By Martha Stout, Ph.D.
Imagine – if you can – not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken.
And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.
Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless.
You are not held back from any of your desires by guilt or shame, and you are never confronted by others for your cold-bloodedness. The ice water in your veins is so bizarre, so completely outside of their personal experience, that they seldom even guess at your condition.
In other words, you are completely free of internal restraints, and your unhampered liberty to do just as you please, with no pangs of conscience, is conveniently invisible to the world.
You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their consciences will most likely remain undiscovered.
How will you live your life?
What will you do with your huge and secret advantage, and with the corresponding handicap of other people (conscience)?
The answer will depend largely on just what your desires happen to be, because people are not all the same. Even the profoundly unscrupulous are not all the same. Some people – whether they have a conscience or not – favor the ease of inertia, while others are filled with dreams and wild ambitions. Some human beings are brilliant and talented, some are dull-witted, and most, conscience or not, are somewhere in between. There are violent people and nonviolent ones, individuals who are motivated by blood lust and those who have no such appetites. […]
Provided you are not forcibly stopped, you can do anything at all.
If you are born at the right time, with some access to family fortune, and you have a special talent for whipping up other people’s hatred and sense of deprivation, you can arrange to kill large numbers of unsuspecting people. With enough money, you can accomplish this from far away, and you can sit back safely and watch in satisfaction. […]
Crazy and frightening – and real, in about 4 percent of the population….
The prevalence rate for anorexic eating disorders is estimated a 3.43 percent, deemed to be nearly epidemic, and yet this figure is a fraction lower than the rate for antisocial personality. The high-profile disorders classed as schizophrenia occur in only about 1 percent of [the population] – a mere quarter of the rate of antisocial personality – and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the rate of colon cancer in the United States, considered “alarmingly high,” is about 40 per 100,000 – one hundred times lower than the rate of antisocial personality.
The high incidence of sociopathy in human society has a profound effect on the rest of us who must live on this planet, too, even those of us who have not been clinically traumatized. The individuals who constitute this 4 percent drain our relationships, our bank accounts, our accomplishments, our self-esteem, our very peace on earth.
Yet surprisingly, many people know nothing about this disorder, or if they do, they think only in terms of violent psychopathy – murderers, serial killers, mass murderers – people who have conspicuously broken the law many times over, and who, if caught, will be imprisoned, maybe even put to death by our legal system.
We are not commonly aware of, nor do we usually identify, the larger number of nonviolent sociopaths among us, people who often are not blatant lawbreakers, and against whom our formal legal system provides little defense.
Most of us would not imagine any correspondence between conceiving an ethnic genocide and, say, guiltlessly lying to one’s boss about a coworker. But the psychological correspondence is not only there; it is chilling. Simple and profound, the link is the absence of the inner mechanism that beats up on us, emotionally speaking, when we make a choice we view as immoral, unethical, neglectful, or selfish.
Most of us feel mildly guilty if we eat the last piece of cake in the kitchen, let alone what we would feel if we intentionally and methodically set about to hurt another person.
Those who have no conscience at all are a group unto themselves, whether they be homicidal tyrants or merely ruthless social snipers.
The presence or absence of conscience is a deep human division, arguably more significant than intelligence, race, or even gender.
What differentiates a sociopath who lives off the labors of others from one who occasionally robs convenience stores, or from one who is a contemporary robber baron – or what makes the difference betwen an ordinary bully and a sociopathic murderer – is nothing more than social status, drive, intellect, blood lust, or simple opportunity.
What distinguishes all of these people from the rest of us is an utterly empty hole in the psyche, where there should be the most evolved of all humanizing functions.