The Sociopath Next Door

( 192 )

Overview

Who is the devil you know?

Is it your lying, cheating ex-husband?
Your sadistic high school gym teacher?
Your boss who loves to humiliate people in meetings?
The colleague who stole your idea and passed it off as her own?

In the pages of The Sociopath Next Door, you will realize that your ex was not just ...

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The Sociopath Next Door

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Overview

Who is the devil you know?

Is it your lying, cheating ex-husband?
Your sadistic high school gym teacher?
Your boss who loves to humiliate people in meetings?
The colleague who stole your idea and passed it off as her own?

In the pages of The Sociopath Next Door, you will realize that your ex was not just misunderstood. He’s a sociopath. And your boss, teacher, and colleague? They may be sociopaths too.

We are accustomed to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but in The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard psychologist Martha Stout reveals that a shocking 4 percent of ordinary people—one in twenty-five—has an often undetected mental disorder, the chief symptom of which is that that person possesses no conscience. He or she has no ability whatsoever to feel shame, guilt, or remorse. One in twenty-five everyday Americans, therefore, is secretly a sociopath. They could be your colleague, your neighbor, even family. And they can do literally anything at all and feel absolutely no guilt.

How do we recognize the remorseless? One of their chief characteristics is a kind of glow or charisma that makes sociopaths more charming or interesting than the other people around them. They’re more spontaneous, more intense, more complex, or even sexier than everyone else, making them tricky to identify and leaving us easily seduced. Fundamentally, sociopaths are different because they cannot love. Sociopaths learn early on to show sham emotion, but underneath they are indifferent to others’ suffering. They live to dominate and thrill to win.

The fact is, we all almost certainly know at least one or more sociopaths already. Part of the urgency in reading The Sociopath Next Door is the moment when we suddenly recognize that someone we know—someone we worked for, or were involved with, or voted for—is a sociopath. But what do we do with that knowledge? To arm us against the sociopath, Dr. Stout teaches us to question authority, suspect flattery, and beware the pity play. Above all, she writes, when a sociopath is beckoning, do not join the game.

It is the ruthless versus the rest of us, and The Sociopath Next Door will show you how to recognize and defeat the devil you know.

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Editorial Reviews

Martha Scout
In summary, I recommend this book, especially to those who think they may be vulnerable to sociopaths. It contains good stories, useful advice and clinical and scientific nuggets
— The Washington Post
Newsweek
"One in 25 Americans is a sociopath-- no conscience, no guilt. It could be your mean boss or your crazy ex. [The Sociopath Next Door] is an easy-to-follow guide for spotting them."
Publishers Weekly
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Stout says that as many as 4% of the population are conscienceless sociopaths who have no empathy or affectionate feelings for humans or animals. As Stout (The Myth of Sanity) explains, a sociopath is defined as someone who displays at least three of seven distinguishing characteristics, such as deceitfulness, impulsivity and a lack of remorse. Such people often have a superficial charm, which they exercise ruthlessly in order to get what they want. Stout argues that the development of sociopathy is due half to genetics and half to nongenetic influences that have not been clearly identified. The author offers three examples of such people, including Skip, the handsome, brilliant, superrich boy who enjoyed stabbing bullfrogs near his family's summer home, and Doreen, who lied about her credentials to get work at a psychiatric institute, manipulated her colleagues and, most cruelly, a patient. Dramatic as these tales are, they are composites, and while Stout is a good writer and her exploration of sociopaths can be arresting, this book occasionally appeals to readers' paranoia, as the book's title and its guidelines for dealing with sociopaths indicate. (Feb. 8) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Stout (clinical psychiatry, Harvard Medical Sch.; The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness) offers a novel perspective on sociopaths, i.e., people who have no conscience. Not only does she provide case studies and references to standard literature like Hervey Cleckley's The Mask of Sanity, but she also fashions the book in self-help mode. Her decision to do this stems from an alarming American Psychiatric Association statistic contending that four percent of the U.S. population-or one person in 25-is sociopathic. That makes it likely that everyone has encountered at least one sociopath. Accordingly, Stout provides self-defense measures in the form of "Thirteen Rules for Dealing with Sociopaths in Everyday Life"; moreover, she supplies provocative discussion about the role of conscience in the "normal" world. Highly recommended for all public libraries and for university libraries with large psychology collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/04; see also the Q&A with Stout at left.]-Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From the author of The Myth of Sanity (2001), a remarkable philosophical examination of the phenomenon of sociopathy and its everyday manifestations. Readers eager for a tabloid-ready survey of serial killers, however, will be disappointed. Instead, Stout (Psychiatry/Harvard Medical School) busies herself with exploring the workaday lives and motivations of those garden-variety sociopaths who are content with inflicting petty tyrannies and small miseries. As a practicing therapist, she writes, she has spent the past 25 years aiding the survivors of psychological trauma, most of them "controlled and psychologically shattered by individual human perpetrators, often sociopaths." Antisocial personality disorder, it turns out, occurs in around four percent of the population, so it's not too surprising that treating their victims has kept Stout quite busy for the past quarter-century. Employing vivid composite character sketches, the author introduces us to such unsavory characters as a psychiatric administrator who specializes in ingratiating herself with her office staff while making her patients feel crazier; a captain of industry who killed frogs as a child and is now convinced he can outsmart the SEC; and a lazy ladies' man who marries purely to gain access to his new wife's house and pool. These portraits make a striking impact, and readers with unpleasant neighbors or colleagues may find themselves paying close attention to Stout's sociopathic-behavior checklist and suggested coping strategies. In addition to introducing these everyday psychopaths, the author examines why the rest of us let them get away with murder. She extensively considers the presence or absence of conscience, aswell as our discomfort with questioning those seen as being in power. Stout also ponders our willingness to quash our inner voice when voting for leaders who espouse violence and war as a solution to global problems-pointed stuff in a post-9/11 political climate. Deeply thought-provoking and unexpectedly lyrical. Agent: Susan Lee Cohen
From the Publisher
“A fascinating, important book about what makes good people good and bad people bad, and how good people can protect themselves from those others.”
—Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

