During my research of serial killers I snatched up the book The Sociopath Next Door, figuring it was perfect for my purpose. I would learn all about that guy whose neighbors shake their heads in disbelief after he’s arrested for torturing and killing prostitutes. “He was so quiet,” they say. “The last person you would have suspected.”
But the author, Martha Stout, isn’t particularly interested in serial killers. Sure, they’re sociopaths, but so are lots of other people. Four percent of America’s population, according to Stout, is congenitally unable to feel any affection for other human beings. This four percent can hurt or even kill others without feeling any guilt. But most aren’t driven by blood lust to become another Ted Bundy. They’re motivated by other emotions — fear, envy, anger, sloth, the desire to win. Really, sociopaths feel the same things as the rest of us with the one exception. They cannot love. Sociopathy is characterized by the absence of conscience. You don’t feel guilty about hurting other beings unless you can empathize with them — feel their pain.
I’ve known people who clearly fit Stout’s definition. Some of the plagiarists in my composition classes felt no shame whatsoever. Sure, they cried. But the tears dried fast when they failed to get results. When I was using drugs in my twenties, some of my fellow druggies had no compunction about taking advantage of their “friends.” Some might argue it was the drugs. But while drugs do have a way of corroding one’s moral fiber, many people use them without becoming cold and ruthless. Even so, I haven’t noticed that anywhere near four percent of the people I’ve known are sociopathic. It seems I’ve missed quite a few. And these days I move in circles less likely to be frequented by sociopaths. Still, I wonder about that statistic. Stout never explains who arrived at the percentage, or how.
And the percentage applies to the United States, not to other parts of the world. Stout notes that the incidence of sociopathic behavior is lower in many Asian countries and theorizes that cultural differences are the reason. In cultures that stress interconnectedness, people born without the capacity for empathy learn how to fake it. American individualism, on the other hand, encourages them to express their true selves. Makes sense. Many un-sociopathic Americans feel entitled to do as they like. They accept the exploitation of one human being by another as natural and hate the constraints of “big guvment.” They break the speed limit all the time without remorse — until a cop pulls them over.
Stout spends a couple of chapters on the evolutionary and personal advantages of sociopathy and its opposite, conscience. She concludes that while sociopaths make great warriors, they are by and large miserable human beings. People of conscience are happier and ultimately more successful. Conscience being a moral concept, the book ends with musings on morality and religion. Stout writes well enough that I kept reading, even though I knew she had nothing to teach me about serial killers.