The introduction to The Sociopath Next Door is an excellent description of what it would be like not to have a conscience, what it signifies, and what kinds of behaviors are available to someone without a conscience (practically anything!). Sociopaths do not have a conscience and the variety of behaviors they engage in depends on their personal characteristics and preferences. For example, a very intelligent sociopath may climb to a position of power in an organization or in politics, a blood thirsty one goes on killing sprees to demonstrate their control over others.
The author of The Sociopath Next Door is Martha Stout, a psychologist with 25 years of experience treating the psychological effects of trauma and has seen many cases involving sociopaths/psychopaths.
The Sociopath Next Door starts with an example of a successful business man who foregoes an important business meeting to go home to feed his dog because he plans to be away for 36 hours. This leads into Martha Stout's explaining that if he does so because of his conscience, it is because of an emotional bond with the dog, involving love and compassion.
She then explores the history of conscience and points out that for much of history we have believed that the rules of morality are absolute, everyone innately knows the absolute Truth and bad behavior is the result of faulty thinking. This last is particularly pervasive and even today we look to an offenders past for evidence of abuse, deprivation, a 'poor childhood' or mental disturbance to rationalize his decision making and misdeeds. We seem not to like the idea that some people are inherently evil because of the lack of a conscience.
She compares conscience to Freud's superego, that inner voice we develop during childhood experiences that comments on our weaknesses and criticizes our mistakes. She points out, however, that the superego is fear based and it scolds us saying such things as 'you are naughty' or 'you are inadequate'. Our conscience, she says, is based on love and affection and insists 'you must take care of him (or her or it or them), no matter what.'
She tells the story of a sociopath who hides in society behind the disguises of corporate superstar, husband, son-in-law, father with his most impressive talent being the ability to hide from almost everyone the emotional emptiness of his life, and for those who do see it, he keeps them passively silent.
She describes how he manipulates people's emotions using flattery and his sexuality to get what he wants. If these fail, he uses fear.
He has manipulated those around him into thinking he is a great person. Anyone who wants to call him a liar, or a rapist, or a cheat will have a very hard time getting through the defenses he has created.
What do sociopaths want? They want to win. To dominate. To control. To manipulate. Life for them is a game (without emotions) and the thrill is to be had in getting others to do what their bidding.
She asks the question in The Sociopath Next Door that many of her patients have asked, do sociopaths know they are sociopaths? The answer is yes, but the disturbing thing (for people with a conscience) is that they see nothing wrong with the way they are, no matter how evil normal folks think they are. In fact, they typically feel superior.
Sometimes they admit to envy or dissatisfaction at not having emotions or meaning in their lives and sometimes their 'game' is to destroy others out of frustration.
In chapter 3 she points out that conscience binds us together giving our lives meaning. But does it change? Does it vary at all?
The answer is yes and it can be affected by tiredness, sickness or injury. It is also affected by hormone changes as witnessed by the fact that 15 to 18% of pregnancies were unwanted at the time of conception. And then there are changes in such things as psychotic illnesses, too.
However, these things rarely give rise to some of the atrocities we witness nowadays.
Of more importance is our ability to think of others as 'its', as something less than human. With war criminals, sex offenders, terrorists and serial killers we have no trouble about withdrawing compassionate treatment and believe that long prison sentences or death is appropriate. Ervin Staub calls this being 'excluded from our moral universe'. Our conscience binds us to people, not 'its', so in their case anything goes and we treat it's differently.
This is the 'us vs them' mentality. My group is ok and I will protect it. And if I have to kill 'them' to do it, then it's acceptable.
She then adds in the aspect of authority. She explains Stanley Milgram's experiment where ordinary people (two thirds of the subjects!) administered huge electric shocks to people who answered wrongly, simply because someone with a white coat said they should.
We are so programmed to respond to authority that in the presence of authority we put our own conscience to one side, we consider ourselves as not responsible for our actions but we are agents of an external authority and the responsibility lies with them.
This allows governments to function as they do but also allows dictators and sociopaths to control the masses too.
Interestingly, when it comes to killing, soldiers need to be a) trained, b) psychologically conditioned and c) to have their commander nearby to fire and kill the enemy. When the authority is not close, they often misfire or don't fire at all. Our conscience about killing is very strong.
(This raises questions about the level of manipulation or brainwashing done to suicide bombers so that they do what they do.)
The victim has not done anything against the sociopath so people around don't suspect anything either. The sociopath gets her sense of power or control from diminishing others. Retribution is their game and they are the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing.
Stout writes in The Sociopath Next Door that 4% of the population are sociopaths. Robert Hare (who believes that 1% are sociopaths) says that only 20% of prison inmates are psychopaths although they are responsible for 50% of the major crimes.
When they are caught, sociopaths are rarely incarcerated (for many reasons). This means they are free, living amongst us.
In this chapter she has a look at some of the tools of the trade of sociopaths. She talks about how they use charm and compliments to disarm us and appeal to that part of us that likes thrills to get us to take risks. They create a mask or persona so that their victims think that they are alike or even soul mates. They seduce sexually as well as seduce with their acting skills.
And unfortunately when we accept their role, as doctor, lover, friend, we also assign them the integrity of that role. We accept them at face value and we don't see them for what they are. We don't suspect animal lovers of cruelty to animals. We don't suspect that psychologists would deliberately abuse their patients.
They, however, know us better than we know them and they take advantage of our trusting nature. They use our empathic emotions, interpersonal bonds and social norms as weapons against us.
For example, we have been so conditioned to accept authority that we rarely question it, even when we should. In fact, we are much more likely to question our own perceptions! She calls this gaslighting, after the 1944 movie Gaslight.
