The Sociopath Next Door (Stout)

Who are likely to be the most unethical people in business and society?




Who is the devil you know?

Is it your lying, cheating ex-husband?
Your sadistic high school gym teacher?
Your boss who loves to humiliate people in meetings?
The colleague who stole your idea and passed it off as her own?

In the pages of The Sociopath Next Door, you will realise that your ex was not just misunderstood. He’s a sociopath. And your boss, teacher and colleague? They may be sociopaths too.

We are accustomed to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but in The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard psychologist Martha Stout reveals that a shocking 4 percent of ordinary people—one in twenty-five—has an often undetected mental disorder, the chief symptom of which is that that person possesses no conscience. He or she has no ability whatsoever to feel shame, guilt or remorse. One in twenty-five everyday Americans, therefore, is secretly a sociopath. They could be your colleague, your neighbour, even family. And they can do literally anything at all and feel absolutely no guilt.

How do we recognise the remorseless? One of their chief characteristics is a kind of glow or charisma that makes sociopaths more charming or interesting than the other people around them. They’re more spontaneous, more intense, more complex, or even sexier than everyone else, making them tricky to identify and leaving us easily seduced.

The fact is, we all almost certainly know at least one or more sociopaths already. Part of the urgency in reading The Sociopath Next Door is the moment when we suddenly recognise that someone we know—someone we worked for, or were involved with, or voted for—is a sociopath.

It is the Ruthless versus the Rest of us, and The Sociopath Next Door will show you how to recognise and defeat the devil you know.




He is charming… and underneath it all being incapable of gratitude toward anyone. He lies artfully and constantly, with absolutely no sense of guilt that might give him away in body language or facial expression.

He is deceitful and manipulative. He can be impulsively aggressive with a reckless disregard for the safety of others… He is not genuinely interested in bonding with anyone, he is consistently irresponsible, and he has no remorse. The only thing [he] really wants is to win

He cannot love, cannot worry about other people. He cares nothing for others… [He] does not spend any time searching for someone to love. He cannot love. He does not worry about friends or family members who may be sick or in trouble, because he cannot worry about other people.

He cares nothing for others, and so he cannot enjoy telling his parents or his wife about his many successes in the business world. He can have dinner with whomever he pleases, but he cannot share the moment with anyone at all. And when his children were born, he was not scared, but neither was he excited. He can derive no real joy from being with them, or from watching them grow up.

But there is one thing he can do, and he does this one thing better than almost anyone else: He is brilliant at winning. He can dominate. He can bend others to his will… Life is reduced to a contest, and other human beings seem to be nothing more than game pieces, to be moved about, used as shields, or ejected… From his perspective, all that mattered was playing the game. Controlling others — winning — is more compelling than anything (or anyone) else.”…

Strategies and payoffs are the only thrills he knows, and he has spent his entire life getting better at the game. For [him], the game is everything, and though he is too shrewd to say so, he thinks the rest, of us are naive and stupid for not playing it his way. And this is exactly what happens to the human mind when emotional attachment and conscience are missing. Life is reduced to a contest, and other human beings seem to be nothing more than game pieces, to be moved about, used as shields, or ejected.

The methods sociopaths dream up to control others — the schemes contrived to ensure “wins” — are quite various, and only a few of them have to do with physical violence. After all, violence is conspicuous, and unless performed against the utterly powerless, such as children or animals, it is likely to get the perpetrator caught. In any case, though they are horrifying when they occur, brutal murders are not the likeliest result of conscience-less-ness.

Rather, the game is the thing. The prize to be won can run the gamut from world domination to a free lunch, but it is always the same game — controlling, making others jump, “winning.”

Sociopaths are infamous for their refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the decisions they make, or for the outcomes of their decisions… People without conscience provide endless examples of such stunning “I’ve done nothing wrong” statements…Instead, when confronted with a destructive outcome clearly of their doing, they will say, plain and simple, “I never did that” and will to all appearances believe their own direct lie.

