Narcissists have a conscience

"Where others have a conscience, there is nothing"

The psychologist Martha Stout has written "The Sociopath Next Door", a US bestseller (published in German as "The Sociopath from Next Door" by Springer, Vienna), in which she provides information about the sociopathic personality disorder. The unscrupulous person, writes the long-time lecturer at the Institute for Psychology at Harvard Medical School, is to be found far more frequently than is generally assumed - and it is also bad for business.

Technology Review: Ms. Stout, what is a sociopath?

Martha Stout: A sociopath is someone who not only lies, but for whom lying is part of their lifestyle. He or she is a person who knows no remorse - no matter what the wrongdoing. The sociopath takes no responsibility, neither for other people, nor for things, nor for himself.

At the same time, sociopaths are often superficially very charming. Under this surface, however, they are actually ice cold and have no real emotional bond with other people. The problem is, sociopaths are easy to fall for a lot of people.

TR: How high would you estimate the proportion of sociopaths in our society as a whole?

Stout: Around four percent. That seems like a lot to some people - but in truth it could be even more, as many colleagues told me in confidence. I came up with the value by looking at the available literature and then doing a meta-analysis. Four percent was the approximate value.

So that means: One person in a group of 25 is sociopathic. And even if the number were off by half, it would still be significant - so significant that the population needs to be educated.

TR: Are there international differences?

Stout: Studies carried out in the Far East show lower values ​​there. However, it is not yet known why this is so.

TR: In your book "The Sociopath Next Door" you make a sharp distinction between people with a sociopathic disposition and people with other forms of personality disorders - such as narcissistic ones. Can such distinctions really be made so clearly?

Stout: There are certainly narcissistic people who have one or the other sociopathic trait and sociopaths who are also partially narcissistic - the latter is likely to occur very often. But where I draw a very clear line - what I also try in my book - is with my conscience. Sociopaths simply don't have one.

There is also no other clinically identifiable personality disorder that does not involve some kind of malaise. Sociopaths are not bothered by their illness - they are rarely even aware of it. This means that sociopaths are also a group of patients for whom the practitioner has to admit that he has almost no possibility of taking action against the disorder. In a nutshell: if you don't have a conscience, you can't restore it afterwards. Personality disorders are always difficult to treat because they are part of the personality - but here it is next to impossible.

TR: How do you explain that?

Stout: In my opinion, it's because a sociopathic disorder has a biological component. There are significant differences in the brain that we don't see in other personality disorders. Otherwise, personality disorders arise more from external circumstances - as a reaction to problems, for example in childhood.

In addition, sociopaths often have no motivation to seek treatment because they simply do not suffer. They are not lonely because they do not really care about other people, while a narcissist would receive treatment for his inability to have a relationship, for example. Sociopaths often think that they are all right - the outside world is the problem, not them. That is why they often only come into practice if, for example, a judge has ordered it.

TR: People with narcissistic personality disorder also have tremendous problems perceiving other people's feelings. Can you delineate this from the concept of "conscience" in sociopathy?

Stout: I always explain it this way: In a narcissist, empathy is completely or almost completely absent. He doesn't understand what others are feeling - and that often hurts them very much. But that is not a lack of conscience. There are certainly narcissists who worry about other people - they just lack understanding of other people's feelings. Narcissus himself can feel - for example, be sad, love, be passionate.

Sociopaths not only lack empathy, but also their own emotional world. Sociopaths cannot love, they only feel emptiness and cold. I know that for many people this is very difficult to grasp.

The dangerous thing about sociopaths, however, is that they can simulate empathy - they learn how to act out it. This often has a charming effect on other people, while narcissists are more likely to be repulsive.

TR: How "different" are sociopaths?

Stout: In the western world there is a widespread belief that if a person is capable of something bad, then every person is capable - at least under the appropriate conditions. I don't think that's true, though.

I just can't imagine any of us being capable of any form of terrible deed. It is not a skill we all have. There are behaviors that require a certain component to be missing from our emotional world, which 96 percent of us have.

That doesn't mean I don't think we couldn't kill. Many of us could, for example if we are threatened - or someone close to us. But the cold, incomprehensible that sociopaths master is not a fundamentally human quality.

It is extremely important to me that you understand this and can protect yourself against it. A sociopath can do what he wants - no matter what it is. And completely in cold blood. Many people simply cannot understand that.

TR: In your book you describe how sociopathically inclined people can cause serious damage in companies - there have been more and more scandals in recent years. Should HR departments test candidates for sociopathy beforehand?

Stout: First, it is important to understand whether such tests are compatible with an open society. Still, the question itself is very interesting. We actually have corresponding testing options that are actually quite precise and would not take a lot of time. These tests are also quite difficult to trick. They are used in psychiatry.

The question remains, however, in which situation it should be used. On the other hand - I mean, companies also do drug tests on their employees. Somebody recently told me that in small venture capital firms, for example, it is sufficient if only one partner is sociopathically inclined and does everything for himself - then the whole company breaks down.

So: I don't know - maybe it's worth it for small businesses. But I would not want to presume myself to decide on such tests. I am a psychologist and not a politician. What is interesting, however, is that we could identify these people fairly easily. Obviously, we are very uncomfortable doing it.

TR: Is the really unconscionable thing outside of the human imagination?

Stout: For a normal person it is almost impossible to grasp. With other personality disorders like the narcissism you mentioned, you can somehow empathize - we've all been emotionally cold. Having no conscience and not even developing feelings for one's own children, on the other hand, seems incomprehensible to us. That also makes it so difficult to educate the public that such people walk among us and seem to be quite normal.

TR: You make a very sharp distinction between sociopaths and "normal" people. Is it really that simple?

Stout: I believe there is the dividing line - sociopathy is the exception to the psychological rule here. Either you have a conscience or you don't have one. However, there are subtle differences among those who have a conscience: There are people who have a well-developed conscience and those who are less developed - not all of us are Mother Theresa. But with sociopaths there is nothing - there is a hole. They may not all be killers, because they do not all have a lust for murder, but the lack of conscience is a whole new quality.

We all get into this situation at one point when we are sick or in other extreme cases where we show less conscience. But the complete, literal lack of conscience is something else entirely.

TR: How do you treat a sociopath?

Stout: If he is actually in therapy, it is more of a mechanical matter; normal forms of therapy hardly work. It's about controlling behavior. Sociopaths are motivated very differently than normal people. There is something educative about it: "If you do that, you will go to jail" or "The behavior has these material consequences for you". It's about very, very simple, basic things - A follows B, like a teacher in front of young children.

I once spoke to a man who runs a program for people arrested multiple times for drink-driving. At some point he realized that there were many sociopaths among them. He then changed his approach: He used to try to explain to people that their behavior could harm other people or even kill them. It turned out that these delinquents didn't really care.

Now he's just telling his candidates the cold, hard facts: They'll get arrested every time, lose their driver's license, they'll no longer be mobile, and so on. That was the only chance she could change her behavior. (wst)