The Sociopath Next Door | Notes & Review

Martha Stout. The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway, 2005. (241 pages)



Minds differ still more than faces. – Voltaire

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? (1-2)

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 4 percent of the population — that is to say, one in twenty-five people. (6)

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. (6)

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. … “sociopathic charisma” (7)

In addition, sociopaths have a greater than normal need for stimulation, which results in their taking frequent social, physical, financial, or legal risks. (7)

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. (7)

About one in twenty-five individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. The intellectual difference between right and wrong does not bring on the emotional sirens and flashing blue lights, or the fear of God, that it does for the rest of us. (9)

For something like 96 percent of us, conscience is so fundamental that we seldom even think about it. … And so, naturally, when someone makes a truly conscienceless choice, all we can produce are explanations that come nowhere near the truth…. Or we come up with labels that, provided we do not inspect too closely, almost explain another person’s anti social behavior: He is “eccentric,” or “artistic,” or “really competitive,” or “lazy,” or “clueless,” or “always such a rogue.” (10–11)

Conscience is our omniscient taskmaster, setting the rules for our actions and meting out emotional punishments when we break the rules. (11-12)

In part, this book is my answer, as a psychologist, to that question, “Why have a conscience?” … What follows is a psychologist’s celebration of the still small voice, and of the great majority of human beings who find themselves graced with a conscience. It is a book for those of us who cannot imagine any other way to live. (16)

Only by seeking to discover the nature of ruthlessness can we find the many ways people can triumph over it, and only by recognizing the dark can we make a genuine affirmation of the light. (17)

One – The Seventh Sense

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. – G. K. Chesterton

What is Conscience?

In literature and often in historical accounts of human action, dedication to one’s own self-regard is referred to as “honor.” (23)

The intriguing truth of the matter is that much of what we do that looks like conscience is motivated by some other than altogether — fear, social pressure, pride, even simple habit. (24)

Conscience is something that we feel. In other words, conscience is neither behavioral nor cognitive. Conscience exists primarily in the realm of “affect,” better known as emotion. (25)

Psychologically speaking, conscience is a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment to another living creature (often but not always a human being), or to a group of human beings, or even in some cases to humanity as a whole. Conscience does not exist without an emotional bond to someone or something, and in this way conscience is closely allied with the spectrum of emotions we call “love.” This alliance is what gives true conscience its resilience and its astonishing authority over those who have it, and probably also its confusing and frustrating quality. (26-26)

The History of Conscience

The anonymity of “evil” and its maddening refusal to attach itself reliably to any particular societal role, racial group, or physical type has always plagued theologians and, more recently, scientists. Throughout human history, we have tried mightily to pin down “good” and “evil,” and to find some way to account for those in our midst who would seem to be inhabited by the latter. (27)

Getting down to brass tacks, according to the early church father

  1. the rules of morality are absolute
  2. all people innately know the absolute Truth
  3. bad behavior is the result of faulty thinking, rather than a lack of synderesis, or conscience, and since we all have a conscience, if only human reason were perfect, there would be no bad behavior.

Nearly a millennium after Aquinas made his pronouncement about synderesis, when someone consistently behaves in ways we find unconscionable, we call on an updated version of the “weak Reason” paradigm. We speculate that the offender has been deprived, or that his mind is disturbed, or that his early background makes him do it. We remain extremely reluctant to propose the more straightforward explanation that either God or nature simply failed to provide him with a conscience. (29)

With his “discovery” of the superego, Freud effectively wrested conscience out of the hands of God and placed it in the anxious clutches of the all-too-human family. This change of address for conscience required some daunting shifts in our centuries-old worldview. Suddenly, our moral guides had feet of clay, and absolute Truth began to submit to the uncertainties of cultural relativism. (30)

ID. sexual and unthinking aggressive instincts we are born with, along with the biological appetites.

EGO. rational, aware part of the mind, thinks logically, makes plans, and remembers.

