Search Box

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The interrelatedness of sociopathic traits

If you look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders, or the DSM, as it's popularly referred to, they list the following diagnostic criteria for "antisocial personality disorder," which is how they refer to sociopathy.

1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

At first glance, this looks like a random collection of undesirable traits, all of which combine to form an extremely unattractive personality. But in fact, each of these characteristics is related to the others.

A failure to comply with the law (1) is nothing more than a consistent irresponsibility (6) combined with a certain impulsiveness (3). It often incorporates a reckless disregard for safety (5) as well.

The kind of people who are repeatedly deceptive (2) are that way because they feel no remorse (7). If you feel guilty -- or at least embarrassed -- about lying, you don't do it, and certainly not on a regular basis. Lying is also the act of a person who is impulsive (3), who wants some sort of satisfaction at that moment, and who doesn't care about the future, when he may get caught in that lie.

(It's hard for most people to imagine, but a sociopath will lay claim to a nonexistent accomplishment just to bask in the glory of the moment, even though it's inevitable that he will eventually be caught in his lie.)

"Conning others" (2) is also a function of "consistent irresponsibility" (6) as well as a "lack of remorse" (7) and it often is illegal as well (1). One behavior is a prerequisite for another.

"Impulsivity or a failure to plan ahead" (3) is how you behave when you never learn from experience, and you never learn from experience when you never feel remorse (7) or even embarrassment about your mistakes.

"Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults" (4) can only result from a "reckless disregard for safety of self or others" (5). And the irritability is often a byproduct of a personality which is incapable of remorse (7), and never sees himself as being at fault, therefore always blaming others for whatever goes wrong in his life. And actual physical assaults are "grounds for arrest"(1).

What is a "reckless disregard for safety" (5) other than irresponsibility (6) combined with a failure to plan ahead (3)?

"Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations" (6) usually incorporates deception (2), since sociopaths almost always promise to work hard and pay their debts. Inconsistent work behavior is usually a result of "impulsivity" (3), going off to do something more fun than working. And not keeping one's promises is the behavior of one who has a "lack of remorse" (7).

It's not an accident that these traits and behaviors cluster.

Much of the literature on sociopathy states that you have to see several of these behaviors before you can accurately diagnose sociopathy. But if all you get is a little snapshot of someone, and one of the behaviors described above is extreme enough, you can pretty much count on the others being there as well.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a good, informative post. One sociopath that I've known (in my lifetime) displayed all of the characteristics of the disorder. When the sociopath applied himself to his work, he was able to do his work quite well, but given the chance to have fun, he would choose to make time for FUN, abandoning his work responsibilities. He would go MIA, lying about his whereabouts. If you have a business, sociopaths are the ones it's best not to hire.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Susan --
Thank you. Yes, sociopaths are almost inevitably poison to a business. They'll lie, manipulate, set people against each other, use bad judgment, lower morale, and otherwise run roughshod over a company and its employees.

The point of this post was, if you see two or three of these traits, or even one of them done to an extreme, you can be pretty sure that all the other traits/behaviors are there, even if you don't see them.

Anonymous said...

So, I guess that would mean that Bill and Hill would display all of the traits.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Susan --
Yes, in some manner or other.

Steven said...

I know someone who is a compulsive liar and therefore may lack remorse but doesn't display any of the other traits. He has a steady job, doesn't break the law apart from a bit of drug taking, isn't aggressive or abusive, doesn't do anything to jeopardise the safety of others, and seems to plan ahead enough to be functional, book holidays etc. He may lack remorse about lying but doesn't seem to ever do anything else to hurt people. He is an affectionate and devoted father despite being separated from the mum and everyone who knows him believes him to be a basically good natured person who is nice to everyone. There isn't any secret abuse to any of the people close to him, I know this. They all like him, though they know he lies, and there isn't the slightest fear from anyone. He was brought up by good parents and has a happy and friendly disposition. Nevertheless, he lies at a low level constantly and he is a show off and seems to lack shame and embarrassment when it comes to lying and showing off, and he is glib and charming too. So what do you make of this? Is it possible to be a compulsive liar and not a sociopath? or is it possible to be a sociopath who has been brought up in a good environment and so is good natured and genuinely lacking the bile and inclination to abuse you associate with most sociopaths?

