Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Sociopath's Guide to the Universe. Part 1.

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on the similarities between today's supercharged variety of Empowerment (think: The Secret or Joe Vitale's honoponogonorrhea, or whatever it's called) and the dangerous psychological malady known as sociopathy. Those similarities are eye-opening and provocative. (Here, by the way, is a more academic treatment of sociopathy, and here and here you'll find armchair summaries that are basically faithful to the more clinical-minded definitions.)

A few caveats first. Like most advanced and/or technical concepts in psychology, this whole idea of "what makes someone a sociopath" is poorly understood by lay America, and tends to be way-too-casually applied. You can't just say in some offhand fashion that "mean people are sociopaths"; nor can you go down the list and cherry-pick individual symptoms, which you then use in labeling people you know (and probably don't like very much): e.g., "That Mark is so damn charming, he must be a sociopath" or "Gee, I've caught Laura in a few lies; you think she's a sociopath?"

Many of the "qualities" we associate with sociopaths are in fact uncharacteristic of the malady. For example, the textbook sociopath is not an overtly evil-tempered brawler, like your hard-drinking cousin who's always getting into bar fights. On the contrary, sociopathic violence is more apt to be unprovoked and wholly inappropriate to the stimulus: the classic case of the person who, for no apparent reason, pulls the wings off birds. Nor are sociopaths, as a rule, "jumpy," manic-looking folks
the kind who might make you nervous when you're cooped up with them on a cross-country flight. They often manifest a surface calm and can even seem imperturbable and rather "cool" (like our friend Ted Bundy, shown). Again as a rule, they are not highly "affective" or "emotive" peoplenot always crying or screaming or deeply emotional about what's going on at the moment (although they are quite good at mimicking rudimentary forms of the emotions others truly feel... Look, this is complex terrain, where the distinctions aren't always apparent).

The condition of sociopathy, then, refers to a specific constellation of symptoms, most (if not all) of which must be present for a valid diagnosis to be made. That said, if there are certain bedrock behaviors suggestive of sociopathy, they would reside in the following interrelated handful of psycho-emotional defects: (1), and clearly foremost, the absence of a conscience (in the commonly understood sense of regretting the effect of one's actions on others*), (2) pathological egocentricity (in the sense of thinking their way is the way, and that what's right for them is simply right, period), and (3) personal unreliability and the lack of a consistent life plan (which is to say that because sociopaths tend to make it all up as they go along, they have a hard time meeting the needs of the people who depend on them. Their whim takes priority over your dire need. And don't you dare challenge them on it, either). Further, sociopaths, as noted, are not raving dysfunctionals. They're often quite-intelligent people who
this is keywill contrive a world-view that supports or justifies the antisocial, narcissistic approach to life they've instinctively embraced for themselves.

Now. We've already talked several times about how latter-day conceptions of self-help promote an extreme and unhealthy form of narcissism. But the more I think about it
—and the more I listen to the likes of The Gospel According to Joethe more I think such regimens also promote a form of sociopathy....

And with that as preamble, we'll get down to cases next time.**


I cannot close for today without mentioning two very recent pieces of news that confirm the bizarro-world today's "medical literature" has become, and also highlight the dilemma facing we mere mortals who struggle to build our lives around solid science. First came word that being overweight is not quite the death sentence it's been made out to be
not only that, but some extra padding may actually protect you against several serious medical conditions. Now we have news that taking vitamins can be bad for you.

Sigh. Sorting through all this is chicken-or-the-egg stuff. It's hard to know whether the blame for the unending flow of confusing, contradictory material should be placed on the medical establishment (for constantly rushing into the breech with premature data) or the news media (who, in their desperation to flesh out today's 24/7 news cycle, hype every new morsel of info that comes along as a "health-care breakthrough!"). No doubt it's some combination of the above, plus our own obsessive need to feel "in-step" with the newest and hottest info. Whatever it is, it would be hysterical if it weren't so damned annoying.

Already I can hear the feedback I'm likely to get from the New Wage crowd, so let me get something on the record ahead of time: This is still no reason for us to entrust ourselves to people like Rhonda Byrne, who simply throw science out the window and base their "programs for better living" on nothing at all. But it does make you wonder
what's next? Mainlining black-tar heroin actually adds seven years to your life?

* Sociopaths very definitely can feel regret, but it's regret over how something worked out for them. They cry easily f
or themselves.
** I've been told that some of my posts "go on a bit" for single-session reading. Besides, what's wrong with a little teaser now and then?


Jenny Gesserit said...

As a sociopath, I have some disagreements with your "bedrock behaviors." Of course I agree with the first - lack of conscience / remorse / guilt is the major trait of a sociopath. I can’t, however, agree with the last two behaviors. A sociopath does not always think he is right, nor does the fact that he is a sociopath bar him from being open to other people’s opinions and ways of life. The third one I have seen countless times in reference to sociopaths, and while it may be a common trait in sociopaths (it’s hard to be reliable when you don’t give a damn), it’s not a pillar trait. One can be a reliable sociopath.

Cal said...

One other recent story that had me scratching my head was the one in which a study showed that kids of "helicopter " parents did better academically than other kids.

Steve Salerno said...

