Random House, 2005, 256 pages
We are accustomed to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but in The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard psychologist Martha Stout reveals that a shocking 4 percent of ordinary people, one in 25, has an often undetected mental disorder, the chief symptom of which is that that person possesses no conscience. He or she has no ability whatsoever to feel shame, guilt, or remorse. One in 25 everyday Americans, therefore, is secretly a sociopath. They could be your colleague, your neighbor, even family. And they can do literally anything at all and feel absolutely no guilt.
How do we recognize the remorseless? One of their chief characteristics is a kind of glow or charisma that makes sociopaths more charming or interesting than the other people around them. They're more spontaneous, more intense, more complex, or even sexier than everyone else, making them tricky to identify and leaving us easily seduced. Fundamentally, sociopaths are different because they cannot love. Sociopaths learn early on to show sham emotion, but underneath they are indifferent to others' suffering. They live to dominate and thrill to win.
The fact is, we all almost certainly know at least one or more sociopaths already. Part of the urgency in reading The Sociopath Next Door is the moment when we suddenly recognize that someone we know, someone we worked for, or were involved with, or voted for, is a sociopath. But what do we do with that knowledge? To arm us against the sociopath, Dr. Stout teaches us to question authority, suspect flattery, and beware the pity play. Above all, she writes, when a sociopath is beckoning, do not join the game.
It is the ruthless versus the rest of us, and The Sociopath Next Door will show you how to recognize and defeat the devil you know.
Sociopaths are fascinating in the abstract, quite horrifying in reality, not least because very few of them are actually serial killers or criminal masterminds. Martha Stout relates, mostly through "composite" case histories and anecdotes, all the ways that sociopaths prey without remorse on "normal" people. Not all of them are violent, and few of them ever kill anyone, but most of them do great harm to the people in their lives, often covertly, for years.
I found The Sociopath Next Door pretty interesting, though there wasn't a lot in it that I didn't already know. If you know very little about the psychology of sociopaths, though, and especially if you have had the misfortune to cross paths with one and you know something is wrong because that little voice in your head is saying "Get. The Fuck. Away." but this person who creeps you out so badly is just so nice and everybody loves him or her, then this book could tell you a few things you badly need to know. That seems to be Stout's primary goal: not educating the layman in the clinical psychology of psychopathy (Stout uses the terms 'sociopath' and 'psychopath' interchangeably) but educating people in how to recognize them. Sociopaths live to dominate; not all of them have the ambition or the ability to become dictators or corporate executives, but all of them want power, and some are content to wield it against a small group of helpless, vulnerable people -- like their own children. The opportunity to prey in secret on the vulnerable who have given them their trust leads many sociopaths to become teachers, priests, social workers, and other "helping" occupations.
Sympathy for the Devil
There's a danger in giving people a checklist of sociopathic traits; you can just see people going down the list and side-eying people they know. You can take two or three marginal examples of "sociopathic" behaviors from the Hare checklist and declare a lot of people sociopaths who are merely assholes.
In practical terms, the difference between being abused by a sociopath and being abused by a non-sociopath may be minimal, but the non-sociopath at least has the capacity to change his or her behavior. What distinguishes sociopaths is their complete inability to feel guilty. They are quite literally incapable of feeling bad about anything they do or anything that happens to someone else. They are, however, very good at pretending to feel what people expect of them. Stout reveals, from case histories and interviews with sociopaths, that almost all of them cultivate pity in others; they want you to feel sorry for them, and skillfully use any sympathy as cover for their behavior. This, she says, is the single biggest red flag indicating a possible sociopath:
When deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given.
What's the difference between a sociopath and an asshole?
Plenty of people are nasty, manipulative, and abusive without being sociopaths. This is a point I think Stout touched on too lightly -- she's eager to point out the disproportionate harm that 4% of the population can do, while arguing that this means 96% of the population is essentially moral and law-abiding, yet she also points out that studies of incarcerated criminals show that only about 20% of convicts can be classified as sociopaths (and about 50% of the most violent ones). So contrary to her rather comforting assertion that a conscience prevents most people from doing really bad things except when under social pressure or authoritarian influence (she also spends some time talking about the Milgram Experiment), it's obvious that a conscience isn't always an impediment to behaving selfishly and immorally. People are really good at self-justification or just ignoring cognitive dissonance.
And then her argument goes even further into the weeds when she talks about causes of sociopathy. Her argument is that it's nature and nurture. From twin and adoption studies, there is strong evidence that sociopathy is a personality trait that is more biologically determined than other traits such as intelligence or intro/extroversion. It doesn't seem to be purely genetic, but they haven't reliably assigned any particular environmental factors to sociopathy; indeed, contrary to what might seem like a rather intuitive assumption, being raised in an abusive environment may cause a lot of other negative personality traits and psychological disorders, but it does not appear to correlate strongly with sociopathy. In other words, a sociopath is no more likely to have been an abused child than anyone else.
She does discuss a few other personality disorders that are similar to sociopathy, such as narcissism and reactive attachment disorder; again, the distinction may be academic for the victims of such people, but there is evidence that narcissism, at least, can be treated, and the causes of RAD are better understood and preventable. Sociopaths just seem to happen, and there is nothing you can do about them.
And so, Stout delves into culture.
