Has Martha Stout been watching too much "Buffy"? Salon readers sound off about speed and sociopaths.

By Salon Staff
Published March 28, 2005 5:36PM (EST)

[Read "The Devil Wore J. Crew," by Sara Eckel.]

As a professor of psychology, I could not help but respond to Sara Eckel's interview with Martha Stout. Principally, I was disappointed by Stout's argument regarding the prevalence of "sociopathy."

In the interview, Stout acknowledges that there is little clear evidence regarding the prevalence of sociopathy in the general population. Nevertheless, she argues for a prevalence of "approximately 4 percent." In the absence of reliable data, she bases this approximation on her own conclusions (which are based on assumptions regarding the equivalence of sociopathy across gender that are not necessarily supported by existing data) and on the "off the record" observations of her colleagues.

I do not wish to argue the 4 percent statistic here -- it may very well be accurate. Instead, it is the method by which Stout arrives at this statistic that must be criticized. By making her argument in the way that she has, Stout conveys to her readers the message that in the absence of reliable data, it is appropriate for psychologists to draw conclusions based on their own intuitions and on the anecdotal evidence of their friends. This is not good science and, therefore, it is not good psychology.

One of the great challenges facing teachers of psychology is helping people to understand that what they might believe is true of human behavior based on their own impressions and on the anecdotes of others may not be so. Far from helping to dispel this notion, Stout instead carelessly undermines it in just a few sentences. As such, she does a disservice to her field and to her readers.

-- Jennifer Vitale

I enjoyed reading "The Devil Wore J. Crew" until I got to Stout's bizarre blanket assessment that "East Asian countries" generally have fewer sociopaths because "individual winning is not considered the appropriate goal" in the "East." While the idea that "my people" in general suffer fewer sociopaths is a charming one, I hate it when I read things like this in the American press. I grew up in an East Asian country (though I'm Korean, and maybe Koreans are more sociopathic than Chinese or Japanese in Stout's opinion) and came to the U.S. for college. It irks me that people here just posit whatever they want about that morass of people "over there" in the "East." Stout specifies "China and Japan, in particular" as though she's actually considered Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan ... Please.

Throughout my 18 years growing up in a Korean home in Korea, life for many of us was all about individual winning. Just as a brief example: Every time we took a test, the teacher would post the top 10 grades by name and score. Everyone knew who the top scorers at school were. Students never shared notes, and never studied together, nor worked on projects together. Moreover, I am sure that there are many, many environments in the U.S. where families and whole communities emphasize group well-being over fighting for the top seat or prize. Stout needs to be more sensitive to her tendency to overgeneralize about cultures she has not studied or lived in. I hope she doesn't have patients of East Asian descent.

-- Sukyong Suh

I thought this article was fascinating. I've long thought that we worship sociopaths and sociopathic behavior in the West. We tend to admire people who can take without blinking. Until now, we've been reluctant to survey the damage wrought privately by these people, however. If we did, we might have to give up our cheap stuff. I've also thought that politics and the Republican Party specifically (at this point in time) have been safe harbors for sociopaths (paging Wolfie, Dick, Rummy and, most especially, Dubya). Perhaps one day, our society will recognize these sick people for who and what they are.

-- K.E.

What Martha Stout appears to be suggesting is that the sociopath is defined by his or her acts, and can be most often identified by some form of malevolency. This doesn't address the question of whether sociopathy might not exist independently of overt markers -- it assumes that sociopaths not only are morally featureless but are inclined to act out in some fashion.

I've often wondered whether there might just as easily exist any number of variations on that particular personality trait that might never manifest, or only in situations of duress, where a certain kind of high-level practicality might be needed. In other words, Ed Gein, Audie Murphy and Bartleby the Sociopath might be neighbors in her J. Crew world. In this light, sociopathy of one form or another might be far more common than Stout suggests, and it might make greater sense to create a gradation scale of some sort that helps future investigators decide what in fact actually distinguishes those with a conscience from those without, and perhaps serves to better define both.

-- Henry C. Beck

So, this author published her first book about recovered memories, dissociative disorders and multiple personalities -- all debunked, often in Salon, as iatrogenic hysteria. And now she wants us to believe that 25 out of every 100 people are clinically sociopathic, lacking any capacity for remorse or human pity? Please. People are so much more complicated than that. We may not contain multiple personalities, but we do contain multitudes, and the true motivation for abuse may be much more complex and elusive than a catch-all diagnosis. When Stout diagnoses abusive people as "sociopathic" or asks us to believe that upward of 4 percent of humanity are sociopaths, I just think she has been watching too much "Buffy."

