I just finished reading a book by a clinical psychologist by the name of Martha Stout, called The Sociopath Next Door. It's been out since 2005, so I'm late to the party, as usual, but I did want to talk about it, because pop psych books are cool and especially pop psych books that allow you to nail your neighbor. One person in twenty-five in this country is a sociopath, she says, as measured by one of those tests they give you. I haven't had so much fun since Games People Play. (Nor have I taken the test. I'm pretty sure, though, that I'm not a sociopath.)
Sociopaths have no conscience, Ms. Stout says. They feel no remorse for anything they do and are unable to form loving connections with other people or pets. The way you can tell a sociopath is that he will stab you in the back and then want you to feel sorry for him because you got blood all over his knife. Also they have hard eyes.
I bought the book because I'm writing a story about a sociopath. The guy is based on a man I used to know slightly, one I had the good sense to keep away from. He murdered his first wife, and then he wanted the neighbors to feel sorry for him because he suffered the suspicions of the police. Yeah, that's a sociopath. The book gave me a little more insight into the type, but actually told me nothing surprising, other than the high proportion of these people in our midst.
Most of them aren't murderers. Most of them are simply liars, cold-blooded manipulators, and selfish pains in the ass. When the Inuit identify one of them in their midst they take the sociopath to the edge of the ice pack and kick him off. Not every selfish pain in the ass is a true sociopath, but a handful of your acquaintances are. Only twenty percent of the prison population are sociopaths, which works out to there being more of them outside of prison than in. Makes you think.
While you're thinking, go ahead and buy this book. Ms. Stout writes very entertainingly, whether she's describing the sociopaths you love to hate, or explaining Stanley Milgram's experiments, those horror shows that demonstrated how good people will accept and carry out evil instructions from a sociopathic authority figure. Unless we're careful, we could all be Nazis, but not all of us are sociopaths. And if the idea of being perceived as a sociopath causes you shame, relax. You aren't one. True sociopaths are incapable of feeling shame.