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Review: The Sociopath Next Door

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.
According to the book’s publisher:

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 neighbour, 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.

The book had a lot of mixed reviews from people who objected in various ways to labelling certain people sociopaths based on a list of traits. However, from the perspective of building a strong group, it is in the general membership’s interest to have some way of identifying those people whose involvement would actually be detrimental to the group.Hence, this book is valuable, even if it doesn’t make us infallible in this regard.

There is quite a good review of this book by Inverarity. (http://inverarity.livejournal.com/) To quote a few paragraphs from this:

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.

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” behaviours from the Hare checklist and declare a lot of people sociopaths who are merely ass holes.

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 behaviour. 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour 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.

The book to my mind starts to get questionable when Stout delves into the causes of sociopathy and its prevalence in different societies.

But as Inverarity points out, “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.”

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