Books Read in 2014 – 13. The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout

Genre: Academic, Psychology
narrative style: first person, case studies and analysis
Format: Paperback
Published: 2005

Synopsis: Stout recounts examples of sociopathy from her practice as a psychologist and analyses what the origins of such behaviours are. 

This book was part research, part pleasure. I have always been fascinated by the psychopath or sociopath in fiction and film. As such, in my next book, I have a character who has some features of sociopathy and I have been reading around the subject for a while.

The book opens with a discussion of conscience and the way most of us react in circumstances when we might have to make a sacrifice in order to help others. This is called the seventh sense and according to Stout 96% of us have it. The other 4% are sociopaths. This seems quite a large amount. And it seems that most of us will have come across at least one in our lives. She then describes exactly what she means by living without conscience. This is by far the most interesting part of the book. Stout uses case studies to illustrate the symptoms of sociopathy and they are quite horrific to read. But also, I must admit, fascinating. Perhaps it is the thought of what it would be like to never feel any obligation towards another person – intriguing but almost impossible to imagine.
She also charts the origins of conscience in a few different ways – religious, evolutionary, psychologically – all of which are also interesting. Personally, I am most drawn to evolutionary theories – what’s good for the group is good for the species. After all, as Stout points out, if we all did exactly as we pleased, the whole species would very soon die out.
However, there are irritating things about this book. There is something deeply spiritual about Stout’s version of conscience which, as an atheist, I found quite hard to stomach. One of the later chapters is devoted to religious leaders who have suggested do into others as you would to yourself as a way of life. This is not really what I would have expected from a psychological all study. It all gets a bit subjective.
Stout seems to want to have her cake and eat it. She obviously feels that she can judge sociopaths lacking as they do not have the emotional connections that we good folk with consciences have. Which maybe true. But she also suggests that sociopathy is a mental illness and may be, at least partly, innate. If this is the case, the it is hardly fair to pass moral judgement.
Finally, there is a sense of either you are a sociopath or you are not. It is black or white. I would suggest that, as with most things to do with the mind, it is a lot more complicated than that.

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