The Sociopath Next Door? Probably Not

Clearly the LoveFraud community, better than anyone, can testify to the reality of sociopaths and the damage they can inflict on others.

Sociopaths exist. That is inarguable. The sociopath is someone, as we know, with a grossly deficient respect for the integrity and boundaries of others; someone who sizes others up principally as assets to be exploited for his or her own whims and needs. The sociopath is a remorseless user and taker.

At the same time, I think it’s worth noting that sociopathy, in general, makes for sensational copy, as a result of which estimations of its incidence in the general population are at risk, I would argue, of being dubiously, irresponsibly inflated.

Martha Stout, for instance, in her formerly bestselling The Sociopath Next Door, an otherwise rather unoriginal (in my view) layman’s introduction to sociopaths, capitalizes and, I suggest, exploits a spicy subject by suggesting that as much as 4% of the general population may meet criteria for sociopathy.

It’s unclear exactly how Stout derives her figure, but it strikes me (at best) as questionable, and more likely, as reckless. Certainly it’s in Stout’s interest, as an author, to sensationalize sociopathy, the better for her book sales. And a good way to do this, indisputably, is to suggest bloated numbers of sociopaths’ existence.

Four percent of the general population? Stout is suggesting that as many as one in 25 people with whom we cross paths may be sociopaths?

Even Robert Hare, Ph.D, the noted psychopathy researcher, estimates that upwards of 1% of the general population meets his very stingent criteria for psychopathy (psychopathy, in Hare’s terms, being synonymous with sociopathy). Compared to Stout’s figure, Hare’s seems much more reasonable. But even 1% strikes me as somewhat high.

These estimates suggest, for instance, that basically at any random gathering—in church, synagogue, a high-school basketball game, or town council meeting, you name it—we are likely to be sitting in proximity to a true sociopath, if not several?

It also suggests that, in the course of a day, or week, we’ll have crossed paths, if not rubbed elbows with, multiple sociopaths? Day after day, week after week, we are consistently crossing paths, if unknowingly, with sociopaths?

I struggle with this view, as someone who has clinically worked (and not irregularly, works) with sociopathic individuals.

My own gut, clinical and life experience leaves me suspicious that, as real and mumerically prevalent as sociopaths are, there is one sitting in every classroom on back to school night, and several in attendance at every school play?

As a matter of fact, I think possible exaggerations of the incidence of sociopathy do an injustice to the victims of real sociopaths. Nowadays, it’s common for anyone who deals with an insensitive, manipulative jerk to call that person a sociopath. You hear the label sociopath being permissively applied, in my view, to a wide range of people to whom it doesn’t accurately apply.

There has been a confusing, in my view, of sociopathy with other disorders, like narcissistic and borderline. Within personal relationships acts of aggressiveness, passive-aggressiveness, selfishness and abusiveness are now routinely (and liberally) ascribed to the offending partner’s sociopathy, as if a host of other explanatory sources of these problem-behaviors barely merits consideration.

Some individuals with borderline personality disorder, for instance, are capable of vengeful, cold-blooded behavior when they feel emotionally abandoned. A good example of a film portrayal of a borderline personality is Glenn Close’s performance in Fatal Attraction. Close could easily be misdiagnosed as a sociopath given her demonstated—and sociopathic-like—capacity for chilling, ruthless vengeance. But her desperation, and her rage stemming from her desperation, is a borderline personality tendency that better explains her calculated viciousness.

I’ve worked often with spouses of narcissistic personalities, who feel inordinately entitled to having their sensitivities and demands met. Narcissists will tend to react with an unsavory combination of contempt, rage, passive-aggressive and/or aggressive relatiation when disappointed (which is constantly). Often I’ll hear the spouses of such personalities refer to them as sociopaths, when their partners’ disturbance is more often related to narcissism than sociopathy.

My point, please don’t misunderstand me, isn’t to question the prevalence of true sociopathy—merely its estimated incidence as proposed by some experts. As a matter of fact, it’s highly unlikely that your next door neighbor is a sociopath, yet the title of Stout’s book would have you virtually anticipate this possibility.

Make no mistake, there are many ways that neighbors can makes themselves our nightmares without being sociopaths. When I lived in Mill Valley, CA in 2000, we had a neighbor who threw (I’m not kidding) a large, dead rat over the fence separating our properties into our backyard as I played catch with my lab. The rat landed with a sickening thud in front of my left foot, just as I about to make another heave of the frisbee. My courageous response, naturally, was to shriek like a terrified three year old.

This was just the latest in a series of hostile actions this neighbor took to express his displeasure with our existence. Was he a sociopath? I’m sure I called him one, and was convinced he was, but he probably wasn’t. He might have been a sociopath, that’s certainly possible; but as creepy as his action (and he) was, I’d hedge my bets that another problem better explained his belligerence. Maybe paranoia? Maybe some malignant form of acted-out narcissism? I’ll never know.

I do know that if this ever happens to me again—a rat’s being thrown into my yard while I’m standing there minding my own business—it will probably be more than my heart can take.

(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)

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120 Comments on "The Sociopath Next Door? Probably Not"

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Ana – good for you, keep it up. defend the ramparts!

she is looking for you to support her behavior with her husband – blank face and retreat. ‘oh, i have to go’. again and again.

Thank you One Step that is a good piece of advise! I will use it too.


good luck with it Ana – and check in and ask for support or feedback; someone will always have an idea!

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