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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sociopath alert: Jordan Belfort

That Jordan Belfort, whom The Wolf of Wall Street was about, is a sociopath is hardly a revelation. Anybody who orchestrated a con like Stratton Oakmont, his glorified boiler room operation, would have to be a sociopath.

But it's always gratifying to see the number of ways in which a sociopath gives himself away, and Belfort demonstrated practically every distinguishing characteristic of a sociopathy.

The movie, by the way, is a little reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can, which also starred Leonardo DiCaprio, in that it essentially celebrates a sly devil whose trickery and success the audience are supposed to identify with and revel in. Hollywood has a tendency to present sociopaths in a misleadingly sympathetic light -- especially given that those sociopaths themselves had exactly zero sympathy for their victims.

Belfort was obviously a natural salesman (read: manipulative), as he showed right from the start of his career. He imparted his sales techniques to the over 1000 brokers he hired for his firm, and now makes a living as a "motivational speaker" (read: teacher of same sales techniques).

To be a convincing salesman, you must come across as if you believe completely in your own product, even if you know it's a complete sham. You can't have any telltale tics, you can't have a catch in your voice, and you can't appear nervous. (In other words, you can't feel guilt.)

Jews tend to look down on Anglos for their excessive drinking; and they tend to take fewer recreational drugs as well. Belfort, though Jewish, showed no such discipline. He developed a serious addiction to Quaaludes, and if the movie is accurate, snorted a lot of cocaine as well. It takes a certain impulsiveness to allow oneself to become addicted like that, and impulsiveness is a hallmark of sociopathy. (This is why sociopaths are more likely to be substance abusers.)

Nor did Belfort have any inhibitions about sex, as his frequent use of prostitutes demonstrated. (Sociopaths are generally more promiscuous, and far more likely to claim "sex addiction.")

We all like money, but Belfort practically worshipped it. Money equals power, and sociopaths are always power hungry. It goes beyond that, however; practically every sociopath I've ever known seemed to almost worship money and imbue it with an almost talismanic quality, and was willing to do anything to get more.

Belfort was a great believer in conspicuous consumption, as befits a narcissistic personality. His helicopter, his yacht, and the "most expensive house on Long Island" (according to the movie), were all his way of declaring his greatness to the world. (Sociopaths always seem to have a strong need to make this declaration.)

The yacht later sank because Belfort disregarded his captain's advice not to sail into a storm. (Sociopaths are fearless as well as reckless.)

Perhaps the most telling giveaway of Belfort's sociopathy is how he enjoyed himself while the scam was going on. Sociopaths have an almost preternatural ability to party and have fun even while they are in the midst of propping up a house of cards which must inevitably come crashing down. They have absolutely no compunctions about their victims, and seemingly don't even worry about their own future well-being. They simply live it up, in situations where most of us would be worried sick.

Part of Belfort's partying evidently included dwarf tossing, which was briefly a fad during the heyday of Stratton Oakmont. This "sport" usually took place at bars, and its appeal seemed to be precisely that it was so obviously wrong. The concept is almost funny, in a sick sort of way; but actually doing it requires a complete lack of concern for others. Stratton Oakmont was certainly an appropriate setting.

At the end, after the feds closed in, Belfort got a more lenient sentence because he became a government witness, i.e., testified against his former friends and colleagues. (Sociopaths are often the first to turn, unburdened as they are by any feelings of loyalty.)

He ended up serving only 22 months for having swindled innocent victims out of over $100 million.

To hear Belfort now, you'd think his life was one big morality tale, with a character arc of the type you generally see only in the movies. The picture he draws is of a guy who was essentially seduced by the Wall Street lifestyle, as if he were almost an innocent victim himself. According to the DailyMail, he now says, "I'm a wolf who became a more benevolent character. I refuse to glorify my past" -- as if a sociopath can ever change his stripes. (And as if the book and movie are anything but glorifications of his past.)

As part of his settlement, Belfort was ordered to make a total of $110 million in restitution to his victims; so far only $11.6 million has been recovered, mostly from the sale of his forfeited properties. The agreement he reached required that he pay 50% of his income until restitution was complete. But in the past three years Belfort has been paid $1.7 million, mostly from book and movie rights, yet he has paid only $243,000 to the authorities in the past four years. Whatever benevolence he claims to have achieved evidently does not extend to his victims.

He also told Reuters in 2007, "I believe I have a shot at being redeemed by leading a good life today." He also told them that he is trying to right past wrongs. (Well, maybe he's just not trying that hard.)

Sociopaths are forever claiming to be turning over a new leaf; but they never do. That they expect people to believe them, even after all their lies, is another peculiarly sociopathic quirk. Because they've lied successfully in the past, they always seem to believe that they can continue to do so for as long as they wish. The fact is, sociopaths are as likely to grow a third arm as they are to develop a conscience late in life. Sociopathy is incurable.

The "Early Life" section of the Wikipedia article on Belfort doesn't contain any revelations. He came from a middle class family in Queens; both parents were accountants, and his mother later became a lawyer. My guess is that because both parents worked full time during his early years, he didn't form as strong a bond with either as he might have.

Belfort says that he came from "a good family," as if it is a big mystery how he could have ended up doing what he did. But there are many outwardly respectable families which are in one way or another dysfunctional. I know nothing about his parents other than that they spawned him; whatever else they were or weren't, they certainly bred sociopathy.

