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Monday, April 24, 2017

Sociopath alert: Tony Robbins

I was reading about acromegalics a few days ago, and among the prominent cases mentioned was the 6' 7" Tony Robbins. I peeked at his biography and saw something that should have occurred to me before: he is probably a sociopath.

He doesn't strike me as someone who is out to harm others. But, like Joel Osteen, another ostentatious self-promoter who's made a fortune off of theoretically wanting to help others, Robbins has a lot of the traits of a typical sociopath.


Robbins, a personal empowerment guru, has always given off the air of a snake oil salesman. The phrase "con man" is short for confidence man, and that's exactly what Robbins sells: confidence. He basically gives his audiences rousing pep talks about how they can accomplish everything they've ever wanted to, all they have to do is just do it.

(It's hard to argue with that logic.)

Robbins' books have titles like Unlimited Power, Awaken the Giant Within, and Giant Steps.


For his personal seminars, he uses tricks like fire walking and skydiving to imbue his audiences with the attitude that if they can do that, they can do anything. These techniques can work, and Robbins has many believers.

Pep talks can unquestionably benefit some people, and a skillfully delivered spiel by a charismatic man -- combined with "proof" that we can do things were wouldn't have imagined ourselves capable of -- can inspire us even further.


The question is, what kind of man is going to be best at delivering this kind of message? What kind of man makes the best salesman? What kind of man has no limits -- or brakes, if you will -- on his own personality?

What kind of man can sling that line of talk and constantly exude earnestness, with no hesitation, no catch in his voice, and no sense of sheepishness?

Usually, the kind who is unburdened by any sense of embarrassment.

Robbins certainly had the kind of family background one associates with sociopaths. This is from the "Early Life" section on him from Wikipedia:

Robbins is the oldest of three children and his parents divorced when he was 7. His mother then had a series of husbands, including Jim Robbins, a former semiprofessional baseball player who legally adopted Anthony when he was 12.

His father could not provide for their family, so he left them. His mother started abusing alcohol and prescription drugs sometime after. While growing up, Robbins helped provide for his siblings. Robbins was raised in Azusa and Glendora, California. He was elected student body president in his senior year and grew 10 inches in high school, a growth spurt later attributed to a pituitary tumor. He has said his home life was "chaotic" and "abusive." When he was 17 years old, Robbins' mother chased him out of the house with a knife, and he never returned.


Multiple marriages and substance abuse are often yellow flags for sociopathy. And what kind of monster chases her own son out of the house with a knife? The fact that Robbins ran out of the house shows that he thought she would actually use it. That's certainly a red flag for (her) sociopathy.

And, sociopathic mothers often pass that trait along to their children.

Running for student body president can be a sign of neediness (from one who gets no love from his own parents), and being elected to that position shows a certain early manipulative ability. We shouldn't read too much into that, but in combination with everything else, it is a clue to Robbins' personality.

Robbins has left a long trail of controversy and lawsuits, a not uncommon pattern with sociopaths. Again, from Wiki:

In May 1995, Robbins Research International (RRI) responded to Federal Trade Commission charges of misrepresentation of potential earnings to franchise investors. RRI and the FTC entered into a stipulated settlement agreement, in which RRI agreed to pay US$221,260 in consumer redress. RRI did not admit guilt under the settlement.

Financial seminar guru Wade Cook also sued Robbins for copyright infringement and plagiarism, alleging that Robbins used proprietary terms in his seminars and from Cook's book Wall Street Money Machine. In 1998, a Tacoma, Washington, jury ordered Robbins to pay Cook $650,900 in damages....

One chapter of Unlimited Power, called "Energy: The Fuel of Excellence", is dedicated to a discussion of health and energy. The National Council Against Health Fraud wrote a highly critical review of the chapter.

In 2001, Robbins filed a lawsuit against The Vancouver Sun newspaper, alleging defamation and libel. The judge determined the Vancouver Sun defamed Robbins when it called him an "adulterous, wife-stealing hypocrite." Awarding Robbins $20,000 in damages, the judge wrote "While damages are presumed, the plaintiff's failure to take the witness stand and to testify about his feelings and the effect of the defamation upon his reputation leaves the court somewhat in the dark about these matters"...

