-determination. But, a sound state of mind just means that the person was capable of understanding their actions at the time of doing something. It does not mean that you were in a normal state of mind for that person; so, if you sign a contract while in an altered state of consciousness, it still counts as long as you could understand what you were signing.

A very similar situation to this would be people with bipolar disorder. While a bipolar person may regret all the debt and stuff they rack up during a manic episode, they are still 100% liable for the choices they made during that time period because they still understand what they are agreeing too, even if they would make different choices in their depressive state.

What's more is that the cured psychopath may actually give up his right to self-determination. When a person fears that mental degradation will make them incapable of making sound choices for themselves, they can place "power of attorney" in another person and forfeit their own rights to make legal choices for themselves. If the cured psychopath does this, then the psychopathic personality will have a very hard time even reclaiming his rights to contest the contracts made in his other state of mind.

As for confessions to the police, they would still stand in court UNLESS the police did something to "cure" bob of his condition to get the confession. Then it would be considered a coerced confession and could be thrown out as evidence. But a confession made while drunk or having a mental health episode may still be admissible.

  • $\begingroup$ This badly misstates current US law. pleas of temporary insanity are in no way the same as "crimes of passion" and they can lead to acquittal, not merely reduced punishment. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 2:47
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidSiegel Popular culture horribly misrepresents how insanity pleas work in real life. If you are insane enough to be found not guilty you are by definition also insane enough to be a threat to yourself or others meaning that people who are acquitted for insanity are almost always hospitalized for insanity until such time they are cured. In practice, the insanity plea gets you "acquitted", but not set free. Most lawyers prefer to avoid the insanity plea, even when their clients are mentally ill, because it usually leads to a worse outcome than being convicted. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ Successful temporary Insanity pleas a practically unheard of outside of fiction, because you must first prove that your client was legally insane at the time of the crime (which you have about a 0.25% chance of being able to prove to begin with), and you must also prove that the defendant has been cured and is safe to reintroduce into the general population in the time it took for that person to reach trial... which practically always fails. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ The only times you normally see temporary Insanity pleas work is when the defendant has enough political power that the judge dare not deny it such as the 1859 case where U.S. Congressman Daniel Sickles killed his wife. Had he been anyone else, it would have just been labeled a crime of passion, and he would have been sentenced for 3rd degree murder. Most of the times when mental disorders are addressed in court cases, they are addressed as "diminished capacity" to lesson a sentencing because this has a better chance to avoid hospitalization. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:07

As a frame challenge (at least in part), a sociopath who was 'temporarily cured' might recognise the probable futility of claiming temporary insanity, and may instead claim that they were placed under duress by persons whom they may not be able to identify, and that they were forced under threat and/or influence of {whatever works for them} to:

  • Make a false or forced confession,
  • Give away their money to charity, and/or
  • Sign contracts that go against their own interests.

Such claims would likely gain them more sympathy and benefit than claims that temporary insanity led to their doing those things.

Temporary insanity cannot be used as a means by which a confession to a crime can be retracted. Confessing isn't something that you do in the heat of the moment (this being what a temporary insanity defence refers to), it takes time and deliberation to approach the police and make a statement. However, if it could reasonably be shown that their confession was false and/or was forced by a third party due to duress, and that the evidence might have been fabricated, this might create doubt in the minds of a jury at the very least. It's certainly a better chance than claiming to have been insane for a few days.

Going to a charity and saying that a very large donation was an act of temporary insanity also might not fly, but saying that it was made under duress would likely gain them more sympathy, especially if they didn't ask for a full refund. A tiny fraction of an obscenely large number can still be a pretty large number, after all, and charities wouldn't likely want to be seen to be a party in another person's (the person causing the duress) misdeeds.

Duress is also a recognised cause to have contracts set aside.

Finally, American law does also recognise insane duress, in that due to insanity "God (or whoever) told me to do it" (i.e. the person was in fear of God - or whoever - due to insanity). It might follow that if a person can show that another person caused them to ener a period of uncharacteristic behavior with a suggestion to commit uncharacteristic acts, that may well be a way out of the charitable and contractual parts of the compulsion, but compelling someone to tell the truth to an officer of the law would be a legally grey area. Perhaps they were hypnotised...

I would expect a sociopath to do whatever had the best odds of succeeding in reversing their 'insane' acts, regardless of who else it might hurt. They might end up hurting people even more badly than they already had.

  • $\begingroup$ An interesting idea, but if there is a pattern of sociopaths going through this process it seems hard to claim that you were forced to donate money, when you have no proof of that fact, when everyone would presume the same sociopath being cure pattern they've seen a half dozen times already is what really happened. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ A pattern of rich, prominent sociopaths being temporarily cured would give weight to the argument that they were all under duress. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 20:21

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