“Americans are obsessed with people who are obsessed with themselves. In this new world, being narcissistic is cool.” — “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean M Twenge, Ph.D. and Keith Campbell, Ph.D.
I first wrote this column in 2005. You will no doubt recognize most of the names from 14 years ago and also apply this mental disorder to many people in the news today.
I recently read “Blood Brother” by Anne Bird, Scott Peterson’s half-sister. In it she describes his sociopathic behavior and how difficult it was for her to believe that her brother suffered from severe pathology. It makes you wonder how many other sociopaths are walking among us. If we read the newspapers and view the news on TV, we encounter them on a regular basis. We are aghast when we hear about fraternity members who haze a pledge until he dies — apparently getting great jollies from seeing him suffer — until!
And what about the general who matter-of-factly announced that it was fun to kill “those people.” Or Dennis Rader, the dutiful church member/serial killer? We also hear about people like Ken Lay and pedophile priests and government leaders who start a pre-emptive war.
It is reported that 1 in 25 people in America are sociopaths. A 1991 study done by the National Institute of Mental Health reported that in the 15 years preceding the study, the prevalence of antisocial disorder had nearly doubled among the young in America. Now 15 more years have passed! Martha Stout wrote in her new book, “The Sociopath Next Door” that sociopaths are people who have no conscience, who feel no empathy for anyone and refuse to see the results of their bad behavior as having anything to do with themselves. She says this is the cornerstone of the antisocial personality diagnosis.
So what makes a sociopath? It is thought that this disorder is about half inherited and half nurtured, and that it is the nurtured part that tips the scales from rather benign dysfunction to the pathological variety. Dr. Ken Magid and Carole A. McKelvey, in their book, “High Risk — Children Without a Conscience” attempt to explain this phenomenon. “Unknowingly, we may be creating a society in which more people without a conscience will victimize the innocent. The deviants run the gamut from child molesters, to abusers, to crooked entrepreneurs — to murderers. The problem starts at the beginning of life when the scales are tipped toward a future of trust and love or one of mistrust and deep-seated rage. The crucial factor is bonding. Without effective bonding, the infant won’t become attached to his/her primary caregiver. … A growing number of experts now believe that this stage in a human’s development has much greater significance than previously thought.”
It certainly hasn’t helped that parents have become, in many cases, some sort of trophy seekers in a race where babies are toted off to day care or sitters for many hours a day. They are spending little relaxed quality time with their kids as they drive them from one “enrichment” activity to another or collapse on the couch in exhaustion. Of course, unprecedented family break-up also takes its toll. Children who are neglected or treated with disdain and/or physical abuse are disasters waiting to happen.
It’s important we learn to recognize sociopaths so we are not drawn into their web (think Laci Peterson). Clues are impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of remorse, manipulation, a lack of regard for the rights of others and obsession with making an impression. It’s all going through the motions — no feelings, no qualms, no conscience. They usually appear perpetually upbeat and cheerful in public, but just cross them and they will become outraged.
We need to remember that such people can be very charming and convincing when they want to be. They’ll use whatever method they deem necessary to influence — bribery, flattery, intrigue, authority, violence, persuasion and dishonesty. They can lie and cheat with no qualms, often convincing you that they really have your best interest at heart. They inhabit all levels of society, but those with power can wreak the most havoc. Who do you know who is living such a lie?
“All I ask of life is a constant and exaggerated sense of my own importance.” — Ashleigh Brilliant.
Since 1984, Dorothy Dimitre has written more than 1,000 columns for various local newspapers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.