These days, with the abundance of books, movies, and television programs available on demand for instant entertainment, our knowledge tends to be informed by popular culture. Because of this, our intake of the dramatic simplification of most topics is outweighed drastically by factual representation.
With this in mind, it is no wonder that most of us envision dangerous people as wild-eyed lunatics noticeable a mile way, disheveled madmen that are encountered far and few between. As Martha Stout demonstrates in The Sociopath Next Door, there are people capable of unimaginable atrocities all around us, and not only do they appear like everyone else, but they might even be less conspicuous than one would hope.
If Good and Evil are opposites of the same coin, and Good people are those who care and feel for others, then it stands to reason that evil exists as people lacking the ability to care or love. These people exist, cold and calculating sociopaths unfettered by the restrictions of guilt or conscious, and they do so in alarming numbers reaching epidemic proportions. 4% of the US population are afflicted with Sociopathic Personalities, far greater than those afflicted with cancer. Meaning one out of every twenty-five people you meet feel no remorse or regret, and are capable of anything.
Martha Stout's book strikes an elegant balance between clinical facts and anecdotal examples, making this book an easy read that manages not to come off as either a fluffy fear-mongering diatribe or a stuffy jargon-laden medical tome. The examples created from personal case studies perfectly illustrate the points of each chapter, but don't detract from the factual or philosophical topics discussed. Despite chapters warning of the realities of the sociopaths among us, such as their alarming ability to blend in and even charm us into their confidence, her tone never reaches an alarmist level. This is a book that informs and prepares, without instilling false hope or blind panic in its audience. Also, while this topic is heavy with emotion, Stout never descends into supermarket tabloid prose. Apart from a slight detour into 9/11, which almost has no bearing on the topic at hand, the examination of the origins and ramifications of the human conscious remain informative and exploratory without becoming preachy. Especially interesting is the chapter that delves into the nature vs. nurture debate, in which she examines the genetic, environmental, and cultural influences that can help create or subdue a growing child's sociopathic tendencies.
If you have ever witnessed someone behaving extraordinarily ruthlessly or cruelly, and have wondered how someone could even bring themselves to act in such a manner, this book will go a long way towards satisfying your curiosity.
Reviewed by S. Michael Wilson