Timing is everything! As I was finishing up my post on good and evil my copy of Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door arrived. Both of these posts compliment each other and they almost make a thematic Halloween post, too!
So without further adieu here’s the review!
Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door should be required reading for all martial artists. In her book, Dr. Stout delivers an honest look at the 4% of the U.S. population that falls into the category of sociopath. She is quite right too when she cautions that most people are under the mistaken impression that sociopaths are all violent criminals. Stout writes:
The ominous truth is that a shocking average of 1 out of every 25 U.S. citizens is one of “the remorseless”. While varied, as sociopaths they are each completely devoid of conscience and can do literally anything to achieve their personal goals, whatever they may be.
The teacher who ridicules his students, the cheating boyfriend who left you in debt, the cranky neighbor who seems to just lay in wait for the chance to cause trouble and the boss who belittles you publicly might all have sociopathic personalities. Typically, sociopaths are social chameleons, charismatic, intelligent and attracted to positions of power. They will climb the social ladder as high as their own desire, abilities, and opportunity will allow. All sociopaths have a desire to win, but their definitions of winning can be as vastly different as the symptoms of sociopathy itself. For many that lack of an innate moral compass leaves them trying to fill the void with risk-taking behaviors. For some that means treating people poorly, manipulating people, achieving power, etc., while for a very small percent it can also mean becoming a serial killer.
What stout does is to use and cite scientific studies in an effort to scratch away the sugar-coated notion that everyone has some good in them. Statistically, 4% of the population does not. Interestingly, Stout does not dwell on the problem this poses for a certain major monotheistic religion–though she does touch on it briefly. Stout rightly observes that Christianity once struggled with a very basic problem: If God created everything did he also create evil? The solution to this dilemma was created in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas. He proposed the following:
- Morality is absolute (i.e. there are certain things that are clearly right or wrong)
- All people are born with this moral truth
- Bad behavior is the result of imperfect human thinking
This simple solution influences Christian thinking even today. It’s not God’s fault, rather, it’s an imperfect human with flawed logic that does not listen to his or her own conscience. In effect, they ignore this innate moral truth. The very simple and fairly conclusive fact is that psychological studies of the past 40 years turn Aquinas on his head. This poses a problem for many religions including Christianity: It would seem that some humans are born without the capacity for good.
So what causes sociopathy? Science is still studying the problem. According to Stout here’s what we do know: We do not have evidence that early abuse in childhood creates a sociopath. In fact, according to the research Stout cites, there is a direct link to criminal behavior at adulthood and childhood abuse.
“Those with a more stable past first appeared in court at an average age of twenty-four, and those with a troubled background came to court for the first time at about fifteen.”
In contrast, psychopathic criminals appear in court at the age of fourteen and research shows it matters not if their childhood was good or abusive. So, for now, science thinks there is a genetic predisposition that may be activated or enhanced by a yet unknown environmental factor.
Fear not! While the book may be a wake-up call for those who look at the world through rose-colored glasses, it’s not all negative. Stout identifies the symptoms of sociopathy and also provides 13 steps for dealing with this type of person. In fact, statistically speaking, 96% of the U.S. population is still wired with a conscience so that in and of itself is also good news.
Where Stouts advice falls short is on two fronts: First, she unwittingly poses a problem for those that may subscribe to a certain religious viewpoint of good and evil–yet she offers no solution for them. Second, her advice for dealing with the sociopath that may be in your life only goes so far. It’s true that leaders can be voted out or dismissed from office. Bosses and co-workers can be endured or a new job found. Even those we believed to be close friends can be removed from our lives and eventually forgotten. But what do we do if the sociopath is our spouse, a family member, or worst of all… our own child?
My other observation is this: I skimmed several reviews of this book before writing my own and I noticed one criticism–that certain reviewers say Stout is appealing to our paranoia. Based on having worked with the criminal element I have to disagree. I can personally attest to the fact that it’s very hard for people of conscience to accept that some in society are criminal predators. Ask any law enforcement officer, corrections worker, or mental health employee and I bet they’ll agree with me. Moreover, why do you think I left that career path behind? What I suspect is happening with these reviewers is their conscience is having a hard time digesting the fact that 4% of the population lacks what they have.
Regardless, Stout offers positive advice to counter the gritty reality she presents. So I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in psychology, science, or self-defense. It’s well-written and the author does a very good job of presenting science in an accessible form!