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The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us

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“The conscience of a people is their power” – John Dryden

“Minds differ still more than faces” – Voltaire

Have you ever heard someone say “I did nothing wrong” when in fact you and a great many other people thought what they did was very wrong?  In fact, so wrong that the majority of people asked themselves, “How could anyone possibly do that?”

The risk to yourself  is to think that other people think like you or me.  Or, to think that the great majority of people are ruled by some sort of  standard of right and wrong; standards of which, are accessible to all of us – a sort of 6’th sense that we all have.

Martha Stout Ph.D is a clinical psychologist in private practice who also served for twenty-five years on the faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

Dr. Stout has an interesting description of public figures or people you might know

Imagine – if you can – not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern of the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members.  Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. 

And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.  Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. 

Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless.  You are not held back from any of your desires by guilt or shame, and you are never confronted by others for your cold-bloodedness.  The ice water in your veins is so bizarre, so completely outside of their personal experience that they seldom even guess at your condition.

In other words, you are completely free of internal restraints, and your unhampered liberty to do just as you please, with no pangs of conscience, is conveniently invisible to the world.  You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their consciences, will most likely remain undiscovered.

How many people are like this?  Dr. Stout thinks that 1 in 25 people in the population is a sociopath.

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. 

The intellectual difference between right and wrong does not bring on the emotional sirens and flashing blue lights, or the fear of God; that is does for the rest of us.  Without the slightest blip of guilt or remorse, one in twenty-five people can do anything at all.

Dr. Stout has some elegant descriptions of this behavior

How about politicians, and financial scammers…

Maybe you are someone who craves money and power, and though you have no vestige of conscience, you do have a magnificent IQ.  You have the driving nature and the intellectual capacity to pursue tremendous wealth and influence, and you are in no way moved by the nagging voice of conscience that prevents other people from doing everything and anything they have to do to succeed. 

You choose business, politics, the law, banking or international development, or any of a broad array of other power professions, and you pursue your career with a cold passion that tolerates none of the usual moral or legal encumbrances. 

When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients (or your constituency) in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steamroll over groups who are dependent and voiceless.  And all of this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever.

You become unimaginably, unassailably, and maybe even globally successful.  Why not?  With your big brain, and no conscience to rein in your schemes, you can do anything at all.

How about the organizational bully…

Or no – let us say you are not quite such a person.  You are ambitious, yes, and in the name of success you are willing to do all manner of things that people with conscience would never consider, but you are not an intellectually gifted individual.  Your intelligence is above average perhaps, and people think of you as smart, maybe even very smart.  But you know in your heart of hearts that you do not have the cognitive wherewithal, or the creativity, to reach the careening heights of power you secretly dreams about, and this makes you resentful of the world at large, and envious of the people around you.

As this sort of person, you ensconce yourself in a niche, or maybe a series of niches, in which you can have some amount of control over small numbers of people.  These situations satisfy a little of your desire for power, although you are chronically aggravated at not having more.  It chafes to be so free of the ridiculous inner voices that inhibit others from achieving great power, without having enough talent to pursue the ultimate successes yourself.  Sometimes you fall into sulky, rageful moods caused by a frustration that no one but you understands.

But you do enjoy jobs that afford you a certain undersupervised control over a few individuals or small groups, preferably people and groups who are relatively helpless or in some way vulnerable.  You are a teacher or a psychotherapist, a divorce lawyer or a high school coach.  Or maybe you are a consultant of some kind, a broker or a gallery owner or a human services director.  Or maybe you do not have a paid position and are instead the president of your condominium association, or a volunteer hospital worker, or a parent.  Whatever your job, you manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb, as often and as outrageously as you can without getting fired or held accountable.  You do this for its own sake, even when it serves no purpose except to give you a thrill.  Making people jump means you have power – or this is the way you see it – and bullying provides you with an adrenaline rush.  It is fun.

How about those who sabotage projects

Maybe you cannot be a CEO of a multinational corporation, but you can frighten a few people, or cause them to scurry around like chickens, or steal from them, or – maybe, best of all – create situations that cause them to feel bad about themselves.  And this is power, especially when the people you manipulate are superior to you in some way.  Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable.  This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance.  And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do.  You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’s boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.

How about the growing number of people who are no longer embarrassed by being on some sort of welfare program

Or let us imagine the opposite extreme:  You have no interest in power.  To the contrary, you are the sort of person who really does not want much of anything.  Your only real ambition is not to have to exert yourself to get by.  You do not want to work like everyone else does.  Without a conscience, you can nap or pursue your hobbies or watch television or just hang out somewhere all day long.  Living a bit on the fringes, and with some handouts from relatives and friends, you can do this indefinitely.  People may whisper to one another that you are an underachiever, or that you are depressed, a sad case, or, in contrast, if they get angry, they may grumble that you are lazy.  When they get to know you better, and get really angry, they may scream at you and call you a loser, a bum.  But it will never occur to them that you literally do not have a conscience, that in such a fundamental way, your very mind is not the same as theirs.

The Take

Dr. Stout’s book is an interesting read.  If there is a simple elegant point to be made – argue all you want about the ratio of these sorts of people in the general population – is that these sorts of people do exist in everyday society.  This can be validated by picking up the daily newspaper, watching the news, observing behavior at work, or even perhaps, observing the person next door.  So, be on your guard.  Next time you hear, “I did nothing wrong” when the majority of people do consider it wrong then consider Stout’s theory and don’t be surprised when you observe this behavior.  One in twenty-five people?

Here is one final thought

I trust that imagining yourself as any of these people feels insane to you, because such people are insane, dangerously so.  Insane but real – they even have a label.  Many mental health professionals refer to the condition of little or no conscience as “anti-social personality disorder,” a non-correctable disfigurement of character that is now thought to be present in about 4 percent of the population – that is to say, one in twenty-five people. 

This condition of missing conscience is called by other names, too, most often “sociopathy,” or the somewhat more familiar term psychopathy.  Guiltlessness was in fact the first personality disorder to be recognized by psychiatry, and terms that have been used at times over the past century include manie sans délire, psychopathic inferiority, moral insanity, and moral imbecility.

 Resources:

The Sociopath Next Door:  The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
http://www.damninteresting.com/the-unburdened-mind
http://www.hare.org/links/saturday.html
Profile of a Sociopath – http://www.mcafee.cc/Bin/sb.html

http://www.sociopathworld.com/

Read about the Milgram experiment – apropos sociopaths in positions of authority
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

Type “I did nothing wrong” into a search engine and see what you get back

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Written by frrl

June 23, 2010 at 3:15 am

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