The chasm between us and the Sociopath

Martha Stout has counseled many victims of sociopaths, and has interviewed sociopaths as well, and in 2005, she wrote a book on what she learned.  I will present only some angles that surprised me when I read it.  She says the difference between sociopaths and the rest of us is much more profound than the difference between men and women, or between racial groups, or between the intelligent and the not intelligent.  That is because they are totally missing a conscience.
She says conscience is a feeling.
I would think its a feeling that comes into almost any decision we make.  It is very hard to imagine an existence without it.  People without it can, she says “do anything.”  They see people as pawns on a chessboard.  They lie, they manipulate, and their goal is to win, to control others, or to “to make people jump.”
You might be curious about the destruction these people can cause.  You might think that if you don’t have a conscience, you still don’t have to be malicious.
But this statement by Prof Stout is interesting:
…what sociopaths envy, and may seek to destroy as a part of the game, is usually something in the character structure of a person with conscience, and strong characters are often specially targeted by sociopaths.
She gives some scenarios:
1. Maybe you are someone who craves money and power, and…you do have a magnificent IQ.   When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients  in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premediated lies to people who trust you..
2. … you are envious of the people around you,… you have a niche where you control small numbers of people who are vulnerable in some way.  You manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb…Making people jump means you have power–or this is the way you see it.  Maybe best of all – you can create situations that cause them to feel bad about themselves…
3. Or maybe you like committing violence.  You can simply murder your coworker, or have her murdered, or your boss, or your wealthy lover’s spouse, or anyone else who bothers you.
4. you are not violent, but you don’t mind living off others.  They may get angry and call you a bum, but it does not occur to them that you actually don’t feel irresponsible, neglectful, or embarrassed – you can’t because you have no conscience.
Not all sociopaths are covetous, but when they are, they do things that make no sense.
Since it is simply not possible to steal and have for oneself the most valuable “possessions” of another person–beauty, intelligence, success, a strong character–the covetous sociopath settles for besmirching or damaging enviable qualities in others so that they will not have them either, or at least not be able to enjoy them as much….The covetous sociopath thinks that life has cheated her..and so she must even the existential score…The actions taken..are often so outlandish, and so gratuitously mean, that we refuse to believe they were intentional, or even that they happened at all.
Sometimes the explanation for treason on a national level is sociopathy.  Which suggests that intelligence agencies should do tests (you can measure a person’s galvanic skin response to emotional pictures) before hiring someone.  Perhaps a sociopath has traits that would make a good spy, such as the ability to lie without giving away any emotional signs.  But since he can also stab you in the back, it would make sense to weed such types out.
Only a minority of jailed criminals are sociopaths.  This fact is not necessarily encouraging – because if four percent, as Professor Stout claims, of the entire population fit the definition, then as she says, most of these people are among us, not in jail, and we often don’t recognize them.
If you are a victim of such people, I would think you can’t reason with a person who has a value system based on a drastically different emotional makeup.
It is a mistake to believe that anything doable by one human being could be done by another says Prof Stout.  Not all of us could be a death camp commandant, for example.  Conversely its a mistake to think that if we feel compassion in a certain situation, that everyone would.
Sociopaths are hard to detect, but one clue is that among all their bad behavior, they ask us to feel sorry for them.    Death camp guards who were interrogated after World War II was over, said how awful it was to be in charge of crematoriums, because of the smell.  They complained it was difficult to eat their sandwiches.
There are some very creepy stories in Martha’s book.
Its interesting that there are conditions where people almost always tell the truth.  Dan Arieli, a psychology professor of ‘behavioral economics’ says this:
I wrote a book about dishonesty and lecture frequently about it. Over the years, many parents have come to me after a talk to tell me about children who just can’t lie—and the children usually turn out to have some form of autism. Recently, I brought this up with Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, who confirmed that many children on the autism spectrum do indeed have a hard time being untruthful.
This is caused, he added, by the trouble they have with what specialists in the field call “theory of mind”—that is, the basic ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and empathize with their perspective. Most of us are able to ask ourselves, “How would that person feel if I told them that their haircut is unflattering or that they smell?” Many young people with Asperger’s don’t tend to think this way, so they often don’t develop the habit of telling white lies for reasons of politeness. They don’t learn to dial down unnecessarily hurtful truths to spare another person’s feelings.
That is a kind of blindness too.  But who would you rather be around, a charming successful intelligent person who thinks nothing of lying to you, or an autistic who simply can’t lie to you.
Dan Arieli
I’m left with questions.
Is there any advantage to not being restrained by conscience?
Paul Zak is a professor of economics and founded the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. He says this in an interview:
just like these high-trust countries that I spoke of before, we can effect transactions quite readily and easily. So the cost in engaging in transactions is lower, more transactions occur, and we have more wealth creation and greater prosperity. There are downsides to that. For example, people will find loopholes and try to exploit them, which certainly people of the finance industry did. But by and large, I think having these decentralized economies that are based on most people most of the time being moral, being reciprocal, means that we can do lots of things we couldn’t do otherwise. And most of our societies are built around that. Civilization is built around that. Certainly democracy is built around that.
So on an individual level, you might be like a wolf among the sheep if you lacked a conscience, but if there are enough such people in society, the society as a whole is much worse off.
Martha Stout talks to bewildered victims who ask her if Sociopaths are ever sorry for their actions.  She says often they are not.  This is not that surprising.  If they lack a conscience yesterday, why should they develop one today?
I would guess that most people have seen people rejoice in the discomfort of others.  Most people have seen bullies in action.   You can see odd situations.  I was in the elevator with a businessman who complained to a diversity consultant (in the same elevator) that all the sensitivity training his staff was getting was such a waste of time, and the woman actually jeered at him.
These people are not sociopaths, but they do show glee that makes little sense at the discomfort of others.  What explains their behavior?
And if criminal organizations exist that employ sociopaths, then how do you describe a person who isn’t a sociopath, but who pays one to do dirty work?
I’m also left with the question of how to reconcile a morality based on justice with all the biology that we are beginning to encounter.
For example, Martha Stout mentions work that shows different cerebral activity in sociopaths.
Professor Zak says the hormone oxytocin makes most people more trustful – but on two percent of people, it has no such effect.  Those people show some sociopathic traits.  He speculates that some receptor for Oxytocin is malfunctioning, though he also says that there is a shortage of Oxytocin receptors in some people – in some cases at least because they were neglected as children.  One implication of this (to me) is that if you could insert a gene into a subset of Sociopaths that repaired receptors or created more of them, the person might stop being a Sociopath.  It does sound like a ethically problematic thing to do: changing a person’s personality by giving him a gene.
Abigail Marsh tells the story of a man “who ran across 4 lanes of freeway traffic, in the middle of the night, to bring me back to safety. after a car accident that could have killed me… it left me with this burning…need to understand why he did it.”  (So she became a psychology researcher) Interestingly, the accident would not have happened if she had not swerved to avoid a little dog.  Her car fishtailed, the engine stopped, and she could have died if the stranger had not rescued her.  He disappeared into the night.
Prof Marsh has studied MRI scans of altruists, and she has found one difference in the scan between major altruists and the rest of us.
So what does all this imply for the understandable desire to bring “bad guys” to justice?  They certainly have to be stopped from the harm they do, but can you blame a person for not listening to the voice of conscience, when that voice never spoke?  Or if it did speak, it spoke in such low volume that he could brush it off?
Abigail Marsh