SUPEREGO. grew out of the ego as the child incorporated the external rules of his or her parents and of society. The superego eventually became a free-standing force in the developing mind, unilaterally judging and directing the child’s behaviors and thoughts. It was the commanding, guilt-brandishing inner voice that said no, even when nobody was around. (30)

For in Freudian theory, the superego is not just a voice; it is an operator, a subtle and complex manipulator, a prover of points. It prosecutes, judges, and carries out sentences, and it does all this quite outside of our conscious awareness. (31)

Freud imparted to an awakening scientific world that our usual respect for law and order was not simply imposed on us from the outside. We obey the rules, we honor the virtues, primarily from an internal need that begins in infancy and early childhood to preserve and remain embraced by our families and the larger human society in which we live. (32)

Conscience Versus Superego

Freud, as he conceptualized the superego, threw out the baby with the bathwater, in a manner of speaking. In ejecting moral absolutism from psychological thought, he counted out something else too. Quite simply, Freud counted out love, and all of the emotions related to love. Though he often stated that children love their parents in addition to fearing them, the superego he wrote about was entirely fear-based. In his view, just as we fear our parents’ stern criticisms when we are children, so do we fear the excoriating voice of superego later one. And fear is all. There is no place in the Freudian superego for the conscience-building effects of love, compassion, tenderness, or any of the more positive feelings. (33)

In small and large ways, genuine conscience changes the world. Rooted in emotional connectedness, it teaches peace and opposes hatred and saves children. It keeps marriages together and cleans up rivers and feeds dogs and gives gentle replies. It It makes individual lives better and increases human dignity overall. It is real and compelling, and it would make us crawl out of our skin if we devastated our neighbor. (35)

Two – Ice People: The Sociopaths

Conscience is the window of our spirit, evil is the curtain. – Doug Horton

Even the most introverted among us is defined by her relationships, and preoccupied with reactions to and feelings about, antipathies and affections for, other people. (45)

Most people without conscience are more like the mother who uses her children as tools, or the therapist who deliberately disempowers vulnerable patients, or the seduce-and-manipulate lover, or the business partner who empties the bank account and vanishes, or the charming “friend” who uses people and insists she has not. (48)

Do Sociopaths Know They Are Sociopaths?

For the most part, people whom we assess as evil tend to see nothing at all wrong with their way of being in the world. Sociopaths are infamous for their refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the decisions they make, or for the outcomes of their decisions. (49)

“consistent irresponsibility” … is a cornerstone of the antisocial personality diagnosis. (50)

…when confronted with a destructive outcome that is clearly their doing, they will say, plain and simple, “I never did that,” and will to all appearances believe their own direct lie. This feature of sociopathy makes self-awareness impossible, and int he end, just as the sociopath has no genuine relationships with other people, he has only a very tenuous one with himself. (50)

I believe that somewhere buried safely away from consciousness, there may be a faint internal murmuring that something is missing, something that other people have. I say this because I have heard sociopaths speak of feeling “empty” or even “hollow.” And I say this because what sociopaths envy, and may seek to destroy as part of the game, is usually something in the character structure of a person with conscience, and strong characters are often specially targeted by sociopaths. (51)

If all you had ever felt toward another person were the cold wish to “win,” how would you understand the meaning of love, of friendship, of caring? You would not understand. You would simply go on dominating, and denying, and feeling superior. Perhaps you would experience a little emptiness sometimes, a remote sense of dissatisfaction, but that is all. (51)

Three – When Normal Conscience Sleeps

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. – Thomas Jefferson

Conscience is a creator of meaning. As a sense of constraint rooted in our emotional ties to one another, it prevents life from devolving into nothing but a long and essentially boring game of attempted dominance over our fellow human beings, and for every limitation conscience imposes on us, it gives us a moment of connectedness with an other, a bridge to someone or something outside of our often meaningless schemes. (52)

The truth is that even a normal person’s conscience does not operate on the same level all of the time. One of the simplest reasons for this changeability is the fundamental circumstances of living inside a fallible, need-driven human body. When our bodies are exhausted, sick, or injured, all of our emotional functions, including conscience, can be temporary compromised. (53)

