Four percent of the population – about one in every 25 people – has no conscience. They are not all criminals, serial killers, or the Hitlers of the world, which is what most people think of when they hear the word “sociopath.” Sociopathy is more complicated than that, and this book acts as a primer to this disorder, also known as psychopathy and anti-social personality disorder.
There was a whole lot jammed into this very short book, so I’m going to review this in bullets:
– Sociopathy doesn’t necessarily make a person unlikable. Often, in fact, they are charming and can easily fool and manipulate others. We always think of villains as sociopaths – think Voldemort, who has no connection to anyone and cannot love, which is essentially the definition of not having a conscience – but there are many non-villains that fall under this definition as well. In popular fiction, for instance, characters such as Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller, Jay Gatsby, and Sherlock Holmes would all fall under the sociopath umbrella.
– Speaking of Voldemort, I’d like to contrast him with Bellatrix, who unlike Voldemort, does appear able to connect with other human beings, thereby having a conscience. This does not mean she is incapable of doing many horrible, evil things. It just means that when she breaks her moral code, she feels remorse, shame, and guilt. Her moral code is ridiculously skewed, but she does show attachment to others and the ability to feel true emotions. This illustration points out that not all crime and evil in the world is committed by those without a conscience.
– This leads me to one point in the book that I disagree with. The book says: Unless under the spell of a psychotic delusion, extreme rage, inescapable deprivation, drugs, or a destructive authority figure, a person who is conscience-bound does not – in some sense he cannot – kill or rape in cold blog, torture another person, steal someone’s life savings, trick someone into a loveless relationship as sport, or willfully abandon his own child. I think this blanket statement is far too simplistic. I don’t believe conscience is all-or-nothing. While the nothing part may be there, in terms of sociopathy, I think that people can range from having a very weak conscience to a very strong one, and that moral codes can take many forms. (Bellatrix, of course, was under the spell of a destructive authority figure!)
– There were two things in this book, published in 2005, which I found extremely relevant to our country’s political climate today. The first were a series of different quotes about sociopathic leaders, and the ways to spot them. While I have no idea if our current president qualifies as a sociopath, some of these quotes are very apt today, in a way that is terrifying to me:
Using fear-based propaganda to amplify a destructive ideology, such a leader can bring the members of a frightened society to see the its as a sole impediment to the good life, for themselves and maybe even for humanity as a whole, and the conflict as an epic battle between good and evil. [Note: the its being whoever the leader reduces from human to nonhuman.]
Quote from Benjamin Wolman: Usually human cruelty increases when an aggressive sociopath gains an uncanny, almost hypnotic control over large numbers of people.
The politician, small or lofty, who menaces the people with frequent reminders of the possibility of crime, violence, or terrorism, and who then uses their magnified fear to gain allegiance, is more likely to be a successful con artist than a legitimate leader.
– The second and more complex of the two relevant bits has to do with the psychological training that military folks undergo to make subverting the conscience possible (thus making soldiers able to kill when at war). This goes back to the its quote above. Part of this training involves dehumanizing the enemy. It’s done by belittling local customs and culture, by presenting leaders of the other faction as Voldemorts, by emphasizing the moral imperative of us vs them. Which leads me to a disturbing question that the book, published in 2005, did not address: What happens when 15+ years of war leads to millions of people undergoing said training, and then coming home post-duty to readjust to civilian life? Can you just undo all that dehumanization? Or does the media emphasis on Middle East = Bad, America = Good, Muslim = Bad, Christian = Good, Arab = Bad, White = Good continue to feed that dehumanization? Are we slowly populating our country with more and more people who think in terms of us vs them, and diminishing the consciences of people who then commit destructive acts of violence under this influence? Can this, in part, explain the rise in hatred and hate crimes against at least one group of people? For me, this is a very disturbing idea.
There is so much more in this book. Illustrations on how various kinds of sociopathy look, comparisons of sociopathy vs narcissism vs attachment disorder, biological research into the genetic portion of sociopathy, warnings signs and ways to deal with the sociopaths you meet in your daily life, the ways that rates of sociopathy vary across the globe, etc. It’s funny – I feel like I’ve written tons here, and yet I also feel like the book only scratched the surface on this topic, making me want to read more in-depth research and writings on the subject.
Performance: This audiobook is read by Shelly Frasier, who did an excellent job. I was engaged the entire time and listened to the book in one afternoon.