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When I shared with friends I was reading The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, they thought it was a book about criminals, serial killers, child molesters, and crazy people. They did not think it was about those few people we work, live, and have fun with in our lives who have no conscience or regard for others.
The Sociopath Next Door is a chilling and fascinating book because it talks about a subject most of us with a conscience have little or no knowledge and we believe it will never happen to us. Sadly, sociopathy is more prevalent than anorexic eating and schizophrenia disorders. A whopping four percent of the population (or 1 in 25 people) is a sociopath with little or no conscience. Mental health professionals refer to the condition as “antisocial personality disorder”, a non-correctable disfigurement of character that is incurable.
Sociopaths today are difficult to identify because they are chameleons and blend well into society. They are charming, well-mannered, well-dressed and strive to infiltrate positions of authority, influence, and respect through a myriad of lies and deception. They are skillful at appearing unduly kind and interested in people with a conscience.
They have a strong need for stimulation and take frequent social, physical, financial, and legal risks. Their goal is to manipulate the society’s social contract to their advantage that the rest of us follow. They are obsessed with more status, power, wealth, or ego for themselves.
The Big Idea
Conscience: The 'Seventh Sense', is something we feel
"I believe that all people of conscience should learn what the everyday behavior of these people looks like, so they can recognize and deal effectively with the morally weak and the ruthless."
Martha Stout, a consulting psychologist at the Harvard University Medical School has studied sociopaths for more than 25 years. She wrote the book to help those with a conscience better cope and deal with sociopaths they encounter.
Stout’s inspiration for the book involved a conversation with Bernie, a fellow psychologist colleague. He was overwhelmed by the events of September 11, 2001 and was unsure he could provide the emotional support a patient needed at the time. In a moment of despair, he said to Stout, “You know, sometimes I wonder, Why have a conscience? It just puts you on the losing team.” Stout asked, “If you had a choice, I mean really, literally had a choice — which you don’t, of course—would you choose to have a conscience like you do, or would you prefer to be sociopathic, and capable of . . . well, anything at all?” Bernie reflected for a moment and said, “You’re right”. “I’d choose to have a conscience.” Stout asked for a reason. He confessed saying, “You know, Martha, I don’t know why. I just know I’d choose conscience.”
Like Bernie, the overwhelming majority chooses conscience.
How can I tell whom to trust or conversely, whom not to trust?
"Apart from knowing someone well for many years, there is no foolproof decision rule or litmus test for trustworthiness, and it is extremely important to acknowledge this fact, unnerving though it may be."
Stout says there is good news and bad news. The good news is that at least ninety-six out of a hundred people are bound by the constraints of conscience – they have a high standard of decency and responsibility. The bad news is there are individuals who have no conscience and cannot be trusted.
Stout says sociopaths “are nearly always invisible to us”, because they willfully pursue positions of respect and authority. They use flattery to manipulate, telling us what we want to her. We like to think our education prevents us from being fooled. Yet, the most people are unable to identify a sociopath in their midst.
Stout says, the single most valuable clue in identifying a sociopath is the pity play. The most universal behavior unscrupulous people display is not of fear but to appeal to our sympathy. Good people let certain individuals they view as pathetic get away with murder. Sociopaths, fully aware of this, repeatedly play on the pity card to great effect.
Stout recalls an opportunity in graduate school, where she interviewed a court-referred ‘sociopath’. He was not violent and preferred swindling people out of their money through investment scams. Stout asked him what was most important in his life? She thought he would say, “making money” or “not getting caught and going to jail”. Instead he said, “Oh, that’s easy. What I like better than anything else is when people feel sorry for me. The thing I really want more than anything else out of life is people’s pity.”
What can you do?
Stout cites 13 rules for dealing with sociopaths in everyday life.
Rule number 9 is to question those who appeal to your pity too easily. She says, more than fear, more than admiration, pity from good people is carte blanche. When we pity, we become momentarily defenseless and emotionally vulnerable. Those without a conscience are waiting to seize the opportunity.
She says pity should be reserved for innocent people, experiencing genuine pain and misfortune. She says chances are likely 100 percent that you are dealing with a sociopath if they regularly appeal to your sympathy, while consistently hurting you or other people.
Avoidance is your trump card
"The only truly effective method for dealing with a sociopath you have identified is to disallow him or her from your life altogether."
Psychologists rarely recommend avoidance as a solution. Here, Stout makes an exception. While sociopathy has no cure, sociopaths almost never want to be cured.
The victims profiled in the book express tremendous relief when they can finally end contact and communication with a sociopath. While it is not always possible to end all communication, the author recommends minimizing contact. While family and friends may sympathize with a sociopath, it is important to remember that sociopaths do not have feelings to hurt. Avoidance is the best policy.
Example: Stout cites many examples of different types of sociopaths, one of which is Luke, a soft spoken and charming sociopath. Sydney is an accomplished academic and consultant who meets, marries and later divorces him. Luke ignores her soon after they are married. He later ignores their son and uses him as a bargaining chip to gain access to the house and pool after the divorce. One day when Luke is at the pool, Sydney asks him to leave. Luke starts to cry in front of his son. His son also starts to cry and says to his mother, “Oh no. Poor Daddy. Do we have to make him leave?” Luke’s eyes turn ice cold after he realizes he got away with it again. Sydney recognizes Luke’s deception and that the manipulation will never stop, so she moves to a different state with her son, ending Luke’s surprise visits.
The Sociopath Next Door is an important book because it offers a clear glimpse into the mind of a sociopath as well as effective coping tools. The author believes the best weapon against sociopaths is to lead a good life but do so with the blinders off. The author ends the book on a positive note believing that having a conscience blesses individuals because their lives have meaning every day. Those without a conscience cannot feel, cannot love and do not care about anyone except themselves. Their lives usually follow a downward spiral where they end up alone and without status, power, and authority – all the things they worked so hard to rob from others.
What steps can you take to be more mindful about the quality of your personal and professional relationships?