Re helicopter parents: Well, if true, the study could mean--taking the cynical view--that the parents end up doing half the work, or are constantly double-checking their kids' own work, etc. I will admit that when my youngest son was in his final year of high school--and showed very little inclination to do anything but goof off with his jock friends--I actually wrote a report or two on his behalf. Not my finest hour, I know, and something I do not think I would do again, with benefit of hindsight. But I figured, if I could at least get him out of high school, that was one less major hurdle he had to worry about later on, once he "wised up."

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, thanks for weighing in, Jenny. To my knowledge you are our first confessed sociopath, though I'm sure we may have been visited by a few others who preferred to remain in the closet.

Nonetheless, the observations in my post were based on my reading of "the literature" (which may suffer from the same flaws as "the literature" I reference in the second half of the post, where I'm discussing the latest dispatches from the world of medicine). I'm always open to dissenting opinions, but you should also bear in mind that one person's experience often doesn't count for very much, even when the one person is you. Then again--as a sociopath--maybe you wouldn't quite see things that way. ;)

Cosmic Connie said...

Welcome, Jenny! I'm a narcissist myself, and I can state without reservation that Steve welcomes all sorts of dysfunctional types here as long as we avoid obscenity and gratuitous attacks. It's quite a party on this blog. :-)

Now, seriously, I don't know if the New-Wage gurus or their followers meet the clinical definition of sociopathy, but some of the symptoms sure are there. F'instance, remember that big flap over the past couple of weeks about "Mr. Fire's" posts on the San Diego fire? People were really getting after him for that, and some decided, while they were at it, to go after him about the matter of his phony doctorates.

And it didn't make a dent. He brushed aside the protests about the fire posts, telling the protesters THEY were the ones with the problems. And he completely ignored comments about his faux-degrees.

Appropriately enough, his Nov. 8 post has a picture of him dressed as Santa Claus. Perhaps that is one of those "hypnotic" images carefully calculated to help bury the controversy a little bit deeper, sweep it a little further under the rug (or the magic carpet, as the case may be). But I see it as richly symbolic...

But enough about JV. I'd rather focus on ME. :-)

a/good/lysstener said...

It's interesting Steve, that I think I know where you're going with this, and as I also think I've mentioned I see these characteristics in many of the girls I know. They don't want to be confronted about anything they do or did, it's always all about them, and in general they lead very undisciplined lives which they justify based on "the pursuit of happiness". The funny thing is I don't see much real happiness. I see a lot of *craziness* and reckless attempts to find fun for the moment, but there's always disappointment and heartache in the end anyway.

Cosmic Connie said...

This is getting back to self-centeredness/narcissism rather than sociopathy, but Alyssa's comments reminded me of the report Morley Safer has just completed for CBS, regarding the "millennial generation."

Tech-savvy and seemingly self-centered to the max, they're definitely a product of a world created by previous generations (duh). It's the old "we didn't start the fire" thing, a la the Billy Joel song.

My point is that even though baby boomers have thus far shouldered the lion's share of the blame (and scorn) for SHAM/New-Wage phenomena, there is clearly a huge market of millennials (as well as Gen-X's) who want to have it all without working for it very hard. Hence the popularity of "The Four-Hour Work Week" and, on a lesser scale, baby boomer Pat O'Bryan's "Your Portable Empire."

Not that I "blame" anyone of any generation for wanting to look beyond Corporate America for their bread and butter. Corporate America has, on many levels, failed its workers. Heck, I myself haven't had a "real" job since the late 80s. But overall, the often simplistic get-rich-quick-on-the-Net promises of the New-Wage capitalists are probably not doing much to help anyone except the hustledorks themselves. And all too often, they mix any practical advice they might offer with breathless hype and "Secret"-style magical-thinking (or other SHAM-ish stuff).

Anyway, Safer's report will air on CBS' "60 Minutes" this coming Sunday (tomorrow, Nov. 11). Meanwhile, here's a link to a video clip, for those who are interested:

Jenny Gesserit said...

Thanks, everyone, for the welcome into your little world.

Steve... Yes, it's not often that sociopaths confess themselves - it makes it hard to lie when someone knows you're a liar. The literature about sociopaths is pretty flawed, as far as I can tell. There are many degrees of sociopaths and not all of them fit nicely into a traditional definition. ;-)

Connie... I've got some narcissist traits of my own.. being a sociopath tends to include a superiority complex. ;-)

anonymousforobviousreasons said...

So I'm pretty sure I'm a sociopath. Why can't they come up for a cure for sociopathy? You know a pill or a surgery or something. They have a cure for everything else. Being that there is no cure I decided I would just off myself. I tried pretty hard too. I've lead myself to believe this is because I wanted to save everyone else from the pain and problems I cause. The truth is though I wanted to save myself from the pain and consequences my behavior causes to myself. Being a sociopath in this world is just too scary for me. I know I'm not normal and I don't belong. I try to control my behavior and hide my true self. Sometimes its just too difficult for me to manage though. Why didn't they just let me die? Society made me end of story. So Society is going to have to deal with me and stop complaining about the aftermath.

Anonymous said...

I believe that I was married to a sociopath for 32 plus years. I believe that a true sociopath always has to be right because if he believed that he was not right then that in of itself would require self-reflection which true sociopaths are incapable of. A sociopath can listen to others opinions, however, take caution and be careful never to critize one - the results could be dire.