Over a decade ago, Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) introduced me to a statistic that adorns its cover: Roughly 1 in 25 Americans is a sociopath, meaning that four percent of the U.S. population has “no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty.”
Sociopaths are typically characterized by deceitful, manipulative, and aggressive behaviors, as well as a lack of remorse after having mistreated another living being. The absence of conscience, and the ramifications for personal behavior, are continuing themes in the book.
Stout adds that sociopaths often display “a glib and superficial charm” or “a kind of glow or charisma” that draws in others. Indeed, people may fall for that very charm and charisma, only to find out the horrible truth after some damage has been done. It happens in personal relationships and work situations alike.
The composite stories contained in The Sociopath Next Door emphasize social settings over employment scenarios, but make no mistake: You’ll find plenty of sociopaths in workplaces, and it’s likely that a disproportionate share of them harness their powers of manipulation and charm to climb up the ladder faster than the rest of us. This is especially the case in organizations that are prone to fall for style over substance in selecting their leaders.
Although I’ve personally encountered only a few probable sociopaths during the course of my life, the work I do has led me to learn about plenty of individuals who fit the bill. Based on these personal and vicarious encounters, I find that effective sociopaths are very, very smart — perhaps taking slight issue with Dr. Stout’s observation that they come in both bright and not-so-bright varieties. They also have a remarkable capacity for scheming, plotting, and filing away information for future use.
Recently I’ve spent some time re-familiarizing myself with The Sociopath Next Door, and it still sends a chill up my spine. It is telling that Dr. Stout has no magic answers for how to deal with the subjects of her study. Regrettably, I have concluded that in order to navigate the actions of a sociopath, one sometimes must try to think like one. For better or worse, this vividly insightful book will help you get there.