The Emperor’s New Clothes

History teaches that attitudes and plans coming form the top dealing pragmatically with problems of hardship and insecurity in the group, rather than scapegoating an out group, can help us return to a more realistic view of the “others.” In time, moral leadership can make a difference. but history shows us also that a leader with no seventh sense can hypnotize the group conscience still further, redoubling catastrophe. (59)

Very simply, we are programmed to bey authority even against our own consciences. (60)

Where Conscience Draws the Line

…education must be acknowledged as one of the factors that determine whether or not conscience stays alert. It would be a grave and arrogant mistake to imagine that an academic degree directly increases the strength of conscience in the human psyche. On the other hand, education can sometimes level the perceived legitimacy of an authority figure, and thereby limit unquestioning obedience. With education and knowledge, the individual may be able to hold on to the perception of him- or herself as a legitimate authority. (64)

Four – The Nicest Person in the World

Blue Smoke and Mirros

a “covetous psychopath” … “psychopath” refers to sociopathy, or the absence of conscience, and “covetous” has its usual referent: an inordinate desire for the possession of others. (76)

The covetous sociopath thinks that life has cheated her somehow, has not given her nearly the same bounty as other people, and so she must even the existential score by robbing people, by secretly causing destruction in other lives. … Retribution, usually against people who have no idea that they have been targeted, is the most important activity in the covetous sociopath’s life, her highest priority.

Sociopathy Versus Criminality

…the difference between a sociopath and a criminal, which is, astoundingly, the same thing that separates a naughty three-year-old girl who is seen as well behaved from one who is scolded for taking candy from her mother’s purse…quite simply, is whether or not she gets caught. (81)

Five – Why Conscience Is Partially Blind

It is easy — terribly easy — to shake a man’s faith in himself. To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is devil’s work. – George Bernard Shaw

Why are conscience-bound human beings so blind? And why are they so hesitant to defend themselves, and the ideals and people they care about, from the minority of human beings who possess no conscience at all? A large part of the answer has to do with the emotions and thought processes that occur in us when we are confronted with sociopathy. We are afraid, and our sense of reality suffers. We think we are imagining things, or exaggerating, or that we ourselves are somehow responsible for the sociopath’s behavior. but before we discuss in detail our own psychological reactions to shamelessness, allow me to put these reactions in context by clearly describing what we are up against. Let us first take a careful look at the formidable techniques used by the shameless to keep us in line. (87)

The Tools of the Trade

The first such technique is charm, and as a social force, charm should not be underestimated. (87) I liken sociopathic charm to the animal charisma of other mammals who are predators. (88)

Relatedly, people without conscience have an uncanny sense of who will be vulnerable to a sexual overture, and seduction is another very common sociopathic technique. (90)

A sociopath who is about to be cornered by another person will turn suddenly into a piteous weeping figure whom no one, in good conscience, could continue to pressure. or the opposite: Sometimes a cornered sociopath will adopt a posture of righteous indignation and anger in an attempt to scare off her accuser… (91)

In a confusing irony, conscience can be rendered partially blind because people without conscience use, as weapons against us, many of the fundamentally positive tools we need to hold society together — empathetic emotions, sexual bonds, social and professional roles, regard for the compassionate and the creative, our desire to make the world a better place, and the organizing rule of authority. And people who do hideous things do not look like people who do hideous things. There is no “face of evil.” (93)


To suspect, and to try to explain to others that one has been targeted by a sociopath, is to be gaslighted. (94)

Sociopaths, people with no intervening sense of obligation based in attachments to others, typically devote their lives to interpersonal games, to “winning,” to domination for the sake of domination. (96)

one of the more striking characteristics of good people is that they are almost never completely sure they are right. Good people question themselves constantly, reflexively, and subject their decisions and actions to the exacting scrutiny of an intervening sense of obligation rooted in their attachments to other people. (97)

Adding to our insecurity, most of us comprehend instinctively that there are shades of good and bad, rather than absolute categories. We know in our hearts there is no such thing as a person who is 100 percent good, and so we assume there must be no such thing as a person who is 100 percent bad. And perhaps philosophically — and certainly theologically — this is true. After all, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the devil himself is a fallen angel. Probably there are no absolutely good human beings and no utterly bad ones. However — psychologically speaking, there definitely are people who possess an intervening sense of constraint based in emotional attachments, and other people who have no such sense. (98)

How Do We Keep the Blinders Off?

