Blawg Review: The Law and Capitalism Edition
Section 1983 Damages -- Part II

The Sociopath Next Door

I wonder whether there is a correlation between litigiousness and sociopathy, and whether there are reliable cross-cultural studies correlating the two. Of course, such data would be difficult to gather. Not all legal systems are the same.

But if it is, in fact, true, that as much as four percent of the American population suffers sociopathy, that may help explain our love of litigation. But what is a sociopath?

Martha Stout's, The Sociopath Nex Door (Broadway Books, New York, 2005) (available here), is an accessible introduction to the topic.  She reports that about four percent of the population lacks conscience, the defining characteristic of the sociopath. The number is not drawn from thin air. An end note recites, among other things, a study by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-R, of the American Psychiatric Association, defines antisocial personality disorder, a synonym for sociopath, as the presence of three of more of the following "symptoms:" (1) failure to conform to social norms; (2) deceitfulness, manipulativeness; (3) impulsivity, failure to plan ahead; (4) irritability, aggressiveness; (5) reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; (6) consistent irresponsibility; (7) lack of remorse after hurting, mistreating or stealing from another."

Stout argues that conscience is akin to a "seventh sense," and that it is rooted in an emotional sense of connection with others. Rather than the harsh overlord of the Fruedian superego, dispensing sometimes unconscious commands without regard to well-being, Stout's conception of conscience is related to our ability to love, to empathize, to feel for others.

She errs, in my view, by dismissing all terrorists as sociopaths. That is far too easy a definitional move, and it obscures the larger truth that terror can be a highly adaptive means of accomplishing political ends. And Stout gets downright gooey at the end when she claims that the visions of the good life offered by disparate religious leaders all converge around something akin to the same sense of emotional well-being.

These lapses are forgivable. Her discussion of case studies gives valuable insight into manipulative behavior and how to cope with it. I recommend this book for any lawyer struggling to understand the sometimes bizarre behavior of their clients.