“The Sociopath Next Door is a chillingly accurate portrayal of evil—the decent person’s guide to indecency.”
—Jonathan Kellerman

“A remarkable philosophical examination of the phenomenon of sociopathy and its everyday manifestations…Stout’s portraits make a striking impact and readers with unpleasant neighbors or colleagues may find themselves paying close attention to her sociopathic-behavior checklist and suggested coping strategies. Deeply thought-provoking and unexpectedly lyrical.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A chilling portrait of human beings who lack scruples the way someone born blind lacks eyesight…Stout describes respected professionals who tell outrageous lies simply to confuse colleagues… authority figures who deceive, seduce and even murder just to relieve the boredom that is the usual state of the sociopathic mind. A useful—if appalling—guide to help you recognize conscienceless individuals.. [and] a heartening affirmation of the empathic mindset that comes naturally to the vast majority of humans.”
—Martha Beck, O Magazine

“The Sociopath Next Door  is a chillingly accurate portrayal of evil–the decent person’s guide to indecency. Martha Stout draws upon sound scientific data and clinical experience and her writing is graceful and compelling.”
—Jonathan Kellerman, author of Therapy, When the Bough Breaks, and Monster.

“[Stout] provides provocative discussion about the role of conscience in the ‘normal’ world. Highly recommend.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“One in 25 Americans is a sociopath–no conscience, no guilt. It could be your mean boss or your crazy ex. [The Sociopath Next Door] is an easy-to-follow guide for spotting them.”
Newsweek

“I recommend this book, especially to those who think they may be vulnerable to sociopaths. It contains good stories, useful advice and clinical and scientific nuggets.”
Washington Post

Winner of the 2005 Books for a Better Life Award

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781606711316
  • Publisher: MJF Books
  • Publication date: 5/9/2012
  • Sales rank: 78,839
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Martha Stout, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, served on the faculty in psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School for twenty-five years. She is also the author of The Myth of Sanity. She lives on Cape Ann in Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION
Minds differ still more than faces.
—Voltaire

Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools. Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless. You are not held back from any of your desires by guilt or shame, and you are never confronted by others for your cold-bloodedness. The ice water in your veins is so bizarre, so completely outside of their personal experience, that they seldom even guess at your condition.

In other words, you are completely free of internal restraints, and your unhampered liberty to do just as you please, with no pangs of conscience, is conveniently invisible to the world. You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their consciences, will most likely remain undiscovered.
How will you live your life? What will you do with your huge and secret advantage, and with the corresponding handicap of other people (conscience)? The answer will depend largely on just what your desires happen to be, because people are not all the same. Even the profoundly unscrupulous are not all the same. Some people— whether they have a conscience or not— favor the ease of inertia, while others are filled with dreams and wild ambitions. Some human beings are brilliant and talented, some are dull-witted, and most, conscience or not, are somewhere in between. There are violent people and nonviolent ones, individuals who are motivated by bloodlust and those who have no such appetites.

Maybe you are someone who craves money and power, and though you have no vestige of conscience, you do have a magnificent IQ. You have the driving nature and the intellectual capacity to pursue tremendous wealth and influence, and you are in no way moved by the nagging voice of conscience that prevents other people from doing everything and anything they have to do to succeed. You choose business, politics, the law, banking, international development, or any of a broad array of other power professions, and you pursue your career with a cold passion that tolerates none of the usual moral or legal incumbrances. When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients (or your constituency) in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steam-roll over groups who are dependent and voiceless. And all of this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever.
You become unimaginably, unassailably, and maybe even globally successful. Why not? With your big brain, and no conscience to rein in your schemes, you can do anything at all.

Or no—let us say you are not quite such a person. You are ambitious, yes, and in the name of success you are willing to do all manner of things that people with conscience would never consider, but you are not an intellectually gifted individual. Your intelligence is above average perhaps, and people think of you as smart, maybe even very smart. But you know in your heart of hearts that you do not have the cognitive wherewithal, or the creativity, to reach the careening heights of power you secretly dream about, and this makes you resentful of the world at large, and envious of the people around you.

As this sort of person, you ensconce yourself in a niche, or maybe a series of niches, in which you can have some amount of control over small numbers of people. These situations satisfy a little of your desire for power, although you are chronically aggravated at not having more. It chafes to be so free of the ridiculous inner voice that inhibits others from achieving great power, without having enough talent to pursue the ultimate successes yourself. Sometimes you fall into sulky, rageful moods caused by a frustration that no one but you understands.

