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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The "empty eyes" of a sociopath

Two days ago a commenter, Gethin, apropos of A sociopath who actually looks like one, asked:

Do you think the blank, expressionless eyes stereotype could be down to confirmation bias? I'm not saying the stereotype is necessarily wrong (stereotypes do come from somewhere, after all), but I'm sure many non-sociopaths also have vacant expressions that we aren't noticing because we aren't scrutinising them.

(Gethin is from the UK, so he spelled "scrutinizing" correctly.) 

This is something I've thought about a fair amount, so it's worth a post of its own. I'll rephrase and expand on my reply to Gethin here. 

First of all, yes, there's definitely the possibility of confirmation bias here; there always is, in such situations. But, as Gethin suggests, the stereotype exists for a reason. 

When I first heard people talk about the "blank, empty eyes" of a sociopath, I thought, how ridiculous. Eyeballs themselves are incapable of any expression other than changing pupil size as a possible indicator of interest, but most people don't even notice that.

I soon realized that what people were referring to was the way the skin around the eyes gives the "eyes" their expression. A smile or frown can often seem to extend to the eyes. "Narrowed eyes," i.e., tensed eyelids, make one appear angry, and so on. 

What gives the impression of "blank eyes" are an absence of an expression. The absence of an expression, or complete relaxation of the muscles of the face, is indicative of a complete lack of stress. So it makes sense that sociopaths would often have a blank, stress-free expression when with other people, since they have no regard for or concern about others. 

Think of how you feel most of the time you're conversing with other people: you're at least a little concerned about what they think of you, the impression you're making, whether you're being accurate in your statements, and how you're making them feel. And your face will reflect whatever tension or stress you feel, giving your "eyes" expression. 

Another thing stress can induce is watering of the eyes, which can help make someone's overall expression appear more heartfelt (for good reason). It can also indicate amusement, a la "twinkling eyes." (Or even, "I laughed so hard I cried.")

A sociopath feels no such tension, since they regard you or me the same way we would regard a bicycle: as a tool to be used. Ergo, no expression. (I've seen this up close, and been struck by it.)

Now think of the way your face feels when you're watching a somewhat boring, late night rerun on TV which is gradually lulling you to sleep. You feel zero social stress, so you're completely relaxed, and are wearing no expression. At that moment, you, too, have the "blank, empty eyes" of a sociopath. 

The difference is, that is not the expression you wear for social situations. 

Having said all this, I should also point out that sociopaths are usually consummate actors, and can often feign emotions so convincingly that they appear more heartfelt than those of non-sociopaths who are actually feeling those emotions. 

But, if you know what to look for, sociopaths will also always give themselves away in various ways, and one of those ways is that they sometimes wear a completely blank, empty expression.


Anonymous said...

It's impossible to measure a person's soul through a digital photograph -- especially one that's been cropped and downgraded to load quicker on a web page. I roll my eyes whenever I read "Just look at those soulless eyes", even if I agree that the subject is an evil POS.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I used to feel that way when I first heard "the eyes are the window to the soul," and wrote it off as the overly active imagination of 17th century English poets. But I've seen enough sociopaths -- in person and in pictures -- to have gotten a sense that they will often have weirdly, completely relaxed expressions. I agree a picture alone is not enough to draw a conclusion from.

John Craig said...

PS -- Take a look at the pictures on this post:

Anonymous said...

I have seen the empty, vacant eyes. Once the sociopath and I were attending a church service. At one point, I observed him looking around the sanctuary, having empty looking, vacant eyes (remembering this experience today, it appeared as though something was looking through his eyes). It was creepy to say the least. You catch these vacant, empty eyes once in a while, coming from a sociopath. It's disconcerting to say the least.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thanks, yes, as I pointed out in the post, we all have that expression from time to time, just not in public situations. I"m probably looking at my computer right now with a similar expression.

Steven said...

