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.
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".
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
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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