The Sociopath Next Door

Photography Jean-Philippe Delhomme

Published March 7, 2009

You know them. They look just like us. They eat the same foods we eat, wear the same clothes we wear, and sleep under the same stars we sleep under—you could even be sleeping next to one of them and not even know it. You’ve seen these people in action, working their nefarious brand of charm, wit, and charisma. They operate largely unnoticed—until they don’t, at which point it’s usually too late, because they’ve already insidiously laid claim to your faith, your livelihood, or maybe even your life. No, we’re not talking about Canadians. We’re talking about sociopaths, those creatures who, through their grand schemes of contrivance, manipulation, and deceit, seek to undermine the very fabric of it all because, well, they can. Clinical psychologist and former Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. Martha Stout has spent a good portion of her working life attempting to crack the mystery of what makes someone a sociopath—she says it has something to do with having a conscience, or not having one. Stout has even authored a book on the subject, The Sociopath Next Door, and is at work on a sequel, tentatively titled Conquering the Sociopath Next Door: Courageous Resistance to Lies, Scams, Mind Games, and Murder, which is expected out next year. Here, she offers a thumbnail sketch of the nature of sociopathy, and how regular folks can best prevent themselves from falling prey to the dangerous games that sociopaths play.

KATE SIMON: Why did you title your book The Sociopath Next Door?

MARTHA STOUT: The Devil You Know was the working title and then Kris Puopolo, my editor, called up one day and said, “Do you remember when you called it The Sociopath Next Door and you thought you were kidding? Well, we really like that title.” I think it’s more immediate and it captures what the book is about . . .

SIMON: Well, initially the title is scary. Like, “Ooh, Ted Bundy is next door!” Your point is that one in 25 people in North America is a sociopath—that it could be your next-door neighbor, your teacher, your co-worker, your . . . husband. Sociopathy is more prevalent than schizophrenia or anorexia.

STOUT: Right. It’s a much more common thing than most people realize.

SIMON: Explain the characteristics that a sociopath exhibits.

STOUT: Okay, the central trait of sociopathy is a complete lack of conscience, which is very difficult for most people to get their heads around, because those of us who do have a conscience can’t really imagine what it would be like if we didn’t. Most people think that deep down everybody has a conscience, and it turns out that’s just not true. So if you don’t have a conscience, what is your behavior like? Apparently, if you don’t have a conscience, if you don’t really . . . love, then the only thing that’s left for you is the game—it’s about controlling things.

SIMON: Manipulating people.

STOUT: Yes. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a large manipulation. And sociopaths are just like everybody else in that some of them are really brilliant, some of them are really stupid, and most of them are somewhere in between. Another thing I should point out is that sociopaths are not usually physically violent. A typical sociopath never kills anybody and doesn’t look like Charles Manson—they look like you and me and everybody else. You’re not looking for someone who’s recognizably evil or scary-looking, but rather someone who looks normal. Another lynchpin is dishonesty. Lying for the sake of lying. Lying just to see whether you can trick people. And sometimes telling larger lies to get larger effects. The other thing that needs to be stressed is that sociopaths are often extremely charming. They are people who are better than you and me at charming people, at being charismatic. I’ve heard this more often than I can count: “He was the most charming man I ever met,” or, “She was the sexiest woman I ever met,” or, “The most interesting person I ever met . . .” That’s because to learn to be charming is fairly easy—you can teach somebody to be charming and to learn human emotions—or to learn the behaviors that go with human emotions. A sociopath, a smart one, will study the way we emote, and will learn how to do that quite effectively.

SIMON: Is there a particular type of person that a sociopath picks out to manipulate?

