‘The Sociopath Next Door’ Is a Love Letter to Conscience

The Sociopathy Next Door does much to demythologize the sociopath, who has become this sort of dark prophet or agent of social critique like Hannibal Lecter.

The Sociopath Next Door
Martha Stout
February 2005

The contemporary meaning of “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is that you shouldn’t prematurely chuck a book just because the publisher decided to find the most exploitative possible way to market an author’s work. And, looking at the cover of The Sociopath Next Door, one instantly thinks of Bowling for Columbine, where Michael Moore lays out his thesis that the media pumps fear into the populace, isolating us into fully armed, defensively paranoid patriots. Thankfully, Martha Stout’s book contains more than just a clipboard checklist and one more excuse to report your neighbors to Homeland Security for their suspicious vegan diet.

In fact, rather than a lurid, true crime account of sociopathy, Stout creates a love letter to conscience. Stout claims that The Sociopath Next Door was a protracted healing reaction to September 11th, a way for her to simultaneously examine the mechanics of the sociopathic mind and wax poetic about human bonds such as compassion, empathy, and love. She avoids voyeuristic or sleazy approaches to looking at the disturbed mind. There are no high-profile cases or gory details, just down-to-earth anecdotes and case histories that show how people can find themselves entangled with coldly manipulative people who seem to be, clinically speaking, unsalvageable.

Crucial to her argument is showing what an unhappy state of mind sociopathy is. It’s not some Nietzschean imperviousness to the sheep morality of the masses but rather a stunted, empty, unfeeling disconnection from the human community, a life with a void at its center. Stout expertly conveys the tedium of sociopathic lives to the point of creating a cautious sense of pity. Sociopaths, after all, live lives devoted to calculations designed to accumulate and manipulate to no conclusive end. For all their possible achievements and grand machinations, without the capacity for any existentially grounded sense of happiness, it’s all squirming on the hook of their broken selves. Cautious pity, I repeat, because Stout claims that, in interviews with sociopaths, they cite people’s capacity for compassion, especially hard-luck tales of childhood abuse, as one of the most useful ways to keep someone embedded in their web.

In the same vein, Stout does much to demythologize the sociopath, who has become this sort of dark prophet or agent of social critique like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Just as James Frey’s exaggerations about addiction in his memoir A Million Little Pieces set a standard where everyone who wasn’t blacked out, driving over cops, and hooking illiterate prostitutes on phonics could view their problems with drugs as demonstrably less than addiction, so too have Hollywood’s outsized portraits of the sociopath overshadowed the more mundane evils of the world of people without conscience. Stout deftly deflates that sensationalism, showing how the vast majority of sociopaths get by on petty scheming, low-grade emotional abuse, and parasitic laziness.

Stout makes adventurous intellectual detours that prevent The Sociopath Next Door from veering too much into a “how to” guide for recognizing a sociopath. At one point, she speculates why various studies suggest lower rates of sociopathy in places such as Japan and China. Stout’s claim is that American culture’s obsession with status, money, and the glorification of the self over community actually incubates sociopathic tendencies. Though filled with blatant emotional investment, her writing also contains the judicious use of intellectual reins. When Stout theorizes on factually shaky ground, she does so openly, with no particular agenda, posing the entire inquiry into sociopathy as one of open-ended unknowns and complicated moral implications. A writer with a less balanced temperament could have easily turned this into a book filled with far-afield, unbuttressed claims, the kind of one-person theory that’s more suited for books about the JFK conspiracy than a well-intentioned exploration of psychology and sociology.

Rather grimly, Stout seems to suggest that the best thing that can be done with an authentic sociopath is the grafting of some status-related embarrassment onto their psychic husks. In other words, find a way to make morality damaging to the sociopath’s narcissism. With that being the ultimate diagnosis, one can’t help but wonder about the biology of such deeply disordered thinking. It’s here that Stout’s analysis falls short, but expecting The Sociopath Next Door to outline the structures of sociopathy, its cultural components, and the detailed biological studies of the field would be to condemn the author to a life of perpetual research.

Stout pre-empts many of the arguments against her idea of a sociopathic individual as some special category. Many of the studies she sources will be familiar, such as her thorough explorations of Yale professor Stanley Milgram’s 1961 and 1962 studies, which explored the extent to which average people would commit acts of brutality simply because they were told to. The study involved white lab-coated men commanding study participants to give shocks to some unseen person who would scream in agony at higher shock levels in the Stanley Milgram experiment. The point seems to be that the average person is willing to submit to authority, assuming that average people easily submit to someone who appears to be in a position of authority.

In The Sociopath Next Door, Stout argues that most people can be institutionally and culturally isolated from their consciences (particularly in acts of war and God), but they can also be taught to understand the insidiousness of the forces seducing them into evil (a word she uses without hesitation). In the chapters exploring human war and carnage, her faith in conscience seems like a larger leap. After all, as a reader wading through the blood and gristle, I can’t help but wonder if sociopathy isn’t just an amplified form of winning half of the human condition, given how easy it is to put people in situations where they act no differently from sociopaths. I suppose the saving grace here would be the possibility of post-atrocity guilt, the only chilling comfort to the absolutely frigid alternative.

For the most part, The Sociopath Next Door is so tastefully informative, well-written, and kind that you feel like you’re having a cup of tea with a brilliant friend who studies the varieties of sociopathy the way one might memorize every breed of rose. Only a few soft spots give the book a faintly New Age taint, moments where Stout hypothesizes about the karmic implications of sociopathy, comparing it to being born without legs to learn a lesson to take on into another life. Of course, these speculative and spiritual asides come with the personalized territory staked out by the book.

I might find Stout’s existential framework too Tibetan Book of the Dead for me, but these intimate tangents also show how she would find a wholly dispassionate analysis of the tragedy of sociopathy as something of a sociopathic enterprise in and of itself. Her candid and complete involvement in the subject makes one ultimately root for the underdog, conscience, as much as it might make you look askance at the next flatterer who seems too slick to be true.