But you do enjoy jobs that afford you a certain undersupervised control over a few individuals or small groups, preferably people and groups who are relatively helpless or in some way vulnerable. You are a teacher or a psychotherapist, a divorce lawyer or a high school coach. Or maybe you are a consultant of some kind, a broker or a gallery owner or a human services director. Or maybe you do not have a paid position, and are instead the president of your condominium association, or a volunteer hospital worker, or a parent. Whatever your job, you manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb, as often and as outrageously as you can without getting fired or held accountable. You do this for its own sake, even when it serves no purpose except to give you a thrill. Making people jump means you have power— or this is the way you see it— and bullying provides you with an adrenaline rush. It is fun.

Maybe you cannot be the CEO of a multinational corporation, but you can frighten a few people, or cause them to scurry around like chickens, or steal from them, or—maybe best of all—create situations that cause them to feel bad about themselves. And this is power, especially when the people you manipulate are superior to you in some way. Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable. This is not only good fun—it is existential vengeance. And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do. You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’s boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.
Or now let us say you are a person who has a proclivity for violence or for seeing violence done. You can simply murder your coworker, or have her murdered—or your boss, or your ex-spouse, or your wealthy lover’s spouse, or anyone else who bothers you. You have to be careful, because if you slip up you may be caught and punished by the system. But you will never be confronted by your conscience, because you have no conscience. If you decide to kill, the only difficulties will be the external ones. Nothing inside of you will ever protest.

Provided you are not forcibly stopped, you can do anything at all. If you are born at the right time, with some access to family fortune, and you have a special talent for whipping up other people’s hatred and sense of deprivation, you can arrange to kill large numbers of unsuspecting people. With enough money, you can accomplish this from far away, and you can sit back safely and watch in satisfaction. In fact, terrorism (done from a distance) is the ideal occupation for a person who is possessed of bloodlust and no conscience, because if you do it just right, you may be able to make a whole nation jump. And if that is not power, what is?

Or let us imagine the opposite extreme—you have no interest in power. To the contrary, you are the sort of person who really does not want much of anything. Your only real ambition is not to have to exert yourself to get by. You do not want to work like everyone else does. Without a conscience, you can nap or pursue your hobbies or watch television or just hang out somewhere all day long. Living a bit on the fringes, and with some handouts from relatives and friends, you can do this indefinitely. People may whisper to each other that you are an underachiever, or that you are depressed, a sad case, or in contrast, if they get angry, they may grumble that you are lazy. When they get to know you better, and get really angry, they may scream at you and call you a loser, a bum. But it will never occur to them that you literally do not have a conscience, that in such a fundamental way, your very mind is not the same as theirs.

The panicked feeling of a guilty conscience never squeezes at your heart or wakes you in the middle of the night. Despite your lifestyle, you never feel irresponsible, neglectful, or so much as embarrassed, although for the sake of appearances, sometimes you pretend that you do. For example, if you are a decent observer of people and what they react to, you may adopt a lifeless facial expression, say how ashamed of your life you are, and talk about how rotten you feel. This you do only because it is more convenient to have people think you are depressed than it is to have them shouting at you all the time, or insisting that you get a job.

You notice that people who do have a conscience feel guilty when they harangue someone they believe to be “depressed” or “troubled.” As a matter of fact, to your further advantage, they often feel obliged to take care of such a person. If, despite your relative poverty, you can manage to get yourself into a sexual relationship with someone, this person—who does not suspect what you are really like—may feel particularly obligated. And since all you want is not to have to work, your financier does not have to be especially rich, just reliably conscience-bound.
I trust that imagining yourself as any of these people feels insane to you, because such people are insane, dangerously so. Insane but real—they even have a label. Many mental health professionals refer to the condition of little or no conscience as “antisocial personality disorder,” a noncorrectable disfigurement of character that is now thought to be present in about four percent of the population—that is to say, one in twenty-five people. This condition of missing conscience is called by other names too, most often “sociopathy,” or the somewhat more familiar term, “psychopathy.” Guiltlessness was in fact the first personality disorder to be recognized by psychiatry, and terms that have been used at times over the past century include “manie sans délire,” “psychopathic inferiority,” “moral insanity,” and “moral imbecility.”

According to the current bible of psychiatric labels, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV of the American Psychiatric Association, the clinical diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder” should be considered when an individual possesses at least three of the following seven characteristics: (1) failure to conform to social norms; (2) deceitfulness, manipulativeness; (3) impulsivity, failure to plan ahead; (4) irritability, aggressiveness; (5) reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; (6) consistent irresponsibility; (7) lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person. The presence in an individual of any three of these “symptoms,” taken together, is enough to make many psychiatrists suspect the disorder.

Other researchers and clinicians, many of whom think the APA’s definition describes simple “criminality” better than true “psychopathy” or “sociopathy,” point to additional documented characteristics of sociopaths as a group. One of the more frequently observed of these traits is a glib and superficial charm that allows the true sociopath to seduce other people, figuratively or literally—a kind of glow or charisma that, initially, can make the sociopath seem more charming or more interesting than most of the normal people around him. He or she is more spontaneous, or more intense, or somehow more “complex,” or sexier, or more entertaining than everyone else. Sometimes this “sociopathic charisma” is accompanied by a grandiose sense of self-worth that may be compelling at first, but upon closer inspection may seem odd or perhaps laughable. (“Someday the world will realize how special I am,” or “You know that after me, no other lover will do.”)