Stout gets panned by a lot of reviewers for this part of the book. She does not go as far as some of her critics imply; in particular, she does not claim that Western society is to blame for sociopathic behavior, and she does not claim that there are no sociopaths outside the West. But what she does claim is still pretty tenuous.
I think the evidence that the incidence of sociopathy is higher in the West than elsewhere in the world is suspect (have there really been comparable population studies done with a reliable test for sociopathic indicators? Stout kind of glosses over the basis of the stated claim that a much lower percentage of people in Japan are sociopaths than in the U.S.), but where she really lost me was her suggestion that in societies that exalt independence less and the collective good more, sociopaths are either less frequent or they do less harm because of social norms preventing them from acting out. She specifically suggests that "Skip" -- one of her first case studies, a sociopath who began his career by slaughtering frogs as a child -- would still have been a sociopath if he'd been brought up in a Buddhist society, but he would have been less likely to be a frog-killer because Buddhism teaches the interdependence of all living things and -- okay, are you fucking kidding me? First, she pretty much implies that Skip got away with sticking firecrackers up frogs' asses at his parents' summer vacation home because American society doesn't think that sort of thing is so bad. Umm, 'scuse me? I mean, yeah, even non-sociopathic kids will often engage in casual animal cruelty when they are young and stupid, but I'm pretty sure you'll find plenty of nice Buddhist kids in Buddhist countries poking frogs with sticks.
Stout repeatedly points out that sociopaths do not recognize the social contract that restrains people who have a conscience. One of the key indicators of a possible sociopath is someone who constantly disregards social norms. That being the case, a Buddhist sociopath no more values Buddhist teachings than a non-Buddhist, and will pretend to adhere to social mores only to the same degree that a sociopath anywhere else does -- which is to say, he'll do whatever he can get away with.
If Stout's argument is that the cutthroat, hyper-competitive nature of Western society is one in which clever sociopaths can thrive and be admired for their ruthlessness, well, that's hardly a novel insight, and it does not convince me that cunning sociopaths are any less successful in any other society. Every society has opportunities for the unscrupulous to take advantage and climb to power on the backs of the conscience-bound, and manipulating the rules, gaming the system, is what sociopaths do.
Do not engage with the crazy
In Stout's thirteen rules for dealing with a sociopath, the key one (after figuring out that someone is a sociopath) is basically: do not engage. Probably the most useful parts of the book are the chapters where Stout talks about the indicators of sociopathy; how to recognize one, and how to cut your losses and disengage as bloodlessly as possible. There are times, of course, when you cannot avoid all interactions with someone you believe to be a sociopath. In that case, minimize all interactions and give them nothing they can use. There is no advantage in arguing, reasoning, negotiating, threatening, or bantering with them.
Certainly a lesson I will be applying in my own life, online and IRL. I'm one of those people who often finds it hard to walk away from a fight, but when you're doing battle with a sociopath, it's impossible to win, because to the sociopath, you are no more real than a video game character. You're incapable of hurting their feelings, making them concede defeat, or forcing them to change their behavior.
Why have a conscience?
Martha Stout is a clinical psychotherapist, not an evolutionary psychologist, but she brings a bit of evpsych into the book when trying to explain sociopaths. What are the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages of having a conscience? She offers a few pat theories, pointing out that on the one hand, being without a conscience can certainly be a competitive advantage if you don't care what you have to do to win, while on the other hand, a society full of sociopaths would probably render itself extinct in the long run. But what she's really trying to do is reassure us that we're better off having a conscience. Everyone has probably wondered at one time or another, after seeing how the ruthless and unscrupulous often end up on top and are never punished for their behavior, what's the point of playing by the rules? Sociopaths obviously regard the rest of us as chumps. Stout ends her book with long ruminations on the costs of being without a conscience -- you can never love, you can never truly enjoy art or beauty, you can never be a full participant in human society, only a predator or a parasite -- but she is not entirely convincing in her claims that sociopaths usually self-destruct in the end (and thus, that they don't "win" after all). Some do, sure. But I think a lot of sociopaths retire rich and satisfied with a trail of ruined lives behind them. There isn't much comfort in trying to convince yourself that the meek shall inherit the earth. What's needed is for people to identify and oppose the conscienceless; do not keep their secrets, do not shield them from consequences, do not let them get away with it. Often this is easier said than done; one of Stout's semi-fictional case studies involves a fake psychotherapist who spends years at a mental hospital preying on coworkers and patients alike. When she is finally exposed as a fraud, the hospital lets her simply leave without pursuing legal action, because they don't want the embarrassing publicity. Thus she is free to start over somewhere else.
Verdict: Psychology is a bit of a squishy science, and Martha Stout is a bit of a squishy author. I found The Sociopath Next Door interesting and it held a few valuable lessons for me, but it's a very broad, not very deep overview of what makes sociopaths tick. Stout cites some pretty old studies and draws some very personal conclusions which I don't think are at all universal. Nonetheless, it's an interesting, sometimes chilling read despite the relative lack of serial killers. It's not for the serious student of abnormal psychology (which I am not -- gotta admit, I always kind of squint at AbPsych students...) and it's probably not going to help you much if you are already unfortunate enough to be ensnared in a sociopath's web. But it might save you from untold grief if it teaches you how to avoid them.