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Friday, August 2, 2013

Sociopaths in their natural habitat

The other day a commenter on the post Sociopaths you meet rather than read about told the story of how he'd known a sociopath and a psychiatrist had met this sociopath and given him the benefit of the doubt:

I've even seen a psychiatrist say this about someone after I outed him as a sociopath (having lived with him for a month, the psych having only met him for an hour). She was all "him, a sociopath? I don't believe that. He might be a Borderline, but I doubt he's a sociopath". It's really discouraging when not even psychiatrists realise that sociopaths look like perfectly ordinary citizens....

The fact is, there are a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists who don't really understand sociopaths. Trying to learn about sociopaths in a clinical setting is a little like trying to learn about the hunting habits of the tiger by watching one in a zoo. A sociopath always knows why he is in that clinical setting, and therefore is on his guard and will not act like himself.

And psychologists are only human: they are as susceptible to manipulation as anyone else.

I've known two sociopaths well. One was a quasi-girlfriend I had when I was 25, the other was a boss I had on Wall Street. I got to observe both over an extended period of time. I saw how they operated, how they lied, how they used people, how they saw themselves, how they never took blame, the types of excuses they used, how they never got nervous, how they never got embarrassed. I saw how destructive they were, and how they loved to facilitate others' failure whenever they thought they could get away with it.

I also saw how even people who had been exposed to them for a long time remained blind to their true natures (like me, at first, with that girlfriend). But it's one thing for a layperson to remain blind to sociopathy, it's another for someone who's a professional in the field.

While Bill Clinton was President, I asked two psychiatrists I knew if they thought he was a sociopath. Both were Democrats, and to their credit, both somewhat sheepishly admitted that he was. (Sheepishness is one quality sociopaths themselves never exhibit, and is often the hallmark of a decent person.)

But many psychology students, clinical therapists, and even psychiatrists are often surprisingly naive about sociopaths. Even when they understand the concept of sociopathy they will, as the commenter above noted, give them the benefit of the doubt when there really is no doubt. Sometimes they'll act as if a diagnosis of sociopathy is unwarranted for any behavior short of serial killing.

Sometimes they'll try to draw moral distinctions between the sociopaths they deem personally attractive and those they don't (i.e., that somehow the fat, ugly, self-righteous John Wayne Gacy was more loathsome than the handsome, charming Ted Bundy).

And sometimes they'll let their political attitudes influence their diagnoses. ("Bill Clinton? I don't think so....Newt Gingrich? Absolutely!!")

Sometimes they'll even let a brief personal contact influence their opinion ("He said he thinks I'm smart; he must be a nice guy. And he seems so.....ordinary.")

Sociopathy has nothing to do with attractiveness, or political bent, and probably has little to do with the little snapshot you got if you met them briefly.

To really understand sociopaths, you have to have observed them in their natural setting over an extended period of time. You have to become well versed in their typical subterfuges and patterns of behavior. And even then, you have to understand that you can't necessarily recognize them at first.

(People who do this kind of "field work" almost never do it on a voluntary basis.)

Don't ever think that just because someone is a psychologist or psychiatrist of one sort or another, he understands sociopaths. He has merely observed chimps in a zoo. Or even worse, has read about them in a book.

To really understand sociopaths, you have to be Jane Goodall.


bluffcreek1967 said...

Great points John - especially the zoo analogy which, after thinking about it, makes perfect sense. Sociopaths usually have above average intelligence, and they would certainly have enough sense not to reveal too much of their pathology to the clinical, over-educated psychologist.

I gotta tell you, though, I've never been too impressed by psychologists and those in the 'therapy' industry. I have real issues with the foundational premise of much of modern psychology, but that's an altogether different matter.

John Craig said...

Ambrose --
Thank you. I'm actually not sure that sociopaths usually have above average intelligence. I think the lack of a conscience is independent of that, and that they come in the same full range of IQ's that everybody else does. What they do have is what novelists used to describe as a "low animal cunning," an instinctive dishonesty which they can use to fool people smarter than themselves who are unused to sociopaths.

I agree with you about the therapy industry. How many people have ever been cured by talking to a psychiatrist? (At least these days more psychiatrists are prescribing drugs which do seem to have an effect.) And as far as the foundational premises of psychology, there are actually people who still take Freud seriously; enough said.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the only way to really recognize a sociopath is by doing "field work" (good observation), sometimes getting mauled to pieces, while in their midst. It's great when the sociopath doesn't target you.

