Book Review: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Apparently, I’m not a sociopath.5106v842oal-_sx321_bo1204203200_

See, this morning I was placed in a situation of moral hazard.  I was at the hospital having a blood test taken.  This was for a clinical trial that I am participating in.  The nurse just assumed that I had come at the correct time, but I was half an hour early.  The study guidelines stated that the blood had to be taken no earlier than 9.30am, not the current time of 9am.  However, it would convenience me to finish up at the hospital at 9am instead of 9.30am.  I was almost elated; the nurse hadn’t noticed the guidelines.  All I had to do was keep quiet and I would get my way and be happy.  Except, I’ve worked in research in the past, I know how serious following protocols are: this nurse would certainly get in trouble with his supervisor.  *sigh* I really, really wanted to leave the hospital earlier.  But I didn’t want this guy to be in trouble for this.  So I told him.  He checked the guidelines and realised the mistake he was about to make, and told me I had to wait for 30 minutes longer before I could leave.

This small situation, which I could easily have gotten away with, and nobody would have known or suspected me for, illustrates that I, like 96% of people, have a conscience.  Stout’s book is full of anecdotes like my own, and other examples entirely different to mine.  Anecdotes of people who have no conscience whose actions defy comprehension to those with a respect for what is right and wrong.  People who have a child so they can access a swimming pool, fake their virtue to get a job, or execute frogs just to alleviate their boredom.

It’s because of stories like this that for as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of sociopaths, ever since I read about them as a young man they have frightened me.  I’ve met several people in my life so far whom I have suspected of being sociopaths.  However, it is truly a difficult thing to identify them with certainty.  I generally followed the advice Stout gives and stayed well away from them, but have you ever wondered about the sociopaths who are so charming you don’t suspect them to be conniving and cruel?  Fortunately, the purpose of this book is to raise awareness in the general public of the signs and dangers of sociopaths.

This was the best part about the book for me: learning how to recognise the behaviours and characteristics of people who might be sociopaths.  This was also probably the most useful part of the book.  Along with the statistics that less than 10% of people have a moral compass based on personal values as opposed to mere fear of punishment or obeying rules.  The book was clearly not written for a reader like myself and that’s the problem I had with the book personally.  That and some chapters seemed to meander on without getting to a point, making me suspect they were just filler.

There was some philosophical speculation within the book, which I appreciate, but there were no big ideas or models to link all the anecdotes and data together tightly.  There was not enough depth to the discussion and analysis of the characters as I would have liked, and sometimes it was repetitive.  However, it isn’t trying to be an academic book, the author was trying to appeal to a broad audience by explaining a complex problem in the simplest terms without getting side tracked into the philosophical details of what conscience is exactly and how it might work.

I was disappointed that the book didn’t talk about the advantages of having a conscience as much as I thought it might.  The tale of the island inhabited by a mixture of normal people and sociopaths annoyed me because it seemed absurd to me that the sociopaths would prosper in that situation at all.  Sociopaths are after all parasites and no parasite can survive without any hosts to infect or exploit.  As for my anecdote where I intervened to save the nurse from making a mistake, I gained something from that: I gained a boost in my reputation which can help me in the future with my career or just preferential treatment.  Treating other people with respect does smooth out one’s journey through life, while treating people with disdain like the sociopaths do leaves one isolated and surrounded by potential enemies.

Over all, I’m going to give this book a 3/5 stars and would recommend it for just about everyone to read at least once.  For although it is an imperfect book it is one of the few books in its niche, and for this reason alone it deserves a commendation.  Naturally, being alert to the sociopaths  around you is something everyone should be and thus it is a book that has some value for everyone who reads it.



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