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Updated 10 Apr 2009

Martha Stout (Martha Stout is a practicing psychologist and a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.)

Extended Book Review With Commentary By Harry Rosenberg

Engaging, enlightening, and frightening--all at once. If there is no sociopath next door, then surely there is one on our street. Four percent of us, one in 25, according to Stout, have many or all the earmarks of a sociopath.

"Short of a sociopathic leader who diverts the course of an entire nation, leading it into genocide or unnecessary war, the psychopathic killer is surely the most terrifying example of a psyche without a conscience..."
Martha Stout

"Why do Americans seem to fear the latter more than the former???"

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 and his or her victims.

Sociopaths are often charismatic, beguiling, smart, and attractive, which just feeds their need for control. Stout shows 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. And more importantly, Stout illustrates superbly just how disruptive such lives can be to both the sociopath and the rest of us.

True sociopaths make life a game, they get their kicks from kicking others, from manipulating, from WINNING most of all. Most are not violent criminals; they are just anti-social in such subtle ways that we rarely recognize them for what they are--until it is too late. They leave human wreckage in their wakes, to paraphrase Stout. Doubtless, they make up a large fraction of those people we otherwise call extremists. Their cleverness in getting their way often leads to superficial success, high office and authority.

Imagine yourself at church, at a professional conference, or family social. You encounter a hot-shot, brilliant, funny, and engaging with a stage presence that has no bounds. What more could anyone ask? Well-what if he irritates, scares or antagonizes others, never takes responsibility, is manipulative, demanding and always puts his/her self-interest first with no concern for the consequences? This composite is sociopathic.

Martha Stout adds the supporting psychology and characteristics to the already-well-known Authoritarian Personality. She puts her fingers dead-on the hijackers--not only those who blow you up, but the far more common who intimidate family, alienate neighbors, or hijack organizations, movements, philosophies and governments. Stout has defined the psychology of those who take the rest of us to war, engage in violence, polarize us and the world. They are as varied as the rest of us except that they typically feel no remorse, have no conscience, never regret an action or decision, never lose any sleep. All share one feature above all others: they must WIN at what they do. If a person behaves like a sociopath, s/he may well just be one. Then there is testosterone...

Sociopaths may well know what is right and wrong by societal standards. But they see society as made up of suckers--to be taken advantage of. While they are excellent at keeping up appearances, privately, they are something else altogether. Too many spouses and children can attest to that. So also for the aged who are bilked out of their life savings, not to mention societies caught up in violence and war they neither want nor can control.

How the sociopath fits into is pretty obvious. The most extreme individuals, and most dangerous of the extreme, are the sociopaths. Whether they achieve power in business, church or politics, they make history by leaving ruin in their wakes. As far as we know, and in our personal experience, sociopathology is, at least in part, inherited. Environment surely plays a role that can either radicalize or pacify. Think about that.

One in 25 of us lives next door to one if not with one. None look different from the rest of us. Their actions in public rarely give them away--especially when we do not know what to look for. In that vein, Stout describes how to recognize and deal with these amoral creatures. She offers hope for the future, not wishful thinking, but from logic based on 25 years of clinical experience.

The antisocial fringe will laugh at the book. Those of us who are naive about things psychological should read it carefully and absorb its lessons, for they bear critically on our times.

In a more classical sense, the sociopathic personality has several of the defining features of the narcissistic personality disorder, NPD, briefly defined as: "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. The complete NPD criteria are:

    1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
    2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    3. believes that he or she is "special" and unique
    4. requires excessive admiration
    5. has a sense of entitlement
    6. is interpersonally exploitative
    7. lacks empathy
    8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
    9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Put items 5, 6, 7, and 9 together and you essentially come up with the equivalent of a lack of conscience. However socially disturbing these disorders are, they are not illegal in and of themselves. NOTE: Only a professional is qualified to make diagnoses of any of these disorders. Labeling people incorrectly can can get us in trouble, not to mention the person being so labeled incorrectly. Whenever possible, a professional should be brought in to deal with the situation.

For more on how this personality disorder affects American politics, see: Socialized Psychopath.

See also Robert Hare, "Without Conscience." for a similar take.

This book along with those by Adorno, Milgram, Altemeyer, and Dean are must reads by anyone who wants or needs to understand the origins of the authoritarian personality. The personality disturbance that Stout writes about is supported widely in the literature. See in particular: Justin Frank, Robert Hare and Babiak and Hare. These severe cases seem to be extreme manifestations of the Authoritarian Personality.

For how to recognize and deal with the sociopath, (psychopath, Narcissist) see: Interview With Martha Stout and also Hare.

We rate Stout's book five stars *****.


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