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Martha Stout, Ph.D. was trained at the famous McLean Psychiatric Hospital and is a practicing psychologist and a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is also the author of The Myth of Sanity. She lives on Cape Ann in Massachusetts.
Minds differ still more than faces.
Imagine--if you can--not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools. Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless. You are not held back from any of your desires by guilt or shame, and you are never confronted by others for your cold-bloodedness. The ice water in your veins is so bizarre, so completely outside of their personal experience, that they seldom even guess at your condition.
In other words, you are completely free of internal restraints, and your unhampered liberty to do just as you please, with no pangs of conscience, is conveniently invisible to the world. You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their consciences, will most likely remain undiscovered.
How will you live your life? What will you do with your huge and secret advantage, and with the corresponding handicap of other people (conscience)? The answer will depend largely on just what your desires happen to be, because people are not all the same. Even the profoundly unscrupulous are not all the same. Some people-- whether they have a conscience or not-- favor the ease of inertia, while others are filled with dreams and wild ambitions. Some human beings are brilliant and talented, some are dull-witted, and most, conscience or not, are somewhere in between. There are violent people and nonviolent ones, individuals who are motivated by bloodlust and those who have no such appetites.
Maybe you are someone who craves money and power, and though you have no vestige of conscience, you do have a magnificent IQ. You have the driving nature and the intellectual capacity to pursue tremendous wealth and influence, and you are in no way moved by the nagging voice of conscience that prevents other people from doing everything and anything they have to do to succeed. You choose business, politics, the law, banking, international development, or any of a broad array of other power professions, and you pursue your career with a cold passion that tolerates none of the usual moral or legal incumbrances. When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients (or your constituency) in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steam-roll over groups who are dependent and voiceless. And all of this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever.
You become unimaginably, unassailably, and maybe even globally successful. Why not? With your big brain, and no conscience to rein in your schemes, you can do anything at all.
Or no--let us say you are not quite such a person. You are ambitious, yes, and in the name of success you are willing to do all manner of things that people with conscience would never consider, but you are not an intellectually gifted individual. Your intelligence is above average perhaps, and people think of you as smart, maybe even very smart. But you know in your heart of hearts that you do not have the cognitive wherewithal, or the creativity, to reach the careening heights of power you secretly dream about, and this makes you resentful of the world at large, and envious of the people around you.
As this sort of person, you ensconce yourself in a niche, or maybe a series of niches, in which you can have some amount of control over small numbers of people. These situations satisfy a little of your desire for power, although you are chronically aggravated at not having more. It chafes to be so free of the ridiculous inner voice that inhibits others from achieving great power, without having enough talent to pursue the ultimate successes yourself. Sometimes you fall into sulky, rageful moods caused by a frustration that no one but you understands.
But you do enjoy jobs that afford you a certain undersupervised control over a few individuals or small groups, preferably people and groups who are relatively helpless or in some way vulnerable. You are a teacher or a psychotherapist, a divorce lawyer or a high school coach. Or maybe you are a consultant of some kind, a broker or a gallery owner or a human services director. Or maybe you do not have a paid position, and are instead the president of your condominium association, or a volunteer hospital worker, or a parent. Whatever your job, you manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb, as often and as outrageously as you can without getting fired or held accountable. You do this for its own sake, even when it serves no purpose except to give you a thrill. Making people jump means you have power-- or this is the way you see it-- and bullying provides you with an adrenaline rush. It is fun.
Maybe you cannot be the CEO of a multinational corporation, but you can frighten a few people, or cause them to scurry around like chickens, or steal from them, or--maybe best of all--create situations that cause them to feel bad about themselves. And this is power, especially when the people you manipulate are superior to you in some way. Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable. This is not only good fun--it is existential vengeance. And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do. You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’s boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.
Or now let us say you are a person who has a proclivity for violence or for seeing violence done. You can simply murder your coworker, or have her murdered--or your boss, or your ex-spouse, or your wealthy lover’s spouse, or anyone else who bothers you. You have to be careful, because if you slip up you may be caught and punished by the system. But you will never be confronted by your conscience, because you have no conscience. If you decide to kill, the only difficulties will be the external ones. Nothing inside of you will ever protest.
