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The Sociopath Next DoorReview - The Sociopath Next Door
by Martha Stout
Broadway, 2005
Review by James Pratt
Dec 26th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 52)

If the statistics are correct, one person in twenty-five can be classified as a sociopath. That means that almost all of us have met at least one such person (assuming you are not one yourself). It is on the basis of this chilling fact that Martha Stout has written The Sociopath Next Door. If all of us know at least one such person, then many of us may need the advice she offers on how to handle the sociopath you know, and how to protect yourself from that person.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, a sociopath is a person who lacks the capacity to feel sympathy or compassion for others. They are often described as people who know the difference between right and wrong but don't care. Insofar as they make the distinction between right and wrong, they do so at a purely intellectual level. Otherwise, the only thing that constrains the behavior of sociopaths is the fear of adverse consequences to themselves. In short, they lack what we call a conscience. If there is such a thing as an evil person, the sociopath is the prime candidate for the role. They are charming and ingratiating, but also predatory and utterly ruthless. Thankfully, they have a tendency towards laziness: once confronted they give up easily and move on to the next victim. Once spotted, it's usually fairly easy to get rid of them. Thus, Stout offers what is in essence a "spotter's guide".

First, a terminological point: the words "sociopath" and "psychopath" are for the most parts synonymous. If there is a distinction to be made, it is based mainly on one's theoretical commitments with regard to the etiology of the disorder. Those who describe it as sociopathy tend to believe that its causes are social or cultural, while those who describe it as psychopathy tend to believe in a biological basis for it. Stout seems to fall into the former category, and not only on the basis of her book's title. She leans towards a cultural origin of sociopathy. For example, she contends that although other cultures have such a thing as sociopathic personalities (including the Inuit, who supposedly describe them as kunlangeta, and who traditionally would invite them out hunting and discretely dispose of them), the prevalence of sociopathy in American society seems to be on the increase. However, Stout seems fairly non-committal on this point, and gives due attention to other possible explanations, including biological and developmental ones. Whatever its cause, like most other experts, Stout views sociopathy as an incurable personality disorder.

Because of their lack of conscience as a constraint on behavior, sociopaths have enough potential to harm others that practical tips on how to protect ourselves are in order, and Stout offers many of these. But perhaps the main strength of the book lies in her deft portraiture of the sociopathic personality. Her case studies, though not numerous, are lengthy (indeed, a couple of them are self-contained chapters), and are more novelistic than clinical. They are also carefully cherry-picked from several walks of life, giving the reader a broad sample of the variety of guises that sociopaths may appear in. Overall, the book fares well when compared to another now-classic work on this disorder, Robert Hare's Without Conscience (reviewed in Metapsychology 3:17), though there is one major difference: Where Hare, because of his research among prison populations tend to concentrate on criminal sociopaths, Stout, as the title of her book indicates, gives greater attention to those sociopaths that are able to blend into the larger society.

 

2006 James Pratt

 

James Pratt is in currently completing his PhD in philosophy at York University in Toronto, Canada. His main area of research is in moral psychology.


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