Excerpt from The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sociopath Next Door

The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us

by Martha Stout

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout X
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2005, 256 pages
    Mar 2006, 256 pages

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Or maybe Joe is motivated by what the neighbors will think if they hear Reebok howling in hunger, or, worse, if they learn the dog has died, alone and trapped, while Joe was on a business trip. How will he ever explain himself to his friends and acquaintances? This worry is not really Joe's conscience, either, but rather his anticipation of serious embarrassment and social rejection. If this is why Joe goes back home to feed his dog, he is hardly the first human being to make a decision based on the dread of what others will think of him, rather than on what he might do if he were sure his actions would remain a complete secret. The opinions of other people keep us all in line, arguably better than anything else.

Or maybe this is all a matter of the way Joe sees himself. Perhaps Joe does not want to view himself, in his own mind's eye, as the kind of wretch who would commit animal abuse, and his self-image as a decent person is crucial enough to him that, when he has no other alternative, he will forgo an important meeting in the service of preserving that image. This is an especially plausible explanation for Joe's behavior. The preservation of self-image is a motivator of some notoriety. In literature and often in historical accounts of human action, dedication to one's own self-regard is referred to as "honor." Lives have been forfeited, wars have been fought over "honor." It is an ancient concern. And in the modern field of psychology, how we view ourselves translates to the newer concept of "self-esteem," a subject about which more psychology books have been written than perhaps any other single topic.

Maybe Joe is willing to relinquish a few career points today in order to feel okay when he looks at himself in the mirror tomorrow, in order to remain "honorable" in his own eyes. This would be laudable and very human—but it is not conscience.

The intriguing truth of the matter is that much of what we do that looks like conscience is motivated by some other thing altogether—fear, social pressure, pride, even simple habit. And where Joe is concerned, a number of readers will strongly favor an explanation other than conscience because some of his behaviors are already questionable. He routinely leaves his young dog alone for many hours at a time, sometimes for nearly two days. This very morning, though he is skipping his meeting and going home to feed the dog, he still intends to make that 10:15 flight and be gone until the following evening. Reebok will have no one to be with, and nowhere to go except a small fenced-in backyard. Consigning a dog to such a situation is not very nice—it reflects, at best, a certain lack of empathy on Joe's part for the animal's social needs.

Still, truth to tell, being nice would not necessarily be conscience, either. For brief periods, any reasonably clever sociopath can act with saintlike niceness for his own manipulative purposes. And people who do possess conscience are often unkind despite themselves, out of ignorance or, as in Joe's case perhaps, inadequate empathy, or just run-of-the-mill psychological denial.

Nice behavior, prudent action, thoughts about how other people will react to us, honorable conduct in the interest of our self-regard—like conscience, all of these have a positive effect on the world at least most of the time, and any or all of them might get the dog fed sometimes, but none can be defined as the individual's conscience. This is because conscience is not a behavior at all, not something that we do or even something that we think or mull over. 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.

To clarify this distinction, let us take another look at Joe. He is not always nice to his dog, but does he have a conscience? What evidence would cause, say, a psychologist to decide that, when Joe passed up his meeting and went home to rescue Reebok, he was acting out of conscience rather than because of what other people would think, or to preserve his own self-image, or maybe from the noteworthy financial consideration that, three years before, he had paid twelve hundred dollars for a purebred Labrador puppy guaranteed against hip dysplasia and heart disease?

Excerpted from The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005 by Martha Stout, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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