Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Sociopath Next Door

My peeps and I were sitting around talking about life's latest challenges, and one of us, ZZ., was distressed about a family problem. Her brother-in-law, Oscar, she said, had cheated most of her siblings and/or their spouses out of large sums of money. Whenever he was around, things of value disappeared.

One time, ZZ, her husband, Oscar and her sister were walking around downtown, shopping and hanging out. At some point, Mr. ZZ noticed that Oscar was wearing a completely different shirt than when they started out.

"Hey Oscar," Mr. ZZ said, "Where'd you get that shirt?" There was disingenuous hemming and some vague hawing, but no real answer. Apparently, Oscar had gone into a store, tried on a shirt, and walked out without paying for it.

Another time, Oscar's six-year-old child was discovered to have stolen the valuable jewelry of several people at a family gathering. Six years old. Six-year-olds do not steal wedding rings and watches and valuable jewelry unless someone is teaching them to do so. When the missing items were discovered in her possession, ZZ was disturbed when there were no consequences, no conversations, no apologies forthcoming. Her suspicion was that her sibling was headed in that direction with their child, but was shut down by her husband.

This guy has no conscience, and he even has no qualms about using his own child to get what he wants. It's creepy; it gives me the chills; and Martha Stout claims in The Sociopath Next Door that one out of every 25 people you meet is a sociopath like Oscar. The defining characteristic of a sociopath is that he has no conscience: he can do whatever he wants without feeling remorse.

The Sociopath Next Door is an interesting, well-documented look at sociopathology and the history of the human conscience. It's somewhat repetitious, which got annoying to me--Stout frequently references the 1/25 ratio, or the 4 percent rate of occurrence of sociopathology.

But other than that minor tic, the book held my interest, and I appreciated the balance the author struck between academic scholarship and popular or layman's language. I was intrigued by the discussion of the origin of conscience and the science of sociopathology: where does conscience come from? Why is it more influential in some people, and less so in others? Why does it even fluctuate in influence even within ourselves?

And of course, the ubiquitious sociological question, is sociopathology more influenced by nature (i.e., genetics), or by nurture? The research seems to indicate that heredity and environment share responsibility almost equally. The absence of conscience has not so far been linked to early abuse; and in fact, Stout suggests, "there is some evidence that sociopaths are influenced less by their early experience than are nonsociopaths."

The brain science shows that normal brains respond differently to emotional words (like love, hate, cozy, pain) differently than they respond to neutral words (like table, chair, fifteen)--but not so with sociopathic brains. Apparently, the sociopath's brain demonstrates an altered processing of emotional stimuli, except for primitive affective responses to immediate pain or pleasure.

The subject of desensitizing the conscience of soldiers in order to make them more effective killers was particularly chilling; and I renewed my vow to do everything within my power to direct my children away from military or law enforcement careers. (Not that I don't respect the people willing to make those sacrifices; I totally do. But I do not want that life, and especially that internal life, for my children.)

Stout could have done a better job at delineating the different types or specialities of sociopaths. She describes the covetous sociopath, who takes what he wants, and when he can't take what he wants from another person (intelligence, success, reputation), he hurts, damages or lessens them in some way. Apparently sociopaths can also be motivated by the desire to dominate or control, or even by inertia or laziness.

The author suggests that "the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people appeal to our sympathy." We are defenseless when we pity, she says, and "our emotional vulnerability when we pity is used against us by those who have no conscience." Other common characteristics of sociopaths include superficial charm; lying; risk-taking behaviors; shallow emotional affect; the need to control, win or dominate; and the refusal to take responsibility for behaviors or choices.

Most criminals are not sociopaths, and most sociopaths do not get caught or punished for their anti-social behaviors. So how do we protect ourselves from these ice people? Stout suggests some rules, including the following:
  • trust your instincts
  • question authority
  • don't trust flattery
  • reserve pity for the innocent
  • don't lie for them or protect them
  • stay away from them.

The Sociopath Next Door is creepy, but worth reading, because you will encounter these people, and it will help you, if you're tempted to question your own goodness or sanity, to protect your psyche, and to protect your friends and family also.


Liberal I am. Bona fide I be. said...

Great post! I am going to check this book out.

E. Peevie said...

Lib--Thanks for your support. Hope you don't have too many sociopaths around you.