Monday, May 29, 2006

The Evil That Men (and Women) Do

Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door is only a slight book, and much of her work draws on excellent research previously done by Harvey Cleckley and Robert Hare, but it has rapidly become a best-seller in its field, and while reading it I have to confess to having been powerfully affected by a number of her insights, possibly because so much of what she had to say hit close to home. Forgive me if I quote from her extensively here, but those of our readers and fellow Counagoites who’ve known me for more than a short while will soon understand why:

Here’s Stout’s description early on in the text of the archetypal sociopath (the terms sociopath and psychopath are used interchangeably by researchers in this field):

He or she is more spontaneous, or more intense, or somehow more "complex" or sexier, or more entertaining than everyone else. Sometimes this "sociopathic charisma" is accompanied by a grandiose sense of self-worth . . .

In addition, sociopaths have a greater than normal need for stimulation, which results in their taking frequent social, physical, financial, or legal risks. Characteristically, they can charm others into attempting dangerous ventures with them, and as a group they are known for their pathological lying and conning, and their parasitic relationships with "friends."

Stout continues

. . . sociopaths are noted especially for their shallowness of emotion, the hollow and transient nature of any affectionate feelings they may claim to have, a certain breathtaking callousness. They have no trace of empathy and no genuine interest in bonding emotionally with a mate. Once the surface charm is scraped off, their marriages are loveless, one-sided and almost always short-term. If a marriage partner has any value to the sociopath, it is because the partner is viewed as a possession, one that the sociopath may feel angry to lose, but never sad or accountable.

You would imagine that anyone encountering such shallow, superficial people would run a mile, wouldn’t you? But because of their “charisma” and their glibness, sociopaths are able to entrap victims only too easily. It is part of what makes them so dangerous.

Enhancing the animal charisma of sociopaths, there is our own mild affinity for danger. Conventional wisdom has it that dangerous people are attractive, and when we are drawn to sociopaths, we tend to prove out this cliché. Sociopaths are dangerous in many ways. One of the most conspicuous is their preference for risky situations and choices, and their ability to convince others to take risks along with them. On occasion—but only on occasion—normal people enjoy minor risks and thrills . . . Our normal affinity for the occasional thrill can make the risk-taking sociopath seem all the more charming—at first. Initially, it can be exciting to be invited into the risky scheme, to be associated with the person who is making choices outside of our ordinary boundaries.

"Let us take your credit card and fly to Paris tonight. Let us take your savings and start that business that sounds so foolish but, with two minds like ours, could really take off. Let us go down to the beach and watch the hurricane. Let us get married right now. Let us lose these boring friends of yours and go off somewhere by ourselves. Let us have sex in the elevator. Let us invest your money in this hot tip I just got. Let us laugh at the rules. Let us walk into this restaurant in our T-shirts and jeans. Let us see how fast your car can go. Let us live a little."

Around 20 years ago, I was engaged in a relationship with such a person for 18 months. Without exception, the paragraph above is a perfect encapsulation of the relationship we had, right down to the name of the city. Uncannily accurate. Eerily so. The woman involved left me penniless, out of work, heart-broken and humiliated; worse, she permanently or near permanently damaged a number of friendships I had through her scheming, most of which was going on behind my back, although I can’t deny that I was willingly negligent in trusting her reassurances; the truth is that I wanted to believe her when she lied to me because I had been flattered by the amount of attention she paid me, by her incessant compliments, and by the prospect of the exciting life she seemed to promise. This, sadly, is how sociopaths work, and the people they entrap are usually a little low in self-esteem and consequently easy prey, susceptible to someone who appears to recognize in them something unnoticed by the world at large.

According to both Stout and Hare, sociopaths constitute around 4 percent of the U.S. population. That is one person in 25. Yes. That many. You’d think we’d be able to spot such a scourge with little difficulty, but the truth is that by and large they go unnoticed, because the majority of sociopaths are not psychotic murderers or serial killers. A very, very small minority of sociopaths behave that way, because the variables required for such behaviour to manifest itself so rarely coincide in any one individual. Most sociopaths will simply go through life engaging in fraud, theft, and lying, leaving behind them a trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts because those are the opportunities afforded most of them and which most easily gratify their desires.

Moreover, there doesn’t appear to be any class-based explanation for sociopathic behaviour insofar as sociopaths appear right across the social spectrum, as lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, factory and office workers, prison inmates, prison warders, rock stars, nurses, you name it. This, say Stout and Hare, is because the sociopathic personality has a genetic component that is inevitably found across society as a whole. Class does make a difference, however, in that, crimes like those at Enron notwithstanding, sociopaths born into wealthier and better-heeled families are less likely to be found out and more likely to get away with sociopathic behaviour. Working-class sociopaths are more likely to end up behind bars, are more likely to be on the run from the law or from creditors, and are more likely to fuck up or be found out, which is not to say that better-off sociopaths do not fuck up—it is in their nature to take risks, act irresponsibly, engage in dangerous, impulsive behaviour—but that very often the people around them fail to identify their criminality, or else actively collude with the sociopath, excusing their behaviour as “artistic temperament,” for instance, and even covering up for the sociopath because of the potential damage that might be done to the organization they belong to by the revelation of one form of abuse or another perpetrated by a high-ranking member of staff.

