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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 3

MIND Reviews: Confessions of a Sociopath

Books and recommendations from Scientific American MIND


Everyday Psychopaths: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight
M. E. Thomas
Crown, 2013 ($25)

Most of us don a poker face at one time or another to hide our emotional fragility. Sociopaths, a group that encompasses 1 to 4 percent of the population, may not require such a mask, because many of them do not experience intense emotions.

This character quirk does not make sociopaths dangerous criminals, despite their reputation. Sociopaths are sprinkled throughout our network of neighbors, co-workers and friends. In Confessions of a Sociopath, Thomas, a successful lawyer and clinically diagnosed sociopath, deepens our understanding of what it means to be a sociopath and provides a peek inside her own mind.

For instance, research shows that when faced with the threat of small electrical shocks or when shown disturbing images, sociopaths remain unfazed while their “normal” counterparts often wince with fear. Although the study implied that sociopaths' lack of empathy is a bad thing, Thomas saw this stone-cold, anxiety-proof demeanor as an asset, especially when tackling interviews or striving for a promotion.

She also assures us that sociopaths are not devoid of emotion as is commonly believed. Like children, sociopaths tend to put their own desires and well-being above those of others and often act on impulse without considering the repercussions. Thomas puts a positive spin on these attributes, noting that this self-confidence and drive are what allowed her to quickly climb the ranks at a prestigious law firm. Sociopaths also tend to have superior intelligence and creative skills as compared with their counterparts, she asserts.

Yet Thomas does admit that some of her sociopathic tendencies can be detrimental if left unchecked. In her early career, she bounced from job to job, unable to stay focused at one place for too long, and her tendency to try to manipulate co-workers got her into trouble.

She eventually found her niche in academia, teaching law to perhaps the next generation of sociopaths. After all, sociopaths are great liars, she boasts, and hence have the skills to win cases, no matter the cost.

The goal of Confessions is to redefine sociopathy—or at least to shake off the stigma associated with it. And Thomas accomplishes both. Through her honest portrayal of herself as a highly capable yet deeply flawed individual, she demystifies her disorder. She becomes like any other person struggling through disappointment and striving for success.

This article was originally published with the title "Everyday Psychopaths."

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