Why do we do this? Well, these people look normal. They don't look evil and they don't have warning marks. And we ask ourselves 'Why would someone like that do such a horrible thing?'
And neither we nor the normal people around us have a rational sounding explanation. We have a conscience and would never contemplate such horrors. Se we doubt our own reality. Then we find reasons and justifications for the behavior. But we rarely suspect that the sociopath is doing it with their own selfish and/or evil goals in mind.
She suggests that we should teach our kids to speak out when they see unacceptable behavior, teach them to say no to bad behavior, to question authority when it doesn't seem right, and not to be a slave to obedience to authority.
But what about adults who have had decades ignoring their own instincts?
She proposes the idea that it is easier for people to believe the notion that we all have a shadow side and are capable of evil than to accept that a few people live their lives deliberately harming others with no guilt or remorse. Good people prefer not to personify evil.
Many of her clients ask how can they know who to trust and who not to trust. For her the best indicator that you are dealing with a sociopath is the 'pity play'. She says that the most reliable sign, the universal behavior of unscrupulous people is an appeal to our sympathy.
As a grad student she asked a sociopath what he wanted and he said "Oh, that's easy. What I like better than anything else is when people feel sorry for me. The thing I really want more than anything else out of life is people's pity."
She explains that when we have pity we are defenseless. We let pathetic individuals get away with murder, so to speak. For example, she talks about how the concentration camp guards in the war crimes tribunals complained how awful it was to be in charge of crematoriums and wanted pity.
In The Sociopath Next Door Martha Stout warns to be on the lookout for consistently bad behavior with frequent appeals to your pity as an almost certain indication of sociopathy.
Next Martha Stout looks at the aetiology of sociopathy and studies of twins suggest that there are genetic factors.
Other studies show that sociopaths do not process emotion laden words normally in the cerebral cortex. So not only do they not have a conscience, but they are unable to process emotional experience. This latter aspect may be influenced by their upbringing.
Obligations and responsibility depend on emotions towards others who matter emotionally. To a sociopath, others do not matter. Hence, no sense of responsibility.
It is believed that there are environmental factors that affect but do not necessarily cause sociopathy, including childhood abuse (although some studies suggest that sociopaths are less affected by what happens to them in childhood!)
Attachment disorder has been considered where the infant fails to bond with a care-giver and does not learn how to create intimate relationships later. However, these children, while they have many similarities to sociopaths, are not usually charming or manipulative. They do not pretend to be normal, rather they are indifferent, hostile or can be incredibly needy.
Culture may play a part in sociopathy. In Taiwan the incidence of antisocial personality disorder is only 0.03 to 0.14% while the incidence in the world today is 4% overall.
The incidence of APD doubled among the young in the US between 1976 and 1991. This could not be due to a genetic factor. The 'me-first' attitude encouraged in the US favors many of the traits of psychopathy more than group centered cultures like Japan.
And she talks briefly here in The Sociopath Next Door about the idea that having emotion-less killers as warriors is useful in times of war.
Martha Stout's 13 rules for dealing with a sociopath:
Here Martha Stout asks why we have a conscience and explores Richard Dawkins idea of the selfish gene. He suggests that evolution is organized around survival of the fittest genes.
Genes determine how people think and act and cause them to behave in ways that maximize their genes in the gene pool. We therefore tend to be more selfless with our parents and siblings than with strangers. And we are especially selfless with our children. Helping our family to survive allows the genes we share to proliferate.
What makes us selfless? Our conscience, of course! It …"makes sure we do not ignore the extra little packages of our genetic material that just happen to be walking around on feet other than ours".
She then examines the origin of conscience, considering gender and culture.
Is it better to have a conscience or not?
The Sociopath Next Door points out that sociopaths tend to self destruct. If one robs, deceives and abuses enough people, eventually some of them begin to gang up on you.
But there are other problems for them too. Boredom, not frequent in normal adults, is very frequent in sociopaths and leads them into drug and alcohol abuse. They may be hypochondriacs, aware of every little thing about their body.
They have an aversion to sustained work, the true key to sustained success. There may be brief enthusiastic periods where they get fired up about something, but just as suddenly interest is lost.
They are lousy team players. Relationships are built on lies and deceit and often don't last.
The sociopath tends to be impulsive, short-sighted, doesn't learn from mistakes, often makes poor decisions and eventually expires of boredom, financial ruin or a bullet.
But the best thing about having a conscience? The ability to love!
In The Sociopath Next Door Stout references a study of 23 'moral exemplars', people with lots of conscience and they were found to share 3 characteristics,
A quick look at different cultures and religions, all of whom have the same idea of treating others as you want to be treated.
Stout says that conscience seems to be what holds humanity together and allows us to be happy and live fulfilling lives.
The Sociopath Next Door is an easy read written by someone who has studied the victims rather than the sociopaths.
Personally I would have liked to read more case histories in The Sociopath Next Door, more examples of what happens in a relationship with a sociopath.
And I have to say that I disagree that the best alarm signal is the 'pity play'. I do agree that when sociopaths are found out that they play the victim role very well. They certainly seek pity then and use it to continue the manipulation and domination. But by then it's too late. They have already done the damage.
Nor do I think that they elicit pity to actually capture and manipulate most of their victims from the start. There are a variety of techniques used and you can learn to stop mind control before actually becoming a victim.
And speaking of mind control, when she says the concentration camp guards were looking for pity during the war crimes tribunals, I think there may be another explanation.
It's possible that not all the guards were sociopaths. Another probability is that they were living under the effects of mind control, and the fact that they were doing horrible things could have meant conflict between their personality and the pseudopersonality, and this could have been very distressing.
The Sociopath Next Door is a worthwhile read for those who want to better understand sociopaths, especially the introduction!
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
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