His iciness is fundamentally scary. Even if you know about him, know what his heart is like, and have caught on to his modus operandi, how will you call him out? Whom can you possibly tell, and what will you say?

“He’s a liar”?


(p5) Whatever your job, you manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb, as often and as outrageously as you can without getting fired or held accountable. You do this for its own sake, even when it serves no purpose except to give you a thrill. Making people jump means you have power — or this is the way you see it — and bullying provides you with an adrenaline rush. It is fun.

Maybe you cannot be the CEO of a multinational corporation, but you can frighten a few people, or cause them to scurry around like chickens, or steal from them, or — maybe best of all — create situations that cause them to feel bad about themselves. And this is power, especially when the people you manipulate are superior to you in some way.

Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable. This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance. And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do. You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’s boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.

(p11) Except for the psychopathic monsters we sometimes see on television, whose actions are too horrific to explain away, conscienceless people are nearly always invisible to us.

We are keenly interested in how smart we are, and in the intelligence level of other people. The smallest child can tell the difference between a girl and a boy. We fight wars over race. But as to what is possibly the single most meaningful characteristic that divides the human species — the presence or absence of conscience — we remain effectively oblivious.

Very few people, no matter how educated they are in other ways, know the meaning of the word sociopathic. Far less do they understand that, in all probability, the word could be properly applied to a handful of people they actually know. And even after we have learned the label for it, being devoid of conscience is impossible for most human beings to fantasise about.

In fact, it is difficult to think of another experience that quite so eludes empathy…

(p15) The book is also my attempt to warn good people about “the sociopath next door,” and to help them cope. As a psychologist and as a person, I have seen far too many lives nearly obliterated by the choices and acts of a conscienceless few. These few are both dangerous and remarkably difficult to identify.

Given the radically contradictory behaviour we witness every day, we must talk openly about both extremes of human personality and behaviour. Only by seeking to discover the nature of ruthlessness can we find the many ways people can triumph over it, and only by recognising the dark can we make a genuine affirmation of the light.

It is my hope that this book will play some part in limiting the sociopath’s destructive impact on our lives. As individuals, people of conscience can learn to recognise “the sociopath next door,” and with that knowledge work to defeat his entirely self-interested aims. At the very least, they can protect themselves and their loved ones from his shameless manoeuvrings.


(p95) Being targeted by a sociopath is a very frightening experience, even when that sociopath is not of the violent variety… In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming new husband… Of course, no one believes Bergman about the noises in the attic or the gaslight or much of anything else, and her gradual descent into doubting her own reality has found its way into English idiom as “to be gaslighted.” Boyer is not violent. He never strikes Bergman. Much more sinister — he causes her to lose faith in her own perceptions. To suspect, and to try to explain to others that one has been targeted by a sociopath, is to be gaslighted.

(p139) Sociopaths are fearless and superior warriors, snipers, undercover assassins, special operatives, vigilantes and hand-to-hand specialists, because they experience no horror while killing (or while ordering killing) and no guilt after the deed is done.

(p188) Laboratory experiments using electric shocks and loud noises have found that even the physiological reactions (sweating, racing heart, and so forth) normally associated with anxious anticipation and learned fear are far less pronounced in sociopaths. For adequate stimulation, sociopaths have only their games of domination, and these games get old and stale very quickly. Like drugs, the games have to be done over and over, larger and better, and depending on the resources and talents of the particular sociopath, this may not be possible. And so in sociopathy, the pain of boredom can be nearly constant… And so sociopaths are often addicts in the usual sense, in addition to being figuratively addicted to risk…

(p190) For the obvious reason of unremitting self-interest, people without conscience make lousy team players. The sociopath is out for himself alone. When he deals with another person, or with a group of people, he attempts to do so by lies, flattery and the creation of fear…

Extracted from Stout, Barbara: The Sociopath Next Door, Broadway Books / Random House, 2005