What happens to us while we are growing up? Why do adults stop saying “Quit it” to the bullies? (99)

To keep the blinders off our life-enhancing seventh sense, as with most improvements in the human condition, we must start with our children. A part of healthy conscience is being able to confront consciencelessness. (100)

Six – How to Recognize the Remorseless

In the desert, an old monk had once advised a traveler, the voices of God and the Devil are scarcely distinguishable. – Loren Eiseley

Apart from knowing someone well for many years, there is no foolproof decision rule or litmus test for trustworthiness, and it is extremely important to acknowledge this fact, unnerving though it may be. Uncertainty in this regard is simply a part of the human condition, and I have never known anyone who got around it completely, except by the most extraordinary luck. Furthermore, to imagine there is an effective method — a method that one has thus far been unable to figure out — is to beat up on oneself in a way that is demeaning and unfair. (104)

Shadow theory — the simple and probably accurate notion that we all have a “shadow side” not necessarily apparent from our usual behavior — maintains in its most extreme form that anything doable or feelable by one human being is potentially doable or feelable by all. (106)

The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. – Albert Einstein

The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearlessness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy. (107)

When we pity, we are, at least for the moment, defenseless, and like so many of the other essentially positive human characteristics that bind us together in groups — social and professional roles, sexual bonds, regard for the compassionate and the creative, respect for our leaders — our emotional vulnerability when we pity is used against us by those who have no conscience. (108)

Sociopaths have no regard whatsoever for the social contract, but they do know how to use it to their advantage. And all in all, I am sure if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him. (109)

Sociopaths sometimes exhibit brief, intense enthusiasms — hobbies, projects, involvements with people — that are without commitment or follow-up. These interests appear to begin abruptly and for no reason, and to end the same way. (115)

Seven – The Etiology of Guiltlessness: What Causes Sociopathy?

Like so many human characteristics, both physical and psychological, the primary question is that of nature versus nurture. … For most complex psychological features, the answer is, very probably, both. In other words, a predisposition for the characteristic is present at conception, but the environment regulates how it is expressed. This is true both for traits we consider negative and for those we think of as positive. (121)

Sociopathy is more than just the absence of conscience, which alone would be tragic enough. Sociopathy is the inability to process emotional experience, including love and caring, except when such experience can be calculated as a coldly intellectual task. | Just as conscience is not merely the presence of guilt and remorse, but is based in our capacity to experience emotion and the attachments that result from our feelings, sociopathy is not just the absence of guilt and remorse. Sociopathy is an aberration in the ability to have and to appreciate real (noncalculated) emotional experience, and therefore to connect with other people within real (noncalculated) relationships. To state the situation concisely, and maybe a little to clearly for comfort: Not to have a moral sense flags an even more profound condition, as does the possession of conscience, because  conscience never exists without the ability to love, and sociopathy is ultimately based in lovelessness. (126)

The only emotions that sociopaths seem to feel genuinely are the so-called “primitive” affective reactions that result from immediate physical pain and pleasure, or from short-term frustrations and successes. (127)

Clinicians and researchers have remarked that where the higher emotions are concerned, sociopaths can “know the words but not the music.” (128)


The genetic marble of our lives predates our birth, but after we are delivered, the world takes up its sculptress’s knife and begins to chisel with a vengeance, upon whatever material nature has provided. (128)

Research tells us that adequate attachment in infancy has many happy outcomes, including the healthy development of emotional self-regulation, autobiographical memory, and the capacity to reflect upon one’s own experiences and actions. Perhaps most important, attachment in infancy allows the individual to create affectionate bonds with other people later one. The earliest attachments are formed by seven months of age, and most human infants succeed in becoming attached to a first caregiver in a way that develops these important capabilities. (131)

Children and adults with severe attachment disorder, for whom attachment was not possible during the first seven months of life, are unable to bond to others emotionally, and are thereby directed to a fate that is arguably worse than death. (131)

