Revisiting Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”


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.

6 responses

  1. I recall reading the Sociopath Next Door a few years ago, when I was trying to unravel and understand what was happening to me at work. This was before I had ever heard of workplace mobbing and bullying. It was this book and other articles and research that actually led me to understand mobbing, bullying and the tactics employed in these hostile workplace environments. My personal experience leads me to believe, sociopathic behaviors can be described on a continuum or spectrum. I have observed in my own experience that the “real” sociopath was a puppet master, who manipulated others to do harm.

  2. I agree with you David in that sociopaths are exceptionally bright. They would have to be in order to be so manipulative and scheming. I have had the unfortunate experience of encountering two individuals in the workplace who held quite high positions. I did not recognize the first one who nearly destroyed me but after that experience, the second one was quite easy to spot and I knew enough to run away before the worst harm could be done. I find it troubling that this is so prevalent in our society and often the confident, charming yet superficial people are the ones who make their way to the top at the expense of others.

  3. Dear David,
    Note: I agree with the Harvard authors of Almost a Psychopath. The behavior of these types, from my experience, seems a little too “baked-in”, and thus a bit sicker than just sociopathic.

    Even worse than the socio-psychopaths themselves are the stuck-in-the-dark-ages legal and psych community enablers and apologists for workplace bullying and mobbing socio-psychopaths. If the legal and psych community so-called experts are to retain their licenses, they should be required to spend 100 hours reading everything you and the Namies have written, and be given spot exams on the material by bullying and mobbing target/victim sufferers. I’m on my way right now to administer several spot exams to lawyers and psych types who need a little heads-up. Ha!

    I mean some of these ignorant lawyers and psych types are beyond pathetic. The last couple of days I reread your blog on PTED and all the responses. Too many in our communities with respect to workplace instances of PTSD and PTED put the emphasis on the individuals’ psychological “disorder” in a kind Fundamental Attribution Error and paternalistic kind of way. What about the circumstances, the environment, and the big picture gestalt of the socio-psychopaths’ injuring of others, huh? And what about employees’ natural bitterness to being injured, annnd…with no cause of action with which to confront the workplace terrorists and tormentors!? Talk about injustice!

    If there are some therapies able to help target/victims suffering from workplace caused psychological disorders, that’s great! But for my money these “disorders” are the result of deliberate, and with malice, tortious injuries, with the onus being on preventing injury in the first place, and secondly, on punishing those socio-psychopaths who perpetrate these injuries against another employee. And why, here in America, we allow bullying socio-psychopaths to continue to inflict harmful, painful, unnecessary, destructive and atrocious injuries on people—people who just want to enjoy their work without the sick-puppy sociopaths wreaking tortious injuries on them, is beyond me.

    First priority—a legal cause of action so that these cases of workplace tortious, injurious behavior can be publicly adjudicated. Second priority—old-world style “good offices” help for those who have lost their job due to workplace injuries perpetrated by socio-psychopaths and their enablers and apologists.

  4. I think Charles has hit the nail on the head: our internet-enabled, socially-connected but physically disconnected and highly mobile society enables sociopathic-like behavior, especially among cohorts of similarly ODD/OCD impaired adults, who may have participated in social bullying-as-sport in public school, and who continue this behavior as adults. They may be part of a larger social network that practices internet bullying on social media platforms and in person, in the workplace, but also in their community.

    We have excellent evidence of large cohorts of young adults and adults who cooperated in community harassment and group stalking activity, especially when they receive payment (harassment-for-hire campaigns) or addictive pleasure in bullying perceived as ‘safe’ from law enforcement, discovery, etc. This behavior has been documented by Federal law-enforcement in HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas), as ‘snitch gangs’, groups of adults paid by drug cartels for ‘community policing’, eg., electronic and physical surveillance, on-road vehicular (aggressive driving, surrounding victims with similar vehicles to induce paranoia) drive-by activity (at victims residence) at workplace bullying, and retail area harassment. The most severe forms of harassment may extend to hacking a victims computer, phone/internet service, physical mail, break-in and home invasion with small item theft, gas-lighting, electronic surveillance and noise and bright light (‘brighting’) nightly to disturb sleep, and may, at it’s worst, include use of acoustic generators and microwave lasers to physically injure and hurt victims. These ‘no touch’ weapons have been banned in several states and are typically commercially available and relatively cheap technology. Federal law enforcement has fielded hundreds of thousands of reports (as of 2010) from victims, and most reports follow closely to scripted methods, so that the victim can be easily followed and harassed at distance, if they travel.

    This is a newer (approx 20-yr old) phenomena of organized crime driven by community drug money laundering, meant to reduce community opposition to drug use. Indeed, at least one form of payment is known to be illegally procured pharmaceutical narcotics and hard-core illegal narcotics (heroin, cocaine, meth).

    Thus, social isolation, oppositional defiant disorder and compulsive addiction to bullying, the use of drugs, and addiction to internet/online bullying may be enabling a surge of antisocial / bullying behavior that is felonious and believed by the perps, to be outside of legal jurisdictions.

    They are not: these groups are extensions of long-standing behaviors of antisocial behavior scripted and encouraged by anarchy – see the Wikipedia page on the 1930s-1940s Black Legion, as example. The present wave of organized crime is believed to be associated with Klan-type, state militia anarchist groups (aka Sovereign Citizens groups), detailed on the Southern Poverty Research Center’s website.

    It’s not possible at present to discern whether the connection between the anarchist-driven community watch and harassment campaigns alliance with the Drug and Crime cartels pre-dates the 1990s, when the Federal Government was cracking down hard on the worst of these groups, who were thought to be responsible for numerous attacks on ethnic minorities, civil rights workers, women/gay rights activists, etc.

  5. My personal (unsanctioned) suggestions based on experience…

    1. Pay attention to your anxiety. If the voice inside is shouting GET OUT, then get out. Quit. Cut your losses and leave.

    2. Don’t display emotion. They thrive on inflicting pain. If you don’t reveal pain, it’s no fun for them.

    3. Don’t engage. Psychopaths/sociopaths seem to crave connection, but not like normal people. Their relationships are all about taking and hurting. Get away from them and cut off all communication. Move. Change your number. Never engage.

    4. Remember that they are also in human bodies. They may want to convince you that they are powerful, but they’re constrained in human bodies too. They’re not boogiemen, just poop heads.

    5. Don’t expect them to change. Whether the problem is a birth defect, genetic, environmental, social, possession, or some combination of the above, keep in mind that they do not change. No amount of love and understanding will fix whatever is missing. Save your empathy for the targets, not the perpetrators.

  6. David
    You have done so much to assist those who have been bullied & probably will never recover from being demeaned, verbally abused , humiliated, and have one’s personality re-defined to suit an abuser.
    But we need an all out effort to identify and address system issues in the workplace that are stacked against an employee especially legal & most especially the at will system of termination. What real protection does an employee have when he/she suffers the personal injury that is inflicted in what we call bullying? What systems protection need to be put in place that allow recourse when tha tactics of a bully and documented and identified.

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