The Sociopath Isn’t Always Next Door

The experience has become too familiar. We hear about a mass murder, the most recent at a movie theatre in Aurora CO. We find out about the alleged killer, this time James Holmes. We try to make sense of him and his actions. We debate whether he is a sociopath, knowing right from wrong and choosing wrong, or whether he is insane. If only being to label him would magically remove our pain, frustration, anger, and fear.

One way we cope with such difficult and intrusive feelings is to distance ourselves from those who perpetrate evil. We assure ourselves we are nothing like them and focus only on the evil they do, not on their humanity. This distance helps comfort us, helps protect us from seeing that we also have the capacity to cause pain to others.

Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, proved this reality in his famous experiment in 1961. He found that 65% of his subjects were willing to administer electric shocks up to 450 volts to fellow subjects in the experiment. The shocks were not really given and the fellow subject was part of the experiment. But not knowing that, almost two thirds of the men and women tested were willing to administer what they thought were increasing amounts of electricity to another person even when he or she begged them to stop. Click here for the chilling transcript. This experiment has been replicated many times since 1961, most recently in 2008 by Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University.

Martha Stout in her book, The Sociopath Next Door, tells us that what divides us from the 4% of the population who are sociopaths, is that they have no conscience and we do. Our conscience is the part of us that knows the difference between right and wrong; the part that feels an obligation to support and protect people simply because they deserve that support and protection.

We are all capable of understanding the right thing to do based on what society, employers, friends, and family expect of us. But actions that are intellectually based have nothing to with our conscience. Stout tells us that our conscience is motivated by feelings, not thoughts, that our conscience is activated when we feel love, compassion, and tenderness toward people.

But with people we don’t love and especially with people from whom we feel disconnected, we are not as likely to support and protect them or even actively care about what happens to them. We feel a disconnection because we perceive unbridgeable distances between us and others. We feel these differences with those who are richer or poorer; more or less educated; have darker or lighter skin; observe a different religion than we do. Once we create those distances between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we can more easily ignore ‘their’ humanity and ‘their’ needs.

As much as we don’t like to admit it, we all live in a personal world of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There are people we feel more comfortable being around, those are the ones we tend to live our lives with. Most of us were taught about finding differences between people when we were very young. Once those lessons become embedded in our feelings, they are very hard to change. Hard but not impossible. In fact, changing how we feel, from seeing the differences to seeing the similarities is one of the most important things we have to do.

We have to find the humanness and commonality that automatically exists between us and everybody else, even with those people who do the most damage in our world. It is our most difficult challenge and our most important action.

If we do not learn to accept the humanness in everybody, we will end up being part of the 65% of Milgram’s subjects who chose to cause harm to others. None of us can afford to let that happen.

2 thoughts on “The Sociopath Isn’t Always Next Door

  1. Bracha Stone

    Thank you for these thoughts! I remember that it was the tv reportage (especially photographic) of the specific and individual human trauma in Viet Nam that finally turned U.S. public opinion into a social insistence that we stop that war. Putting a human face on the experience of those who are at a distance is what is most effective in triggering our identification and compassion.

  2. Karen

    I love this. A great perspective. And a useful reminder for me, about the difference between intellectually thinking I can be connected with all different people, and actually doing the work to shift my mind & emotions that get in the way.


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