Hi john, I've been wondering are sociopaths a distinct class and everybody else is a non-sociopath or is it a spectrum? If the latter, it must be gradual and ambiguous with lots of semi sociopaths.

I've also noticed that some people have some of the traits of narcissism that you have pointed out but good hearts although narcissists are supposed to lack empathy. Others have quite shallow emotions but aren't psychopaths because other things can lead to or involve low emotional affect. It all seems quite messy and there are lots of combinations of characteristics.

Lastly do you think day Lewis's character in there will be blood is a sociopath? He seems a text book one in some ways but he also seems to feel real warmth and care for the kid who isn't even his genetic kin. Is this a case of an unrealistic movie character or is it a case of him being not a total sociopath?

These questions and more have been brewing as I read your blog. Yours confusedly, steve

Steven said...

Also, sociopaths are narcissists you say but there is a contradiction between the two- sociopaths don't care what people think of them and narcicists really care. It was said about Clinton that he would seek out the only person in the room who didn't like him and try to get them to like him.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ha! You're welcome. she's not my type (either personality-wise or physically), so you're welcome to her.

I get your point about lousy pics. Yes, when something is fuzzy, it's hard to read anything from it. I'm mostly referring to cases where you already know that the person is a sociopath, and then you can see it in the (clear) picture. Of course, maybe that's what Gethin was referring to as confirmation bias.

The other thing about snapshots is that they vary a lot. If they catch someone at a bad moment, say, mid-blink, the person looks foolish, etc. It's just that every now and then you get a little something revealing.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I think you've almost answered your own question there. Narcissists seem to exist on a spectrum, ranging from the self-involved types with good hearts you refer to to the near-sociopaths. Sociopaths, however, represent only the extreme 3% at the end of the narcissistic spectrum, who are utterly remorseless, without conscience, etc. They are always dishonest, always disloyal, always impulsive (in some areas), and always incapable of real love (though they often profess it far more than others).

Never saw "There Will Be Blood." Hollywood is usually pretty bad at depicting sociopaths. Either they have comic book villain who want to take over the world, or people who could only do what they do if they were sociopaths, but then Hollywood feels obliged for some reason to give them redemption, the so-called "character arc"they like their protagonists to follow. Frank Abagnale Jr., the antihero of "Catch Me if You Can," is a perfect example. Write that name in the subject bar of this blog and my post about him will come up.

Bill Clinton was a classic affect-hungry sociopath (meaning that he has a bottomless need for others' approval). I wrote a pretty extensive sociopath alert about him, too, don't know if you saw it.

Steven said...

Thanks john, that clarifies a lot. I didn't realise sociopaths were extreme narcissists. Is that the standard view or your insight?

I definitely recommend there will be blood. Believe me, there is no redemption. He gets worse as it goes on. He is at his most charming at the start and at his most nakedly despicable at the end. It's also interesting because he seems to care for the kid and like kids, not sure that part is realistic. I'd like to hear your opinion on it though. Daniel day Lewis is very intense and charismatic as usual. There is also another character, a preacher, who I think is a big narcissist and possibly a sociopath too. It kept me interested all the way through.

Shaun F said...

John - I suspected that she was high on heroin might have contributed to the look in her eye. Had you given that any consideration? I know its a stretch that say "High end" Hooker, Heroin and Sociopath combined are a stretch but - hey let me run with scissors!

John Craig said...

Steven --
That's just my view, but given that sociopaths are all narcissists and represent an extreme of narcissistic selfishness, I think it makes sense.

OK, I'll check out the movie sometime. It got good reviews, and I'm a Daniel Day-Lewis fan.

John Craig said...

Shaun --
That's a good point, and I have to admit I hadn't considered it. A heroin high would make one feel completely relaxed and unconcerned about things.

Then again, she had her act together enough to take care of business, and according to the article I linked, is now suspected of having given committed a similar crime (murder? manslaughter?) in Georgia.

Now put those scissors down and stop running.

