Hamlet may have believed that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but if psychologist Martha Stout has it right, conscience is what makes us our best and most human selves. It is what separates most of us from the 4 percent of people who are sociopaths.
In The Sociopath Next Door, she tells stories of sociopaths and people who’ve been victimized by them. (Most of these are composites of people she encountered through her practice.) She looks into research on moral reasoning and the development of conscience—or its lack of development—and offers advice for people who are caught in a relationship with a sociopath. (Mostly, get out.)
When we think of sociopaths, we often think of people who act on a grand scale: serial killers or unprincipled politicians or business magnates. But sociopathy can exist on a small scale, such as the passive moocher who charms his way into the life of a generous benefactor. A sociopath of limited means might seek power and control within a small circle, a neighborhood or workplace or family. Whatever the circumstance, the defining quality is a lack of conscience. This lack makes sociopathy especially difficult or even impossible to treat because the sociopath is perfectly happy with her condition. (Narcissists, in contrast, often feel bad about their selfishness.)
From the stories Stout tells, it’s easy to see how sociopaths wheedle their way into people’s lives, victimizing one person after another. Each story is different, because each sociopath desires something different and has different talents and situations, but in every case, that lack of conscience allows the sociopath to act in ways most of us would consider out of bounds. Sometimes, though, sociopaths make the same choices anyone else would, but the reasoning behind it comes back to concern for the self, with no real regard for others. The sociopath might do good for the sake of his or her reputation or to play an angle, but not because it’s the right thing to do.
Besides offering the composite case studies, Stout discusses studies such as the well-known Milgram experiment, in which subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to another volunteer participating in the study. Many of the studies she cites will be familiar to those who taken a psychology class or two or read more than a few articles about moral development. Some reviews have noted that a lot of the research she draws on is old, and that’s a fair criticism. However, given that the book was published in 2005, I don’t think a lack of much research past the late 1990s is such a terrible thing, especially in a book intended for a general audience. But it is good to keep in mind that the thinking surrounding sociopathy may have changed.
What interests me in thinking about this book is what value there is in being able to say someone is a sociopath. As I was reading, I was of course tempted to play armchair diagnostician and think of people I knew who might fit the profile. But does it matter? If a person behaves as if he or she has no conscience, then it hardly matters whether that person feels guilt for bad behavior or not, at least as far as relationships with others go. I can sympathize with someone who does feel guilt, but if Stout is right and a lack of conscience means a lack of love and joy in relationships, then I can sympathize with that, too. The lack of treatment options does make sociopathy especially pernicious, but someone who is toxic without being a sociopath may also resist change, even while feeling guilt about it. The guilt is a way in, but that door could stay tightly wedged shut.
On the flip side, Stout talks about how cultures with a stronger emphasis on community than U.S. culture can often dampen the damage a sociopath will do because everyone is so strongly socialized to be committed to the community. People who are born without a conscience learn to act as if they had one; they “compensate cognitively for what they are missing emotionally.” So a person without a conscience could learn to get along with others and not wreak the havoc so many sociopaths do.
As a general overview of sociopathy, I thought this was pretty good. It doesn’t delve especially deeply, and if it weren’t for the number of case studies, a long article or two might have covered the material just fine. But because of the stories, the book mostly didn’t feel padded. It read quickly and was worth the amount of time I spend with it.