Book Review: The Sociopath Next Door
Posted March 24, 2014on:
The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us by Martha Stout, Three Rivers Press, 2005, 241 pp.
Clinical psychologist Martha Stout has spent much of her career helping people whose lives have been damaged by the work of sociopaths. Sociopaths, she argues, are not just the stereotypical violent criminals without a conscience. In fact, she argues, one in 25 ordinary Americans lives without a conscience. This book is a conversation not only about how to recognize (and avoid falling prey to) the sociopaths in your life, but about the importance of conscience to our understanding of what it means to be human. Drawing on case studies from her own practice, psychological research, and philosophical understandings, she explores the role of conscience in our social work, and the dangers of its absence.
The opening section of the book describes conscience as a seventh sense, an human capacity for care and concern for the needs and feelings of others. Stout describes Joe, a man who left for a very important meeting and work trip without leaving enough food for his dog. Does he turn around and go back, or leave the dog hungry until morning? What force, internal or external, drives his decision? What makes him return to feed the dog is the thing we call “conscience,” and Stout traces the development of the idea from early Christian thinkers like Jerome and Augustine, to Aquinas, and then on into the modern conception of selfhood developed by Freud, carefully distinguishing between conscience and super-ego.
To be a sociopath is to exist without this thing called conscience, this nagging accountability for the feelings and well-being of others. Contrary to our stereotypes, many sociopaths are popular, well-liked and successful in life. She tells the story of Skip, a wealthy, married businessman who gets ahead by ruthless cunning and winning the affections of others; of Doreen, who passes as a licensed psychologist and treats patients, all while manipulating coworkers simply because she is jealous of them; of Luke, who married a woman for her pool and continued to evoke pity even in those of whom he had taken advantage. To a sociopath, life is a game for the winning, and those who bother to care about others are chumps and losers.
Stout details the ways that sociopaths learn to use the consciences of those around them as tools of manipulation. The key way to identify a sociopath, she says, is pity. Sociopaths evoke pity in those around them, because people are most easily manipulated into generosity, sacrifice and obedience when they feel sorry for someone. (107-108) Ironically, what is most pitiable about sociopaths is the same thing that makes them the most dangerous. Sociopathy is rooted in the complete inability to form an emotional attachment to another human being (or animal). Stout writes, “Conscience never exists without the ability to love, and sociopathy is ultimately based in lovelessness.” Sociopaths are so dangerous to human relationships because they have absolutely no care or concern about the well-being of others.
One interesting observation Stout makes is about the prevalence of sociopaths in American culture, compared with other parts of the world. In the Western world, sociopaths make up four percent of the population, as compared with 0.03-0.14 percent in East Asian countries like China and Japan. (136). Psychologists believe that sociopathy is caused by a combination of both nature and nurture, as life experiences can trigger certain genetic predispositions. Perhaps, Stout argues, cultural norms of group identity and familial obligations can curb sociopathy in those cultures. In America and the West, by contrast, our cultural values of acquisitiveness, power, individuality, independence and freedom can actually encourage and reward sociopathic behaviors.
The book concludes by looking at the opposite of conscience-less sociopathology–those individuals with an overabundance of conscience. By contrast, Stout reminds us that these people are not troubled souls. In fact, they are our moral heroes. If conscience is linked to the ability to love, an abundance of conscience comes from an abundance of capacity for love. These moral exemplars are those whose hearts are big enough to love beyond the normal scope of friends and family, and to take responsibility for social justice in the wider world. If the absence of conscience is a grave danger, its excess is a gift to all humanity.
Stout’s book is an interesting read. As someone who works with people from all walks of life, it was informative and insightful about how to be on the lookout for those who are dangerous to communities and individuals within them. Looking over my congregation, community and circles of relationships, I did not recognize sociopaths in our midst after reading this book, certainly not at a rate of 1 out of 25. However, I think this information will arm me well if and when someone raises my suspicions, and help me think through how to protect those most vulnerable.