Monday, January 27, 2014

The Sociopath Next Door

[Approximate Reading Time: 15 minutes]
[Mood: Informed]

A few months ago, the resident manager at my apartment complex asked me if I would be interested in taking her place because she's moving out to a bigger apartment elsewhere. I was introduced to the founders of the property management company that manages my complex. The "community manager" position required an interview with the founders who between them run the company as both business partners and a husband and wife team. Their company turned out to be much larger than I expected. They manage the day-to-day operations at dozens of apartment complexes through out the San Francisco Bay Area. My second interview was with the chief, a man who claimed real estate was his passion. It's hard for me to imagine what it might be like to have a passion for something as mundane as real estate but he helped me empathize with him better when he told me he liked landscaping. When his company started managing my complex, he spent time re-doing the landscaping and added much greenery that I have come to appreciate. So I owe my delightful sights of hummingbirds just outside my window to this man's passion for landscaping!

Real estate is a cut-throat business. His company's primary responsibilities are fiduciary duties to the wealthy owners of the properties that the company manages. Finding good tenants who are likely to pay rent on time is a responsibility of the "community managers" who reside at their respective properties. "You might have to turn off compassion at times", he said to me. "You will have to maintain a certain distance from your neighbors because you are going to be a representative of the company and might have to take action against them if they stop paying rent." On my drive back home, I couldn't help but wonder how normal it all seemed. Here was a run off the mill company, one of hundreds of thousands of such companies all over the country, stating clearly as one of the requirements in the job description, the ability to turn off compassion on demand.

As an observer, I prefer to take the position not of a participant in society whose suitability for this job is at stake and depends on his moral constitution, but of a neutral witness. I don't claim to have any more or less compassion for fellow human beings than anyone else but I do think it's worth thinking about questions such as these: why does this seem so normal, almost unremarkable? It would hardly be a source of complaint for most us who might sit through a job interview to be asked to lose a bit of our conscience every now and then. When has it become the way of the world? Did human societies throughout history subscribe to similar worldviews as ours?

"The Sociopath Next Door", by Martha Stout, a psychologist casts some light. About 4% of Americans are sociopaths. They have no conscience. The book makes it sound as if the rest of us have about the same amount of conscience but I prefer to think of it as a continuum. Out of 100 randomly chosen people, 4 have absolutely no conscience whatsoever, 4 have way too much conscience to function effectively as a cog in the machine that is modern society, with the rest occupying various places on the continuum. So we're dealing with a larger number of people, way more than 4, out of 100, who have some conscience (unlike the sociopaths who have none) but only a little.

But how significant is 4%?

Meet Skip...

Contrary to popular belief, most sociopaths are not usually violent and angry. Most of them are much like any of us on the surface and go on living amongst us undetectable. The book goes to great lengths to drive home this point and provides examples of normal looking men and women who are nevertheless a danger to the people who enter their lives. 

Skip makes a name for himself as a successful businessman. When a sociopath enters the public sphere, he or she ends up being a danger to entire groups and even countries. History has shown this time and again.

But what's sociopathy, really? And why is it so hard to imagine what it's like to be a sociopath?

Sociopaths and those with little conscience play to win. They have an intense need to control others and to prove to themselves and others that they are in control. This tendency could take the shape of wanting to see other people jump as when a sociopath robs a post office and watches the commotion and police activity from nearby. Or it could take the shape of feeling the power of being able to allocate enormous resources across international borders and see markets and bottom lines expand at great cost to society and planet.

If sociopathy is the absence of conscience, what's conscience? And what does its absence entail?

The incidence of sociopathy is found to be lower among the general populations of Eastern cultures than Western cultures. A highly individualistic society encourages sociopathic tendencies while group-centered societies discourage such tendencies due to the presence of generally accepted moral codes that "make sense" at a cognitive/intellectual level rather than an emotional level.

It stands to reason that there are cultures today (and perhaps many have existed in the past) that absorb negative tendencies in human beings such as greed, selfishness and a desire to control others and encourage the flowering of more positive ones.

The book talks at length about why it's so difficult for most of us to accept that there are people with absolutely no conscience among us. Without this acceptance, it would be much harder to entertain the idea that perhaps we as a species have unwittingly granted the responsibility of leading us into the future to so-called leaders who actually have little or no conscience, that perhaps the leaders among us, business executives, politicians, religious leaders are more or less composed of people who fall at the lower end of the conscience continuum. It does take a fair bit of "winning" to "rise" to such heights! And "winning" is what sociopaths do best. It would be rather hard for a person of conscience to beat a sociopath at this game because sociopaths go to great lengths to win with no conscience to be bothered with.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept the idea that some of us have no conscience?

It appears that most of us have difficulty imagining world leaders and others in positions of power to fall on the lower end of the conscience continuum. They inspire us and command and even deserve our respect. We like reading their autobiographies and talking about their exploits in the world of business or politics. And yet, there are clues that indicate that the people we hold in such high esteem are deep down people with a need to control others, to amass vast amounts of direct control or more often, vast amounts of wealth which is a proxy for control over resources and the destinies of men, and ultimately to strategize and win at whatever game they have chosen to play.

In the face of reality, what's one supposed to do to protect oneself? What are we supposed to do collectively to protect the planet and the species? "Question authority", says the author.

The battle in our minds between obeying our conscience and obeying an external authority has been explored by the social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in the 1960s in his famous experiments. The book describes these experiments and how the presence of authority might encourage us to temporarily suspend conscience and go along with what authority is telling us to do in the moment.

Sociopathy is a a rather odd "disease" because the sociopath is seldom affected by it. He is in no state of distress unlike with other ailments. Moreover, sociopaths don't even know there's something wrong with the way they interact with society. In fact, they wonder why everyone is not more like them.

