Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sociopathic individuals and societies that favor sociopathy

Probably I would not have picked up The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout if I hadn't just read about the meaning-free massacre at Columbine. How do people who can do horrible things experience the world? Stout's book tries to tell us.

Her subtitle is "the ruthless versus the rest of us." Her point is that some people are irretrievable sociopaths -- people who simply live without the restraint of ever feeling guilt.

About one in twenty-five individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. ... Without the slightest blip of guilt or remorse, one in twenty-five people can do anything at all. ...

What differentiates a sociopath who lives off the labors of others from one who occasionally robs convenience stores, or from one who is a contemporary robber baron -- or what makes the difference be;ween an ordinary bully and a sociopathic murderer -- is nothing more than social status, drive, intellect, blood lust, or simple opportunity. What distinguishes all of these people from the rest of us is an utterly empty hole in the psyche, where there should be the most evolved of all humanizing functions. ...

Stout is a practicing psychologist. She works with survivors of psychological trauma, often of abuse inflicted by the sociopathic among us whom they've had the misfortune to run up against. She wants to give those of us who do experience conscience, who are able to grasp and anticipate empathetically what our behavior might mean for others, some tools for identifying the dangerous sociopaths among us. The tip off, she says, is "the pity play." Sociopaths are people who have learned to get their way by encouraging others to make up sympathetic excuses for behavior for which they would otherwise be condemned and shunned.

For something like 96 percent of us, conscience is so fundamental that we seldom even think about it. ... And so, naturally, when someone makes a truly conscienceless choice, all we can produce are explanations that come nowhere near the truth: She forgot to give lunch money to her child. That person's coworker must have misplaced her briefcase. That person's spouse must have been impossible to live with. ...

When scientists use brain imaging to measure the reactions of people who psychiatrists diagnose as sociopaths to emotionally laden cues -- like the words "kill" or "kiss -- they have discovered that the subjects' brains simply don't respond. However, these people do have to get by in the world, so they learn to act.

Clinicians and researchers have remarked that where the higher emotions are concerned, sociopaths can "know the words but not the music." They must learn to appear emotional as you and I would learn a second language, which is to say, by observation, imitation, and practice. And just as you or I, with practice, might become fluent in another language, so an intelligent sociopath may become convincingly fluent in "conversational emotion."

But they never really "get" loving connections between people; they can't.

All societies seem to have some frequency of sociopathy, but Stout produces some evidence that some cultures embrace norms that reduce the disorder's expression. While she maintains that 4 in every 100 of us in the United States are conscience-less, in Japan and China, the prevalence seems closer to 1 in 100. She muses:

...how is it that some societies have a positive impact on incipient sociopaths, who are born with an inability to process interpersonal emotions in the usual way? I would like to suggest that the overriding belief systems of certain cultures encourage born sociopaths to compensate cognitively for what they are missing emotionally. In contrast with our extreme emphasis on individualism and personal control, certain cultures, many in East Asia, dwell theologically on the interrelatedness of all living things. Interestingly, this value is also the basis of conscience, which is an intervening sense of obligation rooted in a sense of connectedness. If an individual does not, or if neurologically he cannot, experience his connection to others in an emotional way, perhaps a culture that insists. on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation.

Stout wrote this book in the close aftermath of 9/11, a time when she saw a vengeful lust for violence, a willingness to mindlessly maim and torture "the enemy," enjoying a distressing level of approval among many of her fellow citizens. She is clearly wrestling with the problem not only of individuals born without human empathy but also with whether entire countries can lose empathy. She's more than a little freaked by what she sees and hears around her -- something I have no trouble empathizing with.

This is not a tightly argued book. It is full of descriptive vignettes that create a picture of what a sociopath is and of suggestive tidbits that tweak the imagination. It's not definitive science; it's very smart, thoughtful, intriguing journalism. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to know what is wrong with some of us that enables us to do very bad things. And I'd take it all with many grains of salt.
My personal quibble here is with the assertion that 4 percent of people in the United States are sociopaths. For Stout, sociopathy is a binary condition: you either are one, or you are not. In my work life, I've known hundreds of people, actually probably thousands. And I can only identify perhaps one, or maybe two of them, who fully fit the description of a person acting without conscience.

Oh sure, I've known lots of people who acted without conscience some of the time. And I've definitely known people who had to learn how to pretend to experience the conventional emotions, just as Stout describes. But among the latter, what I've observed is that a life of pretending to consideration for the (incomprehensible) feelings of others sometimes leads to acquiring some of the habits of conscience almost despite the intent of the individual doing the pretending. Maybe that accords with Stout's evidence about East Asian societies.

I've also seen people who had no discernible conscience, over time, begin to act as if they did comprehend the emotions of people around them. And then, sometimes, even respond appropriately to those emotions. It looked a herky-jerky process, but sometimes, when someone, firmly and compassionately, loved the loveless one, something that looked like healing happened. It is a dangerous business for the person(s) doing the loving, but it sure looks to me as if sometimes love can move the empty shell of a person that is a sociopathicly inclined individual into full humanity.

Maybe I'm just a sucker, but I think I've seen it happen and I am very glad that I cannot reject that possibility. I'm also very glad that the few times I've run across sociopathic people in full bloom, my gut instinct has been to run away, quickly.


j.lovejoy said...

What happens when you have no place to run away to?

Maybe you are a sociopath and that's why you don't see very many around.

In my opinion, our society crawls with sociopaths. As an American author, who also thought the sociopath was epidemic in our society, Kurt Vonnegut once said " . . . from time to time polite society needs to cull the herd."

Nearly every other manager and co-worker I have had to come in contact due to my career has turned out to be a sociopath -- a lying, cheating, two-timing, cold-hearted, mean-spirited, home-wreaking, loser who gets away with everything but murder in the literal sense of the word.

I want to know what happens when society runs out of sheep. Can somebody tell me that?

Anonymous said...


It sounds to me like you're a veritable magnet for sociopaths. My advice is to grab an inner tube and run into the ocean - if, like I suspect, they are truly attracted to you, they should all follow you like lemmings and you will have succeeded in your Quixotic attempt to "cull the herd."

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