There are further sociological considerations that require exploration, however, touched on by both Stout and Hare but largely outside the scope of their work: the way that contemporary capitalism actively encourages sociopathic behaviour through an ethos that glorifies nonconformism, as well as the danger posed to the majority of people in any hierarchically structured society when sociopaths occupy dominant positions.

As Thomas Frank has convincingly described in The Conquest of Cool and elsewhere, since at least the 1950s the prevailing ethos of capitalism has been the glorification of the rebel, the hipster, the nonconformist. Marketing organizations even that far back were encouraging a “Just Do It” mentality among consumers: Live life to the full, don’t think of the morrow, let the kid inside you flourish, be irresponsible, don’t feel guilty, purchase our product now, on credit, and enjoy, give voice to the inner you and fuck society and its conventions, stick it to The Man by buying our bike/car/T-shirt/records. Far from co-opting 1960s rebellion, Frank explains, businesses actively espoused the idea of rebellion as a lifestyle, if not before, at least at the same time as the counterculture was taking on “The Hegemon.” This glorification of the rebel without a cause has resulted in a society that doesn’t just condone sociopathic behaviour: It actively encourages it. Go look in Business Week and Forbes at the sorts of behaviour that are regarded as praiseworthy: ruthlessness, the capacity for making "hard" decisions, risk-taking. Go back and have a look at what Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were up to, then consider how they were regarded by the business world before they got found out. And, without wanting to be accused of stating the obvious, have a look at Hare’s checklist for psychopathic behaviour and see how many of the characteristics he identifies are exhibited NOT JUST by the present incumbent of the White House, but by the previous one as well. It seems pretty clear to this reader, at least, that we as a society are colluding in self-destructive behaviour whenever we praise, ignore, fail to face down, or fail to render accountable those individuals or businesses that lay waste the planet or ruin people’s lives for the sake of a quick buck, a profit margin, a legacy, self-aggrandizement, or caprice. Guiltless excess has been the watchword of capitalism for nigh on 50 years, not just during brief periods in the 1960s or the 1980s, and at the risk of sounding like an alarmist, we need to recognize that capitalism as a whole is sociopathic and requires surgery: This is a sociopathic society.

Stout is less convincing on why it is that sociopaths get away with so much: She cites the research of Stanley Milgram on obedience to suggest that most of us have a natural tendency to defer to those we regard as legitimate sources of authority. Moreover, she says, most of us find it difficult to believe that someone can lie so blatantly, even after their lies and machinations have been exposed; sociopaths simply do not care about being found out, which is why so many of them eventually do end up with ruined lives themselves (in this respect, it is the rest of us who are the problem, simply by virtue of our innate decency. There’s nothing that can be done about that!). Nonetheless, it is heartening to remind ourselves that 96 percent of the population are relatively reliable, decent, honest, caring, empathic human beings; it is only if we are unwilling to confront and curtail sociopathic behaviour that it continues because sociopathy will not end of its own accord (even though this is not strictly true of individual sociopaths, whose behaviour appears to modify and soften after age 40, according to Hare).

We’ve been here before, and Norm has spent many a post, I know, labouring over this conundrum. Why is it that some people do intervene in the face of evil, what defines the individuals willing to confront authority illegitimately employed, to face down bullies, to take the risk of standing up and being counted? Stout maintains that such a lack of deference is exhibited only by people with a strong self-image, people who regard authority figures or bullies as peers bound by the same rules as the rest of us, as equals, not superiors. Such a self-image accepts no authority that is not accountable or imposed; it is also possessed of a sense of right and wrong independent of context, which is to say, a set of values that apply universally, to everyone, regardless of how many stripes they have on their sleeve. But not only must such individuals hold such values, they must also be willing to insist that they be applied, even at the risk of their own safety. And this means not just being Bolshie but to be in possession of a set of morals that they apply to themself as much as to everyone else. Ironically, as in the case of the serial killer, such a combination of strong self-image, lack of deference, possession of and adherence to a universal moral code, and fearlessness in the face of physical threat do not come together all that often in one location, in one person. We can all cite examples of such moral fortitude; they are passed on to us as exemplars: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. Sadly, they are exemplars precisely because most of us fail to live up to their standards. They are to be emulated, of course, but few of us manage it, and it is to be hoped that few of us are ever called on to have to.

