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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Sociopath Next Door

A few months ago my friend Amy and I read an excerpt from a memoir written by a self described sociopath.  The article was fascinating and we couldn't wait for the full book to come out.  We were looking for that book and stumbled onto this one.  The Sociopath Next Door isn't a memoir, it is written by a psychologist and is much more clinical than conversational.  The Amazon review:

Who is the devil you know? Is it your lying, cheating ex-husband? Your sadistic high school gym teacher? Your boss who loves to humiliate people in meetings? The colleague who stole your idea and passed it off as her own? In the pages of The Sociopath Next Door, you will realize that your ex was not just misunderstood. He’s a sociopath. And your boss, teacher, and colleague? They may be sociopaths too.

We are accustomed to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but in The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard psychologist Martha Stout reveals that a shocking 4 percent of ordinary people—one in twenty-five—has an often undetected mental disorder, the chief symptom of which is that that person possesses no conscience. He or she has no ability whatsoever to feel shame, guilt, or remorse. One in twenty-five everyday Americans, therefore, is secretly a sociopath. They could be your colleague, your neighbor, even family. And they can do literally anything at all and feel absolutely no guilt. How do we recognize the remorseless? One of their chief characteristics is a kind of glow or charisma that makes sociopaths more charming or interesting than the other people around them. They’re more spontaneous, more intense, more complex, or even sexier than everyone else, making them tricky to identify and leaving us easily seduced. Fundamentally, sociopaths are different because they cannot love. Sociopaths learn early on to show sham emotion, but underneath they are indifferent to others’ suffering. They live to dominate and thrill to win. 

The fact is, we all almost certainly know at least one or more sociopaths already. Part of the urgency in reading The Sociopath Next Door is the moment when we suddenly recognize that someone we know—someone we worked for, or were involved with, or voted for—is a sociopath. But what do we do with that knowledge? To arm us against the sociopath, Dr. Stout teaches us to question authority, suspect flattery, and beware the pity play. Above all, she writes, when a sociopath is beckoning, do not join the game. It is the ruthless versus the rest of us, and The Sociopath Next Door will show you how to recognize and defeat the devil you know.

The book was a little dry, written more like a text book but the material was fascinating.  The author's statistic of 4% of all people being a sociopath seemed a little high, but as she described individuals and situations, I could definitely see how they applied to people with whom I have associated.  She points out several times how hard it is for "normal" people to understand the idea of having no conscience.  This struck me because it is so foreign, she writes  "Most of us feel mildly guilty if we eat the last piece of cake, let along what we would feel if we intentionally set about to hurt another person.  Those who have no conscience at all are a group unto themselves, whether they be homicidal tyrants or merely ruthless social snipers."  She goes on to say that for the sociopath "controlling others - winning - is more compelling than anything or anyone else".

The condition of being a sociopath is described as having an emotional disability which makes sense in the context of the diagnosis.  While sociopaths would view being bound to a conscience as a negative, this  book clearly points out the opposite.  "One way or another, a life without conscience is a failed life.  those of us who love and have conscience are really very lucky, even as we go about our everyday lives of work, reflexive give and take, and ordinary pleasures."

It took me a little longer to get through this book than normal, there were no fluff parts to skim through, but I thought it was well worth the time spent on the read.  B+

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