Last time our Readings took us to some pretty deep places in the Freudian unconscious. This time we’re looking at behavior that is in front of our faces every day.
I’m not the first to write an article inspired by Dr. Martha Stout’s superb book The Sociopath Next Door. It is riveting and filled with educational details. Dr. Stout employs narrative to draw characters who illustrate points from the easily digestible lists the book is populated with.
After drawing her terms, we meet Skip and Doreen. Skip’s last name is probably Skakel. Doreen has ensconced herself as a doctor in a mental hospital with no real credentials. They both use the power of their position to abuse and intimidate people below them.
To get away with it all they spend most of their energy manipulating the people around them. They lack any internal sense of connection to anyone, and feel no guilt for anything they do.
Skip and Doreen sound like monsters but around four out of every 100 people in Western society think this way. This is a shockingly high number. Twin studies have shown this lack of empathy to be about half Nature and half Nurture, so environment plays a large role.
Western society rewards a lot of the behaviors that come easily when you feel no remorse.
Those who have no hesitation to steal and cheat, and waste no mental energy worrying how anyone else will feel about it, often get away with a lot for a long time.
What is a Sociopath?
A distinct group with a specific malfunction of the brain. They don’t feel emotional connections with other people. There is some debate about Sociopath versus Psychopath, but I have never found a reputable source that made any meaningful differentiation.
The National Institute of Health lists four factors of what it calls Antisocial Personality Disorder:
- An interpersonal factor that includes superficial charm, grandiosity, pathological lying and manipulation
- An affective factor that includes callousness, lack of remorse, shallowness and failure to accept responsibility
- An impulsive lifestyle factor that is comprised of impulsivity, sensation seeking and irresponsibility
- An antisocial factor that includes general rule breaking
But Dr. Stout says, “The best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.”
The sociopath is the poor beleaguered coworker who talks you into doing her work so she can go home to the three kids she doesn’t really have. He is the friend’s husband who got high and scared the shit out of the kids but is a pathetic victim of circumstance afterward.
It’s important to understand what these people look like, because chances are you know a few.
Dr. Stout continues: “The combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a mark on the conscienceless person’s forehead as you will ever be given.
“Pity from good people is carte blanche …. Our emotional vulnerability when we pity is used against us by people who have no conscience …. Sociopaths have no regard whatsoever for the social contract, but they do know how to use it to their advantage.”
Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if my dad isn’t one.
Obviously these are people those of us with beating hearts want to stay away from as much as possible. When it isn’t possible and you find yourself dealing with someone who just can’t seem to stop lying to get what they want (or for no reason at all!) there are a couple things to keep in mind:
Give them as little personal information as possible.
Avoid trusting them with important or expensive tasks.
Do not ask this person to babysit your kids or your pets!
If you are intimately involved with someone who fits this description, it’s time to stop making excuses and start making plans. You can’t help them. Even a trained professional couldn’t help them.
For those of us who do feel emotional connection to the people in our lives, it’s tempting to believe that if we just throw enough love at someone, eventually their walls will come crashing down.
But what if there’s nothing behind it?
Similar to my Bad Boyfriend post, I’m stressing the importance of being picky about who we associate with. Where you put your energy matters.
But with so many cut-throat bastards running around, plenty of them acquire the power to manipulate things in their favor on a large scale. Speaking for myself, I believe they tend to cluster around such positions. They are seriously over-represented in the ranks of CEOs, for example. I also believe Donald Trump is one, but that wouldn’t be terrifically unusual for someone at his level of influence.
Aside from shielding ourselves personally, we have to hold unscrupulous people accountable for what they do. It’s easier to make excuses, to come up with reasons why we might do something similar. Explain it away so we don’t feel like we need to do anything.
But giving bad people the benefit of the doubt is dangerous. It’s gotten us to a dangerous place in history. Maybe it’s time to accept that just because someone can smile and wear a suit doesn’t mean they’re not a total maniac.