Stout makes the observation that a society entirely composed of sociopaths would collapse under the weight of its own irresponsibility. Sociopaths are incapable of cooperation with others beyond short-term exploitation, and a society in which everyone exploits everyone else would result social suicide. For this reason, she says, the evolutionary explanation for sociopathic behaviour requires some explanation, because it is difficult to see how it can be selected for. Her conclusion is that society has a whole can tolerate a small amount of sociopathy; sociopathic behaviour is effectively parasitic on the co-operative behaviour exhibited by the majority. The evolutionary unit of selection, she says, cannot be the individual in this regard, precisely because it is not in the interest of individuals to be sociopathic. Were we all so, the species would be extinct. But at the level of the species, such behaviour is tolerable, because most of us are not sociopaths. Sociopathic behaviour has not disappeared, either because it can serve some social function (Stout cites the military as an organization that actively requires cold-blooded, dispassionate killers, drawing attention to the accumulating evidence that most people, even in the military, are not natural killers) or because, at such a low level (whether or not 4 percent is low enough, I leave for you to decide) it is selection-neutral; it neither damages nor enhances the species’ survival chances, despite the damage done to individuals who encounter sociopaths. Indeed, it is possible that sociopaths do us a favour, serving as a salutary lesson about trust and accountability. Certainly the Enron scandal does.

Here then, paraphrased, is Stout’s list of 13 rules for dealing with sociopaths in everyday life. I pass them on to you in the hope that you never have to recognize a sociopath with the benefit of hindsight, the way I had to:

1: Swallow the bitter pill of accepting that some people literally have no conscience.

2: In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on—educator, doctor, leader, animal lover, humanist, parent—go with your instincts.

3: When considering a new relationship of any kind, practice the Rule of Threes regarding the claims and promises a person makes, and the responsibilities he or she has. Make the Rule of Threes your personal policy. One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you’re dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behaviour.

4: Question authority. At least six out of ten people will blindly obey authority to the bitter end. The good news is that having social support makes people somewhat more likely to challenge authority. Encourage those around you to question too.

5: Suspect flattery. Compliments are lovely, especially when they are sincere. In contrast, flattery is extreme and appeals to our ego in unrealistic ways. It is the material of counterfeit charm, and nearly always involves an intent to manipulate.

6: If necessary, redefine your concept of respect. Too often, we mistake fear for respect. In a perfect world, human respect would be an automatic reaction only to those who are strong, kind, and morally courageous. The person who profits from frightening you is not likely to be any of these.

7: Do not join the game. Resist the temptation to compete with a seductive sociopath, to outsmart him, psychoanalyze, or even banter with him. In addition to reducing yourself to his level, you would be distracting yourself from what is really important, which is to protect yourself.

8: The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication.

9: Question your tendency to pity too easily. Pity is a socially valuable response, and t should be reserved for innocent people who are in genuine pain or who have fallen on misfortune. If, instead, you find yourself pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to 100 percent that you are dealing with a sociopath.

10: Do not try to redeem the unredeemable. Second, third, fourth and fifth chances are for people who possess conscience. If you are dealing with a person who has no conscience, know how to swallow hard and cut your losses.

11: Never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character. “Please don’t tell,” often spoken tearfully and with great gnashing of teeth, is the trademark plea of thieves, child abusers—and sociopaths. Do not listen to this siren song. Other people deserve to be warned more than sociopaths deserve to have you keep their secrets.

If someone without conscience insists that you “owe” him or her, recall what you are about to read here: “You owe me” has been the standard line of sociopaths for thousands of years, quite literally, and is still so.

We tend to experience “you owe me” as a compelling claim, but it is simply not true. Do not listen. Also, ignore the one that goes, “You are just like me.” You are not.

12: Defend your psyche. Do not allow someone without conscience, or even a string of such people, to convince you that humanity is a failure. Most human beings do possess a conscience. Most human beings are able to love.

13: Living well is the best revenge.

May you all live well. Ninety-six percent of you, anyway.


DC said...

Very interesting stuff.

But I wonder about the idea that capitalism promotes, rather than merely co-opting, non-conformism, and that this promotes sociopathy. Doesn't that contradict the important point you make about the need to challenge authority?

It seems to me that conformism is a very dangerous impulse which does a tremendous amount to prevent people from standing up to authority.

skipper said...

Really interesting and I enjoyed reading this. However, I'm a teeny bit worried that, according to this analysis, anyone who is intense, funny, charismatic or really witty is being implicitly daubed 'sociopathic'. Isn't it possible to own these characteristics and be a decent person too? And I thought I detected a contradiction: you seem to advocate a sort of decent conformism while urging challenges to illegitimate authority. But thanks you for a stimulating read.