Alter Ego said...

I worked with someone in college who checked all of the sociopath boxes and displayed not just two or three of the above behaviors ("They'll lie, manipulate, set people against each other, use bad judgment, lower morale, and otherwise run roughshod over a company and its employees.") but all of them — and then some.

In fact, it was my experience with that individual that led me to find out everything I could about sociopaths, and it was that fact-finding mission that led me to this blog. Thankfully I haven't encountered anyone quite like him again, and if I do I like to think I'll be more ready next time.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I don't think it's possible to be a pathological liar and not be a sociopath unless the "pathological lying" is a result of some sort of psychosis, and it doesn't sound as if your acquaintance is that. My guess is that he just goes through the motions on the other things. I've known plenty of sociopaths who showed up every day for work and did well, though they way they did their jobs, if you looked closely at them, was always in a way that somehow showed their dishonesty. Wall Street was full of sociopaths like this. (And I don't understand how one can do one's job responsibly if one is a pathological liar; is this guy all of a sudden honest at work? Because otherwise he's not being responsible at his job, even if he shows up every day and gets away with his lies.)

I've also known sociopaths who from all outward appearances were loving parents. But you could tell, while they may have been intensively protective of their children (sometimes, in an almost Texas Cheerleader Mom kind of way), the depth of emotion just wasn't there.

Also, being glib and charming actually IS a sociopathic trait, though it was not listed by the DSM. They also didn't list a bunch of other traits, like disloyalty (somewhat redundant), and the inability to love (subjective).

Anyway, my guess is, your acquaintance is a sociopath.

John Craig said...

Alter Ego --
You got to see all of those traits because you worked with the guy. Just think if you had only gotten a small snapshot of him, that allowed you to see just one of the traits; you still could have been fairly sure about what you were dealing with.

And yes, not that you've met one and learned from him, and now that you've done a little research into what you were dealing with, you'll undoubtedly know exactly what to anticipate next time around. And you'll recognize the next one for what he is a lot sooner.

Thanks for reading.

Steven said...

I wouldn't put dishonesty at work past him. But I'm interested in this in relation to this person: can you be a sociopath and basically be nice to everybody? I'm totally convinced he is actually nice to everyone and isn't abusive to anyone. Nor does he ever say anything negative about anyone behind their back. He just comes across to everyone who knows him (including i'm sure to his girlfriend and kid) as a positive person, though maybe his lies are tiresome. Everyone who knows him well knows he lies but people tend to kind of humour him because he is entertaining.

purpletigerbot said...

Craig's S factor of sociopathy =p . I wonder what sort quick, real word *test* would have the highest S loading? It would be nice to have some sort of quick Raven's type test to ID sociopaths across cultures.

purpletigerbot said...

Regarding Steven's friend the compulsive liar ... I've known some harmless compulsive liars who were compulsive lying regarding the self aka the 'One Upper'. I've had one friend who during our middle school and high school years would blatantly exaggerate his accomplishments but otherwise, like Steven's friend, was a great human being in every sense of the word. It most likely stemmed from insecurity than any sort sociopathy. I wonder what Steven's friend lies about?

John Craig said...

Steven --
I suppose you can be a sociopath and be nice to everyone, but it would be a very shallow sort of niceness with zero emotion behind it. Maybe he finds that that's the easiest way to manipulate people, get them to do what he wants. There are different types of sociopaths, not all come across vicious and aggressive. Think in terms of how female sociopathic gold-diggers come across, especially to their targets.

But again, I've never seen this guy in action, so I don't know. And it's certainly possible I'm wrong here, maybe there's something else at work here. But I've never known anyone who was a pathological liar myself who wasn't sociopathic.

John Craig said...

