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Sociopath Next Door

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Hypothetical Case:

“She met him at a party. He was handsome and charming and she felt flattered by the things he said to her. Almost at once, she found herself falling in love. They started going out and she was increasingly mesmerized by the flattering things he told her. After seeing each other for 6 months, he proposed marriage. She brought him home to meet the family and they were equally charmed. The only problem she could see was that he was a divorced man with two children but he insisted that he was free and clear other than having to pay alimony and child support. She dismissed this. After all, he was such a good man that his divorce must have been one of those unfortunate things.”

Ultimately, she was never married to him despite having a child together. He took little interest in the child, visited once every two weeks from the time she was born and insisted that he take the child home to stay over night at his mother’s house. This once charming man seemed to have no regard for her feelings or dilemma. Now, he had two children from his divorce, one with her and, as he informed her, was starting a relationship with another woman. What kind of man was this?

I want to recommend a book written by psychologist, Martha Stout, entitled “The Sociopath Next Door.” While the book was written in 2005 it remains fresh and relevant today as it was then. Her title for the book is no accident. She points out that most people think of the sociopath, or psychopath, as the Hannibal Lector type of person who is a blood thirsty serial murderer. Stout points out that, in fact, most sociopaths are people who do not commit murders at all but are, nevertheless, psychopaths who we just do not recognize. In effect, many of them are the people who live “next door.” According to Stout one in every one hundred people, or, 4% of the population, are sociopaths. Some are wealthy and powerful while others are average or below average members of the community. Some work and others feed off of the generosity of others like a parasites. 

Perhaps the most difficult for the rest of us to understand is that the sociopath has absolutely no conscience. In other words, they are without any sense of morality or guilt. The cannot and do not empathize with others and how they feel. When most of us look at other people we feel a sense of commonality and shared humanity. That is why we find it difficult to believe that there is a type of person who does not share the kind of compassion and connectedness that characterizes most of humanity.

Stout’s description includes the fact that these people know how to hide who they are by pretending or acting as if they care about others. They know the right things to say and the right facial and vocal expressions to use while, in actuality feeling nothing. What they do best is to lie, manipulate and make use of others. Most of this is in the service of trying to win some type of game that they have fun at. A good example was Bernie Madoff who concocted a Ponzi scheme to steal the life savings and earnings of people while convincing them that they were making good investments. He did this without remorse or guilt. All that mattered was that he reached the hight of fame and power. He appeared on news programs doing interviews where he explained to the average citizen how to invest money. All the time he presented a false self. He was a man who did not succeed through hard work but who accumulated billions through theft. He left countless numbers of victims, ordinary citizens, without any money left in their bank accounts. For many, that represented their life savings.

No one knows what causes sociopathy except that there is accumulating evidence that it stems from parts of the brain that are abnormal. In other words, it’s a biological problem that may be inherited. Early life experiences, such as having been abused, may contribute to worsening the sociopathy.

We often from reporters covering nationally prominent trials for murder and other crimes that, when given their sentences, the guilty show no emotional reaction, even to the death penalty. That is a good symptom that the person who is found guilty is a sociopath.

However, Stout is quick to point out that most sociopaths are not criminals and make up only 20% percent of the prison population. That is how good they are at covering up who they are and how they manipulate others.

In the case discussed above, the man was a sociopath who enjoyed playing games with people’s lives. He enjoyed winning these women over, having sex with them, getting them pregnant and making them dependent on him. He had no sense of conscience, no concern about what problems these women faced and no interest in the children. His wish to have them over for sleep overs at his mother’s house was no more than what he experienced as a fun manipulation.

Have you had dealings with a sociopath, either in your marriage, at work or with a neighbor. Share your experiences here. Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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