For those who wonder how I spend my free time, let me tell you: I’ve been re-reading The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, PhD.
Sociopaths are the stock players of popular fiction. They’re the monsters that heroines played by women like Jodie Foster or Ashley Judd have to face down with steely determination, grit and an extremely large weapon. And nice shoes.
In real life, the deal with sociopaths is this: they have no sense of obligation to anyone, and act without the restraints of conscience. They are solo operators at heart — lone wolves — and only use connection with others as a tool to get what they want. And what they want is the thrill of power, manipulation and domination.
Often charming and glib, sociopaths know how to play whatever role they need to play to get what they want. Many can cry crocodile tears on cue, but it’s all superficial, an act. There’s just no there there. No depth of character. Everything they do is calculated to deliver the goods, and just like our pal Niccolo Machiavelli — the ends utterly justify the means. If someone gets hurt in the process, too bad. The sociopath has no conscience, so carries no guilt or remorse for his actions.
The DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, terms sociopathy “Anti-Social Personality Disorder” and says it’s present when a person has at least three of seven characteristics: 1) failure to conform to social norms; 2) deceitfulness, manipulativeness; 3) impulsivity, failure to plan ahead; 4) irritability, aggressiveness; 5) reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; 6) consistent irresponsibility; and, 7) lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen something from another person.
We picture oversized characters like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter when we think about sociopaths, but some sociopaths are actually quite passive. For instance, a man with Anti-Social Personality Disorder might feel he has no obligation to work, so he finds a parade of willing, susceptible people who support him. These sociopaths never do anything, never pay their bills, and never feel guilt for having sponged off someone who loved them.
The key indicator of sociopathy, according to Dr. Stout, is the pity play. This is where the sociopath gets us to feel sorry for him — it’s the guy who beats his wife, then tearfully holds his head in his hands while the bleeding wife comforts him. As Dr. Stout says, “…when these sentiments are wrested out of us by the undeserving, by people whose behavior is consistently antisocial, this is a sure sign that something is wrong.”
The sociopath can be the bully at work. Or the guy who sponges off his wife. Or the neighborhood Mrs. Kravitz, who stirs up trouble. The common element? They have no real remorse over their hurtful actions. None. Zippo.
Dr. Stout spends much of her last chapter talking about the nexus between spirituality, community and conscience. Cultures whose spiritual traditions stress the interrelatedness between people and animals and the environment — the connection between all things — have less incidence of sociopathy. Cultures which stress individualism and foster isolation tend to have more sociopaths.
Dr. Stout and other researchers estimate that 4% of our population are sociopaths. Friends, that’s more than have anorexia or colon cancer. So, it’s likely that the most vexing people in your life, as in mine, might just lack a conscience.
If you are facing a situation with another person that where you feel manipulated, controlled, used — in your marriage, your divorce, your neighborhood, your work, your larger family — you may want to consider whether the person in question is really among the 96% of people with conscience… or one of the 4% without. And if he’s a sociopath, my friend, let distance grow in that relationship. Quickly.