On June 24, 2016, dozens were burned and required medical attention after attempting to walk on hot coals during a fire walking event at a Tony Robbins motivational seminar in Dallas, TX. Several attendees required hospitalization and were transported to medical facilities to treat burns while a bus was required by emergency services to handle the triage of burn victims.


None of these things, individually, prove sociopathy, but add them all up and you get a very distinct odor.

What I found most revealing was a letter Robbins wrote to one of his fans who asked him why he had gotten divorced from his first wife. (He had previously gone on publicly about how wonderful his wife was and what a great relationship they had; and he evidently had continued to do so even after they were separated.) Note how Robbins' glib, evasive, and ultimately meaningless reply is filled with vague generalities which reveal exactly nothing:

Thank you so much for your e-mail. First, I want to apologize for this belated reply. My intense seminar and travel schedule, along with my business and family responsibilities, have taken a big bite out of my time. However, I wanted to respond personally and acknowledge the time you took to think of me.

I’ve worked for years to create and present the most innovative, entertaining, and empowering materials possible. However, I know my technology is worthwhile when I receive notes
from people like you who are not only emotionally touched by my work, but more importantly, are taking action on what they’ve learned. To know that in some small way I’ve made a difference for at least one person and that I have helped them to begin to create the quality of life they truly deserve is what drives me most.

I appreciate your interest in my former marriage. The strategies I share with my audience to guide them on the path to more fulfilling relationships are based on my own personal experience and the knowledge I have gained from working with people from 80 different countries for more than a quarter of a century. Relationships are one of the single most important areas of our lives and one of the greatest opportunities for fulfillment or pain. The secret is making certain the person you select shares your values and vision. Some relationships cannot continue to be fulfilling because the two people have different visions for their lives or have learned to value different things.

While I offer many tools for enhancing relationships, I have never led my audience to believe that the path to a successful relationship would be to stay in a relationship where after deep, honest communication and soul searching both people discover that they do not share the same life vision. Any relationship can be made to work, but when people’s values and life directions are extremely different they must compromise. Continuous compromise means a compromised life for both parties. That is when difficult decisions need to be made.

Deciding to end my relationship with my former wife Becky was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I am extremely proud of our 14-year relationship. When I entered the marriage at the age of 24 I immediately embraced the responsibilities of being a father to a 17-year-old son, an 11-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old son. I remained in that marriage until my children were grown and I realized that I did not share a life vision with my former wife. At that time I chose to take the necessary actions to pursue a life in which I could be more fulfilled. Sometime later I met Sage, my lovely wife, whom I met coincidentally through a business relationship, and married a year later. We have been together for a blissful two and a half years.


The first two and a half paragraphs are just a standard boilerplate advertisement for his seminars, where he has "worked for years to create and present the most innovative, entertaining, and empowering materials possible."

That second paragraph in particular exudes insincerity: "To know that in some small way I’ve made a difference for at least one person and that I have helped them to begin to create the quality of life they truly deserve is what drives me most."

Gee, I would have thought that money was what drove him most.

And note how skillful Robbins is at reframing questions. When his fan asked him what had happened to his first marriage, about which Robbins had formerly waxed so enthusiastically, he was obviously calling Robbins to account, essentially saying, what the hell happened? But Robbins reframes it by thanking him for his email and "acknowledging" him for the time he took to think of Robbins and saying, "I appreciate your interest in my former marriage."

Now, what do you think the odds are that Robbins really appreciated that interest? (The rest of his reply shows about as much honesty.)

But what really gives Robbins away is that he has that peculiar sociopathic quirk, overuse of adjectives and adverbs meant to emphasize sincerity and goodness. When used in overabundance, however, they in fact indicate the opposite. I pointed out once how Franklin Lynch, aka "The Day Stalker," did this. And I pointed out how David Berkowitz, aka "Son of Sam," did it as well.

Robbins doesn't just have a seminar and travel schedule, he has an intense seminar and travel schedule. Note that the strategies he uses to guide his audiences to more fulfilling relationships aren't just "from my own experience," but "from my own personal experience."

And it's not just to help them create the quality of life they deserve, but the quality of life they truly deserve.

Robbins doesn't just say that the partners in a relationship should communicate, but that they should have deep, honest communication. (In my experience, the only people who emphasize honesty that way are those who lack that trait.)