Sociopaths are quick to defend themselves. In their view, they can do nothing wrong, have done nothing wrong even if it's quite obvious to their victims and others.

This book provided me with certain insights that help explain the world we live in today. Sociopathy might have been part of the human condition for as long as there have been human beings on this planet, but certain cultures seem to encourage it more than others. Historically, societies where food was not under lock and key, like the hunter-gatherers, were the kinds of societies where control over others made little sense and hence discouraged sociopathic tendencies among tribe members. On the other end of the spectrum, we have modern western societies whose culture and ideology have been successfully exported to the rest of the world where sociopathic tendencies are encouraged by a heavily individualistic culture. Individualism is a positive word in western thought but one would only have to look around to realize that its almost always someone else's individualism that matters more than yours.

Only in a world run by sociopaths and people with little conscience could one make sense of a job requirement that demands suspension of conscience. My landlord mentioned it rather coldly, as a matter of business, as a matter of fact. He's not an exception but the rule. The requirement to suspend conscience goes hand in hand with most forms of employment in the modern world. Sooner or later, we're all confronted with situations where it's our boss that we listen to or our conscience and more often than not, it's the boss that wins. The boss wouldn't be the boss if he couldn't pull that off. And so it goes up the hierarchy with those who are at the helm having truly mastered the art. No one said sociopaths aren't intelligent, charming, handsome, beautiful and gregarious. Winning and controlling are the two ladders that the sophisticated sociopaths among us seek to climb as they propel themselves to ever dizzying heights of what we've been taught to call "success".

It all makes sense when we consider that the state of the planet is at its worst ever since human beings first appeared on Earth. One has to be willing to question the ideas of progress that have been so successfully planted in our minds at a very young age to see and acknowledge the devastation a single species can wreak on its home. The life of the average human being is considerably more miserable in the modern age compared to any other time in history or prehistory. The current state of affairs wouldn't have become possible if we didn't unwittingly entrust ourselves and our fate to those among us who care for nothing more than winning. Winning at the games they make up, and the games they make us play in. Winning against all odds, winning at great personal risk, winning at great collective risk, making risky technological bets. These and other traits that we see in our leaders are the traits of sociopaths and people with little conscience. It's the hardest thing to grasp, to hold in your mind and to contemplate if this could indeed be an explanation for what we see around us in the world.


  1. Hmmm, I'm still not positive if there are people who are 100% evil. I agree that there are people who are 99%+ evil, but I'm not sure about 100%. Thanks for the post; interesting to think about.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sonya... I guess it depends on how we define evil. I agree with you that it sounds unreasonable that a human being might have ZERO conscience. It's not something that can be measured easily despite the pretenses of brain researchers and social psychologists.

    Perhaps we could define evil as a normal person with a conscience doing something a sociopath lacking conscience would do. This would mean sociopaths are not really "evil" in the common sense of the word because they are biologically missing something that keeps them from seeing that they are being evil. We wouldn't call a scared mistreated pet dog evil when it bites a rescuer out of fear. We can explain why it did what it did without necessarily blaming it all on the dog's character. Likewise, we can perhaps explain why a sociopath does what he does and not necessarily blame him for his actions. It's as if they are human beings lacking something that is essential but by no fault of their own and hence can't be held responsible for their actions. We might even be able to try and empathize with them sometimes.

    I think a more commonplace way that evil manifests itself is when people with a good dose of conscience convince themselves to go ahead and do something that would bother the conscience of another. This is quite normal in modern society with its individualistic, competitive culture providing any number of justifications to comfort oneself with as one goes about burying their conscience day in and day out. My landlord is an example. He's not a sociopath by any means. He can bring much compassion to bear on his relationships with people around him and the people he cares about. My interview with him was actually quite cordial and enjoyable. But modern capitalistic society provides him a convincing argument that encourages and allows him to put his conscience on the back burner when it comes to accumulating capital. It makes it even more convincing for him to think in terms of following an obligation to shareholders and investors rather than to himself. It's as if my landlord is in service to others. Even though he knows deep down that his own firm's profitability is closely intertwined with the profitability of his investors and how much money he makes for them, he likes to think of it all as a duty. A sense of duty to society, allegiance to an authority or a nation, or responsibility to one's family and friends frequently compels us to override our conscience.

    In this sense, I'm no different from my landlord. And there's no moral judgment here. The point I'm trying to make is that modern society makes it easy to override our conscience which ultimately, directly and indirectly results in evil. Conscience is an interesting thing. It can keep a well-trained combat soldier from firing at his enemy in the heat of battle and yet is easily subverted by popular culture in peacetime.

  3. (Didn't know blogger has a limit on the length of comments) Here's the rest...

    Individualistic societies bring up an interesting paradox. How individualistic is a member of a society really when it's society itself that tells him he is a separate individual? The truth is none of us are really separate from the culture we are part of. Contemporary culture seeps into an "individual" 24/7, reminding him or her how unique they are. And it's this very culture that provides any number of convincing justifications that encourage us to subdue our conscience and plod along with the demands of modernity. So in this sense, no human being is evil independent of the society and culture they are part of! As Daniel Quinn says in Ishmael, thousands of ancient cultures have thrived for hundreds of thousands of years all over the world by discouraging the selfish, individualistic tendencies of their members while encouraging cooperative behaviors. Modern culture seems to do the opposite. Greed is good. Ayn Rand is a phenomenon! It's not that modern humans are more evil by nature than their ancestors but they are "ruled" differently. We tell ourselves a different story. We have a different worldview, one of separation rather than interconnectedness.

    It bothers me too to think of human beings as inherently evil!

  4. Great points; I agree! I try to be aware of my own tendencies to be unkind or mean toward myself and/or others - in fact, my new year's resolution was to be kinder to myself and others.