4 thoughts on “The chasm between us and the Sociopath

  1. There seems to have been little research into what causes sociopathy. In many cases, epecially of people who do commit crimes, they seem to have a disturbed family background, which would suggest a failure of socialisation as a major factor. Even when someone is born into a seemingly “normal” family one or both of the parents may be abnormal in some way that interferes with the child’s development. I’m not sure what evidence there is of an effect of heredity, which would in any case be confounded with family environment.

    I’m also sure that many of the Germans who followed Hitler were not sociopaths in the sense discussed here. Yet they freely and enthusiastically took part in evil and horrendous acts. This suggests that what is seen as a normal conscience may be less robust and more subject to outside influences than we might like to believe. The desire to conform and follow the crowd must have been a factor in Germany as it is in some crimes today. As Milgram’s famous experiment showed, a high percentage of unwitting subjects in a fake experiment on the effects of punlishment on learning, would end up submitting stooges to “dangerously high levels of electric shock.”

    1. Martha Stout actually does address that question. There are various sources of criminal behavior, but she says that sociopathic behavior seems to be more independent of upbringing than other types of criminal behavior. In fact, a sociopath can be brought up by an caring, upper-class mother and father. The parents start getting horrified when as a child, he starts putting firecrackers in the mouths of frogs, to blow them up. They may feel sorry for whatever woman he decides to marry. Yet the child may become a successful CEO, with a company that values him so much that they try and obscure his defects.
      There is a genetic influence in criminality, which has been shown by studies with adopted twins. And a criminologist who worked with many criminals, Stanton Samenow, has said that he often sees two siblings, both brought up in bad circumstances, but one sibling becomes a criminal, and the other, though certainly adversely affected, does not. In other words, environment is not everything.
      But neither is genetics, as far as I can see from a very cursory glance at the internet just now.
      There are studies that show a small amygdala in criminals, and one researcher, Yu Gao, says that the amygdala itself is not unitary, it has various nuclei and you can get situations where some of those are intact and others not. Its not unreasonable to think that if parts of your brain are damaged, whether by bad genes or disease, or drug abuse, or trauma, that you would be a different person than otherwise. I have a whole post about Adriane Raine, who is the expert on the subject. He actually says that when lead poisoning was defeated (by removing lead from houses where children were brought up), there was a correlating drop in crime! I know its hard to believe that something so simple made that kind of difference, but he is a serious scientist, and you can see his work, whether on this blog or elsewhere.
      I wonder if you can have organizations of sociopaths, that is, can they work together, and would they share common goals. You can certainly have organizations of ruthless criminals. Sometimes criminals can be “idealists”. Sometimes they can have a nasty sense of humor. Sometimes they can be like you and me, but simply they want certain things, and don’t care what they have to do to get those things, and in general, the brakes are missing.

      1. Yes, the answer to some cases may be some small environmental factor that nobody has thought worth investigating. Not sure how typical my experience is, but I spent a few years working with children and I noticed one interesting sex difference. Problem girls that I have encountered have always come from disturbed backgrounds — abandonment, marriage break-up etc. Some problem boys also come from bad backgrounds, but there are some who appeared to have normal and secure families, and the nastiness seemed to have come out of nowhere. Obviously if I had been able to dig deeper I might have found something, maybe genetic, to explain the behaviour. But one lad I recall was manipulative, sly, enjoyed upsetting and hurting others, and smiled as he did so.. all rather disturbing. He was intelligent and knew exactly what he was doing, as well.

  2. I really enjoyed your article. I see the concepts presented here align with reality in this personal interview I had with a sociopath recently. I just posted it on my site. You may find it interesting and I really am hoping to start a larger conversation based off of what transpired in my conversation. Please share your thoughts with me in the comments if you decide to check it out. I think you’ll find it very intriguing….

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