Provided you are not forcibly stopped, you can do anything at all. If you are born at the right time, with some access to family fortune, and you have a special talent for whipping up other people’s hatred and sense of deprivation, you can arrange to kill large numbers of unsuspecting people. With enough money, you can accomplish this from far away, and you can sit back safely and watch in satisfaction. In fact, terrorism (done from a distance) is the ideal occupation for a person who is possessed of bloodlust and no conscience, because if you do it just right, you may be able to make a whole nation jump. And if that is not power, what is?
Or let us imagine the opposite extreme--you have no interest in power. To the contrary, you are the sort of person who really does not want much of anything. Your only real ambition is not to have to exert yourself to get by. You do not want to work like everyone else does. Without a conscience, you can nap or pursue your hobbies or watch television or just hang out somewhere all day long. Living a bit on the fringes, and with some handouts from relatives and friends, you can do this indefinitely. People may whisper to each other that you are an underachiever, or that you are depressed, a sad case, or in contrast, if they get angry, they may grumble that you are lazy. When they get to know you better, and get really angry, they may scream at you and call you a loser, a bum. But it will never occur to them that you literally do not have a conscience, that in such a fundamental way, your very mind is not the same as theirs.
The panicked feeling of a guilty conscience never squeezes at your heart or wakes you in the middle of the night. Despite your lifestyle, you never feel irresponsible, neglectful, or so much as embarrassed, although for the sake of appearances, sometimes you pretend that you do. For example, if you are a decent observer of people and what they react to, you may adopt a lifeless facial expression, say how ashamed of your life you are, and talk about how rotten you feel. This you do only because it is more convenient to have people think you are depressed than it is to have them shouting at you all the time, or insisting that you get a job.
You notice that people who do have a conscience feel guilty when they harangue someone they believe to be “depressed” or “troubled.” As a matter of fact, to your further advantage, they often feel obliged to take care of such a person. If, despite your relative poverty, you can manage to get yourself into a sexual relationship with someone, this person--who does not suspect what you are really like--may feel particularly obligated. And since all you want is not to have to work, your financier does not have to be especially rich, just reliably conscience-bound.
I trust that imagining yourself as any of these people feels insane to you, because such people are insane, dangerously so. Insane but real--they even have a label. Many mental health professionals refer to the condition of little or no conscience as “antisocial personality disorder,” a noncorrectable disfigurement of character that is now thought to be present in about four percent of the population--that is to say, one in twenty-five people. This condition of missing conscience is called by other names too, most often “sociopathy,” or the somewhat more familiar term, “psychopathy.” Guiltlessness was in fact the first personality disorder to be recognized by psychiatry, and terms that have been used at times over the past century include “manie sans délire,” “psychopathic inferiority,” “moral insanity,” and “moral imbecility.”
According to the current bible of psychiatric labels, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV of the American Psychiatric Association, the clinical diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder” should be considered when an individual possesses at least three of the following 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; (7) lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person. The presence in an individual of any three of these “symptoms,” taken together, is enough to make many psychiatrists suspect the disorder.
Other researchers and clinicians, many of whom think the APA’s definition describes simple “criminality” better than true “psychopathy” or “sociopathy,” point to additional documented characteristics of sociopaths as a group. One of the more frequently observed of these traits is a glib and superficial charm that allows the true sociopath to seduce other people, figuratively or literally--a kind of glow or charisma that, initially, can make the sociopath seem more charming or more interesting than most of the normal people around him. 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 that may be compelling at first, but upon closer inspection may seem odd or perhaps laughable. (“Someday the world will realize how special I am,” or “You know that after me, no other lover will do.”)
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.” Regardless of how educated or highly placed as adults, they may have a history of early behavior problems, sometimes including drug use or recorded juvenile delinquency, and always including a failure to acknowledge responsibility for any problems that occurred.
And 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.
All of these characteristics, along with the “symptoms” listed by the American Psychiatric Association, are the behavioral manifestations of what is for most of us an unfathomable psychological condition, the absence of our essential seventh sense-- conscience.
Crazy, and frightening-- and real, in about four percent of the population.
Excerpted from The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us by Martha Stout
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