Robbins isn't just proud of his 14 year relationship with first wife Becky; he's extremely proud of it. Also note that he's reframed the situation so that that first marriage now sounds like a success. Robbins sounds like one of those guys who proudly says he's had five very successful marriages.

And note that Robbins didn't divorce his wife because he grew tired of her and their constant fighting, or because he met a younger, hotter babe. Or because he wanted to take advantage of all his wealth and fame to screw around. It's because he "didn't share a life vision" with her.

That almost makes it sound as if before he divorced his wife, he was divorced from reality. At least, according to the way he describes their breakup.

The fact is, people don't get divorced simply because they don't "share a life vision." It's almost always for much more mundane reasons, like odious personal habits or financial irresponsibility or sheer boredom. And people like Robbins aren't driven by being able to make a difference "in some small way...for at least one person." They're driven by a desire for money, and fame.

Robbins isn't divorced from reality; he's just a habitual liar.

I happened to catch another clip of Robbins, embedded in this article. He's being interviewed by Oprah, and at one point he says, "I love people so much..."

This just isn't the kind of thing that honest people say. Normal people are programmed to love a small handful of people, not lots of people. Whenever you meet someone who talks about how they love a lot of people, it comes across insincere. Generally, the people who claim to love lots of people don't really love anyone.

And a false emotionality is a hallmark of sociopaths.

Robbins is a little reminiscent of Norman Vincent Peale (the author of The Power of Positive Thinking). Positive thinking -- essentially what Robbins pushes -- does work, and Robbins has probably helped a lot of people. But I'm not discussing his techniques -- his "technology," as he puts it -- but the man himself. What kind of guy makes the best promoter?

While I was reading about acromegalics, I was struck by the fact that so many of them have been cast in villainous roles, either in the movies or in professional wrestling. But most of them were actually decent people, from what I could see.

It's ironic that the one famous acromegalic with a reputation for helping people is, in my opinion, a sociopath.

15 comments:

Jean-Luc Cougar said...

Agree about the writing here. I can think of one person that I think is a sociopath based on the written form. It just kinda hit me how ... empty ... their rhetoric was. Especially the intensifiers you noted => they stick out like a sore thumb in writing, yet can flow naturally and be of great effect in speech.

Weird juxtaposition => the aspie is exposed in face to face communication, the sociopath in writing. In non-face-to-face situations, the sociopath loses the ability to control the frame, adjust to your responses, and continue charming you with what you want to hear AKA when they try and convert their spoken methods to the written form ... it is a total failure.

Anyways, great post! Another question => are there any self-promoters/confidence guys that aren't sociopaths?!

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

I now agree with your post. After doing my own research, it's very likely that he has the disorder.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Jean-Luc --
Thank you.

I think having at least a narcissistic personality is almost a must for any self-promoter/confidence guy. I don't know of all that many of them, and most of them only by reputation. But the really extreme ones -- like Robbins -- are almost like cult leaders, and I've never known of a cult leader who wasn't a sociopath.

John Craig said...

Susan --
Thank you. When you add up all his sociopathic tics, it's hard not to come to that conclusion.

Mark Caplan said...

"Deep and honest communication" with one's spouse is probably the fastest route to divorce anyone could devise.

When Robbins was 24, his new wife came with a 17-year-old son? How much older than Robbins was she?

John Craig said...

Mark --
Ha, good point.

Wow, I hadn't realized his first wife was that much older. Maybe Robbins was looking for a mother figure, since his own mother didn't seem to be much of one.

But yeah, that situation makes him sound a little like the guy who's now the frontrunner for French President.

Anonymous said...

this is another one of your best, MISTER CRAIG.

I know that praise is useless unless it gives guidance towards continued good future performance...in that spirit, the good thing about this one is that it is very workmanlike...one true thing, then another true thing...(not all flashy and FULL OF CRAZY TALK in spite of the over-the-top target)...very estimable, you deserve a BIG AUDIENCE, this makes me want to tip you money or tasty food treats or some well-selected inexpensive-but-sincere small collectable item

====Fake Baba

John Craig said...

Fake Baba --
Thank you very much......I sometimes think, if this weren't an obscure little blog, I'd probably get sued more.

John Craig said...

