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Bad conscience
Martha Stout looks at the sociopath next door

Getting stared at by six eyeballs in close-up is unnerving, but stick the words The Sociopath Next Door on top and those three pairs of stares turn Ted Bundy–creepy. The title — and the cover design — of Martha Stout’s new book isn’t exactly delicate, but given the topic, why should it be? Yet it would be a mistake to assume that this psychologist and Harvard Medical School clinical instructor is trying to feed people’s hysteria. Although The Sociopath Next Door is more pop-psych than scholarly, it offers an earnest look at what it means to be cold-blooded but not necessarily murderous.

In Stout’s first book, The Myth of Sanity (Viking Penguin), she provided a similarly sober view of another mental problem: multiple personality disorder. Here she plays down the stereotype of the sociopathic murderer (most sociopaths are not homicidal) while emphasizing just how humdrum and ordinary sociopaths tend to appear even as they go about their nasty-but-non-violent schemes. As against the prevalence of anorexia (estimated at 3.43 percent of the American population), schizophrenia (1 percent), and colon cancer (.04 percent), she cites a surprising statistic: about four out of every 100 Americans are sociopaths, living ostensibly ordinary lives.

The term sociopath is often used interchangeably with "psychopath." Either way, the primary symptom is a lack of conscience. Many people in the mental-health field also use the description "antisocial personality disorder" to categorize that four percent of the population who connive their way through life, manipulating spouses, quietly sabotaging careers, and operating with a generally hidden sense of malice toward those they perceive as undeservedly fortunate in terms of beauty, wealth, or power.

Although Stout seems to want to de-sensationalize sociopathy by stressing its prevalence and mundanity, she also underscores the urgency of the need to protect ourselves. In the process, her tone can get a little, uh, paranoid: " . . . we refuse to believe such a hollowness of emotion can exist. And unfortunately, our difficulty in crediting the magnitude of this difference places us in peril." But if she does whip herself into the occasional panic, she more often provides cool-headed analysis. Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Freud are among those she draws on to pin down the nature of conscience. And Sociopath is more enlightening when she sticks to philosophical perspectives than when she describes individual sociopathologies. In lengthy composite case studies, she enumerates various sociopathic tactics: leeching off others, playing into their sympathy to avoid work, simply hurting people in order to feel superior and in control. All that rottenness is pretty obvious, even if it can be fun to puzzle over who in the course of your life has qualified.

Sociopath grows more enlightening still when Stout moves toward exploring the nature of conscience itself. In the famous experiment conducted and filmed at Yale in 1961 and 1962, she reminds us, Professor Stanley Milgram told the "teachers" in the experiment that they were to zap the "learners" with electric shocks each time the "learners" gave a wrong answer. In fact, the "learners" were actors and were not being shocked. The "teachers" didn’t know this, however, and 34 out of 40 continued to administer "shocks" even when their "learner" asked to be released. Stout’s conclusion? "Very simply, we are programmed to obey authority even against our own consciences."

Exploring conscience as it relates to war, Stout adduces studies showing that most soldiers will obey their leader if he’s present and will fire at the enemy; if their leader isn’t present, however, most soldiers will stop shooting. It seems that most of us must be taught to kill one another, and in war, that often means turning the enemy into "its." This process of dehumanization has turned a lot of "essentially innocent" people into "its": "blacks, Communists, capitalists, gays, Native Americans, Jews, foreigners, ‘witches,’ women, Muslims, Christians, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the poor, the rich, the Irish, the English, the Americans, the Sinhalese, Tamils, Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Hutus, Tutsis, and Iraqis, to name but a few. . . . And once the other group has become populated by its, anything goes, especially if someone in authority gives the order." Would that be the sociopath next door? Or certain world leaders?


Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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