STOUT: Well, the perfect victim, from the sociopath’s point of view, is the person who is smart enough and capable enough to do him some good in the world and who is also fun to manipulate. How much fun is it to manipulate someone who is stupid and incompetent? Another good person to manipulate is someone of high character, because that is also fun for the sociopath. On the other hand, the sociopath doesn’t want this person to be so savvy that he or she will immediately see him for who he is. He wants the person to be easily enough fooled to stick with him. This can be accomplished by looking for someone who is very, very loyal. Most of us consider loyalty to be a very positive trait—and it is a positive trait. But it also blinds people to some of the traits of the person they’re loyal to.

SIMON: One idea in the book is that we shouldn’t confuse fear with respect. Can you elaborate?

STOUT: It’s kind of wired into us that when someone is harsh to us, or when somebody makes us feel bad, that in some way they’re better than we are. A reviewer who says mainly negative things is going to be perceived as more intelligent by the audience than the person who says positive things. That’s just human nature. And someone who makes us afraid encourages a sense of respect, and that’s unfortunate because somebody who makes you afraid is very likely to be doing it just for the purpose of making you afraid, and is not the kind of person that you want to respect at all.

SIMON: In The Sociopath Next Door, you list 13 ways to deal with a person one assesses to be a sociopath. Can you share some?

STOUT: If you have reached the point where you’re certain that this person has no conscience, or is in it to win rather than to love you, then the very best thing you can do is to get away. That’s a very hard lesson to learn, and, furthermore, it’s not always possible.

SIMON: Are sociopaths afraid to be alone?

STOUT: Sociopaths are not afraid of very much, except for physical harm and dying—really primitive, basic kinds of fears. The problem with being alone for a sociopath is boredom. I don’t know if you remember what things were like when you were a child, where boredom could actually get to be painful. Sociopaths experience that kind of pain in boredom. And so to be alone, to have nobody to play the game with, can be painful. It’s not exactly fear, it’s a kind of pain. Most of us fill up our lives and end our boredom with our involvement with other people—people we love, people we hate, people we’re afraid of, people we’re interested in—and that’s what keeps our minds going. So if you’re sociopathic and you really have no caring for anybody, there’s not much left, only boredom, and the way to relieve that, apparently, is to play a game and make sure that you win. SIMON: What exactly is winning for a sociopath?

STOUT: It is not what most people would consider to be winning. Most of us have some kind of positive goal in mind when we think of winning. A sociopath thinks in terms of successfully manipulating someone into doing something that he or she would not have done otherwise. That can be a small thing or a tremendous thing, but the point for the sociopath is to win, to make sure that this person does what they’re trying to coerce him or her into doing. It can be as disgusting and as simple as making a child cry. Or it can be as complex as making your wife feel bad about herself. And it can be as large as making an entire group of people do something that they ordinarily would not have done.

SIMON: How do you think the fame culture relates to the sociopathic nature?

STOUT: In Western culture, particularly North America, a lot of rules are descriptors for sociopathy: a general acceptance of lying as long as you win, an attitude of “me first,” an attitude that what it looks like is more important than what it is. This makes it much easier for a sociopath to be camouflaged in our culture.

SIMON: Okay, what do you think about George W. Bush?

STOUT: [laughs] I think it would probably be more accurate for me to talk about that administration, about a group of people within that administration. Someone, or some group, took 300 million people to war against their will, based on a very giant lie. Combined with the notion of winning, that is, to me, a horrendously scary situation.

SIMON: But you say that the sociopath has a limited capacity to apply him or herself. He or she is easily bored and is given to finding someone else to do the work.

STOUT: Are you trying to say that you think George [W. Bush] is . . . like that? [laughs] I am not allowed by my profession to diagnose somebody from a distance, but one can observe certain symptoms. In The Sociopath Next Door, one of the stories is about a little boy who kills frogs by blowing them up with firecrackers. I figured that most people would have heard the story about George Bush in his childhood. But apparently very few people got it. Indeed, that’s something our former president is alleged to have done in childhood: blow up frogs.

SIMON: In spotting a sociopath, you put emphasis on the pity card.

STOUT: I would hesitate to tell people to stop being kind or sympathetic. But just like loyalty, some things that can be taken advantage of are empathy, sympathy, and our tendency to pity somebody when something has gone wrong in their life.

