It should be noted that Stout wrote this before Trump walked onto the political landscape. It is unlikely she had him in mind. She was describing a common trajectory of a psychopath, not a particular individual. Experts on psychopathy place this lack of conscience, this remorselessness at the center of the disorder.
Items from the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) that seem to flow directly from the absence of conscience include pathological lying, lack of remorse, history of juvenilely delinquency, conning, and having more than one type of criminal offense. To have a conscience is such a deep, innate part of being human, it is difficult to imagine not possessing one. It’s hard to imagine having no fear about being found out for moral transgressions, no compunction about lying, and no gut-level reservations about acts that might harm others. Not having a conscience is like having a car without brakes.
Conscience is the glue that keeps the social fabric from unraveling. It undergirds the social contract that promotes decency, safety, and trust. Yet there is that small percentage that live outside that social contract, that 1% who, in the apt phrase of Hervey Cleckley, “carry disaster lightly in both hands.” Is it not desirable to identify those without a conscience, particularly if they are in a position of power over others?
Well, one could argue, the inability of the brain and nervous system to generate the inhibitory emotions of guilt, shame and fear—that are foundational to developing a conscience—doesn’t have to result in predatory or harmful behavior. Just because one lacks the capacity to feel bad about doing bad, doesn’t necessarily mean one can’t feel good about doing good. Just because one is not constrained by feelings of guilt or shame, doesn’t mean one can’t be motivated by feelings of love or virtue.
However, this is where we careen into the second ditch in the psychopath’s interior landscape: the inability to empathize or care deeply. This was the central trait Cleckley noted in Mask of Sanity, “beauty and ugliness (except in a very superficial sense), goodness, evil, love, horror, and humor have no actual meaning, no power to move him.” We have already noted that when images of suffering are presented to the psychopath, there is no activity in the emotional centers of the brain. It is an ice station as far as empathy and deep caring are concerned.
Martha Stout makes a link between the difficulty to form a deep bond with others and the absence of a conscience. She defines conscience as the “intervening sense of obligation based on our attachment to others.” But if someone simply cannot experience the deeper feelings of love, tenderness, or compassion, then they have no motivation to protect, sacrifice, or feel responsible. If others just don’t matter much, there is no motivation to build a conscience. Instead of expressions of empathy, there are acts of callousness.
This missing gear to connect deeply is reflected in the marriages of psychopaths. Stout notes, “once the surface charm is scraped off, their marriages are loveless, one-sided and almost always short-term. If a marriage partner has any value to the sociopath, it is because the partner is viewed as a possession, one that the sociopath may feel angry to lose, but never evoke sadness or accountability.”
However, it would be misleading to suggest that the psychopath is disengaged entirely from relationships. Experts in marital therapy and interpersonal communications note that in any serious relationship there is a complex dance that revolves around two questions: (1) “how close do l want to get to this person?” and (2) “who is on top?” In serious relationships, there is this ongoing dance of intimacy and power. The psychopath does not have the neurological infrastructure to even get on the dance floor of intimacy. But he is kinetic with dance moves of asserting power.
Since dominance and “winning” is the only dance card available to him, the psychopath often becomes adept at it. His focus is one-dimensional and aggressive (“grab ‘em by the pussy”). He concentrates on immediate gains and gratifications driven by his egocentric needs. Relationships are instrumental. People are means, not ends, in themselves.
And the psychopath has plenty of emotional fuel. Admittedly, not the animating force that flows from love, compassion and empathy; but emotions associated with the drive to dominate such as anger, glee, resentment. envy, consternation, jealousy, and contempt. These emotions are shallow and often fleeting, but can be intense in the moment, and typically drive the psychopath’s behavior.
The psychopath is out to dominate his relationships. That is his exclusive goal. He may recognize (cognitive empathy) the rewards for acting as if he cares for someone. And this self-interest may serve as a check on his behavior for a while. He may even enter professions where the opportunities for prosocial behavior abound—medicine, law, politics, business, and even religion. But exploitation and harm eventually win out.
Over time, this wiring of the psychopath, which doesn’t allow him to care, but only operate in the gear of “winning” in a relationship (whether with a spouse, friend, colleague, or country), means that he will always be drawn to actions that benefit him and disadvantage the other. This may start out as mere selfishness and lack of reciprocity, but inevitably moves to dereliction and cruelty.
Specific items from the Hare Psychopathy Checklist that are linked to this core inability to empathize and care include: promiscuous sexual relationships, callousness, parasitic lifestyle, frequent marital relationships, shallow affect, and the tendency to be cunning and manipulative.
To not be able to care deeply is an affliction. It is sad (seriously). But to be in a relationship with such a person is risky. It is not only driving a car without brakes (lack of conscience), but also a car that can only operate in one gear (domination) that will eventually strip the transmission (relationship) to shreds.
But wait…it gets worse.