29 March 2008

Defense Against The Dark Arts

One of the admirable elements of the Hogworts curriculum in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is the inclusion of a "Defense Against the Dark Arts" class as part of the standard curriculum. Unlike, for example, Herbology or the History of Magic classes which are also elements of the Hogworts curriculum, it has no good analog in the world of muggles where the rest of us live. But perhaps it should.

The closest the real curriculum comes to such a class is "health" in which young men and women learn mostly about sexually transmitted diseases, how to avoid peer pressure in connection with sex and drugs, and the harms of smoking and excessive drinking.

But there are all sorts of perils out there of which young adults should be wary, and the broader notion of knowing how to defend yourself from malicious influences in the larger world is a worthwhile construct. The world is full of muggers, bank robbers, rapists, child abusers, sexual harassers, drunk drivers, cheaters, liars, deceptive trade practices and frivolous litigants, to offer just a brief parade of horribles. We teach our children to be defensive driver's in driver's education, but we don't really make a systematic effort to teach people who to response to threats in other domains. Moreover, some advice that we routinely give our children, like "beware of strangers" is problematically incomplete.

Dealing With Sociopaths In Everyday Life

Any part of such a curriculum should include some version of psychologist Martha Stout's "Thirteen Rules For Dealing With Sociopaths In Everyday Life" from her 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door (at pages 156-162).

Her book actually leaves a lot to be desired.

The title term, "Sociopath" is more often reserved for people who disregard established social norms because they instead follow the social norms of a criminal or deviant subculture to which they belong, which is not what her book is about. Instead, her book is about what leading research in the field Robert Hare and most of the other behavioral researchers she cites call "Psychopathy" which is to say a hard wired mental condition that involved a lack of conscience or emotional affect.

The touchstone statistic she cites throughout the book that "1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience" which is based upon the prevalence of "anti-social personality disorder" as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, a definition that its both broader and narrower than the construct of psychopathy developed by Robert Hare which appears from several books and journal articles in the field to be the touchstone of recent research in the area. On one hand, it captures some people who persistently engage in criminal behavior who do not fit the psychopathy construct, and on the other hand, it fails to capture people with Machiavellian personalities who are higher functioning but still seem to fit the psychopathy construct. Based upon other reading I've done, most sources put the prevalence of what she calls psychopathy at closer to 1% in males, and these sources claim it is less common in females. But, her core point that it is a quite rare condition, but is common enough that you are likely to encounter someone like this at some point, is well taken.

Stout's assertion that the condition is 54% heritable is at odds with other sources I have read that suggest that while it is commonly associated with a family history of mental disorders generally, that it is not very strongly heritable specifically, and I can't tell you who is right on that score. This again may be a definitional issue, or the data may simply be contradictory.

Her short (218 page, 12 chapter) book is also about three chapters too long. She spends the first nine chapters of the book arguing rather persuasively, if not terrible rigorously, that by the time we are adults, we either are or are not sociopaths. She spends three chapters making the case that it is better to be a non-sociopath than it is to be a sociopath, despite the fact that no one gets to make that choice.

This is all forgiven, however, because the "Thirteen Rules" which are the most practical contribution this book makes to the literature, appeal not to research, but to her own lengthy experience as a clinical psychologist treating trauma patients many of whom have suffered as a result of people who can be identified by warning signs she describes in her rules. The Rules are, at their root, simply practical experience driven strategies for coping with difficult people who fit this profile. It doesn't matter if they are biochemically or genetically psychopaths in any platonic or scientifically rigorous sense. The notion is that if you encounter someone who shows these warning signs in your everyday life, that certain strategies are likely to work in dealing with them. This may be more folk wisdom than it is science, even though it has a theoretical construct suggestively supported by rigorous neuroscience and psychiatry to back it up. The same can be said of a lot of psychology. But better to have a working model that somebody else has spent years of clinical work refining, than to have no model at all.

While the Thirteen Rules, which I won't recite in full and verbatim, lest you skip the book, don't distinguish between theory, lay diagnosis and coping strategies, I will summarize the conclusions in those categories. I will also state her conclusions in a manner that is more robust and does not require any more agreement with her underlying theoretical construct than is necessary to apply the Rules. I also fill in some points made elsewhere in the book. As I result, I provide more than thirteen rules.


Some people act in a manner that shows no sign that they have a conscience. They aren't easy to identify and nothing you can do once you encounter them can change them. They are often a danger to those who encounter them. Some rise to positions of power, some are petty tyrants, some are passively exploitative, and a fairly small minority are persistently violent.


The more of the following apply, the more likely it is that the coping strategies discussed below will be helpful.

1. Beware if you "find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy."

2. Trust you instincts and anxieties, rather than allowing them to be filtered by someone's formal rank or position of authority.

3. Practice the Rule of Threes (derived, I suspect, from a similar rabbinical maxim): "three lies says you're dealing with a liar, and deceit is a linchpin of conscienceless behavior."

4. Beware of people who engage in "gaslighting," which is outrageous or deceptive conduct which makes the target doubt his or her own perceptions, and makes others doubt them when they recount this behavior.

5. Beware of people who want you to keep their troubling behavior secret, or rely on your good manners or civility to provide a cover for their behavior.

6. Suspect flattery (i.e. extreme appeals to our ego in unrealistic ways), whether targeted at us individually, or to a larger group or nation to which we belong.

7. Beware of people who appeal to your fears.

8. While neither alcoholism or drug use necessarily imply that someone fits this profile, 75% of people who fit this profile are alcoholic and 50% abuse drugs.

9. People who fit this profile often engage in risky-taking or impulsive behaviors. In particular, they may try to sow mayhem for no good reason.

10. Beware of people who are, or were as children, cruel to animals.

11. Beware of people with an "intense, emotionless or 'predatory' stare."

12. Beware of people with glib and superficial charm.

Note that the core theoretical issue of lack of emotion or remorse is often concealed, except from people who know the individual who fits this profile very well and are unlikely to take action as a result.

Coping Strategies

1. "Cut your losses and get out [of relationships with persistent liars] as soon as you can. . . . Do not give your money, your secrets, or your affection" to these people.

2. Publicly challenging these people when they are in positions of authority will encourage others who are aware of them but have remained silent to challenge them as well. You are rarely their sole target.

3. "Resist the temptation to compete with . . . outsmart . . . psychoanalyze . . . or even banter with" this person.

4. Avoid this person and "refuse any kind of contact or communication . . . . If total avoidance is impossible, make plans to come as close as you can to the goal of total avoidance."

5. "Do not be afraid to be unsmiling and calmly to the point" when confronting this person.

6. Do not try to help this person or give this person another chance.

7. Ignore pleas to conceal this person's behavior, such as "Please don't tell," "you owe me," or the guilt trip implicit in "you are just like me."

8. Don't lose your faith in humanity, most people are not like this person.

9. Try to live well rather than seek revenge; take comfort in knowing that most people like this eventually self-destruct although it may take them a long time to do so.

1 comment:

Pam Clifton said...

Thanks for this. Speaking of the dark arts, I am going to give this to my 17 year old.