The Sociopath Next Door: could he or she be next door to you?
Sara Swinson
12/26/2005 9:51:51 PM

One in 25 citizens is an American Psycho.

Perhaps, a rephrasing is in order. Four percent of the American population is devoid of conscience, according to Harvard psychologist, Martha Stout. And she’s written a book about it.

According to Dr. Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door [Broadway Books], “One in 25 Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty.” The solution, then, might be this—just make sure you only know 24 people.

The Sociopath Next Door is, oxymoronically, a mind-numbing read; therefore, before opening it, be in the right frame of mind—preferably, one framed by conscience. If you don’t have a conscience—borrow someone else’s—you’ll need one for this book. And if you have one, it will be bothered.

Stout divides humankind into two categories: the conscience-bound, and the conscienceless. She entirely polarizes the two; one is evil; one is good. The population that is evil is without hope of redemption, according to Stout.

In fact, do yourself a favor, says Stout: try and spot the enemy, and then run. Her imperative to the conscience-bound is to avoid the conscienceless. Dr. Stout is drawing upon years of experience as a practicing psychologist—she’s seen the damage. Here, then, is a partial list of red flags; three of Stout’s Thirteen Rules for Dealing with Sociopaths in Everyday Life; it will be a paraphrase:

1. The devil looks like me; looks like you. The devil has no conscience. Do you know 25 people? One of them is a devil.
2. Listen to your gut.
3. Thinking about a new relationship? Fine, but if that person has lied to you three times—cut them loose— he or she is a sociopath. (P. 156, 157)

There are additional rules and they are more eloquently defined then the above paraphrases…but you get the gist. And the gist is this: Beware!

Any discussion of conscience necessitates, of course, a chat regarding right and wrong. And this Stout does and she does it well. Additionally, she livens up her text with accounts of her therapy sessions and examples of deeds done by conscienceless “devils.”

For instance, one conscienceless perpetrator enjoyed blowing up frogs; he stuffed them with firecrackers and made his little sister watch as beautiful bloody displays of gutworks burst in midair. Needless to say, this man became a multibillionaire CEO who married a woman just because, and then he broke a female employee’s arm because she resisted his advances. This guy didn’t have a conscience. There are others… like the gentleman who married a frumpy academic just so that he could use her pool. There are the stories of conscienceless women, too. It makes for mind-chilling reading.

What causes people to suffer queasy-free liberation from guilt, feeling and remorse? Stout explores these issues exhaustively. The most convincing exploration entails the notion that for one to be in possession of conscience, one first needs formative experiences with connectedness, attachment and love.

There are other ideas that Stout unpacks, as well. Like culture; for example. Asian countries rarely spawn conscienceless individuals. Why? Stout makes an interesting observation here—America is uniquely a-communal, and prides itself upon rearing autonomous, self-sufficient, independent types who aspire… not to any communal ethos, but rather solely to self. Self-actualization is our bent, not village-actualization, if you will. It may take a village, as they say, but America does not build villages—it builds corporations. In China, Japan, and Korea, however, community is essential; the individual cannot honor herself without first honoring her members. Connectedness is a given. In America, connectedness is a means to an end. Stout weaves a fascinating thread here as she investigates conscience within the broader context of culture.

All in all, The Sociopath Next Door is an important work; Dr. Stout seems to be screaming, “Fire!” And if the statistics are accurate, America is building conscienceless people about as fast as it’s building Wal-Marts.


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