In addition, sociopaths have a greater than normal need for stimulation, which results in their taking frequent social, physical, financial, or legal risks. Characteristically, they can charm others into attempting dangerous ventures with them, and as a group they are known for their pathological lying and conning, and their parasitic relationships with “friends.” Regardless of how educated or highly placed as adults, they may have a history of early behavior problems, sometimes including drug use or recorded juvenile delinquency, and always including a failure to acknowledge responsibility for any problems that occurred.

And sociopaths are noted especially for their shallowness of emotion, the hollow and transient nature of any affectionate feelings they may claim to have, a certain breathtaking callousness. They have no trace of empathy and no genuine interest in bonding emotionally with a mate. Once the surface charm is scraped off, their marriages are loveless, one-sided, and almost always short-term. If a marriage partner has any value to the sociopath, it is because the partner is viewed as a possession, one that the sociopath may feel angry to lose, but never sad or accountable.

All of these characteristics, along with the “symptoms” listed by the American Psychiatric Association, are the behavioral manifestations of what is for most of us an unfathomable psychological condition, the absence of our essential seventh sense— conscience.

Crazy, and frightening— and real, in about four percent of the population.

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First Chapter

ONE

the seventh sense

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell.
—G. K. Chesterton


This morning, Joe, a thirty-year-old attorney, is running five minutes late for an extremely important meeting that, with or without him, will start promptly at eight o'clock. He needs to keep up a good impression with the more senior members of his firm, which means just about everybody, and he would like to have the first word with these wealthy clients, whose concerns include Joe's budding specialty of estate planning. He has been preparing his agenda for days because he feels there is a lot at stake, and he very much wants to be in the conference room at the start of the meeting.

Unfortunately, the furnace in Joe's town house suddenly stopped making heat in the middle of the night. Freezing and pacing, afraid the pipes would burst, he had to wait for the emergency repairman from the fuel company before he could leave for work this morning. When the man showed up, Joe let him in and then, desperate to get to the meeting, abandoned him in the town house to fix the furnace, hoping the fellow would prove reasonably honest. At last, Joe was able to race to his Audi and set off for the office, but with only twenty-five minutes left to make a thirty-minute drive. He resolved to bend the rules a little and make up the time.

Now Joe is speeding along a familiar route to work, clenching his teeth and swearing under his breath at the slow drivers, at all the drivers really. He reinterprets a couple of red lights, passes a line of traffic by using the breakdownlane, and clings frantically to the hope that he can somehow make it to the office by 8:00. When he hits three green lights in a row, he thinks that he may just succeed. With his right hand, he reaches over to touch the overnight bag in the passenger's seat, to reassure himself that he remembered to bring it. In addition to everything else, he has to catch a 10:15 plane to New York this morning, a trip for the firm, and there will certainly not be time after the meeting to go back home for his things. His hand contacts the cushiony leather of the bag—it is there and packed.

And at this very moment, Joe remembers. He forgot to feed Reebok. Reebok is Joe's three-year-old blond Labrador retriever, so named because, before he got too busy at the firm, Joe used to take early-morning runs with his enthusiastic new pet. When work took over and the morning routine changed, Joe fenced in the small backyard and installed a doggy door in the basement, allowing the dog solo access to the outside. At this point, runs together in the park are weekends only. But exercise or not, Reebok consumes several pounds of Science Diet every week, along with a huge assortment of leftover human food and at least one full box of jumbo bone treats. The young dog's appetite is stupendous, and he seems to live quite happily for two pleasures alone—his time with Joe, and his food.

Joe got Reebok as a puppy, because when Joe was a boy, his father would not let him have a pet, and he had vowed to himself that when he was grown up and successful, he would have a dog, a big one. At first, Reebok had been not very different from the Audi, another acquisition, a marker of Joe's independence and material prosperity. But soon Joe had fallen in love with the animal himself. How could he not? Reebok adored Joe unconditionally, and from puppyhood had followed him around the house as if Joe were the center of all that was good in the universe. As his puppy grew to doghood, Joe realized that this creature had as distinct and individual a personality as any human being, and that his liquid brown eyes contained at least as much soul. Now, whenever Joe looks into those eyes, Reebok wrinkles his soft beige brow into several folded-carpet furrows and stares back. In this way, the sweet, ungainly dog appears preternaturally thoughtful, as if he can read Joe's mind and is concerned.

Sometimes when there is a business trip, like today, Joe is gone from home for a day and a half, or even a little longer, and each time he comes back, Reebok greets him at the door with bounding joy and instantaneous forgiveness. Before he takes one of these trips, Joe always leaves large mixing bowls full of food and water for Reebok to consume in his absence, which Reebok does easily. But this time, between the furnace problem and his panic about the 8:00 meeting, Joe forgot. The dog has no food and maybe even no water, and no way to get any until tomorrow evening, when Joe returns from his trip.

Maybe I can call someone to help out, Joe thinks desperately. But no. He is between girlfriends at present, and so no one has a key to his house.

