Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On "The Sociopath Next Door"

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout provides a unique look into the minds and lives of those four percent among us devoid of conscience. Yes, that’s right. Four percent. One in twenty-five. Obviously the mass murderer/serial rapist falls into this category, but so do some ordinary folks whom one would never suspect.

While learning more about this “condition”, I couldn’t help thinking of the awful murders last week in Amish country, Pennsylvania. Little girls who are as unworldly as possible targeted for sexual abuse and murder could only be the work of evil, and possibly a mind devoid of conscience. Charles Carl Roberts IV admitted to molesting two relatives when he was twelve, an abnormal act, to be sure. (Then again, he seemed to have some remorse for his behavior so maybe he was not a true sociopath.) A week before, another man walked into a high school in Colorado to molest and shoot teenage girls there. Of course, it is difficult to make a diagnosis of sociopathy from a distance and with only a modest level of training in psychology, but I think we can agree that most people don’t behave this way.

Even most sociopaths don’t murder. They don’t all share that sort of bloodlust. They may or may not desire power or money. Perhaps they are happy with merely getting by and satisfied to latch on to others for financial support so they don’t have to work. Perhaps they are happy merely sabotaging a co-worker whom they dislike or berating underlings. These people are difficult to spot because the rest of us take for granted that they have a conscience like the rest of us. They even know how to fake remorse. They know how to look good to the world around them, especially if looking respectable helps them to achieve their goals, whatever they might be.

In fact sociopaths may do the right thing, but for the wrong reason. Stout uses the example of an ambitious man who reluctantly chose to miss a meeting to go back home to feed his dog and give him water before catching a flight out of town overnight rather than let the dog dehydrate. Naturally, to those of us who are normal, it looks as though this man has responded to his conscience, and quite possibly he has. But what if the real reason he went back home was because he just didn’t care to deal with a dead dog when he returned from his trip? Or what if he was actually concerned about how his neighbors might view him if the dog in its misery barked the whole time he was gone, damaging his standing in the community when people realized his abusive or neglectful nature. If those were the reasons for his sacrifice of an important meeting and return trip home, he would not have been responding to conscience at all but could nevertheless avoid detection as a conscienceless person.

Central to the development of conscience is the formation of emotional attachments. People who love and form loving bonds with others have conscience while those who remain detached do not. The conscienceless may form families, but their families are more likely to be show pieces or outlets for abuse of power or means to an end.

Another common feature of the conscienceless is irresponsibility. Nothing is their fault. One example in the book was of a character who broke his secretary's arm while trying to pull her into his lap. In his words later, "the b**ch broke her own arm when she struggled." This refusal to own up to their actions and the harm they cause others is characteristic. They may not be overtly violent, but they may be bent on sexual conquests. It's all about the game with them--winning and "making people jump".

I’m only on the third chapter so I don’t have much more to share at this time. I won’t say I’m enjoying this book, but I will say that it’s quite interesting and informative so far. If you’ve read it already, please feel free to weigh in with your opinions on this work.

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