Purpletigerbot --
Sorry, you lost me on that first comment.

The thing about Raven's Matrices is that everybody will try to do well on them, so in that sense at least they give consistent accurate results. But with a sociopath, they'll try to fool any psychologist who's been assigned to them in any way they can, most often by trying to disguise their sociopathy. So really, the only way you can tell someone is a sociopath is by watching him in action for a fairly extended period.

As far as your school friend, it's one thing to exaggerate one's accomplishments, another to just invent them out of whole cloth. All of us try to spin our accomplishments to make them look good, though narcissistic personalities do it more. But only sociopaths just invent them entirely. (For instance, a sociopath will say he was a Navy SEAL when he wasn't, or say he worked for the CIA when he didn't, that sort of thing.)

Steven said...

He lies and embellishes a lot for the sake of a good story, to entertain and I guess to a certain degree to impress. Mostly its just low level stuff, like how many hours he worked, how much he made that week or how much something cost. Petty things there's no real need to lie about. He'll pluck figures out of thin air and make them specific so they're believable. None of it seems major or consequential...there's no big con going on, no trouble being caused. I definitely wouldn't describe his lying or anything about him as malicious and its actually pretty transparent to people who know him and are aware of it...I'm not even sure he minds too much contradicting himself and if he gets found out he doesn't seem embarrassed. And everyone likes him, me included, so you're happy to talk to him. He's never dull and I guess he likes it that way.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Maybe there's another syndrome I'm unfamiliar with which could cause that, but I doubt it. There are other syndromes which overlap with sociopathy but which aren't. But none that I know of which result in pathological lying.

Jean-Luc Cougar said...

@Steven and John

> Mostly its just low level stuff, like how many hours he worked, how much he made that week or how much something cost. Petty things there's no real need to lie about. He'll pluck figures out of thin air and make them specific so they're believable. None of it seems major or consequential...there's no big con going on, no trouble being caused. I definitely wouldn't describe his lying or anything about him as malicious and its actually pretty transparent to people who know him and are aware of it...I'm not even sure he minds too much contradicting himself and if he gets found out he doesn't seem embarrassed.

This is extremely similiar to how the friend I mentioned is. Just exaggeration, even comincal exagerations, but nothing crazy/malicious like Navy SEALS, and million dollar mansions. Like Stephen's friend, my friends exagerations were well known and even an in-joke among our group of friends.

Regardless, he was definitely a loyal, trustworthy friend. Any of my friends wouldn't be afraid to lend him money or trust him with the keys to our house or whatever sort of trust indicator you like to use.

Thinking about it now it just seemed like a personality quirk more than any sort of sociopathy. But it definitely was compulsive and pointing out the absurtities and counter evidence wasn't a deterrent nor changed the habit.

Thanks for the response!

John Craig said...

Jean-Luc Cougar and Steven --
It's sounding more and more as if both of your friends' lies were more exaggerations than complete lies. It could just be both are just narcissistic characters with their heads -- and egos -- in the clouds.

Mark Caplan said...

A widely reported study that came out last month said 1 in 5 "senior professionals" in business is a psychopath ("has clinically significant psychopathic traits"). I'd guess the same is true of university administrators. Psychopaths seek power over people to inflict pain with impunity. I imagine an organization with a psychopath at the top will be rife with psychopaths throughout the management structure.

The newspaper articles on the study didn't say whether businesses run by psychopaths were more or less successful than other businesses.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/13/1-in-5-ceos-are-psychopaths-australian-study-finds/

John Craig said...

Mark --
That's not surprising about the CEO's. Sociopathic traits help one rise in a corporation. I'd think the percentage would somewhat less in a university setting, since the financial rewards aren't as great, even though, as you rightly say, the opportunity for power over others is there.

The Ambivalent Misanthrope said...

What a fascinating discussion I've been missing! Great post! Once again an impeccable and novel analysis of sociopathy. Really, these sociopathy posts are better than most textbooks on the subject. Anyway...

