Friday, December 23, 2011

The Sociopath next Door or the Sociopath Within?

Strange to say, but a recent trip to the library has renewed my interest in neuroscience. Nothing seemed to be happening for a while there, but by goodness, a lot has happened now. Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Science of Evil is a good stepping-in point, but it's a shame the research is progressing so slowly. There's a lot to look at, I know, and even though the science is further along than I thought it would be, it's still in the disappointing, "Here are some ideas backed up by evidence, but we don't have any conclusions" stage.

Nonetheless, combining that with reading The Sociopath Next Door has raised some interesting questions. Namely, when discussing the content of both books with people I know, they almost always err on the side of assuming they are the injured party. Baron-Cohen states that, in terms of empathy, there's a bell curve, starting at 0 and ending at 6, that places people in terms of their ability to empathise. 0 is psychopathic territory, while 6 is hypersensitivity. Whenever I explain this concept to people, they say, "Oh, I'm definitely a 6." Let's just dwell on the statistical abnormality of that, shall we?

In all seriousness, I understand the need to feel special. We all would like to think we have more ability to feel than any other human being. That, however, is not what empathy is about. Empathy is not your ability to feel. It is your ability to understand and sympathise with what other people are feeling. People either seem to forget this, or to not understand it in the first place. In the larger scheme of things, empathy is almost always a guessing game, but some people are better at it than others, either through nature or nurture or, as this most recent research suggests, a combination of both. This is somewhat of a relief to parents the world over, I'm sure, but it does raise certain troubling questions, i.e. if your 'empathy circuit' is limited to level 3 or 4 (the average), is that a bad thing?

You can learn empathetic behaviour. Certain wonderful friends of mine who have Asperger's are proof of that. They are the kindest people I know, while simultaneously understanding my emotions the least. But I can always count on them to listen patiently, and to cheer me up, even without doing anything in particular. I think part of this comes from not knowing what to do, but I think a larger part of it comes from unselfishness, because they may not be able to understand what I'm feeling, but they respect my right to feel it, and that some feelings take time to process.

Not so with people who would consider themselves a level 6 empath. They will try to cheer me up by telling a joke, or try to solve my problem, or just not really be listening in the first place. To me, this seems like a disconnect. So why do we do this? What makes someone a good listener, apart from training?

First, there are circumstances that can undermine empathy. Baron-Cohen describes several sets of circumstances that can cause a person to have 0 degrees of empathy temporarily. The question at that point is whether the damage is irreversible or not. In many cases, it is - for example, depression is likely to put many people in a 0 empathy state, which is ironic, because empathy can be a wonderful way to cheer up. I recently decided to wean myself off my anti-depressants (with approval from my psychologist) and I'm surprised at how much easier it has become to empathise. In a way, this is very scary. Given that I'm the kind of person who usually empathises with inanimate objects, not even realising I didn't have that empathy was like being in a state of temporary sociopathy, at least in comparison to my normal state.

In The Sociopath Next Door, the author states that sociopaths can have now knowledge of what they are missing. Their empathy circuit (to borrow the term from Baron-Cohen) is so under-developed that they simply have no concept of emotion as a driving force. Unfortunately, they do understand it intellectually, and are very good at using it to fuel other people's actions, just not their own. But this makes me wonder: if someone can't know they are a sociopath, can any of us truly know that we aren't?

Well, much like being crazy, the ability to question one's actions in light of their motivations generally offsets the ability to be whatever we fear. So if you fear you're going crazy, you probably aren't, because crazy is as crazy does, and it doesn't question itself. Sociopathy would be much the same, I imagine - you would never question your level of empathy, because you would simply assume everyone feels the same way as you do, which is substantiated by interviews with sociopaths, who see themselves as the only genuine people in a sea of phonies; they assume everyone feels the same way, completely self-focussed, and that anyone acting in someone else's best interests is only lying.

So how can you tell if you're a sociopath? Well, for starters, you probably wouldn't be reading this. But, if you're curious, here's Baron-Cohen's own questionnaire. Feel free to go and learn something more about yourself. :)

But as for the sociopaths who do exist, there are further troubling questions. Often these people get away with what they're doing, since their actions are neither criminal nor anything beyond 'a feeling'. If they are discovered, most often people just let them go without comment, and without retribution. Why is this? Apart from the fact that the sociopath is eminently pitiable - they will never know love, or even companionship - they are also dangerous, and ruinous to the happiness of otherwise decent people. But what is to be done? 'Being a jerk' isn't a crime, or we would need to build a lot more jails (and probably be the happier for it, but I digress).

What would you do if your child turned out to be a sociopath? What if, from an early age, you could see the signs, and neurological testing confirmed it? You have on your hands someone who can do terrible things without the slightest hint of remorse. They will never know love. They will never feel any emotion toward another human being. They'll feel emotions themselves - glee at outwitting a smarter colleague and making them look bad, psychopathic rage when their plans go awry - but only fleetingly. They will take risks, and convince others to take risks, just to feel alive. And if someone gets killed as a result of their actions, they will shrug, and forget about it by lunchtime.

How do we deal with this kind of person, believed to be as much as 4% of the population of Western society? We can't just lock them all up. They would convince panels of experts that they are reformed, and go free. Despite that, it's surprisingly difficult to diagnose someone as a sociopath. We all have people in our lives that we would like to believe are sociopathic, simply because the things they do to other people are so incomprehensibly cruel. We would rather attribute them a sorrowful ignorance than a knowing evil. It makes our lives easier, but it still doesn't deal with the problem.

As for what we should do, I don't know. As someone considering having children within the next couple of years, this is a question that has been troubling me since I first considered it. I suppose the way that I will deal with it, when the time comes, will be to raise my children in an atmosphere that emphasises connectedness between all things - shown in Eastern populations to decrease the incidence of sociopathy to as low as 0.04% - and to have them tested when they are of an age to be so. But how selfish is my fear that my children will be sociopaths?

Pretty much entirely self-motivated, I will admit. I don't know what I would do. I wouldn't want to raise a child that will never understand love, but the same can be said of high-level Autism, which I do not have a problem with. But having been the target of several sociopaths (again, in my not-entirely-informed, but analytical opinion) I would not wish that on anyone else. In personal relationships they are devastating, and in professional capacities they can destroy careers invisibly. I do not mean that they are clever - some sociopaths are, but not all - but that their actions are so beyond our scope of understanding that they become invisible.

However, I do prefer the side note in The Sociopath Next Door: sure, we can be terrified that as much as 4% (or 1 in 25 people that we meet) is likely to be a sociopath, or we can be reassured that at least 96% of the population are capable of empathy, and likely to behave in decent, understandable ways. I'm still trying to determine for myself whether that 96% offsets the other 4% or not. Since I person I identify as having sociopathic characteristics is the reason I was on anti-depressants in the first place, it's a difficult tug-of-war right now.

And, for those of you wondering, there's no sure-fire way to tell a sociopath, but there is one thing to watch out for: the pity play. Anyone who consistently acts in a pitiable manner, while behaving callously or inconsistently toward other people, has a higher chance to be a sociopath. So next time you take on extra work just to help out that colleague who seems like they always have too much work to do, yet never actually seems to be doing anything during office hours, wonder if you might be propagating something more sinister than a poor work ethic. As for your personal relationships, beware the continuously impulsive, dangerous person. They are likely to be more dangerous than you know.

And on that light-hearted note, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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