Mark Caplan --
I just re-read the post and saw where I'd quoted Robbins talking about inheriting a 17-year-old son when he himself was only 24. Okay, I'm an idiot. Somehow I'd forgotten about that when responding to your comment.

Shaun F said...

John - Great article. It is interesting all confidence people seem to shill, at least in general the same thing. The power of the mind. I see a lot of "training" techniques used, which I presume are like Robbins, the - Think, Act, Become Model. Where you think a certain way, then act the part, then you become the part. After typing that, I figure actors/actresses do that as well. But as I illustrated to someone in a discussion "So you're gonna think you're Wayne Gretzky, act like Wayne Gretzky and become Wayne Gretzky? I was just trying to illustrate the limits of that "thinking to the individual." Unfortunately, like a lot of cult members she was a true believer, and it fell on deaf ears. The problem is that a lot of these people are surrounded by enablers that validate them, and then when they hit someone who doesn't - it's awkward.

John Craig said...

Thank you Shaun.

This type of Think Act Become strategy obviously isn't going to work for someone who would need to acquire a particular esoteric skill like Gretzky's. But the "fake it till you make it" model can work in business, you hear that expression all the time in NY. And I've talked to people who'll tell me that the only difference between the hedge fund success stories and the guys who never tried is that the hedges thought they could do it in the first place, even though they really weren't any smarter than the guys who never tried.

A lot of life is believing in oneself, and to that extent, Robbins's model works. But what I was talking about in this post was what kind of guy he is.

GT said...

"While I offer many tools for enhancing relationships, I have never led my audience to believe that the path to a successful relationship would be to stay in a relationship where after deep, honest communication and soul searching both people discover that they do not share the same life vision. Any relationship can be made to work, but when people’s values and life directions are extremely different they must compromise. Continuous compromise means a compromised life for both parties. That is when difficult decisions need to be made.

Deciding to end my relationship with my former wife Becky was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I am extremely proud of our 14-year relationship. When I entered the marriage at the age of 24 I immediately embraced the responsibilities of being a father to a 17-year-old son, an 11-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old son. I remained in that marriage until my children were grown and I realized that I did not share a life vision with my former wife. At that time I chose to take the necessary actions to pursue a life in which I could be more fulfilled. Sometime later I met Sage, my lovely wife, whom I met coincidentally through a business relationship, and married a year later. We have been together for a blissful two and a half years."

Amazing how much "spin" is in the above letter from Robbins. The entire letter is very self serving and paints Robbins as the hero; he accepted the father figure role at just 24, he stayed with the family until after the kids were grown, he made the tough decision to move on, he was faithful as he did not meet Sage until "sometime later". He even gives himself a happy ending by talking about his "blissful" two and a half years with the new wife. Notice how he only talks about himself...

On a side note: This is the same style phrasing a CEO might use while communicating the closing of a factory.

See if this sounds like something that would be said:

Deciding to close this factory is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I am extremely proud of our 14 year production run at this factory. When I entered as CEO at the age of 24 I immediately embraced the responsibilities of being a leader to many on the factory floor. I remained as the leader and supporter of this factory until the product lifecycle had grown to its natural conclusion. At this time I chose to take the necessary actions to pursue a new strategic partnership to better align the companies imperative to deliver outstanding innovative products to our Clients.

John Craig said...

GT --
Great point, it was all about him. And the paragraphs before that had basically been an advertisement for his "product" as well.

And yes, great parallel with a CEO closing a plant. That sounds exactly like what some self-serving CEO would say when telling people they're out of a job. CEOs do have to make tough decisions sometimes, but when they make it all about them, their narcissism is front and center like a bad smell.

Samuel Nock said...

Facsinating post that makes a lot of sense. I had heard about his difficult childhood, but this explains a lot of the "fall out" of it (if you can call becoming a centa-millionaire celebrity, "fall out").

Allow me to leave this clip from My Little Pony which pokes at the whole motivational speaker industry. Iron Will is not supposed to be Tony Robbins, who - to his credit - doesn't encourage people to be mean to others, but it's more of an amalgem of the concept.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PFHfq9EBwb8

John Craig said...

Samuel --
Thank you.

Ha, I'd never seen Iron Will before, but I like the way they insert the social commentary in.