Steven said...

I'll stick my neck out and say it's an extremely good film. Look up the trailer on imdb. That gives a good taste of it. Day Lewis is the best.

Your view is simple and elegant. People are on a spectrum of selfishness and egotism and there are extreme cases. That's pretty much how it is. Thanks for the clarity.

Talking about being considerate, I hope I'm not posting too much. I'm gonna try lay off a bit and maybe keep it to the latest posts since you always reply. I don't want to become a drag!

John Craig said...

Steven --
I've seen the trailer; it didn't grab me but I will check out the movie sometime.

Thank you for the compliment. And you're not commenting too much at all, you always have an intelligent, reasonable viewpoint and I'm happy to answer any questions.

Steven said...

Thanks. That's very gracious and I feel that there is some kind of affinity there. I have a tendency to disagree with people a lot or find fault in what they're saying but I find myself agreeing with you a lot.

I do have a tendency to long windedness though and I'm always trying but failing to kerb it!

John Craig said...

Steven --
I"m long-winded myself, hence the 1814 posts on this blog.

Anonymous said...

while you have a lot of posts, they are not long winded. One reason I read your blog, you usually have a new post every few days.

I assume women are less likely to be sociopaths than men , since far fewer women are in prison and most crimes are committed by men.

I once read that sociopaths are more common in certain professions , like lawyers and CEOs. The same study claimed that prostitutes were actually less likely to be sociopaths ( which surprised me )
I assume strippers are more likely to be sociopaths, maybe high-end prostitutes are more likely to be sociopaths while the majority of the hookers are just lazy and trying to earn some easy cash.

John Craig said...

Anon (Steven?) --
Thank you.

True, most of the literature on sociopaths holds that roughly 1% of the female population and 3% of the male population are sociopaths. (Personally, I'd guess it's a touch higher, but that's not based on any sort of statistical study I've done, merely an impression that that sociopaths tend to be under diagnosed.

I think all of the professions you just mentioned, along with Hollywood producer, politician, and Wall Streeter, have more than their share. I have no strong opinion about CEO's vs. Prostitutes, but that doesn't particularly surprise me. I wonder if that study included foreign-born prostitutes who are semi-forced into the profession either through poverty or some form of white slavery.

jova said...

it was me, Jova , not Steven

True about prostitutes, seems like most of the hookers in New York City are from other countries. Would be difficult to study them. Seems like the American born hookers would have a different profile than the Asian, Russian and Mexican hookers.

my understanding of working girls was partly formed by my reading of a lot of pulp fiction which often depicted the prostitutes as sociopaths or victims. Which is why I was surprised to see the study which indicated a lower level of sociopaths among them. but from watching all the true crime TV programs, it appears strippers are more likely to be criminals and drug users than women in other professions.

John Craig said...

Jova --
I agree with your assessment of American-born vs. foreign-born prostitutes. I'd actually think both prostitutes and strippers would have a relatively high incidence of sociopathy. Both professions incorporate a certain implied shamelessness, which sociopathy always helps with.

I'd also guess there's an inverse correlation with those professions and IQ: women who can attain marketable skills are more likely to be able to get gainful employment in some of the world's newer professions, as opposed to the oldest one.

Steven said...

I haven't seen a better example of cold dead eyes than Iceberg Slim, the famous pimp turned author.

There is a documentary about him on Netflix, including interviews. They keep focusing in on his eyes in pictures while they talk about how much cold, controlling and brutal he was. Unsurprisingly, he's charismatic and intelligent and says there isn't a top pimp without a high IQ. This film is like the story of a sociopath. It kind of pisses me off how some of the interviewees lionise him. He was an evil motherfucker. Claims to feel remorse in his book.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I'm sure you're right, he had to have been a sociopath. "Pimp" is an occupation that fairly screams sociopath, and "cold, controlling, and brutal" confirms it.

