I suspect nothing in this book can be trusted. Still, it is one of the more stimulating reads of the year, though I have to be careful not to draw serious inferences from it. Does its possible fictionality make it easier to create so many interesting passages?:
I can seem amazingly prescient and insightful, to the point that people proclaim that no one else has ever understood them as well as I do. But the truth is far more complex and hinges on the meaning of understanding. In a way, I don’t understand them at all. I can only make predictions based on the past behavior they’ve exhibited to me, the same way computers determine whether you’re a bad credit risk based on millions of data points. I am the ultimate empiricist, and not by choice.
The author argues that sociopaths are often very smart, have a lot of natural cognitive advantages in manipulating data, and are frequently sought out as friends for their ability to appeal to others. It is claimed that, ceteris paribus, we will stick with the sociopath buddies, as we are quite ready to use sociopaths to suit our own ends, justly or not. It is claimed that for all of their flaws, many but not all sociopaths are capable of understanding what is in essence the contractarian case for being moral — rational self-interest — and sticking with it. Citing some research in the area (pdf), the author speculates that sociopaths may have an “attention bottleneck,” so they do not receive the cognitive emotional and moral feedback which others do, unless they decide very consciously to focus on a potential emotion. For sociopaths, top down processing of emotions is not automatic.
We even learn that (supposedly) sociopaths are often infovores. It seems many but not all sociopaths are relatively conscientious, and the author of this book (supposedly) teaches Sunday school and tithes ten percent to the church. It just so happens sociopaths sometimes think about killing or destroying other people, without feeling much in the way of remorse.
I can also recommend this book as an absorbing memoir of a law professor and also of a Mormon outlier. It is written at a high level of intelligence, and it details how to get good legal teaching evaluations, how to please colleagues, how to evade Mormon proscriptions on sex before marriage, and it offers an interesting hypothesis as to why sociopaths tend to be more sexually flexible than the average person (hint: think more systematically about what abnormal or weakened top-down processing of emotions might mean in other spheres of life).
The author argues that sociopaths can do what two generations of econometricians have only barely managed, namely to defeat the efficient markets hypothesis and earn systematically super-normal returns. What does it say about me that I find this the least plausible claim in the entire book?
Here is a useful New York Times review. Here is the author’s blog, which is about being a sociopath, or about pretending to be a sociopath, or perhaps both. Here is the book on Amazon and note how many readers hated it. I say they just don’t like sociopaths.
One hypothesis is that this book is a stunt, designed as an experiment in one’s ability to erase or conceal an on-line identity, although I would think a major publisher (Crown) is not up for such tricks these days. An alternative is that a sociopath — not the one portrayed in the book — is trying to frame an innocent person as the author of the book (some trackable identity clues are left), noting that the book itself discusses at length plans to destroy others for various (non-justified) reasons. Or is it a Straussian critique of the Mormon Church for (supposedly) encouraging sociopathic-related character traits in its non-sociopath members? Or all of the above?
You will note that the book’s opening diagnosis comes from an actual clinical psychologist in the area, and the Crown legal department would have no interest in misrepresenting him in this manner. So the default hypothesis has to be that this book represents some version of the truth, at least as seen through the author’s eyes.
Some version of the author, wearing a blonde wig it seems, appeared on the Dr. Phil show, to the scorn of Phil I might add.
I cannot evaluate the scientific claims in this book, and would I trust the literature on sociopaths anyway, given that the author claims it is subject to the severe selection bias of having more access to the sociopathic losers and criminals? (I buy this argument, by the way.) It did occur to me however, that for the rehabilitation of sociopaths, whether through books or other means, perhaps they should consider…a rebranding exercise? But wait, “Sorry, I could not find synonyms for ‘sociopath’.”
If nothing else, this book will wake you up as to how little you (probably) know about sociopaths.