The Sociopath Next Door
NeuroBiology and Behavior
The Sociopath Next Door
In the first chapter of her book, The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout begins her description of the many faces of sociopathy with an anecdote about a busy businessman and his dog. The story ultimately ends with Joe the businessman deciding to miss his important board meeting to return home to feed his dog before he goes on a two day business trip. As I was reading the story I was secretly hoping that Joe would do the obvious thing and return home to take care of his pet (I have never owned a pet). She uses Joe as an example of someone who is not a sociopath. She defines a sociopath as a person who does not have a conscience and says that sociopaths account for approximately 4% of the American population which is more then four times the amount of those whose suffer from the well publicized schizophrenia. I found this statistic shocking because sociopathy is so prevalent but goes unnoticed so easily in our culture. Prior to reading her book, I had always envisioned a sociopath as a mass murdering evil sadistic person but her definition of conscience (that thing that sociopaths lack) unsettled me even more then her statistic. She defines conscience as “a sense of obligation ultimately based upon in an emotional attachment to another living creature (often but not always a human being), or to a group of human beings, or even in some cases to humanity as a whole.” This definition of conscience allows for a much more diverse concept of what it means to be a sociopath, no longer does someone have to be actively “evil”, but someone might be described as passively “evil”. Although this concept is more unsettling it makes more sense when viewing sociopathy as a disability.
I certainly found it strange that over the course of her book, she constantly questioned whether it was advantageous to have a conscience or not. Stout gave clear examples of people who don’t have consciences doing bad things, like manipulating co-workers or killing people in cold blood. But she also pointed out the “freedom” someone experiences without a conscience like being able to lie without an ounce of shame or guilt, a skill particularly useful in the business world. One of the more important realizations I had upon reading her book was that not all sociopaths are created equally. The murderous, manipulative person I envisioned as the prototypical sociopath was also very intelligent. In retrospect it seems obvious that all sociopaths couldn’t be super smart, just like everyone isn’t super athletic, sociopaths have varying degrees of skill. Instead of intelligence being the unifying thread in sociopathy, it is actually the urge to win and control which is common place among all sociopaths. The inability to form emotional attachments to people renders a person incapable of caring for others. The sociopath views interpersonal relationships as miniature battles that must be won. Since trust as a concept is also based upon an obligation centered on emotional attachments, the sociopath also does not trust his fellow man. This inability to trust leads to the compulsion to control others, because trust is not needed if you can control the behavior and actions of others.
It is the keyword, compulsion that showcases sociopathy for what it is—a disability. As we discussed in class, the link between behavior and personality is not always a clear cut. Stout briefly discusses what causes sociopathy and mentions both genetic and environmental factors. The important thing she mentioned is that someone who is a sociopath from birth might not behave in any of the tell-tell ways if the environment he or she is raised in promotes interpersonal relationships over personal success. This sociopath would still have the inability to emotionally connect to others, i.e. not be able to love, but would not behave in a overly selfish manner. It is crucial to note that sociopaths know right from wrong just like every driver knows to stop at a red street light, but the sociopath chooses to do what is best for him not necessarily what is right. Although I agree with her ultimately that, yes it is better to have a conscience and to be able to love, I don’t agree with her pronouncement to avoid sociopaths at all costs. She argues very well that someone who is sociopathic does not think of themselves as being sociopathic, or in other terms doesn’t know he is disabled. I doubt Stout would argue that it is best to avoid people with downs syndrome or schizophrenia or any other disability. She says it herself that despite the fact you can’t make a sociopath feel, you can still influence the behavior of one to limit the potential damage done to him and others.
Stout, Martha. The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books: New York, 2005.