Saturday, September 1, 2007

Book: The Sociopath Next Door

Ever wonder what it would be like to live without a conscience? We often think of sociopaths or psychopaths in terms of serial killers, but they have much more of a range than that. They can be successful business people, politicians, deadbeat dads and petty criminals. The one trait that ties them all together is that they function without a conscience. This can be surprisingly hard to detect because they can be impressive emotion decoders even though they lack any felt empathy that you and I experience like fish experiences water. This means that they can read others well and that they can often portray exactly the emotion that will push your buttons, which will serve their selfish ends.

If I recall correctly it was Robert Hare in his book Without Conscience, who compares the sociopath with the color blind person. Watching a color blind person at a traffic light, if we didn't know ahead of time about their color blindness, their deficit would be invisible to us. They apparently saw the light turn green when they drove off. The sociopath has learned tricks similar to the color blind person watching the relative position of the traffic light rather than the color. They similarly learn to deal in emotions that convey empathy without ever experiencing empathy themselves. Because of all this they can and do frequently wreck havoc in the lives of others.

Martha Stout's Sociopath Next Door sold well for good reason. It acquaints us with what it is like to live in their world and explores the tragic effect that they have on the lives of others with straight forward analysis and stories that will draw you in. Have you ever wanted to do something that your conscience would not permit you to...but you still wished you could if only your conscience would let you alone? She also entertains this intriguing question, would it be worth it to be able to pursue your own ends without a conscience to pester you if you had the choice?

I think this question gets at why we find ourselves drawn in by the Sopranos, Showtime's Dexter, Dirty Harry films, American Psycho and so on. It is intriguing to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who can live without a shred of genuine concern for others. But most of us only entertain that fantasy for the duration of the movie or book and then go back to genuinely connecting with others, loving our spouses, kids and families, feeling for others to one degree or another when they hurt. For the true sociopath when the lights come on, the movie doesn't end.
blog comments powered by Disqus