SIMON: Sociopaths are adept at engendering pity?

STOUT: You wouldn’t think that someone who’s sociopathic would be interested in creating pity in somebody’s head, but if you pity someone, you will do almost anything for that person. It’s carte blanche. And that’s something I’ve heard over and over again: “He would make me feel really, really sorry for him.” This could be done by having physical illnesses, or appearing constantly to be out of money. However it’s done, it’s done with enough theatrics that the person the sociopath is targeting has a feeling of sympathy. So if you see somebody really pulling for your sympathy while at the same time hurting you intermittently, you should start to wonder. If somebody plays to your pity and really tries to draw that out of you, that’s not normal.

SIMON: You say that it’s not that the sociopath fails to grasp the difference between good and evil, it’s that knowing fails to eliminate their behavior. Can you elaborate?

STOUT: An intelligent sociopath can learn the rules about what’s good and what’s bad, what people see as good and bad. But they don’t get that intervening sense of guilt, that pang of conscience, on account of it. So they tend to know what’s wrong or right, they just don’t care. That’s another thing that they can use against us: that we do care. We’re predictable in that.

SIMON: So then the sociopath can read his victim adeptly, thinking, I know you better than you know yourself.

STOUT: Right, which in some strange ways may be true. But in other ways it can’t be true, because most of who we are is our deepest emotions, and someone who cannot feel those emotions in a positive way is never going to understand much about his fellow human beings.

SIMON: You say sociopathy is a difference greater than other mental disorders, or even greater than race or gender . . .

STOUT: When I speak of divisions greater than gender or race, I say that because it is so unimaginable. I can imagine what it would be like to be another race. Or to be a man—I could draw that up in my mind and experience it. Schizophrenia? We’re all schizophrenic in our dreams. Depression? Most of us have been at least a little depressed and can imagine it. But not having a conscience? Conscience is so profound and so basic in most of us.

SIMON: Why do I get the feeling that many evangelist-types are sociopaths?

STOUT: [laughs] Well, there again I can’t diagnose any particular person, but I think con man is the usual term. When somebody comes on television to tell a lot of needy people that God will send them to heaven if they send him $200, if that’s not downright sociopathic, it’s close.

SIMON: You say that the victims of sociopaths have no recourse. You say, “I don’t think that the sociopath is ever punished or ever really capable of being made aware of any of the trauma they have imposed on another person.”

STOUT: I think they can be aware of it, they just don’t care, because they are essentially manipulative.

SIMON: You say that the sociopath is emotionally killing . . .

STOUT: The ultimate manipulation is to kill someone, and sociopathy is murderous in a psychological sense—there’s a kind of soul-murder going on. The reason I want to explain that you’re probably never going to get revenge and you’re also probably not going to redeem this person, is that it is not a project that will ever succeed. At present, if a person does not have a conscience, we know of no way to instill one—not even a little bit. It’s not like something you can take off the shelf and put into somebody’s brain. It makes me so sad to hear people say, “I think I can see just a little bit of a conscience,” or “Maybe if I wait a little bit longer,” or “Maybe if I love him just a little bit more,” or “Maybe if I’m a good enough role model he’ll pick up on that and learn to have a conscience, and care about other people . . .”SIMON: Wouldn’t the sociopath want to turn it around so that the victim felt as if he or she was—

STOUT: Getting to him? That’s very astute. I think that is what happens, when people say they think they see some sign that this person is getting a

conscience. A conscience is, for a while anyway, pretty easy to fake. So, unfortunately, is love—at least for a time.

SIMON: You say that as many as 75 percent of sociopaths are alcoholics or drug abusers, or both.

STOUT: Yeah, the statistics seem to show that.