John Craig said...

non --
Thank you. Yes, best to avoid being one of their targets. No matter how vicious you feel like getting, they will always be more vicious. No upside.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for promoting awareness about sociopathy. People don't realize that their lives are effected by them, even if it is not directly. Wars, financial crisis,so many things can be attributed to sociopaths. I was married to one. My life was decimated by this man.To me they are barely human because they lack what gives us our humanity. All the signs were there,but his bizarre actions to his being abused as a child. When he met me I worked with abused children, so I felt sorry for him. Nothing in my life experience prepared me for what was going to happen. I have read alot about other womens experiences with sociopaths and I have never read anything as bizarre as my story.I almost lost my freedom and almost lost my life.He put spyware on my phone,and set about to discredit me and to scare me to death.Psychiatrists call it "gaslighting" after the Hitchcock film. he would come into the house when I was gone, take or move things....leave the door wide open. He would leave things of other women in my house and car (that part happened when we were still together.I would find those things and call or text him and he was saving all the texts and messages..doing his best to make me crazier and crazier. It gets much worse, but I just don't have the strength to tell it anymore.he would text people using my phone AS ME,making threats,he used social media to bully me and embarrass me.He was systematically trying to discredit me after I had discovered what a t first I thought was an affair, but turned out that he was picking up not only women, but men and was into Sexual sadism and inflicting pain. A Dr. that I spoke to asked me "Why would your husband be trying to push you into killing yourself?What would he get from that?" (I had explained to him that my husband was a sociopath) He would have "won" would have been dead and "obviously unstable" so nothing I said about him would have merit....I ran and abandoned my furniture,all of my belongings I couldn't get into storage. I do not speak to anyone who knows him and my own mother doesn't know where I live or my phone number.It is hard to explain the coldness of a sociopath.We attribute emotions to other people ,just assuming they have them, because we do.He fake cried at our wedding and that always bothered me.No tears, just blinking and trying to cry and making that fake face like he was feeling something.It has taken me 3 years to heal.I will never be the same.I just wanted to thank you for posting about this.People just don't get it.

John Craig said...

Anonymous --
Thank YOU. Yes, you're right, people have no idea how much their lives are affected by sociopaths, even if they have no direct contact with one. They pay more tax dollars for police and, to a lesser extent, fire protection because of sociopathic criminals. They pay more tax dollars because so many of the sociopaths in the political class are milking the system. They pay more for insurance because of all the fraud that sociopaths commit. There are the frauds that Wall Street perpetrates. And, as you point out, wars are often started by them.

Sounds like you met a particularly destructive one (although there's no such thing as one who isn't destructive at some level, and there's no more destructive relationship to have with one than marriage).

Sociopaths are extremely controlling, and your husband was a perfect example. And yes, fake tears are another sociopathic specialty; Bill Clinton used these all the time.

And you put your finger on it: most people cannot conceive of how inhuman a sociopath can be until they experience one for themselves. Until then, they make excuses for the sociopath because they assume he's like them; but once you've really gotten to know one, you're forever warned.

Just tell yourself that a lot of people have been through a similar experience, everyone who's ever had extended contact with a sociopath (even if they haven't married them).

One quibble: Is it fair to your mother to not let her know where you are or if you're okay?

Anonymous said...

That poor borderline guy... as someone so gobsmackingly intelligent you should at least have come across the term projective identification once before, John. Does Freud's theory fill you with an implacable rage? I wonder why that is, hmm...
Should I stop "Just Not Saying" it?

John Craig said...

My Aspie friend --
I'm not the one filled with implacable rage. You have some real problems, even more than most of the aspires who responded on that post about Aspergers.

Anyway, glad I made your evening.

Anonymous said...

What makes you think that the people who responded to your Asperger's post in that way did so because of their problems?

Do you really see no fault in your own thinking?

If pointing out the obvious flaws in the way you perceive and act towards other human beings means that I have problems then what the fuck do you have...

Anonymous said...

I realise now that I've actually been a retard and overlooked crucial details of your post (at least this one) in order to jump to a conclusion I was desperate to find, so I owe you an apology for that - I guess projective identification creates self fulfilling prophecies in more ways than one...

I'll leave you with one last question though before I disappear forever: can I really be judged for acting that way, when day by day I'm bombarded with shit like this?'s_Syndrome

It doesn't do an awful lot for your sense of self to have everything you've ever believed in torn to pieces like that.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thanks for being man enough to admit that.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget sociopaths become psychologists and psychiatrists too. What sadistic fun they must have. After my psychologically traumatic experience of 10 years on and off with a psychopath I went to a doctor for help. I couldn't eat or sleep for about 6 weeks. Her advice when I told her what I was dealing with was "Grow up." I knew then that I had run into another one. Hopefully one day portable EEG used for biofeedback will be so popular we'll be able to spot them by their resistance to wearing them. Or maybe there will be an organization that tests and certifies professionals so we will know who we can trust.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Interesting, I hadn't been aware of or even considered that phenomenon, although I suppose there's no reason a sociopath wouldn't go into that field. It does give one the opportunity to wield power of a sort over others.

Yes, those EEG's would be nice.

Anonymous said...

Psychopaths are everywhere. Martha Stout used a psychiatrist P in her book, 'The Sociopath next door' and Cleckley had one in 'The Mask of Sanity'

John Craig said...

Anon -
Yes they are.