(The movie, by the way, is actually quite enjoyable; it's just that as a character study it's misleading.)


Anonymous said...

Did the laws change since he was convicted? I can't figure out why guys like Jon Corzine and Ben Bernanke, who have swindled people out of billions more than Belfort did, were never prosecuted.
Agreed on the movie. I've sat through 90 minute movies that felt twice as long as Wolf's 180. The Oscar nominations for actor, supporting actor and best picture, I think are all a stretch. It seemed like they were having too much fun, not really "working".

John Craig said...

Anon --
Agree about Corzine, who seems to be politically protected; if he were a Republican, I suspect the DOJ would go after him. Disagree about Bernanke; his policies may be misguided, but he's just doing what the Fed guys have always done, and is not breaking any laws.

Agree about the nominations; Dicaprio is a great actor, but here he and Hill were mostly just called upon to act like a frat boys, which didn't strike me as all that difficult. Still, enjoyable.

Quartermain said...

"Hollywood has a tendency to present sociopaths in a misleadingly sympathetic light -- especially given that those sociopaths themselves had exactly zero sympathy for their victims."

Could it be, that it is because there a lot of sociopaths in Hollywood?

John Craig said...

Allan --
could be, partially -- I'm sure a lot of the sociopaths in Hollywood just see themselves as lovable rogues. It could also be partially because they don't really understand sociopaths. But I think it's mostly because they want to make successful movies, which require a sympathetic hero (or antihero) as well as one who has nerves of steel, etc. Clever con men make for entertaining and charming companions as long as you only have to watch them on a screen for two hours and not meet them in person.

Pavonine99 said...

Did you know that Oskar Schindler was retroactively diagnosed as a sociopath? Apparently, he was looking for a challenge, and that's why he saved as many Jews as he did. I can't argue with his actions of course, even if his motives were'nt altruistic-a normal person could not have done what he did.
Hollywood does love those types, but I've noticed that they tend to make them "cuddly" to the point where the character wouldn't be considered a clinical sociopath, just a person who is a little cold. Like the crying scene toward the end of Schlindler's List- everyone who knew Schindler personally said that would have been comepletly out of character for him.

John Craig said...

Pavonine --
Thank you, that's interesting, I'd never heard that about Schindler before. The picture you draw makes sense, though; to pull something like that off you'd have to have incredible nerve. The people who run Hollywood had a particular motive for looking fondly at Schindler, but in general, yes, they soften their sociopaths beyond recognition.

A movie like The Sting, about two lovable conmen (played by Redford and Newman), is completely unrealistic. There's practically no such thing as a guy who makes a living coning other people who's not a sociopath. Yet Hollywood shows them as completely decent guys who really care about others. Or that recent movie about the Iceman, Richard Kuklinski, an absolute stone cold sociopath. (Before he died he said that his only regret was that he hadn't killed his father.) The movie made it seem like a confounding question who the real Kuklinski was, the guy who iced over 100 people, or the guy who took care of his family. There have been other serial killers who've had families as well, like the Green River Killer (who killed over 40 prostitutes). But this doesn't make them any less sociopathic. But, one-sided portrayals, ten if more realistic, don't make for as much inherent drama or the "character arc" that Hollywood loves so much. So, we get "cuddly" sociopaths, as you put it.

Anonymous said...

was it hard getting your phd in psychology?

i actually agree with the general gist of what youre trying to say. but i dont see the point in throwing around diagnoses. i would argue that his desire for power, his impulsive behaviour and his seemingly guiltless actions are signs of malignant narcissism.
but i dont know. i just dont see the point in throwing out diagnoses like i dont believe someone whose not a doctor should tell me i have cancer.

John Craig said...

Anon --
You have cancer.

Anonymous said...

Psychopaths are born; not bred. A good book on it is the Sociopath Next Door. Not all sociopaths need money, but they certainly do not have scruples. There are many types of them, and Jordan Belfort exhibited the world needs to know who I am type. There are those who just want to float through life without lifting a finger skimming off others. There are those who just like to make people jump or manipulate those just to get a kick out of it. Sociopaths aren't all brilliant, but again they just have no sympathy or empathy for others or themselves. They just live recklessly. American Psychopath is a dead on picture of what it is to be a sociopath in the business world. There's another dead on movie about a mother and two boys who encounter one from the 1980s. They are 1 in 100, and because not all of them are killers or money hungry you may be living next to one, married to one, or dealing with one at work or some organization.

Itai Feldman said...

He may well be a psychopath, but if he lacks any sense of empathy and can't have genuine feelings towards anybody, why did he endangered himself by warning his disgusting friend Donny that he wore a wire? Why did he freak out when his daughter was taken away from him?

John Craig said...

Itai Feldman --
I can't say for sure why he did those things, but being a psychopath doesn't preclude some sense of loyalty, especially when that loyalty is based on self-interest. It's possible thought that if Donny found out that he'd been wearing a wire to record him, then Donny would turn on him and give the Feds all sorts of information about him. And a lot of sociopaths/psychopaths fight for custody of their children because they want to retain control, not necessarily because their hearts are filled with love. Again, I don't know the specifics with those situations, but I've heard sociopaths say things like "I love my daughter" (repetitively), sort of as a way of proving to themselves that they are capable of those feelings.