Analysis: “The Sociopath Next Door”

Our November, 2011 analysis of Donnie Darko began with the words: “Every society embodies a cultural order, and it is this order on which its members rely in structuring their daily experience.” We proceeded to convey the message that: in order to understand that cultural order, it is necessary to get outside of it. What we did not explicitly state was a warning to skeptically assess pronouncements by “authorities” from within such order professing to elucidate, especially when such pronouncements call on the masses of people to radically reassess their basic ideas and attitudes about themselves relative to other members of society. 

The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, PhD, begins with the shocking claim that “1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty” before asking the reader: “Who is the devil you know?” Thus begins a blend of Harvard-schooled psychology, medieval theology, and questionable science. We generally avoid presenting a negative view on anything; however, in this case we feel it would be a disservice to just bury this in the backyard and step away. 

Based on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, a diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder”—sociopathy, according to Dr. Stout—should be considered if any three of the following seven characteristics are in evidence: 

  • Failure to conform to social norms.
  • Deceitfulness, manipulativeness.
  • Impulsivity, failure to plan ahead.
  • Irritability, aggressiveness.
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.
  • Consistent irresponsibility.
  • Lack of remorse for hurting, mistreating, or theft from another. 

Any three of the above “symptoms” would be reason enough for a clinical psychologist to suspect the presence of this disorder—hardcore amorality—although some clinicians do not see this list as fully adequate to make a diagnosis of sociopathy. To this list they would add three more criteria, making it ten altogether: 

  • Charismatic glow, a charm that allows seduction of other people.
  • Complexity, spontaneity, or intensity, more attractive than others.
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth. 

How to best express the problem we have with Stout’s 200-plus page thesis in a blog post equivalent to one page? The following should be adequate to make our essential point: Stout states that over the past thousands of years, “the most universally famous names” have belonged to sociopaths. Really? The most universally famous name we can think of is Jesus Christ. Does Jesus fit the profile? Actually, an objective and reasonable reader who is not a psychiatrist could conclude that, yes, Jesus was apparently a big-time sociopath; he meets all ten of the criteria: 

Jesus was a nonconformist who spoke manipulatively, in parables, to conceal the truth. Jesus used no daily planner; in fact, he said: “Give no thought for the morrow.” Jesus could be irritable and aggressive; he overturned tables and used a whip to drive moneychangers from the Temple. Jesus showed such self-disregard that he refused to defend himself, and he did not allow anyone else to prevent his crucifixion. Jesus never invested a penny in anything, saying: “Do not store up treasures on earth…”—fiscally irresponsible—and he lacked remorse for any of his culturally-offensive actions. Meanwhile, he charismatically attracted multitudes to come hear his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was spontaneous in healing the sick—no appointments required—and his complexity has made him the subject of many centuries of study and analysis. As for his grandiosity, he claimed that God was inside of him and performed his works. 

Does anyone think Jesus was a sociopath? We hope not, but many readers of The Sociopath Next Door are certain to begin to similarly misperceive the presence of sociopaths in their neighborhoods, on the highway, at work, and everywhere else. We will not be surprised to see the label “sociopath” join the list of other equally frequently and viciously misapplied terms such as: “paranoid,” “psycho,” “OCD,” “ADD,” “narcissist,” “co-dependent,” “anorexic,” “bipolar,” and others. What happened to: Love thy neighbor? 

In the spirit of fairness, we must say that we do not find Stout’s thesis entirely offensive or valueless. While we do find her central claim that “conscience” is a “seventh sense” absurd (see our January, 2011 post: “The Seventh Sense”), and although we reject the material related to Darwin’s Theory and genetic causality, she does share some useful information, and she discusses the significance of love. The New Testament also speaks of love, and it lists several things that love is not. To its list we wish to add: Love of your neighbors is not scrutinizing them all for signs and symptoms of sociopathy and drawing harsh conclusions about their sanity based on some “easy-to-follow guide to spotting them.” Ponder this tomorrow, which happens to be Easter Sunday. No, we did not plan the timing of this post to coincide with Easter—you might want to ponder that too.


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