The Sociopath in the Mirror
Looking for some reading material a few months ago, I picked up the book The Sociopath Next Door (Martha Stout, 2005), which presents the author’s views and dealings with sociopaths as a clinical psychologist. Terms like “sociopathy”, “psychopathy”, and “antisocial personality disorder” are hard to precisely define, but they can be understood as the condition of being without a “conscience” or sense of connection with other people. Part of what is so troubling about sociopaths, Dr. Stout assures us, is that they are fairly common and look like everyone else. Most of their sadistic tendencies are sneaky and do not attract attention. Most sociopaths don’t fit the stereotype of a raging maniacal killer, as in Christopher Walken’s character in A View to a Kill (one of my favorite Bond movies), who tries to flood Silicon Valley for profit and guns down his own construction workers while laughing. Most of them don’t have the creepy demeanor of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, who is capable of eating someone’s face without raising his pulse. Most of them don’t look like thefreedictionary.com’s visual depiction of “sociopath,” which shows a scruffy-looking, shifty-eyed bearded man who looks like he lives in the woods and kills people (see picture). No, they seem to be like everyone else and make up as much as 4% of the population, according to the author. I didn’t check her sources, but having a degree in Statistics, I doubt that anyone could accurately determine such a thing, given the difficulties in defining the term, surveying about sensitive information, and regular sampling error. In any case, the author claims that about 1 in 25 people are sociopaths. Most are not in prisons or asylums, they are living all around us. As the back cover of the book says, “They could be your colleague, your neighbor, even family.”
Okay, so apparently sociopaths are more common than we think and they look like everyone else, but what are they like? How do they think? The author describes them as cold-blooded egoists that can lie, cheat, steal, and kill to serve their own ends without a shred of guilt or remorse. As a believer of Individual Valuism, it is harder for me to denounce the supposed disorder of sociopathy for several reasons. First, I only recognize values relative to individuals, and if an individual is simply not capable of caring about others (you are who you are), his actions are right to him, no matter the views of 96% of the human population. Second, I don’t recognize “feeling a connection with other people” as having moral relevance. Actions matter more than thoughts and again, it is pointless to criticize someone for feeling a certain way if that is just the way he or she is. I doubt sociopaths wake up and think, “Gee, I think I’ll choose to have a callous disregard for other people today.” Third, a large part of what is considered sociopathy may actually be a lack of long-term thinking. Sociopaths are often described as impulsive, reckless, and irresponsible. Maybe they just haven’t figured out that in order to have a long, happy life, it helps to be cooperative, friendly, and unselfish sometimes. Perhaps we are born as sociopaths and later become more caring with this knowledge. If Kohlberg’s research had any merit, I’d say we do. I don’t remember Kohlberg talking about an “intervening sense of obligation based in our emotional attachments to others” in stage one subjects, but as infants grew older, most found that getting along with other people had good consequences to them. Fourth, I am hesitant to denounce sociopathy because the alternative could be worse. One characteristic that is said to indicate sociopathy is “failure to conform to social norms.” Is that such a bad thing? What if it’s normal to be a racist, communist, or suicide bomber? Doesn’t morality deserve more consideration than conforming to what’s popular? Fifth, I think people always try to do what they think is right, and even for those considered sociopaths, that usually doesn’t involve mistreating people.
What is it that sociopaths want? According to the author, since they are not capable of experiencing the genuine joy of human connection, they are only able to ease their boredom by playing games with other people: dominating them, making them “jump,” and “winning” against them. While I’m sure Dr. Stout is a fine psychologist, I don’t think she’s an authority on the purpose of life. At the beginning of chapter three, she writes:
“Conscience is a creator of meaning. As a sense of constraint rooted in our emotional ties to one another, it prevents life from devolving into nothing but a long and essentially boring game of attempted dominance over our fellow human beings, and for every limitation conscience imposes on us, it gives us a moment of connectedness with an other, a bridge to someone or something outside of our often meaningless schemes.”
