In my recent post, “Blame the Victim,” I joked that a diet of TV crime shows may be turning me into a sociopath. But the notion is not as outrageous as it may seem.

Psychologist Martha Stout, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School for 25 years, estimates in her book The Sociopath Next Door that as many as 4% of the population are conscienceless sociopaths who have no empathy or affectionate feelings for others.

Four percent might not sound like much, but using the US as an example, this means that 12.9 million Americans are sociopaths. And, according to Dr. Stout, that number appears to be increasing.

The 1991 Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, reported that in the fifteen years preceding the study the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder (APD) had nearly doubled among the young in America.

In the older DSM-IV, the prevalence of APD in a community sample is about 3% for males and about 1% for females, but just because one has APD does not mean he or she is a sociopath. A sociopath is even more extreme than someone with APD.

Defining terms isn’t easy, and definitions often aren’t precise or universally accepted by experts. The terms sociopath and psychopath can be equivalent in many contexts, yet the latter has a Charles Manson connotation. As Dr. Stout says, most sociopaths do not usually look like the deranged Manson—they look like the respectable rest of us. In fact, they have often developed charm and skills that allow them to hide in plain sight.

One of the foremost experts on psychopathy today is psychologist Robert Hare. He estimates that about 50%-75% of the prison population meet criteria for APD, and 15%-25% exceed the cut-off point for psychopathy.

Of course, not all sociopaths are dangerous criminals. But they certainly can make life difficult, given that the defining characteristic of sociopathy is antisocial behavior.

Stout says that America, which holds individualism as a central value, has become a breeding ground for sociopaths. But this isn’t the only factor in American culture which makes the US a breeding ground.

As discovered by Robert Putnam (famous for his 2000 book, Bowling Alone), ethnic and racial diversity reduce trust and social cohesion. Heterogeneous societies lose their aura of connectedness, sociopaths thrive not only because any communitarian brakes on their behavior are removed, but also because the culture begins to value and exalt sociopaths’ very special talents. Homogeneous societies such as Japan and China have the lowest incidence of sociopathy, ranging from 0.03% to 0.14%.

As American culture becomes more atomized and unraveled, we can therefore expect sociothapy to become more prevalent.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Skints performing “Sociopath”


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