-- Sara Rosenbaum

I concur with the author's findings. I would go so far as to state that perhaps the figure is as high as 6 percent.

I dated a sociopath. The "nicest" man you ever met -- goes out of his way to make people feel comfortable -- and the most manipulative, amoral, deceitful bastard you can imagine. He would lie without a qualm, look at you, in your eye, and lie.

Seemingly has no conscience, no compassion, and any good thing he does for anyone has a personal benefit tied in. Worse yet, he used people as props. Little figures on a chessboard that he would move around as he pleased.

It seems hereditary. The family is Republican, wealthy, with good old "conservative" Christian values -- yet they all seem to share a fundamental lack of compassion, or ability to empathize. It's so weird.

We were engaged for four years and lived together for three. Although there was never anything overt, my health declined, my mind seemed feeble, and my social network vanished. When I woke up and took a look at the detritus of my life, I was flummoxed. I ended the relationship and cut off all contact.

Yet for some reason, I reached him on a level that no one else did, because without giving him the slightest encouragement, he needed to please me. Perhaps because I saw through him to an extent that no one else ever has.

Now I'm better than ever. As will happen in the aftermath of trauma, being aware of what you have been through, facing it and making a conscious decision to grow from it, yields tremendous gains. My health has rebounded, my creativity and sense of humor are sharper, yet more nuanced, as is my profound appreciation for all my blessings. Realizing that what he did was not about me was the key.

Please withhold my name as I am writing a book about him.

-- Name withheld by request

I'm so glad to read the article "The Devil Wore J. Crew" about the sociopaths around us. While it may not seem like something to celebrate, the article clearly describes the problems with my dad. My brother and I have talked for years about why he lies constantly, how he never feels guilty for his cruelty, how much he has trapped our mother. I've often referred to him as having no good in him, as being simply a bad man. Being able to put some kind of clinical label on him, calling him a sociopath, helps I guess, gives me a reason to explain how awful he has been to us, even though never violent. His cruelty has a name, and it proves to me even more why he seems inhuman. Almost every detail in the article, from his surface charm to the point of small children being afraid of him, applies to him.

-- Stephen Potts

While reading Sara Eckel's article, "The Devil Wore J. Crew," on the new book by psychologist Martha Stout, Ph.D., "The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us," I was reminded of other articles and books about people without a conscience or compassion.

In an article in In These Times on Jan. 27, 2003, Kurt Vonnegut talks about "psychopathic personalities" described in "The Mask of Sanity" by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. His descriptions sound very similar to Dr. Stout's sociopaths. What Vonnegut makes abundantly clear is that many of our leaders seem to fit that diagnosis, especially George W. Bush, with his inability to feel anyone's pain and his lifelong history of ridiculing others. In a Rolling Stone article in August 2004, Garry Trudeau remembers Bush: "He could also make you feel extremely uncomfortable ... He was extremely skilled at controlling people and outcomes in that way. Little bits of perfectly placed humiliation." And let's not forget the oft-repeated tales of GWB blowing up frogs. Cruelty to animals as a child is a strong indicator that the child will grow up to be a sociopath, without any compassion for others. We should also remember how Bush mocked Karla Faye Tucker, one of the many people executed in Texas (more than any other governor) during Bush's regime, by sarcastically saying, "Please don't kill me."

I think Dr. Stout's new book has more to offer the nation than she may realize.

-- Kathleen Cunningham

I am appalled by a book claiming that 4 percent of the population are conscienceless, based on an individual estimate by a therapist. "How to Lie With Statistics" captures my main criticism quite neatly: "A psychiatrist reported once that practically everybody is neurotic. Whom has the psychiatrist been observing? It turns out he has reached this edifying conclusion from studying his patients, who are a long, long way from being a sample of the population. If a man were normal, our psychiatrist would never meet him." Stout studies her patients and prison inmates and assumes they are representative?

How can a clinician also claim things like "50 percent ... accounted for by heredity" with a straight face? I don't know any twin studies of sociopathy, let alone the implication that someone who lies to you three times is a sociopath. No wonder she finds so many! God forbid someone should tell her a white lie for purposes of politeness!

As a research psychologist and someone who evidently lives in a very different world, I am offended by the scary, paranoia-inducing nature of this book and this author.

