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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.