And so, in summary, we have some idea of what one of the underlying neurobiological deficits in sociopathy may be. The sociopaths who have been studied reveal a significant aberration in their ability to process emotional information at the level of the cerebral cortex. And from examining heritability studies, we can speculate that the neurobiological underpinnings of the core personality features of sociopathy are as much as 50 percent heritable. The remaining causes, the other 50 percent, are much foggier. Neither childhood maltreatment nor attachment disorder seems to account for the environmental contribution to the loveless, manipulative, and guiltless existence that psychologists call sociopathy. How non-genetic factors affect the development of this profound condition, and they almost certainly do have an effect, is still mainly a puzzle. The question remains: once a child is born with this limiting neurological glitch, what are the environmental factors that determine whether or not he will go on to display the full-fledged symptoms of sociopathy? And at present, we simply do not know. (134-135)


The proper time to influence the character of a child is about 100 years before he is born. – William Ralph Inge

North American culture, which holds individualism as a central value, tends to foster the development of antisocial behavior, and also to disguise it. In other words, in America, the guiltless manipulation of other people “blends” with social expectations to a much greater degree than it would in China or other more group-centered societies. (137)

I would like to suggest that the overriding belief systems of certain cultures encourage born sociopaths to compensate cognitively for what they are missing emotionally. In contrast with our extreme emphasis on individualism and personal control, certain cultures, many in East Asia, dwell theologically on the interrelatedness of all living things. Interestingly, this value is also the basis of conscience, which is an intervening sense of obligation rooted in a sense of connectedness. If an individual does not, or if neurologically he cannot, experience his connection to others in an emotional way, perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation. (137)

Eight – The Sociopath Next Door

It may be that we are puppets — puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation. – Stanley Milgram

I am always impressed by the fact that even the tiniest amount of being listened to, the barest suggestion of the possibility of kind treatment, can bring such an immediate rush of emotion. I think this is because we are almost never really listened to. (141)

What Can the Conscience-Bound Do About the Guiltless?

At present, sociopathy is “incurable”; furthermore, sociopaths almost never wish to be “cured.” (156)


  1. The first rule involves 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. Do not give your money, your work, your secrets, or your affection to a three-timer.
  4. Question authority.
  5. Suspect flattery. It is the material of counterfeit charm, and nearly always involves an intent to manipulate.
  6. If necessary, redefine your concept of respect.
  7. Do not join the game.
  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.
  10. Do not try to redeem the unredeemable. At some point, most of us need to learn the important, if disappointing, life lesson that, no matter how good our intentions, we cannot control the behavior — let alone the character structures — of other people.
  11. Never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character.
  12. Defend your psyche.
  13. Living well is the best revenge.

Nine – The Origins of Conscience

Why should any animal, off on its own, specified and labeled by all sorts of signals as its individual self, choose to give up its life in aid of someone else? – Lewis Thomas

Our species has produced both a Napoléon and a Mother Teresa. But according to fundamentalist evolutionary theory, Mother Teresa should never have been born, because neither charity nor a sense of good and evil would seem to have anything at all to do with the law of the jungle. (166)

Quite simply, a group composed of individuals who cooperate and take care of one another is much more likely to survive as a group than a collective of individuals who can only compete with or ignore one another. In terms of survival, the successful group will be the one that is operating to some extent as an entity, rather than the group in which every single individual is looking out for number one, to the exclusion of everyone else. (167)

Heinz’s Dilemma

Conscience as an emotion has not been studied in this way, but we can learn much from what is known about its intellectual partner, moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is the thought process that attends conscience and helps it decide what to do. (171)

Piaget described two general stages of moral development. The first stage is the “morality of constraint,” or “moral realism,” in which children obey rules because rules are regarded as inalterable. … The second Piagetian stage is the “morality of cooperation,” or “reciprocity.” (172)

The three levels of moral development require increasingly complex and abstract thought patterns, each level displacing the previous one as the child matures cognitively.


