The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout
Abe brought this home for me from the library (one of the joys of having a librarian for a spouse) because he was certain I would find it fascinating. He was right. The basic premise of the book is that a sociopath (aka psychopath, aka someone with anti-social personality disorder) is not always the deranged serial killer we might imagine. A sociopath is defined as someone who doesn't have a conscience, conscience being a sense of responsibility to and love for other(s). So a sociopath is a person who is incapable of building meaningful human connection. Someone who, as the author often reminds us, is someone who can do anything they feel like doing-- "anything at all"-- without feeling remorse or guilt. She posits that a sociopath's primary objective in life is to "win"-- exerting control over whatever facets of their lives and the lives of others they can.
Sociopaths are difficult to discern. They are typically quite charming and good manipulators. Stout cites research that estimates that approximately 4% of the human population is sociopathic-- if the estimate is correct, that means 1 out of 25 people does not have a conscience. And don't go fooling yourself into thinking that all these people are concentrated in prisons or big cities or foreign countries. Sociopaths are distributed fairly equally among all populations-- both in and out of correctional facilities.
This lack of conscience can manifest itself in a variety of ways, ranging from horrific violence to extreme risk-taking to serial sexual relationships to ruthless business practices to lazy and parasitic behaviors. It all depends on what the sociopath's main goal in life: stimulation? relaxation? power? control?
The Sociopath Next Door provided a stimulating introduction to the concept of sociopathy, but it seems to have been written more as a warning ("don't allow yourself to be hurt by one of these maniacs!") than as an introduction to the personality disorder. I was left with a lot more questions than I was with answers. I wanted to know more about the origins of sociopathy. Where does it come from? It is written into DNA, completely unchangeable, like eye color? Is it a genetic tendency that can be worked against? Can people start out life normal and healthy and then become sociopaths, either because of their environment or because they have chosen to completely stifle their consciences? If this is the case, are they truly sociopaths? Or do they just look like them? Is there a reliable way to determine if someone is, indeed, entirely without conscience? Can one measure conscience? Is there a certain brain structure or pattern that would enable us to identify a sociopath? Is sociopathy curable? Are there degrees of sociopathy?
I have to admit that after reading this book, I have found myself evaluating peoples for signs of sociopathy. If the statistical estimate is accurate, I've likely got two or three co-workers who are sociopaths. And surely there are others wandering around in my immediate world. I'm constantly wondering who they are. The mailman? The co-worker who told me a joke this afternoon? That lady across the aisle in Sunday School? It could be anyone!
Who is the sociopath in your life?