The impossibility of his situation begins to dawn on him, and he grips the steering wheel even harder. He absolutely must make this meeting, and he can be there on time if he just keeps going. But what about Reebok? He will not starve to death in a day and a half, Joe knows, but he will be miserable—and the water—how long does it take an animal to die of dehydration? Joe has no idea. Still driving as fast as the traffic will bear, he tries to think about his options. The available choices tumble over one another in a rush. He can attend the 8:00 meeting and then go home and feed the dog, but that will make him miss his 10:15 flight, and the trip is even more important than the meeting. He can go to the meeting and leave in the middle. No, that would be seen as offensive. He can try to get a later flight, but then he will be very late for his appointment in New York, may even miss it entirely, which could cost him his job. He can ignore the dog until tomorrow. He can turn around now, miss the 8:00 meeting at the firm, take care of the dog, and still make it to the airport for his 10:15 flight.

Like a man in pain, Joe moans loudly and slumps in his seat. Just a few blocks from work, he pulls the car into a spot marked construction only, dials the office on his cell phone, and tells a secretary to inform those at the morning meeting that he will not be attending. He turns the car around and goes home to feed Reebok.

What Is Conscience?

Amazingly, from a certain point of view, the human being we are calling Joe decides to be absent from an important meeting with some wealthy clients, an event he has spent several days planning for, and where his personal interests quite clearly reside. At first, he does everything he can to get to the meeting on time, risking all the possessions in his town house to a repairman he has never met before, and his own physical safety in his car. And then, at the very last minute, he turns around and goes home to feed a dog, a guileless, wordless creature who could not even so much as reprove Joe for ignoring him. Joe sacrifices a high-stakes desire of his own in favor of an action that no one will witness (except maybe the repairman), a choice that will not enrich him by even one penny. What could possibly cause a young, ambitious lawyer to do such a thing?

Most readers will smile a little when Joe turns his car around. We feel pleased with him for going back to feed his dog. But why are we pleased? Is Joe acting out of conscience? Is this what we mean when we make an approving remark about someone's behavior, such as "His conscience stopped him"?

What is this invisible, inescapable, frustratingly incorruptible part of us we call "conscience," anyway?

The question is a complicated one, even as it pertains to the simple vignette about Joe and Reebok, because, surprisingly, there are a number of motivations other than conscience that, separately or together, might cause Joe—might cause any of us—to make an apparently self-sacrificing choice. For example, perhaps Joe simply cannot stomach the thought of returning from his New York trip to find a Labrador retriever dehydrated and dead on his kitchen floor. Not knowing how long a dog can survive without water, he is unwilling to take the risk, but his aversion to the horrifying scenario is not exactly conscience. It is something more like revulsion or fear.

Or maybe Joe is motivated by what the neighbors will think if they hear Reebok howling in hunger, or, worse, if they learn the dog has died, alone and trapped, while Joe was on a business trip. How will he ever explain himself to his friends and acquaintances? This worry is not really Joe's conscience, either, but rather his anticipation of serious embarrassment and social rejection. If this is why Joe goes back home to feed his dog, he is hardly the first human being to make a decision based on the dread of what others will think of him, rather than on what he might do if he were sure his actions would remain a complete secret. The opinions of other people keep us all in line, arguably better than anything else.

Or maybe this is all a matter of the way Joe sees himself. Perhaps Joe does not want to view himself, in his own mind's eye, as the kind of wretch who would commit animal abuse, and his self-image as a decent person is crucial enough to him that, when he has no other alternative, he will forgo an important meeting in the service of preserving that image. This is an especially plausible explanation for Joe's behavior. The preservation of self-image is a motivator of some notoriety. In literature and often in historical accounts of human action, dedication to one's own self-regard is referred to as "honor." Lives have been forfeited, wars have been fought over "honor." It is an ancient concern. And in the modern field of psychology, how we view ourselves translates to the newer concept of "self-esteem," a subject about which more psychology books have been written than perhaps any other single topic.

Maybe Joe is willing to relinquish a few career points today in order to feel okay when he looks at himself in the mirror tomorrow, in order to remain "honorable" in his own eyes. This would be laudable and very human—but it is not conscience.

The intriguing truth of the matter is that much of what we do that looks like conscience is motivated by some other thing altogether—fear, social pressure, pride, even simple habit. And where Joe is concerned, a number of readers will strongly favor an explanation other than conscience because some of his behaviors are already questionable. He routinely leaves his young dog alone for many hours at a time, sometimes for nearly two days. This very morning, though he is skipping his meeting and going home to feed the dog, he still intends to make that 10:15 flight and be gone until the following evening. Reebok will have no one to be with, and nowhere to go except a small fenced-in backyard. Consigning a dog to such a situation is not very nice—it reflects, at best, a certain lack of empathy on Joe's part for the animal's social needs.

Still, truth to tell, being nice would not necessarily be conscience, either. For brief periods, any reasonably clever sociopath can act with saintlike niceness for his own manipulative purposes. And people who do possess conscience are often unkind despite themselves, out of ignorance or, as in Joe's case perhaps, inadequate empathy, or just run-of-the-mill psychological denial.