“conventional level”

“postconventional morality”

At the postconventional level, moral reasoning transcends the concrete rules of society, rules that the individual now understands are often in conflict with one another anyway. His reasoning is informed instead by fluid, abstract concepts such as freedom, dignity, justice, and respect for life. (175)

Enter Gender and Culture

Women, decided Gilligan, reasoned morally according to an “ethic of care,” rather than a male “ethic of justice.” (176)

In the last twenty years, newer studies have shown us that both women and men may use both an “ethic of care” and a “ethic of justice” in their moral reasoning. (177)

We now know also that there are probably no universal stages of moral development through which all human beings everywhere pass, even when we divide the human race in half by gender. Cultural relativism exists even in the moral domain. (177)

The Universal Bond

Moral reasoning — the way we think about moral dilemmas — is anything but consistent and universal. It varies with age and with gender. It differs from one culture to the next, and most likely from one region or even one household to the next. … But in a kind of human miracle, one thing remains constant for nearly all of us — with some notable exceptions — and that is our profound attachments to other human beings. Emotional attachment is part of most of us, down to the very molecules that design our bodies and our brains, and sometimes we are powerfully reminded of it. Beginning in our genes and spiraling outward to all of our cultures, beliefs, and many religions, it is the shadow of the whisper of the beginning of an understanding that we are all one. And whatever its origins, this is the essence of conscience. (180)

Ten – Bernies’ Choice: Why Conscience Is Better

Happiness is what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. – Mahatma Gandhi

Judging from the vantage of the twenty-first century, and looking through the eyes of psychology, which of these two ancient factions, the socially conscientious or the sociopathic, can we say got human nature’s better deal? (182)

Contrary to what seems to be a rather popular belief, acting ruthlessly does not, int he end, bring you more than your fair share of the good things in life. (184)

…in the end, they [sociopaths] tend to self-destruct. (185)

Is That All There Is?

Extreme boredom is arguably a form of pain. (186)

Is the absence of conscience an adaptive condition, or is it a mental disorder? One operational definition of mental disorder is any psychological condition that causes substantial “life disruption,” which is to say, serious and unusual limitations in a person’s ability to function as well as might be expected given that person’s overall health and level of intelligence. (187-188)

From a psychologists’ point of view, even the ones in prestigious positions, even the ones with famous names are failed lives. For most of us, happiness comes through the ability to love, to conduct our lives according to our higher values (most of the time), and to feel reasonably contented within ourselves. Sociopaths cannot love, by definition they do not have higher values, and they almost never feel comfortable in their own skins. They are loveless, amoral, and chronically bored, even the few who become rich and powerful. (188)

Extreme Conscience

…the best part of possessing a moral sense is the deep and beautiful gift that comes to us inside, and only inside, the wrappings of conscience. The ability to love comes bundled up in conscience, just as our spirits are bundled up in our bodies. Conscience is the embodiment of love, imbued into our very biology. (191)

Dominating can constitute a temporary thrill, but it does not make people happy. Loving does. (192)

So here is my best psychological advice: As you look around our world and try to figure out what is going on and who is “winning,” do not wish to have less conscience. Wish for more. | Celebrate your fate.

| Having a conscience, you may never be able to do exactly as you please, or just what you would need to do in order to succeed easily or ultimately in the material world. … But you will be able to look at your children asleep in their beds and feel that unbearable surge of awe and thanksgiving. You will be able to keep others alive in your heart long after they are gone. you will have genuine friends. Unlike the hollow, risk-pursuing few who are deprived of as seventh sense, you will go through your life fully aware of the warm and comforting, infuriating, confusing, compelling, and sometimes joyful presence of other human beings, and along with your conscience you will be given the chance to take the largest risk of all, which, as we all know, is to love.

| Conscience truly is Mother Nature’s better bargain. (196)

Eleven – Groundhog Day

What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee. – Marcus Aurelius

Twelve – Conscience in Its Purest Form: Science Votes for Morality

He is not a perfect Muslim who eats his fill and lets his neighbor go hungry. – Muhammad

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Jesus

The man who knows how to split the atom but has no love in his heart becomes a monster. – Krishnamurti

One way or another, a life without conscience is a failed life. (209)

…in a kind of philosophical full circle back to its beginnings in the church, conscience is also the place where psychology and spirituality meet, an issue on which the recommendations of psychology and the teachings of the major religious and spiritual traditions of the world completely concur. (210)

