Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout (2005)

According to Stout, America is in the clutches of an alarming “sociopath” epidemic. Too bad most of what she says is absolute bullshit.

It’s often said that psychology is much more of an art than a science -- a study with far more in common with philosophy than biology, ultimately. In that, even your top-tier psychologists and psychiatrists -- your Freuds, your Fromms, your Ranks, etc. -- are really just taking educated guesses about human nature that sound viable instead of demonstrating physiological truths about the human mind.

The old lions of 20th century psychology, however, seem to be at least partially vindicated by relatively recent discoveries in the emerging field of neurophysiology -- while the pioneers of psychoanalysis  hypothesized that parental interaction altered how one thinks, modern medicine has proven definitively that nurture has a significant impact on one’s nature, with newfound neurological data telling us that environmental factors and experiences do play an incredibly important role in an individual’s cognitive development.

By the time one reaches puberty, his or her synapses have effectively finished pruning, more or less determining the lifelong capacity one has to learn and store new information. Environmental stressors, researchers have found, can negatively impact a child’s synaptic pruning process, with detectable deficiencies sprouting up as early as pre-K. Adolescence,  researchers have determined, is an extremely important phase of neural oscillations, with even the slightest neurological hiccup resulting in lifelong cerebral deficiencies. The prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that’s responsible for judgment, planning and urge suppression -- isn’t fully developed until one reaches the age of 25, and any number of experiences before then can greatly hinder one’s executive functions. In that, the age-old discussion is all but settled; empiricisms impact innatisms just as much as innatisms impact empircisims…if not proving more important in determining one’s totalistic behavior.

With this in mind, Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door” rings as a decisively anti-scientific screed, and in some ways, an anti-psychoanalysis tract. With an overwhelming amount of neurological data clearly showing links between experiences and cognitive development -- the fact that the tome was penned in 2005 is no excuse -- Stout seems to go out of her way to completely ignore such data, instead embracing an alarmingly deterministic stance that some people are just plain “born” sociopath, and there’s ultimately nothing clinical psychologists can do to treat them.

There are many, many red flags concerning the accuracy of Stout’s claims, beginning with her assertion that one out of 25 Americans are sociopaths -- a figure she culled from a 1997 Journal of Family Practice study and a SAMHSA bulletin from a quarter century ago. And two years after Stout’s book was released, the NIH said the total number of adults in the U.S. with antisocial personality disorder was about one percent -- a considerably smaller estimate than Stout’s highly suspect claim of 4 percent.

Additionally, Stout never really comes out and says what she means by sociopath, at times, using the term interchangeably with antisocial personality disorder and psychopath. The problem is, both sociopathy and psychopathy aren’t actual medical conditions recognized by any reputable mental health organization. The closest thing we have to clinical definitions to what Stout calls “sociopathy” are Antisocial Personality Disorder and Dissocial Personality Disorder -- and keep in mind, the checklist for both conditions are completely different, depending on whether you use APA or WHO standards. Both, however, are categorized as personality disorders, with the APA going as far as mandating that clinical ASPD diagnoses also entail the detection of conduct disorder before the age of 15. The best criteria we have for what a “sociopath” is, precisely, is much more stringent than the casual definition Stout lays out, and virtually all of the examples she trots out in the book would likely not be considered ASPD cases using APA standards.

Which, of course, brings us to the giant, gaping hole in Stout’s arguments -- namely, the fact that she admits in the preface that she MADE UP all of the patients she “describes” in the book, stating that one is a flat out fabrication and the rest are “composite figures” -- in other words, imaginary case studies.