-- Steve Kelner

I'm sure you will be deluged with letters from people like me, who've suffered at the hands of a sociopath. I'll refrain, but would like to add one more observation I suspect the author would agree with:

Sociopaths repel not only small children but animals. The sociopath formerly in my life would complain, genuinely, like a wounded lover, that her cat and dog "were mean to her" but nice to everyone else in the family. She acted as if they had had some complicated falling out (which might have involved the fact that she never fed them). My sweet cat, who swatted and hissed at her a couple of years ago, was similarly "a bad cat." I wish I had listened to my cat.

-- Name withheld by request

I have a small bone to pick with Sara Eckel's article "The Devil Wore J. Crew." The subheading of the article states, "A new book says that sociopaths aren't just Scott Peterson and BTK. They are your neighbors, bosses -- even therapists." I would like to point out that this is a poor juxtaposition because Scott Peterson and the BTK killer were neighbors, were seemingly ordinary folk living among the rest of us. Now, take Theodore Kaczynski -- sure, there's a guy we would all label a "sociopath" if we met him without knowing he was the Unabomber. But Peterson and BTK are obviously cases that illustrate Dr. Stout's thesis. Come on, Salon editors, stay on your toes!

-- Amy Barnes

[Read "Speed Demon," by James Maier.]

Thank you for giving us James Maier's article "Speed Demon." Every culture has its drugs, and the United States appears to be shifting heavily from alcohol use to antidepressants, speed and caffeine, as contemporary standards of workplace efficiency change our habits. Cultural drug analysis is one of the best and most overlooked means of looking at the material causes of national trends, and I commend Salon for publishing regarding an issue that others tend to ignore.

-- John Ring

As a drug and alcohol counselor, I am upset to see among your great stories a piece like this (there have been others as well) that glorifies drug use in the way that addicts in early treatment smile and minimize their substance abuse and dependence. I get the feeling that your editorial staff thinks it is cool and harmless. I find it boring; or, as they say in AA or NA: Nobody wants to hear someone else's "drunkalogue" or "drugalogue." Spare us. Give the space to someone who has something clearheaded and interesting to say. Don't glorify drugs. Families in the U.S. are paved with cruelty, abuse of all kinds including incest, unemployment, crime, etc. Drugs are not pretty or helpful or funny. Grow up.

-- Nancy

Wonderful article! Thanks for the insights, and the chance to be grateful. (I, too, am a near escapee from that lovely high-low prison, though I only recently gave up coffee and have just started thinking about sugar -- we speed addicts are clever about finding substitutes!)

One thing, though. When your author writes, about lying to his girlfriend and breaking their pact to quit, "That kind of damage may not be the kind that can ever be fully repaired," I need to demur. You can heal those rifts over time, and come back to perfect trust. It takes patience and determination, but it's worth it.

-- Jezra Kaye

Oh boohoo for James "Pseudonym" Maier. He had to sit in a car in a bad neighborhood for a couple of hours while his connection was inside a warehouse scoring him some illicit crystal methamphetamine? And then, some ruffians mad-dogged him while he was sitting in the car? Then to top it all off, his wife got mad at him for doing drugs after he said he wouldn't? Sounds like a pretty tough way to bottom out. Not.

I would have preferred to hear more of Maier's musings about our culture's love of life in the fast lane and how that relates to a rise in meth use. Now that would have been something worth exploring for two or three pages. Instead I was bored into wanting to do a line of meth myself to keep from falling asleep by his tale of yet another wussy white kid on drugs who happens to know how to string a couple of sentences together.

Maier really didn't have it that hard, and what he did have in the way of a good time wasn't relevant enough to the points he was trying to make.

-- Shannon O'Leary

Whoa! "James Maier's" piece on speed brought back some chilling experiences for me. When I was doing it, all I wanted to do was have enough energy to get all the things done I knew I needed to do. One of those things was get up early every Saturday morning and mow the Little League diamonds. I too knew I was dancing with the dark side, but my intentions were pure and I was a smart guy -- I could handle this. Maier's rationalizations were exactly what I was thinking. I haven't had those thoughts in years and to read his words was downright spooky.

-- Name withheld by request

I was mildly interested in the article about the freelance journalist and his experiences with speed. But what a letdown at the bottom of the story, when I read that James Maier was just a pseudonym.

In other words, maybe "James Maier" just made the whole thing up. How is the reader supposed to know he didn't? Articles by people using fake names have zero credibility, and I am disappointed that you would use one.

-- Michael Gavin

Salon Staff

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