A question of culture and the social contract
I’ve been rereading The Sociopath Next Door, by Maria Stout, Ph.D., as research for my current work-in-progress. In her book, Dr. Stout discusses what sociopathy is, where its roots may lie, the effect of sociopaths on society, and examples of the sociopath. It’s a fascinating book for anyone who is interested in human behavior and psyche, especially the outliers of society.
The first part of the book focuses on the number of sociopaths in our western population, which is about 4% (Page 7), what it means to be conscienceless, and how conscience motivates the other 96% of us. I admit I skimmed through a good bit of that because: I have read the book before, so it wasn’t new, and I know how “normal” people tend to think because I am one…sort of (smile). I reread through the hypothetical sociopaths she describes the scary and powerful Skip, who kills frogs as a child and steps on everyone to gain money and power; the manipulative and vindictive Doreen, who uses her role as a psychiatrist to torment patients, undermine a colleague she envies, and anything else that will make her look bigger; and, finally, the lazy and inert Luke, who uses charm and passivity to live off others. As I was reading, I was thinking of how these things might influence a character or characters and what things they might “do” as a result.
Dr. Stout presents the results of various studies that indicate the genetic portion of the sociopath may make up as much as 50% of the phenomenon.
The nature-versus-nurture question in the next section of the book was still interesting to me. As an adopted adult, I am always pondering this question myself. As I age, I become more and more like my adoptive mother. My soft heart but sometimes quick temper is much like my adoptive father. And yet there are undeniable innate and unconscious similarities to my birth-parents, both of whom I have met. Dr. Stout presents the results of various studies that indicate the genetic portion of the sociopath may make up as much as 50% of the phenomenon. (Page 122)
It is less clear what the environmental factors may be. Early childhood abuse is mentioned, but there are gaps in that theory that are significant. (Page 129) Attachment disorders may be a possibility. However, sociopaths tend to mimic “normal” human interactions and exhibit charm, while people with attachment disorder to not. They simply exist in their awkward, detached worlds, not able to bridge the gap through feeling or behavior. Sociopaths are often very socially successful; those with significant attachment disorders are not. (Page 133).
This time, the portion of the book that caught and held my rapt attention was the portion beginning on page 134 entitled “Culture.” This paragraph, in particular, grabbed me from the screen (I am presently reading it on the Kindle Cloud Reader):
Though sociopathy seems to be universal and timeless, there is credible evidence that some cultures contain fewer sociopaths than do other cultures. Intriguingly, sociopathy would appear to be relatively rare in certain East Asian countries, notably Japan and China. Studies conducted in both rural and urban areas of Taiwan have found a remarkably low prevalence of antisocial personality disorder, ranging from 0.03% to 0.14%, which is not none but is impressively less than the Western world’s approximate average of 4 percent, which translates into one in twenty-five people. And, disturbingly, the prevalence of sociopathy in the United States seems to be increasing. (Page 136)
Dr. Stout goes on to cite a 1991 study, the Epidemic Catchment Area study, that indicates the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder doubled in a fifteen-year period. This rapid shift would be impossible to attribute to genetics or neurobiology. (Page 136) So how does culture fit?
This is where the social contract and its enforcement seem to come into play. Stout highlights the prevalence of the belief in the interconnectedness of all things in many Asian cultures as opposed to the overwhelming emphasis on individualism in Western cultures. She states:
If an individual does not, or if he neurologically cannot, experience his connection to others in an emotional way, perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of personal obligation. (Page 137)
In other words, though intellect is not the same as emotion, maybe a culture that promotes this interconnectedness and its social contract as an obligation can create or elicit pro-social behavior. Skip, had he been raised in a Buddhist culture, for example, may not have cared about the frogs, but expectations and culturally conditioning may have prevented him from killing them. This sentence, in particular, serves as speculation of enforcement of social contract as opposed to the evolving Western philosophies:
Though they lack an internal mechanism that tells them they are connected to others, the larger culture insists to them that they are so connected — as opposed to our culture, which informs them resoundingly that their ability to act guiltlessly on their own behalf is the ultimate advantage. (Page 137)
I should pause to reiterate here that the study cited regarding the increase in sociopaths was done in 1991, and this book was published in 2005. I mention this to head off the popular myth that we were all amiable and community-oriented prior to 2016. At any rate, it is apparent that our Western culture’s “me first,” and “no absolutes” cultural agenda has had an impact for quite some time.
Basically, we have repackaged selfishness and moral relativism as elevated existence, and it’s not doing our rates of sociopathy any favors.
So what does this mean? I’m not sure, but I think it struck me because there is increasing pushback against the word “should” or the idea of being told how we “should” live in our society. The quickest way to incite a Twitter rant is to imply that one set of behaviors is morally superior to another. Add religion to the mix, and head will roll. In addition, things like nationalism, which used to just mean pride in one’s country of origin, have been vilified and become tantamount to the encouragement of genocide. Knee jerk reactions against societal norms of old are becoming almost a required rite of the enlightened. Basically, we have repackaged selfishness and moral relativism as elevated existence, and it’s not doing our rates of sociopathy any favors. I mean let’s get real.
By rejecting the idea of the social contract, have we unwittingly glorified antisocial thinking and behavior? Certainly what used to be horrifying to us is now barely shocking and is in some cases celebrated. When we compare the regard for human life in 2019 to the regard for human life in, say, 1950, the difference is astonishing. That is not to say that the 1950s were a utopia, not at all. The 1950s were really only glorious for a narrow portion of the population. The rest were marginalized, subjugated, or simply ignored, to be sure. The “good old days” are rarely as good as we have convinced ourselves to remember.
Still, are we truly evolving? Evolving tends to imply upward movement, betterment. When we are more selfish, less traditionally moral, and increasingly intolerant of any opposing opinion, can we say we are bettering? Are we becoming more human when we continue to de-elevate humanity?
Of course, none of these questions are why this book was written. At most, it is a brief side conversation. However, all I have to do is scroll through my Facebook feed to understand that we are selfish. That we are defensive of our right to do, well, pretty much whatever the hell we want. That more people would be upset by the death of my adorable dog, Ginger, than by the death of my husband or my child. And trust me, my dog is my baby. But yes, my two children are, in fact, more important.
This might make me sound jaded. Maybe I am just tired of the hypocrisy. Or maybe I have forgotten that there is something bigger than the state of my Facebook feed that doesn’t have to be acknowledged to be more real than anything else. At any rate, it gave me something to think about as I craft a story and think about the larger questions of life.