I don’t think that she can prove that the objective meaning of life is connecting with other people or that “meaningless schemes” have more substance when other people are involved. I also don’t think that the only alternative is petty dominance. Her only evidence seems to be anecdotes from her patients and news reports. I suggest that she survey a representative sample of sociopaths before she speculates about what drives them all. Even if she did (if that is even possible), I doubt that I would trust her judgment. Individual Valuism holds that people have reasons for what they do. Devoid of empathy or not, most people don’t have a reason to continually play games on others.
The author also claims that we are often unsuspecting of sociopaths because 1) they are very good at masking their true thoughts and 2) we wouldn’t expect someone to think like they do anyways. In some ways, I can’t blame them for trying to stay undetected. I mean, when a friend comes to them for sympathy, would you expect them to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not capable of caring?” If they have any desire for human contact, they can’t. They pretty much have to hide it. They can’t go on dates and say, “I can’t feel love” or go to job interviews and say, “According to you, I’m totally depraved.” I’m not trying to justify cruel manipulations, but I’m just saying that there’s a difference between sociopaths that try to hurt people and those that try to have decent lives.
I was especially interested in a statement by the author in trying to explain the biology of sociopaths. Using brain-imaging equipment, it was determined that “sociopaths trying to complete an assignment based on emotional words, a task that would be almost neurologically instantaneous for normal people, reacted physiologically more or less as if they had been asked to work out an algebra problem.” (p. 125) That is, sociopaths apparently process emotional decisions intellectually rather than with genuine feelings. Dr. Stout thinks this is “ice-cold, like a dispassionate game of chess.” (p. 126) Personally, I don’t think it’s so bad. Recall the Stanley Milgram experiment (mentioned elsewhere in the book), in which subjects are instructed to give electric shocks to other people (actually actors) in a fake “learning experiment.” A solid majority of the subjects were willing to obey the instructor in shocking the actors over and over in dangerous levels of voltage, despite repeated screams and protests. Pretend that you were to sit in place of the actor and the shocks were real. Would you like the subject to be a normal person that doesn’t “fail to conform” to the instructor’s directions, but electrocutes you and feels bad about it? Or would you rather be paired with someone that treats the situation as an “algebra problem” and decides that the experiment should not proceed?
I titled this article “The Sociopath in the Mirror.” Why? Individual Valuism holds that people always try to do what is best to them. This usually includes good will towards others, but I wouldn’t call that “conscience.” When people make decisions, they usually do what is best to them without thinking about emotional obligations. In any case, I am sure that much more than 4% of the people you know are selfish, impulsive, manipulative, irritable, irresponsible, or just plain mean. Where are their consciences? And be honest with yourself: how many of your decisions are actually constrained by a feeling of emotional obligation towards others? Take a look at the person in the mirror before you worry about guiltless people plotting against you. Whatever you answered, the most important moral action is to think. Think about values, long-term implications, and cause and effect. Was Charles Manson a sociopath? Given his desire to dominate others, ability to order murders, and infamous lack of remorse, I’d say yes. Were all of his followers? I doubt it. They just didn’t think. Their standard of morality was approval from others. When you don’t think, your morals can be influenced by anyone from the sickest sociopath to the most delusional well-intentioned person.
If you are willing to be honest with yourself about who you see in your mirror, I’ll tell you who I see in mine. Honestly, I’m not completely sure. Do I fail to conform to social norms? Not to a large degree, but I have made it abundantly clear that I don’t think that norms should be followed solely on the basis that they’re popular. Am I deceitful, impulsive, aggressive, reckless, or irresponsible? Not more than average, I don’t think. Do I have a “lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person”? (p. 6) I’m not sure how to answer that, since I don’t go around purposefully and unjustly hurting people. I never set fires or tortured animals as a kid. However, I do seem to have a shallow range of human emotion. I can cheer my football teams like my friends do, but I don’t really have a lot of passion when doing so. I don’t wish bad things to happen to others, but I rarely feel pain in sympathy with them when bad things do happen. If I’ve ever felt love, it’s been several years. Yet I’m still able to have preferences and goals besides toying with others. I enjoy spending time with my friends and I write Individual Valuism to promote real goodness over cultural foolishness. Is there a sociopath in my mirror? I don’t know, but I do not regret having the ability to think about morality over automatically feeling obliged to others.