As regards the discussion between Steven and John, I'd say the guy is a sociopath. Being 'likable,' especially by 'everyone' despite the tiresome compulsive lying smacks of sociopathy right there. One thing that the textbooks and the DSM don't factor in is the 'reality distortion field' that people enter in the presence of a sociopath. The mechanism behind this is truly so astoundingly irrational that it borders on magic or hypnosis, but it's a fact. There is something about the sociopath's ability to tap into the interpersonal dynamic that allows him or her to display alarming behaviors or self-disclosures, and you, as the fly caught in the distortion field, nod your head and somehow go along with it and minimize it in your own mind --- in the moment. It takes considerable distance time-wise to wake up from that and see how appalling it was 1)what the sociopath said or did, and 2) your own tacit acquiescence to it.

I cannot imagine liking anyone who lies compulsively. Even the low level stuff lying creates a distorted narrative about that person's life --- how many hours he's worked ("oh, he's such a hard worker" --- but not really), he paid so much for something ("he likes the good things in life" or "only the best' for his loved ones, or whatver effect he's aiming for in the lie), or how much he made that week, etc...

While none of that may seem all that consequential, besides creating that false narrative about himself, the habit runs the risk of spinning out of control with a small lie that keeps gaining momentum. Sometimes seemingly ordinary people end up doing unspeakable things because they started with one mall lie that needed to keep going.

Criminals, sociopaths and narcissists are all strangely 'likable' and charming, and people end up giving them the benefit of the doubt, time and time again. The Department of Justice website is a great read for seeing how they look from the other side. The DOJ makes press releases available on its page. Just pick a district, go to News, and get ready to have your eyes pop out. Lots of charming, likable upstanding citizens on there caught in the most loathsome lies and schemes --- many of them non-violent, just rampantaly exploitative.

John Craig said...

Ambivalent Misanthrope --
Thank you very much.

I'm in your camp. One of the big advantages that sociopaths have is that they ARE charming, as a rule, and know better than most how to come across likable, especially at first.

To me, the two things that say sociopath the most clearly are (1), serial killing, and (2), pathological lying (as long as it's not due to psychosis, in which case it's not really lying but rather insanity). I suspect that Steven's acquaintance will show his true colors eventually. Unless, as I said above, the lies are all small exaggerations rather than lies made out of whole cloth, in which case this guy could be just a garden variety narcissist.

Alter Ego said...

Ambivalent Misanthrope, your comment deserves its own post. I especially love this line: "It takes considerable distance time-wise to wake up from that and see how appalling it was 1)what the sociopath said or did, and 2) your own tacit acquiescence to it." -- so true!

Runner Katy said...

Thank you again for such a wonderful post!! Not only is the original commentary a great read, but the commenters are just as educational. I feel like the more we read of others' experiences with sociopaths, the more we learn and are able to avoid (or to the best of our abilities avoid) them. Ambivalent Misanthrope, thank you for what I feel is one of the best summary of a sociopath!

John Craig said...

Runner Katy --
Thank you. Yes, Ambivalent Misanthrope definitely knows her stuff when it comes to sociopaths.

And yeah, avoiding them is by far the best tactic.

Patty Cummings said...

I am currently reading Psychopathy Within by Eve Maram, drevemaram.com for her info. Her book leads me to believe that in the instance of psychopathy that this is a character trait as opposed to a "disorder" if that makes any sense without being to verbose. It also seems like they are the very same things with different nuances, socio/psychpaths. Her book is a compelling read, really brings insight into dealing with this on a personal level.

John Craig said...

Patty --
I agree completely, sociopathy is a character trait, maybe best described by saying it's a "lack of character." The word "disorder" often seems to imply that things can be put back in order, which will never happen with a sociopath. And you're right, sociopaths and psychopaths are basically the same thing. A few people try to distinguish between the two by saying that psychopaths are that way for organic reasons and sociopaths became that way because of their upbringing, but the causes can be intertwined, and anyway, there's no significant difference in terms of how they behave.