Nice behavior, prudent action, thoughts about how other people will react to us, honorable conduct in the interest of our self-regard—like conscience, all of these have a positive effect on the world at least most of the time, and any or all of them might get the dog fed sometimes, but none can be defined as the individual's conscience. This is because conscience is not a behavior at all, not something that we do or even something that we think or mull over. Conscience is something that we feel. In other words, conscience is neither behavioral nor cognitive. Conscience exists primarily in the realm of "affect," better known as emotion.

To clarify this distinction, let us take another look at Joe. He is not always nice to his dog, but does he have a conscience? What evidence would cause, say, a psychologist to decide that, when Joe passed up his meeting and went home to rescue Reebok, he was acting out of conscience rather than because of what other people would think, or to preserve his own self-image, or maybe from the noteworthy financial consideration that, three years before, he had paid twelve hundred dollars for a purebred Labrador puppy guaranteed against hip dysplasia and heart disease?

As a psychologist, I am persuaded most by a feature of the story we have not even addressed until now—the fact that Joe feels affection for Reebok. He is emotionally attached to his dog. Reebok follows Joe around the house, and Joe likes it. Joe gazes into Reebok's eyes. Reebok has changed Joe from a trophy pet owner to a smitten pet owner. And on account of this attachment, I believe that when Joe gave up his morning plan and went home to take care of his dog, he may possibly have been acting out of conscience. If we could give Joe a truth serum and ask him what was going on inside him at the moment he decided to turn the car around, and he were to say something like, "I just couldn't stand it that Reebok was going to be there hungry and thirsty all that time," then I would be reasonably convinced that Joe was conscience-driven in this situation.

I would be basing my evaluation of Joe on the psychology of conscience itself. Psychologically speaking, conscience is a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment to another living creature (often but not always a human being), or to a group of human beings, or even in some cases to humanity as a whole. Conscience does not exist without an emotional bond to someone or something, and in this way conscience is closely allied with the spectrum of emotions we call "love." This alliance is what gives true conscience its resilience and its astonishing authority over those who have it, and probably also its confusing and frustrating quality.
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 192 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2007

    this is a self-help book, not a diagnostic text book

    I think this book is wonderful. Of course the intent is not to get people out there labeling, slandering, and harrassing people they think are sociopaths. That would be sociopathic, wouldn't it?! This book is not a sword, its' a shield! The idea is to understand what it means when someone behaves this way, and know that it's not you, you can't change it, you can't cure them, and what you see may not even be real. And that the only solution in dealing with someone who is seriously wronging you in the ways described, is to remove yourself from them, stay away from them, to preserve yourself. And that there's absolutely nothing wrong or selfish about keeping yourself safe. (Which is something many a sociopath will try to convince you of.) As far as the inclusion of political figure reference. I have NO clue whether she was referring to Bush or Clinton or neither. But the fact is, both have been accused of lying, and that is a hallmark of a sociopath. Does that mean everyone who lies is a sociopath? Of course not. Are Bush or Clinton sociopaths? Who knows. Maybe, maybe not. It's impossible to know the full social workings of a celebrity, because of the very nature of celebrity. (Personally I think they're both immoral baffoons, but that's neither here nor there for the topic.) I think it's like others have said, that the author was merely pointing out behaviours which can be signs of trouble. And how they can present themselves in all walks of life, at all levels. Again this book is not meant as a psychology text book or a diagnostic tool. It is good for one thing, and one thing only - understanding the nature of why some people might operate the way they do, and to pull the scales from the eyes of those of us who previously didn't know that sociopaths do not change, that their behaviour is inherent, and it's not our fault, and not our responsibility, and beyond our control. Thereby freeing us. I can say that I felt a great relief after reading this book. Not because disillusionment is pleasant. But because enlightenment is calming.

    30 out of 32 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    An eye-opener

    I used this book as part of my research for a graduate school term-paper. Most of the information was useful and pretty accuarate, however, for the level of work that I needed to do, Dr. Stout's information conflicted a little bit with my other research. The terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" are used interchangably by most of the general public, and although they are similar, there are still some significant differences. The main one being that psychopaths primarily do not have a conscience, and sociopaths do have a conscience, but play by their own set of rules to justify their deceit and manipulation, as with the majority of the criminal element. And, unlike what most people believe, most psychopaths are not outwardly violent or crazy, and they are not all serial killers or in prisons. They also live out in the world with us. The traits that Dr. Stout uses to describe sociopaths are very helpful to keep in mind, and I appreciated her advice on what those of us with a conscience can do to protect ourselves. That is pretty much all we can do, because they will not stop. They will move from person to person until they use us up and wear us out. I speak from experience. I was married to this type of person for 10 years, not understanding why my life was so in chaos. This book helped me to comprehend how and why I was gaslighted. This is a term used in the book to explain how a person without a conscience uses deceit, manipulation, sympathy and guilt to distort your sense of reality, to where you no longer know what is true and not true. It's been a tough road to get my life back on track, but now that things are going much better for me, I realize that nearly all of the bad things that happened to me had little to do with me, and more to do with the things that he did. I made bad choices based on wrong information, lies, broken promises and the guilt he used by telling me that I was not a good wife for not helping (enabling) him. I was abused emotionally, psychologically, verbally, physically and financially. It did not start out this way, but happened very slowly and methodically by him over a long period of time. He was similar to the husband described in the book, the one who did not desire to work and made little efforts on his own, preferring to live off the sweat and hard work put forth by others. I would recommend following the advice Dr. Stout offers throughout the book. You do not know how deeply you are sucked in until you are all the way in, and then have to dig yourself back out. Protect your children, especially your daughters, from people like this, particularly men that they would potentially date or marry. Do not be afraid to speak up if something does not feel right. Actions speak louder than words. Learn to look at people's actions and see if their words match. The superficial charm and flattery that sociopaths and psychopaths use can cloud your judgement. I am thankful for everything I learned by my experiences. Once you go through something so bad, you recognize when you find what is good, and appreciate it so much more. We all have only one life. Make sure that it is the best that you can make it. This book will teach you how to do that.

