Some time ago I borrowed the book, The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D., from a friend of mine, also a psychologist, who recommended it for its unique take on Sociopathy. It is a warning to unsuspecting readers that some of the world's most destructive individuals are not behind bars, but are our neighbors, parents, spouses, teachers, children, co-workers and friends. The author suggests that approximately 4 percent of the population suffers from Antisocial Personality Disorder, which she refers to as the "condition of missing conscience" and alternatively as "Sociopathy". Although some researchers will disagree with her interchangeable use of the two terms, such an argument, albeit worthwhile, does not detract from the message delivered in The Sociopath Next Door.
Dr. Stout begins by asking the reader to imagine a world where they have no conscience thereby freeing them from, among other downers, guilt, shame, remorse and concern for others. She then asks the reader to imagine, if they were able to conceal this psychological flaw from others, how they might live. They would, after all, be free to seek all the power, money and influence they desired, in the quickest, crudest and most ruthless way without the nagging burden of doing what is right. Or, maybe, Dr. Stout says, you are not ambitious, but seek only to relax and live as carefree as possible from the goodwill of others. Without conscience, you would be free from the guilt and shame that traditionally comes from being a freeloader.
The world Dr. Stout is asking the reader to imagine is the world of a Sociopath. This is not Hollywood's version of a Sociopath, the social recluse with the transparently frightening demeanor, but a real snake in the grass. It is your beautiful and tormented best friend, your overworked and stressed out spouse or your down on her luck mother. Dr. Stout upends the reader's notion of a Sociopath; warning that the real tell tale sign is not fear but pity. She states, "The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy."
The pity play or attempt to appeal to the sympathy of others was also addressed in research conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections and The Hazelden Foundation (2002). There, researchers concluded that criminal thinkers most often attempt to control others by portraying themselves as a victim, turning to fear tactics only when the victim stance fails to get them what they want.
The act of eliciting pity from another unequivocally makes the elicitor something to be pitied, a victim, per se. It is human nature to aid the pitied. Hence, the pity play, or victim stance, stands to get the Sociopath what he or she wants easily and without being found out as a bad guy. This is manipulation. Manipulation is the tool of choice for smart criminal thinkers and, according to Dr. Stout, the Sociopaths amongst us. She says, "Sociopaths have no regard whatsoever for the social contract, but they do know how to use it to their advantage. And all in all, I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him."