Stout’s book, not surprisingly, is more of a half-assed philosophical treatise than a full-fledged sociological analysis. And even then, she piles on the hypocritical assertions; one of her chief “sociopaths” is a CEO type that tortured frogs as a youth -- a clear indicator of future aggressions, despite the fact that adolescent hunters and fishers engage in equally destructive hobbies that are largely accepted as proper social behaviors. At one point, she brings up the cliché of the wounded soldier scurrying across enemy lines to save his comrades as a clear-cut example of conscientious behavior, while decrying the 9/11 attacks as unconscionable acts of non-conscientious behaviors -- not that in both examples, the characters in question are making personal “sacrifices” for a perceived greater good that, in the classical sense of the term, are both utterly conscientious as acts. Even Stout’s own definitions of what conscience supposedly entails is contradicted by her own ill-informed examples. Among the allegedly “conscientious” figures she lists in the book? Mother Teresa (a good friend of several right-wing dictators and Wall Street conmen, not to mention a woman who more or less said AIDS victims deserved it), Thomas Jefferson (America’s most quotable slave-owning paedo) and even good old Gandhi…the less said about his exploits, clearly the better.

Really, Stout’s book is more or less a 200 page argument in support of the non-scientific concept of “the conscience” -- in that, it’s a tome that is, at best, drab pop-psychology, and at worst, flat out sensationalistic pseudo-science. Sociopaths, she believes, are amoral figures (there’s not really a “sociopath spectrum,” it appears, with Stout claiming that all individuals with ASPD display similar behaviors, albeit with fluctuating degrees of criminality) whose chief medical ailment is the profound lack of a conscience -- you know, that thing that, neurologically-speaking, is just a “concept” and not a true physiological condition at all. Deterministic to the point of fatalism, Stout doesn’t really make any statements encouraging the promotion of therapies that would conceivably “help” these individuals get in touch with their consciences, either. Instead of helping those with ASPD conditions, Stout seems hell-bent on exalting their statuses as one-dimensional boogeymen -- condemnation, she keeps crying, is the solution, not treatment or, god forbid, a nuanced understanding of the ASPD condition.

In short, using Hervey Cleckley’s highly subjective checklist of potential symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, Stout more or less invents her OWN definition of ASPD as a conjectural condition in which an individual completely lacks the ability to empathize with others and/or form true emotional bonds. This is the same skeleton key used by Dave Cullen in the 2009 book “Columbine” to describe Eric Harris -- a woefully deterministic conclusion that, through highly dubious readings about genetics, essentially says that unconscientious “evil” is an inborn, biological condition. In terms of environmental factors, the best Stout can muster is that, maybe, what she calls “sociopathy” is the end dividend of attachment disorder, a childhood affliction in which infants never develop emotional connections with their mother, and as  a result, never learn how to “love” another human being. So yes, Stout’s explanation to pseudoscience is, of course, more pseudoscience.

For the most part, it seems as if Stout’s war on “sociopathy” is indeed an attempt to lump all sorts of douchey yet non-criminal behaviors -- shiftlessness, infidelity, etc. -- under an umbrella of quasi-psychosis. Even worse, her ultimate advice for readers -- in the form of a nebulous “top thirteen” list -- basically boils down to encouraging readers to be more paranoid and, ironically, less sympathetic to others. Throughout the book, Stout tosses out self-declared (and self-defeating) statements about “sociopaths” like she was cleaning out a sock drawer -- despite claiming that sociopaths are “without feelings,” she constantly reminds readers of their trademark irritability, and while championing those that have reached Kohlberg’s “post-conventional” level of moral reasoning (in which the relative morals of an individual take precedence over social norms), she seems to forget that the very first pillar of ASPD is a profound rejection of social norms. She’s quick to blame a majority of the world’s ills on sociopathic individuals (because, as we all know, EVERY single person in Germany from 1933 to 1945 were all clinical psychopaths), and makes some very dubious comments about sociopathy in India, China and Japan being less common in the Western world, most likely due to cultural takes on collectivism. You know, the same India the posts the world's highest number of annual homicides (in addition to being the second most racist nation on the planet), the same China that appears to be the world’s number one supplier of knife-wielding maniacs, and the same Japan that raped, pillaged and mutilated Asia for half a century.