Laban said...

amijxbf"Why is it that some people do intervene in the face of evil, what defines the individuals willing to confront authority illegitimately employed, to face down bullies, to take the risk of standing up and being counted ?"

A counter-question : what happens to such people in a society like that of 21st century Britain ?

"He had tried to intervene after overhearing a young woman in the carriage being verbally abused by a man, believed to be her ex-boyfriend.

The teenager, an undergraduate who was in his first year at St Andrews University, died from a single wound to the chest shortly after noon on Saturday.

Other passengers in the carriage fled after the attack ...",,2-2201314,00.html

"He is now a rare creature - a probation officer who has been fired, not because he messed up or failed properly to supervise an offender but because he tried to do his job too well.

The way Houlahan sees it, he was pushed out because he embarrassed the rest of the service by trying to insist that the proper function of a probation officer or offender manager was protecting the public."

John said...

Hi folks. Thanks for the comments.


It isn't so much that capitalism promotes nonconformism that is problematic so much as the from of nonconformism it promotes. It is the notion of rebellion for its own sake, the guiltless hedonism and excess of the business-led 'counterculture' that Frank objects too. Nonconformism isn't really nonconformism if everyone is being 'unique.'

Couldn't agree more about the dangers of conformism. What Stout advocates, rather, is skepticism toward authority, which generally requires a strong self-image and a willingness to think for and stand up for oneself. Whether or not, as a consequence, one decides to confrom or not, at least the path chosen is genuine and not preordained by authority figures of any shade.

Skipper. I don't think there's any doubt that amongst the 96 percent, there are plenty of witty, intense, and charismatic people. What's important is whether or not the traits are accompanied by deception, manipulation, and contempt for others. I'm sure we can all name people we know who have all those positive traits and more besides. We just need to be on the lookout for those tell-tale features that Stout identifies as characteristic of the sociopath. I'm really pleased you found it a stimulating read. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

Hi Laban. I think you're pretty much reinforcing the point I made. Those who intervene are particularly brave people. The example you cite once again suggests that people who hold their own well-being in lower regard than the implementation of a universal moral code are few and far between and need to be held up as the exemplars they are. We need to be more like them.

DC said...

I'm still not convinced that capitalism's promotion of rebellion, or rather its conversion into what you rightly call "guiltless hedonism", is not really a co-optation - the "commodification of dissent". I tend to see consumerist capitalism as promoting a faux non-conformism - individualism without individuality. Which might be basically what you think too, come to think of it.

But I've taken a note of that Thomas Frank book, and its on my (admittedly very long) List of Interesting Sounding Books to Check Out.

genwolf said...

This was a fascinating read.

I think the question of the degree to which Capitalism promotes sociopathy requires a little exgesis - there is almost certainly something to the sugestion that Capitalism is capable of consuming the Social capital that sustains it - which suggestion far precedes the conquest of cool. Capitalism requires a certain value structure and a basic trust and rule of law to operate - that contracts are honoured, that deposits are not stolen, that long term promises that are almost always the basis for capital intensive investment are capable of sustainment - and that all of thsi is accomplished with a sufficient minimumof legal and Government interference that the feedback in the system is not overhwlemed in process similar to the effect of a Nuerotoxin on the nervous system. Capitalism provides opprtunity for sociopathy - but where it operates with a rule of law it provides many more frequent remedies. Centrally planned systems appear much more susceptible to becoming completely controlled by sociopath's than Capitalist systems . The extent to which this is true often becomes especially evident after the sytems demise when a nascent Capitalism is able to more clearly reveal that almost everyone at the top was a sociopath, and are now engaged in open looting.

I take issue with Stouts supposition that Military organisations have a standrad requirement for Sociopaths. Almot all organised Militaries depend to a large degree for their success on unit cohesion - and Military violence is organised social violence of a very different kind from individual or small ad hoc group violence (eg gangs). Some military organisations do develop a deliberately brutalised sociopathic culture - but the price is paid in the breakdown of internal trust and such formations are blunt and cumbersome instruments in battle or war. Elite or simply first rate troops have always had to depend on initiative and very high levels of internal trust to operate as they do - and these are traits that militate especially against sociopathy. There is anecdotal evidence that miltary organisations have an intuitive undertsanding of this. The Wehrmacht - even where it had such troops available tried to avoid employing elite frontline units in the prosecution's of it's brutal counter partisan operations. When the Russian invaded eastern Europe and Prussia civilians all reported that they had little to fear from the front line fighters who behaved relatively correctly, it was the shambolic poorly equipped second echelon that were resposnible for the wave of rapes and pillage that occured. The front line fighters were undoubtedly more effective at killing on the battlefeild, but the sociopaths were concentrated amongst the second echlon who rarely killed.