It is pathetic that his interviewers would lionize him. A lot of people fall under a sociopath's spell, and don't see him for what he is. And of course whites in this country always feel obliged to bend over backwards to speak well of a black man, however unwarranted their praise may be.

Steven said...

The interviewees- black celebrities and white scholars they interviewed for the documentary.

AS a three year old, he was thrown against a wall by his dad because his mother wouldn't abandon him. He was also sexually abused by a woman whose care he was in. As an older child, he lived for a few years with a very cruel and abusive man who beat his mother and once killed a kitten in front of them. There was one positive male who he bonded with but his mother left that man for the aforementioned abusive one.

He talks about being like God to the whores. He talks about the charismatic element of pimping- keeping them enthralled and bewitched and under his spell- and also of punishing them if they didn't follow the rules. There is talk of controlling them and keeping them constantly under pressure, physically and psychologically.

He was also into cocaine and heroin and it appears he spent all his money as soon as he got it.

This all points to sociopathy of course.

Later on he left that life of pimping and got married to a white woman and they had three daughters. His wife and daughters are interviewed and say some interesting things. His wife says she's never seen anybody suffer so much as the day his mother died. This implies he had an emotional attachment to his mother, contrary to sociopathy. He was also apparently a decent father and his daughters speak fondly of him. He also appears not to have been abusive to his wife and at one point, during riots, to have feared for his wife and kids.

What say you?

When I saw his eyes, I was immediately reminded of this article and had to show you the photos. I've seen a similar dead look before in the eyes of a street prostitute in Amsterdam who I walked by and met eyes with. The dead, soulless look was undeniable. I've also heard another man describe some prostitutes as having a dead, soulless look in their eyes and I knew exactly what he meant. Its the opposite of aliveness and joy. I think this pimp has it but I had assumed it was because of hopelessness and despair and trauma, rather than sociopathy.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Your analysis is rich ton target, and yes, there do seem to be some contradictions. The bond with his mother is not something you'd expect. The concern of this wife and daughters could be interpreted as worry about his "possessions," if you want to be cynical about it. Or, it could have been real concern. Richard Kuklinski, the prolific serial killer about whom that recent movie ("The iceman") was made, supposedly was a good family man and cared for his wife and kids. (He was always saying he would do anything for them, and was generous with them.) On the other hand, he was also an abusive husband, frequently beating his wife. So, where does that leave us? Kuklinski was unquestionably a sociopath (he said his one regret was not having killed his father, and he killed over 100 people (he claimed as many as 200, though many of them were in the course of his job as a hit man for the Mafia).

I know exactly what you mean about the eyes of prostitutes. But with them, it may not necessarily be sociopathy (though a fair percentage of them probably are) as much as just being numb to all they endure, not to mention that many of them are often drug addicted.

By the way, when I saw those pictures of Iceberg Slim you linked, my first thought was not dead eyes so much as a very proud guy who was TRYING to look like a badass.

Steven said...

He claims remorse so we can consider the possibility he was a narcissist (playing God, wanting to be important etc) who wasn't all the way bad.

I told my auntie about the prostitute and she thought it was drug addiction. This man was an addict so that could explain that but I do definitely see that look in his eyes. There's a dead, unemotional look, especially in his right eye. (tidbit: The left side of the face shows more emotion and a dog is the only other creature known to scan the left side of human faces first). I've noticed often left eyes are slightly more bright but this guy has no brightness to spare so his right eye looks totally deadened.

I saw that film and read the account of Kuklinski's wife. He was extremely abusive to her and she ended up hating him. Its annoying they made him look like a good family man in the movie so we'd sympathise with him. CLEARLY a psychopath. I don't know how he was with his daughters but he can't have been too good as they witnessed the abuse.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Interesting about the left side of the face, I'd never heard that before.

The Iceman was typical Hollywood bs. If they made a movie about Ted Bundy these days they'd probably try hard to make him look sympathetic as well.

And yes, your use of the word "claim" for Iceberg Slim is the appropriate one. A lot of people CLAIM remorse not just to look better, but to win a lighter sentence; somehow claims of remorse are supposed to soften the hearts of judges.

Anonymous said...

1) Reading "Sociopath Next Door", an amalgamation of stories from Dr. Martha Stout's years> of seeing patients, you will see that there are 2 descriptions of female sociopaths and 2 of men. The descriptions were anecdotal by combination, but were based on real accounts of real people.

2) If you really think prostitutes could be sociopaths, I would recommend visiting the site "Beauty from Ashes," and others. You might also understand that when women (or men) are completely broken, it is much harder for them to see what other options are available. Compare it to another illegal profession, such as drug dealing. Drug dealers KNOW that they are destroying lives with their livelihood, and continue to do so. Prostitutes may be destroying marriages, but many believe that they more often actually help save marriages, or help provide a break from sometimes fatal loneliness to single men. Prostitute sociopaths?? Get real.

John Craig said...

Anon --
You seem to assume that I'm saying that prostitution itself is a destructive profession. I'm not. (I actually think that prostitution should be legalized.) What I'm saying is that the type of woman who becomes a prostitute is more likely to be a sociopath. I know that there are a lot of women, mostly in Third World countries, who turn to prostitution as a last resort, because their choices are so limited.

The woman described in the previous posts, the one who calmly had a glass of wine as she stepped over her dying customer, is an example of what I'm talking about.

I agree that drug dealing itself is a destructive profession, and that drug dealers are more likely to be sociopaths.

Anonymous said...

1) Women can be sociopaths - see "The Sociopath Next Door" by Martha Stout, based on real accounts of real people, you will find two descriptions of female sociopaths. Her (imho, quite frightening) accounts of the women could be "made up" but they sound quite real, imho. Women can do scary things too.

2) Prostitutes as sociopaths? Because they are breaking up marriages (not help save them as is believed by many)? (because the johns are so truthful with them to begin with about their marital status) Get real. It seems much more likely that they are actually helping (in a very real (NOT surreal), physical way) end sometimes lethal loneliness. And do you really think that women would NOT seek a more dignified line of work if it provided a living wage?? Please see "Beauty from Ashes" to read about the quite effective brainwashing that a pimp (and yes, sometimes our own society) may do to women and think about how that might effect your ability to believe in your own abilities.

Anonymous said...

I was the victim of a woman sociopath, and believe you me, she is the devil incarnate...

John Craig said...

Anon --
All sociopaths are the devil incarnate, once you get to know them.

Anonymous said...

I do believe there is something to it. But I disagree it's the "flesh" and "muscles" around their eyes. There is an empty look to someone's actual eyes. A glaze sort of. Perhaps they can be described as opaque. I see it in women & men. Does it actually mean sociopathy? I can't say. But I do think these people are lacking something. And the mental state of the person may vary. I call them soul-less eyes. This can probably never be scientifically proven to exist. It's just something you see. Emotions show up in the eyes. And it may be hatred in these people. There's no way to know how much hatred a person has in them.

Demons in the flesh, or people afflicted with demons. Probably hateful people. I believe morally defunct in some way, but that is relative.

The eyes are the windows to the soul. I believe the old adage.

Anonymous said...

whe can see in the eye but only when is tired to put a mask or dont notice your gaze

John Craig said...

King --
True enough, a sociopath's eyes can sparkle with excitement or glee, too, and they are good at hiding their boredom when it suits them. But when they let their guard down, sometimes you get a glimpse of their real selves.

No Phreaking Name said...

Yes. Its a glazed over look. The pupil is difficult to ascertain. Third eye also empty...sorta a void there. Empaths intimidate them strangely.

John Craig said...

No Phreaking Name --
Hmm, interesting, I hadn't heard that about empaths intimidating them. I've always thought that sociopaths are particularly hard to intimidate, at least psychologically.