    23 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2006

    Soft Psychology in a New Age Package

    I found this to be a highly readable study of a difficult subject-people without consciences-but in the end I was put off by its marshmallow spiritualism. Simply put, what does Buddhism and the Dalai Lama (however admirable) have to do with such an extreme condition as psychopathy? I felt a little as if I was standing in the Born-Again choir watching damned souls writhe in Hell. Dr. Stout's advice-Stay away from those in such straits. Well, yeah. More troublesome was the post-mortem and from-a-distance typecasting of everyone from Genghiz Khan to Charlie Manson as pure psychopaths. The concept that, while nature may make some people hard, environment may make normal people just as bad, seems lost on the author. There are conditions in life, including narcissitic personality, the affective disorders, plus plain old self-centeredness, that create effects quite similar to psychopathy. This, along with the possibility that a weak conscience under extreme conditions might lead to no conscience, (sociopathy), is not explored. Overall, a disappointment. Read Dr. Hare's WITHOUT CONSCIENCE for more concrete insights into the subject. The ultimate fictional account of the condition, one of the scariest books ever written, is William March's BAD SEED. Go to your library for this one-it's out of print- or see the great movie with Pattie McCormick.

    17 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A TOTAL EYE OPENER!

    This book was recommended to me by one of my friends. I am extremely impressed with the knowledge and wisdom of Marth Stout. A very easy read, well written and an amazing book written sucinctly about the Sociopaths. Hats off to Lady Doctor Marth Stout! I wish I could meet this amazing and incredibly smart, talented and gifted author in person. A must read for all Psychology majors and Criminal Justice majors.

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2006

    Good to know

    Excellent read for someone looking for a light, quick understanding of sociopaths. They are not all criminals, and specially not scary looking. Now I know to follow my instincts. I recently dealt with such a person, for a short time thank God, however it did leave me feeling very disappointed and pretty 'mad at the world'. I can only image what years of such a companionship must do to someone. The book offers 13 ways to deal with a sociopath, the number one gets you to win half of the battle. Good stuff to know.

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2006

    The book the average family should read

    This book wasn't written to cover all of the details of psychopathy - it was written to jolt the average reader into an awareness of their environment. In this respect it deserves 5 stars... if you are coming to this subject fresh it's going to be a shocker and it should be. Dr. Stout provides us with the awareness we need to recognize the sociopaths in our lives, and for that the book belongs in every home. (Politics? Really? I missed that. Of course, I thought she was talking about Clinton, not Bush. Ha!) One reviewer mentioned a disappointment with diagnosing political figures. I couldn't agree more. You can't - and should never - diagnose from a distance. But my impression was that she was giving examples of behavior that appears sociopathic so that the lay person recognizes it easier. I may be wrong. In any case, our understanding of these people is poor, and just beginning, Hopefully this work will spur some interest by the public. One of the strongest points of this book is that it looks at the average sociopath, and doesn't focus just on the serially violent.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2006

    very helpful info everyone should know about

    I found this book fascinating although it took me a while to get into it. This book is easily read and written for the average person. I recommend it and would make my friends and family aware. You never know when someone sociopathic will cross your path and you need to know how to defend yourself. My reason for reading it was purely self defense, but after I got halfway through, I found out I had dated at least one sociopath. Also my good friend recently ended a 7 year relationship with someone we can now see was a serious sociopath. He used all the tricks on her, extreme flattery, compulsive liar, unfaithful, history of sexual harrassment, really didn't bond with his children, took advantage of everyone, from family to business associates, yet sought pity from everyone, and had no friends. That relationship drained and devasted her and left her wondering how she could have been so blind. But all along she kept ignoring her instincts and giving him the benefit of doubt, the benefit of conscience. I am sending this book to her in the hopes she can see that it wasn't her 'fault', and no, she is not dumb by any means. She just trusted someone who didn't deserve it and who was a master manipulator.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Informative

    I enjoyed this book. I thought it was well-written, in simple language that anyone can understand. I liked the way the author wove her personal experiences into the factual information.

    I found the information both interesting and entertaining. Martha Stout gives us great insight into human nature.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2013

    Not all sociopaths are alike. Just because someone lacks empathy

    Not all sociopaths are alike. Just because someone lacks empathy and remorse does not mean that they do not act by some kind of moral code .  I do not have natural empathy. My mother was a bit of a flower child so I was raised in a home that valued empathy (although, my parents were divorced, and when with my father, things were different, to say the least). 
    The author paints us all with a very broad brush, and in the years since I've read it, I've grown to dislike it even more. 
    Some of us try. Just because I don't feel what you feel as a natural response does not mean I want to hurt you. It makes it easy for me to hurt you, but I'm not trying. In fact, I waste a ton of precious energy on trying to fit in and being friendly. It is very awkward. 
    And remember, none of us asked for this... Condition? Gift? Curse? I don't know. But when you're on a road trip with me, and you're driving and you hit a baby deer and the two halves of its body go flying in different directions and its guts get all over the grill, I will be there, in perfect mental faculty to not only drive your car to wherever we were going, but I'll even hose down the bits of intestine and fur from your car, my poor, sweet, sensitive, empathic friend. 
    We are not all terrible. 

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2011

    This is a Must Read!

    Having had first-hand experience over a long period of time with a sociopath, this book really hit home with me. It's absolutely essential that EVERYONE know how to spot one and this book is a great starting point to help you along with that knowledge. Read this book and while you're at it, recommend it to everyone you know.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2011

    Learned so much

    Wow what an informative book, even if you have no psychology background .

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2008

    I wasn't overly impressed

    This book just didn't really do anything for me. It had a bunch of crap most people already know.

    3 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    "The Sociopath Next Door"

    The information in this book is something I feel everyone should know about. I felt that it was not an easy read and a bit confusing at times. The book contains useful information about recognizing the sociopath in everyday society not just the serial killers on the news. You'll be shocked to find out that your idea of a sociopath might not be accurate. And even more shocked to find out that you actually have worked, lived with, or are related to a sociopath.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2005

    A must read if you deal with difficult people!

    I am fascinated by this book and plan to read it again soon. If you work or deal with difficult people who seem to find enjoyment in sabotaging your work and relationships then you will want to read this book immediately. The book is well written and the case studies are both interesting and, at times, chilling.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2012

    Excellent book! Well written!!

    I was blown away before the end of the first chapter and wound up reading the entire book in one sitting! Stout will scare you with her insight and knowledge on this subject... be prepared to see the world in a whole new light!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Superb!

    This is a book for all to read. Informative and applicable.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    This book opens your eyes!

    What a way to open your eyes to another world that most people do not understand. I am a Master's student of Psychology and Antisocial Personality Disorder is a complicated world. This book puts it into a perspective that is easy for everyone to understand. My sister is a sociopath, and in order to protect myself from her, I needed to dislodge her from my life. I am able to connect to this book in more ways than one and am constantly recommending it as well as lending it out to people. Definite read!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2009

    Finally! A word to fit this horrible situation!

    When I got married my dear husband assured me that his 30-year marriage to his deceased (from cancer) wife was blissfully happy and normal. When he brought me home to the house they shared, I was shocked! The house screamed of the grossest emotional abuse I have ever seen or heard of. My journey for answers started with narcissism, but this condition doesn't begin to touch the black-hearted evil left here. My mother, for example plays cruel mind games but she has a social conscience. When my cousin feels shame she throws money at somebody, usually blessing their lives. A music teacher at my kids' high school offers his students a talent they can treasure for the rest of their lives. My ex is just a garden variety slug. My husband's first wife, in contrast, destroyed his house, his finances, his family, his personal and professional reputation, his health. And then used the pity play among the church community to make certain that he was blamed for it all. And she dragged 3 of her daughters with her into this pit. They continue to fight the war their mother started, in her blessed name. There are 3 main factors in my husband's life that helped him through this nightmare--a job that takes him out of town frequently, immersion in the practice of our religion and clueless denial. Without any one of these things, he would have been dead long ago, for she truly tried to kill him. The good news is that after only 2 short years after her death he is beginning to feel safe enough to take serious measures to improve his health, and to dig himself out of the junk and garbage she buried him under. And he's remarkably good at defending himself, even though it's all still subconsious. The road to recovery will be very long indeed. But every day shows me, and others, the wonderful gifts hidden inside this man. And he is most definitely worth every step of the journey.

    2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2007

    Disappointing

    The publisher's description of the book was excellent but the author did not live up. The writing was simplistic and virtually the entire book was anecdotes from her practice. There was next to no content on the working of the sociopathic mind or even their societal impact. This was a very disappointing book.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2007

    Four percent of us determines history

    At once profound and down to earth, Martha Stout, clinical psychologist--specializing in victims of sociopaths--takes us through true-to-life case studies all the while interpreting the thoughts and emotions of the sociopathic personality as well as those of his or her victims. Sociopaths are often charismatic, beguiling, smart, and attractive, which just feeds into their need for control. Stout does all this in very readable style. In both plain and technical terms, she analyzes just what it means to live without a conscience--with no concern for others. Of greater importance, Stout illustrates superbly just how disrupive such lives can be to both the sociopath and the rest of us. One in 25 of us lives next door to one if not with one. They look just like us. Their behavior in public normally does not give them away. Nevertheless, Stout illustrates how to recognize and deal with these amoral creatures. She offers hope for the future from logic based on 25 years of clinical experience, not wishful thinking. The antisocial fringe will laugh at her book. The rest of us should read it carefully and absorb its lessons. They bear critically on our times, for history mainly recounts the misdeeds and too few deeds of this personality type when it holds the reins of power.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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