by Hugh Gilmore
“I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.” Martha Stout, “The Sociopath Next Door”
Every day I read nearly a dozen news blogs about the current pandemic. Every night I watch several TV news channels. They all spend a lot of space and time on the same question: Why is Donald Trump doing so little about COVID-19? After asking that question, nearly all of the talking heads reach the same superficial conclusion: Mr. Trump is “in denial.” Why? they ask, before saying it’s because he’s afraid of not getting reelected. Then they shake their sage heads and go tsk-tsk.
But what if the real answer is something worse than his being in denial? What if he’s a compulsive serial liar? And looks away from the sufferings of millions of our fellow citizens because he just doesn’t give a damn? Because he cannot feel sympathy or empathy for anyone other than himself? Is he the victim here? Could it be he has … no conscience?
Such questions inevitably arise after a recent rereading of Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us.” Originally published in 2006 BT (Before Trump), the book summarizes and condenses the author’s 25 years of clinical psychology practice and faculty position at Harvard Medical school. She specialized in counseling victims of psychological trauma. Many of her patients had suffered deep psychological harm from their encounters with sociopaths.
The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are used interchangeably by many people while others see them as similar, but different. They both conjure Hollywood images of mad, oh-so-clever, fiendish serial killers – one of the mainstays of almost every other crime movie offered by Netflix, et. al. nowadays. Yes, there are such people, writes Martha Stout, but far more insidious are the sociopaths one is more likely to run into, and perhaps be damaged by, in real life. She maintains that sociopaths represent only four percent of the population in the United States, but have a disproportionate influence on our personal and collective lives.
The American Psychiatric Association’s current manual of psychiatric disorders (5th ed.) labels sociopathy and psychopathy as “antisocial personality disorder.” Diagnosis is based on “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” More specifically, on the basis of a person’s consistently exhibiting three (or more) of the following symptoms:
(1) Failure to conform to social norms (2) Deceitfulness, repeated lying, or conning others for pleasure of personal profit (3) Impulsivity, or failure to plan (4) Irritability and aggressiveness (5) Reckless disregard for the safety of others (6) Consistent irresponsibility … failure to honor monetary obligations (7) Lack of remorse, being indifferent to hurts caused to others.
Based on her decades of clinical research, Martha Stout has distilled all of those aberrant behaviors to their root cause: Sociopaths have no conscience. They just do not feel shame. She writes: “The shameless know us much better than we know them. We have an extremely hard time seeing that a person has no conscience, but a person who has no conscience can instantly recognize someone who is decent and trusting.” And take advantage, exploit, and manipulate them. And if caught, say, “I never did that.”
She writes, “Sociopaths are infamous for their refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the decisions they make, or for the outcomes of their decisions.” What’s more, History shows us that a leader with no conscience “can hypnotize the group conscience still further, redoubling catastrophe. Using fear-based propaganda to amplify a destructive ideology, such a leader can bring the members of a frightened society” to view the nation’s problems as “an epic battle between good and evil.”
“The Sociopath Next Door” is written as a realistic everyday warning manual.” Many of the lessons in this book are presented as composite stories built around patients the author has treated. The garden-variety sociopath who can hurt your life might be encountered in your office, or at the dentist’s, or in a church group, a fraternal society. He or she may be the coach of a sports team, the editor of a magazine, a local politician, a policeman, a doctor or nurse. They’re hard to recognize, Stout says, but if she had to focus on one warning label, she’d say there’s a constant pity party going on with sociopaths. Stout concludes her book saying, “If you find yourself often 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.”
As to whether reading this book would help or hinder anyone’s understanding of what is going on in the White House nowadays, I cannot say. It’s a terrible thought, though, the idea that a sociopath was elected to the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth.