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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fictional "sociopaths"

A friend recently pointed out that the fictional character Francis Underwood would have to be a sociopath to do the things he did in House of Cards.

I replied, yes, he would have to be a sociopath to do those things, but keep in mind he's a Hollywood sociopath, not a real one. Hollywood always tries to imbue their anti-hero semi-sociopaths with redeeming characteristics in order to make them more sympathetic. A screenwriter's job is to create a dramatic arc, with lots of tension and conflict -- including inner conflict. This always makes for a more entertaining story.

The problem is, sociopaths generally don't feel inner conflict. There is never any sort of battle between good and evil going on in within them, simply because there isn't any good.

Francis Underwood is actually one of the better fictional portrayals of a sociopath. He's all about gaining power, no matter what it takes. And he's a glib, accomplished manipulator and liar. But we're still supposed to believe that he cares about the issues, and that he wants to do good for the masses.

Think of The Sting, with those two lovable con men played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The problem there is that almost all con men, by definition, are sociopaths. People who make a living by pretending to be something they're not and by preying on others' gullibility and vulnerability are the very definition of sociopathy. But The Sting, of course, portrayed the Newman and Redford characters as loyal, loving paragons of decency.

I pointed out in June 2011 that Catch Me If You Can, which was based on Frank Abagnale's life, was a completely one-sided portrayal of sociopathy. We're supposed to exult along with Leo DiCaprio at his ability to fool people into thinking he was actually an airline pilot or a doctor: how cool that he could get away with that! What a charming rascal! But anybody who would actually do this -- and risk the damage incurred by these impersonations -- would have to be a sociopath, with all of the disloyalty and narcissism associated with such. But at the end of the movie we're supposed to be happy for the Abagnale/DiCaprio character that he has since become a respected security consultant.

One of the worst misrepresentations of a sociopath was The Iceman, based on serial killer (and hit man) Richard Kuklinski. If you know anything about Kuklinski, you know that he was a stone cold sociopath. He beat his wife mercilessly, breaking her bones on several occasions. And he said in one jailhouse interview that his one regret was that he didn't kill his own father. Yet while the movie doesn't shy away from his many murders, it also portrays him as a loving family man, and we are supposed to be left wondering, which is the real Kuklinski? In real life, there was no such doubt.

The list of Hollywood movies with unrealistic portrayals of characters who would pretty much have to be sociopaths goes on and on. In fact, most action heroes, who remain impossibly calm in the face of death and always have a witty line at hand, are portraying characters who would almost have to be sociopaths in order to be that recklessly cavalier about safety as well as glib. Yet the protagonists are always portrayed in a heroic light.

These action heroes are what we would like to be, if only we had the nerve. But in fact, you really don't want to be a sociopath, though you might admire his courage and coolness.

So it's best you don't learn about sociopaths from fictional characters. Read the headlines, examine the crime reports, and think about the worst person you ever knew personally, instead. There should be plenty of material there.


Mark Caplan said...

I was waiting for another post on psychopathology to ask if you've seen this 2007 article by Richard Lynn, "Race and Psychopathic Personality":

In 1994 the American Psychiatric Association issued a revised Diagnostic Manual listing 11 features of anti-social personality disorder: (1) inability to sustain consistent work behavior; (2) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior [this is a euphemism for being a criminal]; (3) irritability and aggressivity, as indicated by frequent physical fights and assaults; (4) repeated failure to honor financial obligations; (5) failure to plan ahead or impulsivity; (6) no regard for truth, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or “conning” others; (7) recklessness regarding one’s own or others’ personal safety, as indicated by driving while intoxicated or recurrent speeding; (8) inability to function as a responsible parent; (9) failure to sustain a monogamous relationship for more than one year; (10) lacking remorse; (11) the presence of conduct disorder in childhood.

This is a useful list. Curiously, however, it fails to include the deficiency of moral sense that is the core of the condition, although this is implicit in virtually every feature of the disorder. All of these behaviors are more prevalent among blacks than among whites, and suggest that blacks have a higher average tendency towards psychopathic personality.
[End quote]

Liberal anti-racists are only too happy to tell us there is more genetic diversity within Sub-Saharan Africans than between them and whites. But then it makes sense that extreme genetic diversity would lead to more extreme variability in behaviors and, consequently, more psychopathology.

"Race and Psychopathic Personality"

Justin said...

I'm guessing you haven't seen that much of House of Cards. Frank definitely doesn't care about doing good for the masses, although this is less apparent earlier on and in Season 1, if I recall correctly, when he's sort of operating as a Chuck Schumer hustler type. Also interesting his bisexuality shown in S2, common for sociopaths.

But yes, I agree with your broader point that movies and tv shows do a poor job of accurately depicting sociopaths.

John Craig said...

Mark --
That's a really good question. I've read -- in mainstream psychology books -- that the incidence of sociopathy is higher in the "inner city." And according to the DSM description which you quoted, it would seem to be way higher. But I've always had a problem with that criterion #4 of not being able to pay one's bills. That's just a function of one's economic standing; and while there's a correlation with responsibility and sociopathy (a negative one), there's an even stronger negative correlation between intelligence and not being able to pay one's bills. And if you look at the DSM criteria, a lot of them, if not most of them, are correlated with intelligence as well. And black criminality is at least partly a function of their lower IQ's.

Let me quote from that post I wrote in March about the biggest difference between the races being the level of inhibition:

"I'm often asked, is such and such a black criminal a sociopath? I sometimes shrug and say, well, no, not really -- he's just black. His crime may be bad, but at the same time it's not as if he has all the other sociopathic traits that go along with the impulsiveness -- the false emotionality, pathological lying, manipulativeness, destructiveness, disloyalty, bitterness, envy, and hatred. He's just...uninhibited.

People have asked me if Mike Tyson is a sociopath. On the surface, he would seem a likely candidate: he's violent, has gotten into frequent trouble, and has seemed at times to be out of control. But as I explained here, Tyson is more noble savage than scheming conniver. He has few brakes on his personality, which is basically just one big primal scream. But he has none of the other characteristics of a sociopath, in fact these days is painfully honest about himself, which is basically the opposite of sociopathy.

This, of course, is not to say there aren't black sociopaths. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are two prominent examples. But, in general, the kind of wanton lack of inhibition which typically indicates sociopathy in a white person often does not indicate the same set of despicable characteristics for a black."

I've known my share of sociopaths, and have followed others closely in the news. And there are almost always a whole set of characteristics that go along with it that are just plain missing in black criminals. If you go completely with the DSM, then you'd have to say a sizable fraction of the inner city population is sociopathic. But a lot of these black criminals are sort of uninhibitedly, impulsively dumb, as opposed to wanting to show false emotions (think of Bill Clinton wiping those imaginary tears away) and constantly brimming over with hostility (think of how Lance Armstrong sued everybody who said he was doping early on). And these black criminals are not particularly manipulative, either, even if they're violent. Honestly, they're just different than white sociopaths, and I'm reluctant to put them in the same category because they don't have all the characteristics.

John Craig said...

Justin --
I've actually seen all four seasons. Maybe I'm wrong, but it was my impression the writers wanted to show him as actually having some political beliefs that he cared about. Now, those definitely took a back seat to his personal ambition. And there's no question he's a sociopath.

Interesting point about his bisexuality. I hadn't really been aware of this until recently. (Sorry, but was it you who first mentioned it to me recently?) Maybe that explains all those prison rapes by guys who are ostensibly heterosexual.

Justin said...

Yes, I mentioned it to you. I saw a post about the show on SociopathWorld, which is where I got the idea from. But the 3 (male) sociopaths I've known close up seemed not strongly heterosexual and had weird stuff in this area too, now looking back.

Also disturbing is the fact sociopaths don't even identify with a gender in their own minds, but that's a topic for another day.

John Craig said...

Justin --
Okay, thanks, sorry about that, I should have remembered it was you. I have to admit, that fact took me by surprise. Of the sociopaths I've known, the ones I can think of off the top of my head had a definite sexuality. Of course, with the guys, that may have just been sociopathic dishonesty expressing itself.

Justin said...

Wasn't the sociopath girlfriend you had a lesbian pretending to be straight?

John Craig said...

Justin --
Yes, she was actually one of the ones I was thinking of. She was definitely a lesbian, even though in retrospect it seems clear she "wanted" to change, but she couldn't. I was an "experiment" for her in that sense. And in others, I guess.

Justin said...

I don't know, maybe I'm wrong. But I've discussed attractive women fairly in depth with all 3, including my father, and there just seemed to be a complete disinterest around the subject. And all 3 made strangely reverent comments about gay people they knew, like they were longing for that lifestyle.

Since all sociopaths are narcissists, this can sort of fit, because someone of the same gender is better narcissistic supply, it's almost like masturbating. And yes, I believe homosexuals are far more likely to have these personality disorders than straights.

John Craig said...

Justin --
I'm not arguing with the theory of gender fluidity among sociopaths, I'm just saying my personal experience didn't indicate that. So if it's your experience, and if you read that elsewhere too, maybe there's something to it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that with a lot of people, shame at being a "pervert" would enter into the equation, so they repress that side of themselves, but since sociopaths don't feel any shame, there's no repression. Also, is it possible that one or more of the sociopaths you knew was simply a closeted homosexual? If they were truly bisexual, you'd think that they'd be at least somewhat interested in beautiful women.

As far as sociopathic narcissism goes, generally psychologists are using that term in the strict DSM sense, meaning, that they can't take criticism, are quick to blame others, think they're better than they are at all sorts of things, etc., rather than in the layman's sense of liking what they see in the mirror.

Steven said...

I've always thought that you have to be afraid in order to be courageous and the more afraid you are, the more courageous you have to be. Sociopaths just aren't afraid so they don't really have to be brave.

That's just a minor point and I'm not even sure if its right (maybe its sufficient just to be willing to face danger and pain) but I thought I'd throw that out there.

John Craig said...

Steven --
What you say is true; I should have said "what seems to be his courage" as opposed to "courage" in the second to last paragraph. I was more careful in the paragraph before that, when I said that sociopaths are "recklessly cavalier about safety," which probably describes them more accurately.