March 2005

Heather Clitheroe

scarlet woman of self-help

The Sociopath Next Door

If a sociopath lives next door, don't go over for coffee. In fact, don't admit to them that you drink coffee, don't talk to them, and for the love of all that's holy, don't ever ask if you can borrow a cup of sugar. Not even if you're baking a cake that is guaranteed to find you true love, a promotion, and give you the winning lotto numbers. Do not. Do not. Do not make nice with a sociopath.

Or so you'll think after reading Martha Stout's book. The Sociopath Next Door is an intriguing look at these devious, tricky people who live a life without a conscience. She describes the sociopath as a person who doesn't have guilt or remorse, or a sense of conscience. Literally no conscience. Their minds are such that the sociopath is free to run amuck in the world, doing what they like without feeling bad or upset. They don't lie awake at night, wishing they could take back a nasty remark. They don't bite back and keep from saying nasty things to the clerk at Blockbuster when asked to check their backpacks at the store. If they say something awful, they're not going to feel sorry for it.

That really seems to be the gist of sociopathy... the total lack of remorse or regard for other people. The DSM-IV criteria -- the gold standard for diagnosing mental disorders -- Dr. Stout says, lists seven characteristics: failure to conform to social norms, being deceitful and manipulating, being impulsive, being irritable or aggressive, being unconcerned about the safety of the self or anybody else, being consistently irresponsible, and being unconcerned and unremorseful for hurting or stealing. To be a sociopath, you need to have at least three of the symptoms (and not just because you're in a bad mood. If you're not a sociopath, you'll probably regret it later).

We in the Scarlet Woman's household read this book with interest... it was passed around, taken on the bus, and into the tub. It was discussed and debated, and we found ourselves searching to figure out just who we knew who fit the bill. According to Dr. Stout -- who is backed up by quite a bit of research -- sociopaths make up about 4% of the population. My mediocre math skills suggest that if you're with twenty-four other people, statistically, one of you would be a sociopath. Maybe more, depending on who your friends are. Dr. Stout gives some interesting examples of sociopaths and how destructive they can be. The sociopath doesn't necessarily become a world leader or an evil CEO. Dr. Stout argues that they can easily be a parent exerting influence over children, a noisy neighbor, or really anybody who seeks to wreak some havoc on other people's lives.

They seem to be bored a lot, which probably explains why they're so intent on making other people miserable. The drama that's created by a sociopath trying to take over the condominium or, on the more extreme level, hurt or maim, seems to keep them entertained. Dr. Stout remarks that sociopaths have a curious charm about them, and a spontaneity that makes them interesting, saying that "someone who is unfettered by conscience can easily make us feel that our lives are tediously rule-bound and lackluster," and that joining them makes up for our dull existence. Not all sociopaths are criminals, but all of them are lacking that conscience that keeps actions and behaviors more or less in check by an underlying compassion for others or simple guilt. The sociopath can be incredibly skilled at drawing us in, managing to flatter us and make us want to help and be involved, or just to simply trust them. We don't see what's coming -- at least, most of us don't -- until it's too late. They're out to get what they want because they don't have the ability feel any remorse for the injuries they cause... which means that they're not sorry to have done it. Nothing to stop them, since there's no regard for social norms.

While Dr. Stout doesn't explicitly say what causes sociopathy, she does suggest that it's a combination of nature and nurture. I found it a bit frightening to think that there's no real cause -- too much asparagus in early childhood, say, or too many Barney videos. Sociopaths just seem to crop up, though they occasionally have their uses. They can make excellent soldiers in times of war; people who can kill on the battlefield without feeling guilt after the fact are probably good to have on your side. Without really understanding what causes a sociopath, there's doesn't seem to be much that can be done to cure it. Can a conscience be instilled in somebody who haven't ever had one? Dr. Stout doesn't presume to suggest a cure; she admits that there isn't one, at present, and some cultures actively encourage sociopathic behaviors.

It's an interesting book. The background on what conscience is tends to be a bit too wordy, and a bit difficult to wade through, but that may be the nature of the material. It's hard to commit to a singular definition of what a conscience is, even though most of us can describe it. Dr. Stout also doesn't try to explain what can be done to cure or treat sociopathy. What she's done is write a book on how to recognize a sociopath, and how to cope with his or her influence in our lives. The best way, she says, is to avoid them altogether.

But if you're unfortunate enough to have one in the family, or living next door, or work with one, she does suggest some ways to avoid falling prey. The "thirteen rules for dealing with sociopaths in everyday life" are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Be suspicious of flattery, for example, as it's used at great lengths by sociopaths. Don't be drawn in by pity, also a tool of the sociopath.

It feels as though Dr. Stout has written this book out of a quiet anger. She talks of the trauma that a sociopath can inflict, and her experiences with their victims. As a psychologist and clinical instructor, I imagine that she has an intimate understanding of the sociopath. It gives the narrative an undertone that is more suspected than revealed, making you wonder at the number of people she's worked with over the years.

One criticism of the book, I think, might be that it seems awfully alarmist. The book sounded like there's a real and present danger to each and every one of us (not including the sociopaths). I felt alarmed as I read the book. Kind of a "holy cow... everybody stay the fuck away! Everyone around you might be a sociopath!" On the other hand, given Dr. Stout's experiences with trauma victims, and her knowledgeable approach to the subject, I'd have to give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like this. Though I haven't been personally victimized by a sociopath, reading the book made it pretty clear that they can be incredibly destructive.

That said, this is probably not the kind of book you want to read on public transit; you'll start to look at your fellow passengers with some concern. Especially if you count twenty-four of them around you. Because. One of them. Might be. A sociopath.

And the one in twenty-five statistic is just that. As is often heard in the Scarlet Woman's household, statistics can be used and abused to make the case for ninety percent of all opinions. I don't know that all of us have actually run across a real life sociopath. I think it's like that "perfect husband' that's out there for all of us. He may or may not exist, but I'm pretty sure I haven't met him yet.

Which is fine. Just so long as he's not a sociopath. Because if he is, I'm afraid I'll have to pass.

The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless vs. the Rest of Us by Martha Stout, PhD
ISBN: 076791581X
241 Pages