STOUT: First of all, they’re not inhibited by the notion that it’s wrong to be addicted, or wrong to buy illegal drugs. Also, drinking or taking drugs can be a lot of fun, and even if it’s not, it can dull that painful boredom for a while. So can certain other things, like taking risks, and particularly if you take a risk-averse person and you can manipulate him or her into taking risks, that’s really fun. Another thing that’s fun is speed, literal speed, going very fast in your car. Not that everybody who goes fast in their car is a sociopath, by any means, but anything that gives you a rush will lessen your sense of boredom. I was once doing a book signing and a man came up to me and said that he gave classes to people who’d been convicted of drunken driving twice. He said he felt that nearly all of those people were what I was describing as sociopathic. Which makes a great deal of sense to me. We always talk about how could you possibly, knowing that you’re drunk, get behind the wheel of a car again and do that? Well, you could if you didn’t give a half a damn what happened.

SIMON: You write that there seems to be an altered functioning in the cerebral cortex of the brain in sociopaths.

STOUT: The physical basis for sociopathy is approximately 50 percent inheritable, which sounds more dramatic than it probably is, because most personality characteristics that psychologists test for and study the genetics of are about 50 percent inheritable. Introversion, extroversion, it turns out that they’re about 50 percent inheritable, which means that somehow sociopathy is physical, it’s organic, and the people who do magnetic resonance studies—brain scans—have found that sociopaths differ fairly dramatically in how their brains react to emotional words. An emotional word is love, hate, anger, mom, death, anything that we associate with an emotional reaction. A nonemotional word is lamp, street, hair, rug, that kind of thing. If I had electrodes hooked up to you right now and I said a string of words, and some of them were emotional and some were not, I’d get a larger spike on the emotional words. We are wired to process those words more readily than neutral, nonemotional words. We are very emotional creatures. But sociopaths listen as evenly to emotional words as they do to lamp or book—there’s no neurological difference.

SIMON: So does the sociopath ever feel it? You say that they eventually have an instinct that there’s something that’s maybe a bit off . . .

STOUT: Wrong? Well, it seems to be sort of intellectually interesting to somebody who is sociopathic, who might say something like, “I know that I don’t have whatever this thing is that causes people to tell the truth or not manipulate and hurt people. I know that I don’t have it and that other people seem to.” But usually they will look down upon us for that very reason—that we’re gullible. We’re weak. One person told me that he thought he was the only honest person because he would admit that he didn’t have a conscience and everybody else was clearly faking it.

SIMON: I often think of our culture as bereft, being driven by facade and fame.

STOUT: You know, the bottom line for most people who are normal is their need for other people. Even the greedy ones have this need—as long as they’re not sociopathic. They may be very misguided and unhappy and do bad things and so forth, but in general if you look down deep, you find that these people are mainly concerned with other people and what other people think of them. This need reaches an extreme in the desire for fame: And they—even famous people—are most concerned of all with what people who are close to them think. And the sociopath is generally not concerned with that at all. People ask me many times, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to scare people? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to make people feel bad about the human race?” I look at it as entirely the opposite. Something you can understand and identify should be less frightening than something you can’t. And to understand that there are people who are capable of acting without conscience, without considering other people at all, explains a lot of things. People ask, “What could possibly cause a normal person to torture her own child?” Well, the answer is: Nothing could cause a normal person to torture their own child. The reason that we see that happening is that there are people who don’t care, who don’t love—even their own children. A scary thought, certainly, but I think that it’s less scary than pre-supposing that we could all torture our children.

SIMON: We live in a culture where ethics and character sometimes appear anachronistic.

STOUT: I think that’s starting to change, at least a little bit. Some parts of the population are starting to realize that character is extremely important and that it cannot be measured by the things we like to measure it by: the tabloids and so forth. Character is crucially important to a leader, to be a moral leader, and we’d better make it primary on our list or we’re going to keep getting more of the same.

KATE SIMON is a New York–based photographer and writer. She is currently collaborating with poet Gillian McCain on a book of portraits

Click here to purchase The Sociopath Next Door.