The horrific irony about Stout’s work is that it posits a “solution” -- to a problem that really doesn’t exist, no less -- that she genuinely has no idea is hypocritical. According to Stout, a bulk of the world’s atrocities can be attributed to de-humanizing others, but her take on sociopaths -- in short, a collection of people she fascistically clumps together under incredibly loose, subjective and decisively non-scientific criteria -- is more or less a rallying cry to view them as the sociocultural other. In fictitious anecdotes, Stout describes the unremarkable assholes we all encounter on a daily basis, ultimately bumping them up to the level of mentally deranged maniacs who, alike the reptile people in “V,” so easily blend in with the rest of society.

What’s the point of all of this, exactly? To scare middle aged women that peruse through the self-help section at Barnes and Noble? To pander to a bunch of blue-hairs that are already overly-suspicious about everyone they encounter? Whatever the roots behind this sensationalistic, pseudo-psychiatric potboiler, it’s most certainly NOT designed to inform or help anybody. By creating a vague, easily applicable definition of “sociopath,” Stout essentially creates a world of possible monsters, all of whom  are irredeemable and incurable. At one point, Stout writes that the only way to deal with a sociopath is to avoid them completely; to what extent does that aide a mother with a sociopath son, precisely? For a book that vaunts the “conscientious” ability to form bonds, Stout’s book seems to go out of its way to promote a complete shunning of those whose non-clinical traits and attributes can be construed to met HER definition of antisocial. In that, “The Sociopath Next Door” is clearly NOT a scientific tract, nor is it even a plausible “pop-psychology” offering. But for those of you that enjoy baseless alarmism and shitty storytelling…boy, are you in luck!


  1. If anything it doe's point out the manipulative lack of empathy, win at all cost types of people to avoid. It's good advice! I disagree with your condemnation of the book. It's easy to understand, it's not full of medical terms that most people have to look up the meaning of. It describes 1 or 2 people that I know and suspect are sociopaths with no conscience. My only disagreement with the book is that she says China and Japan have less sociopaths. How would she explain the medical experiments and torture of the Japanese during the war? I know many countries including the US & Germany did the same. Canada allowed American doctors to experiment on mental patients and had the infamous residential schools. How would she explain the torture of animals and the custom or letting female babies die if they were first born and child labor etc.that still goes on? In my opinion these things are all descriptive of people who have no empathy and no conscience. They may not all be sociopaths, but I'm sure a lot of them are. I think the average person would benefit from reading this book so they can understand and avoid people with these characteristics and perhaps avoid the harm these types can cause to them or the families. I recommend this book!

  2. PS. Quote "Some individuals who appear in the book willingly gave their consent to be anonymously portrayed . In these cases , no information has been included that might in any way identify them."

  3. I'm so glad you've found a cure for ASPD, can you tell us what it is? Thanks!

  4. Just read this pile of crap cover to cover, and 90% of your book review is scribbled, with agitation, all around the edges. If you want to know why this book exists, look no further than the author's tenure at Harvard. If it comes from Harvard, Berkely, L.A., or D.C. from '92 - the present, and contains text, it's very likely drivel from a useful idiot, who has been groomed, placed, and given title by someone very similar the the villains in her crude,invented anecdotes, for the diabolical purpose which she unwittingly performs: subjecting our culture to confounding dis-information under the guise of science and academia.

    She is a certified member of John podesta's marching army, and like most of them, she probably has no idea. See also: Emanuel saez, Thomas Piketty, and John Maynard Keynes ;-).

    This book exists for two reasons. One, is that this stupid bitch has the same blind spot for her own limitations and hubris that seems to accompany every psychologist/psychiatrist/psychotherapist ever, and the second is that there is value, to those who want to control us all more easily, in the public consciousness accepting into its already confounded discourse, these particular horse shit ideas. If the snake oil salesman knows he is selling lies, he might find them easier to peddle through the hands of someone who can be fooled into believing they aren't.