A positivity that includes optimism, love, and joy is…closely linked with morality, as we see in the lives of our exemplars. – Anne Colby and William Damon

To walk safely through the maze of human life one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue. – Buddha

Do not do to others what you would not want done to you – Confucius

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – Jesus

What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary. – Jewish proverb [VIA: Hillel]

This is the sum of the Dharma: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you – Mahabharata

One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts – Yoruba of Nigera

All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One. – Lakota leader Black Elk

Indeed, conscience would seem to the be the nexus of psychology and spirituality. (215)

Conscience is the still small voice that has been trying since the infancy of our species to tell us that we are evolutionarily, emotionally, and spiritually One, and that if we seek peace and happiness, we must behave that way.

| Conscience, and uniquely conscience, can compel us out of our own skins and into the skin of another, or even into contact with the Absolute. It is based in our emotional ties to one another. In its purest form, it is called love. And wonderfully, both mystics and evolutionary psychologists, who concur on not much else, agree that people by their normal nature are more likely to be loving than malevolent. (216)

As a psychologist and citizen of the species, I vote for the people with conscience, for the ones who are loving and committed, for the generous and gentle souls. … They are the most ware and focused members of our species. And they are, and always have been, our hope. (217-218)

— VIA —

Reading this was part therapy, part curiosity. Completing the book is part relief, and part dissatisfaction.

There are tremendous insights, and very practical ways to think about how to deal and live in this world with 4% of the population suffering from this “dis-ease” called sociopathy. And for anyone who has been “screwed over,” this may provide a consoling voice in the disruptive and damaged existence that results in agreeing to any level of relationship with a sociopath. For anyone in the “care” profession (clergy, counseling, etc.), I highly commend this read for its multivalent applications, and for the comfort it can bring for those “failed attempts” at making lasting change in your clients, or congregation.

It was confirming again to read that “science” and “faith” (“psychology” and “spirituality”) have once again crossed paths only to discover that their modes of transportation, though quite different, have similar passengers with destinations that are strangely and comfortingly similar.

However, the dissatisfaction comes really from the sense that, being on “this end” of interacting with a sociopath, there is nothing you can do. There is no change, no retribution, no restoration, and there is no redemption. While Stout offers an honorable exhortation to have compassion for those who suffer with sociopathy, this does nothing to really bring “justice” to the victims of sociopathy. The measures stated in the book are preventative, not restorative. There is no “cure.” In addition, the major piece of advice, is to embrace your conscience, and stay away from those who have none.

Perhaps this is why I’m clergy and not in psychology. I may be silly enough to still hold out the supernatural and metaphysical hope that our world’s existence and reality is not determined, but rather truly interrupted by an intervening mystical love that comes from “the outside?” Our obedience to the principles of the “oneness of all creation,” and the long-term work of shaping culture, in partnership with God, helps bring an even greater sense of hope than that of her closing line, that people with conscience have always been our hope. While her statement may be true, and admittedly inspiring and encouraging to us “non-sociopaths,” I simply lovingly and humbly regarding hope as even bigger than that. Psychology and spirituality have their limitations (yes, spirituality too). And while we all have sociopaths “next door,” the ancient command, to “love your neighbor,” reaches a new level of profundity in reads like this.

Thanks, Dr. Stout, for your wonderful contribution. Thanks to you, who, as a result of reading this book (or this summary), are challenged to love in new, deeper, wider, and more profound ways.

About VIA

One comment

  1. This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.
    The stereotyped traits of sociopaths are their incapability to identify wrong and right and their manipulativeness. They lack empathy, particularly an inability to feel remorse for their actions, and because of this, people would tag them as dangerous. If you confront them about their actions, don’t expect them to show remorse and change their ways. They also might give someone bad advice, use misinformation, and blackmail to get what they want.
    The statements, although literally true, are nevertheless misleading. Sociopaths are not all violent criminals, nor are they emotionless people. They just happen to be different in their way of thinking, feeling, and living.
    You may also check my blog about What You Don't Know About Sociopaths

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