About a month ago, I breezed through The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us (2005) by Martha Stout, a PhD and practicing clinical psychologist. This is one of the more engaging psychoreads you will find; it is highly recommended. The book is not about serial killers, it's about your first boss. Or you sister's ex-husband. Or that creepy member you kind of got to know when you were a missionary. You will be probably be surprised who this book is about. I was.
Nice cover — disturbing but not graphic. The author claims about 1 in 25 Americans are sociopaths, so you have probably dealt with one or two. What is a sociopath? According to Stout, it is a person with no (or very low) emotional responses. In simple terms, they don't feel guilt or love or duty or shame the way we do. This doesn't, of course, make them criminal per se, but it does open up some interesting possibilities, doesn't it? They are inclined to be opportunistic and manipulative, but not pariahs. Far from it — sociopaths may be quite successful in worldly terms, if not in personal or emotional terms. But they leave a trail of hurt or cheated people in their wake.
The essential point to grasp from the book, however, is not that sociopaths are unemotive, but that they are often very good at feigning emotion. They become good actors, which is more or less what they are doing whenever they display emotions. You or I might try to feign emotional displays sometimes, but we aren't very good at it. We don't get that much practice, and we generally feel guilty about manipulating others through fake emotions. But sociopaths get lots of practice (like since childhood) and don't feel any guilt about manipulating us. They enjoy it; it's the thrill in their life, manipulating emotional suckers like you and me.
So how do you recognize a sociopath? For that, you'll have to read the book, there's only so much I can do in a five-paragraph note. Two simple rules: (1) Three lies equals one sociopath. (2) Beware the pity play. And what do you do if you discover you are dealing with someone like this right now? Read the book, and be careful.
Finally, consider the most distressing reflection I've read on sociopaths: If a modern corporation (a person in the eyes of the law for many purposes) were assessed in terms of its personality and conduct, it might very well be diagnosed as a sociopath. That thought is not from the book, but perhaps it ought to be discussed in the sequel.
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