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Sadism and warped empathy in sociopaths

Many who have been hurt by sociopaths develop a general distrust of others. This distrust is understandable given how difficult it often is to tell if another person is a sociopath. However, going through life with distrust is not a pleasant way to live. Victims naturally then want to know in detail what sociopaths are about so they can identify the untrustables, and go back to trusting everyone else.

One of the purposes of this website is to describe sociopaths and teach people to identify them. Sociopaths are pathological liars who like to talk as experts on many topics. They manipulate others and generally have a high opinion of themselves. They also lack remorse for their actions and don’t seem to care about the pain they cause others. In fact they seem to enjoy inflicting all types pain (harm) on others.

The enjoyment of hurting another person is called sadism. Sadism usually refers to enjoying another’s physical pain. However, sociopaths enjoy inflicting all manner of pain on others including financial, emotional, psychological and social.

To sum it up sociopaths are in the business of reducing people to nothing and then taking glory in their accomplishment.

I have just described the most important “traits” of sociopaths. Many of you are saying, “Yes right on, that described mine exactly.” But are you satisfied?

You probably do not feel satisfied because you are left with wondering why. Why would someone do that? If you discover the answer to the “why question” you can go back to trusting everyone else again because you would understand the sick motives of sociopaths.

Normal people don’t enjoy watching other people suffer do they?

Here is where some get stuck, because many people secretly and not so secretly hope they live long enough to see the sociopath finally suffer. Well, if you can enjoy another’s suffering what makes you different from the sociopath?

If we examine the reasons why we would take pleasure in a sociopath’s suffering, we see there are two basic reasons. One is revenge and the other is our ability to consider the sociopath as “inhuman.” If a sociopath is not really human, then it is OK to enjoy that private moment of our imagined revenge.

There are therefore two basic routes to sadism. The first is through the power motive. Revenge is about reasserting power over someone who has robbed us of power. The power motive is also called the social dominance drive.

I am grateful to Caesar Milan the dog whisperer, for educating the public about dominance. We all know that a dominant dog has no problem inflicting pain on underlings to assert his dominance.

The second route to sadism is called “compartmentalization” by psychologists. A person who compartmentalizes has a motive (drive) to inflict pain on someone and so rationalizes it by saying that the other person is inhuman or “deserves it.”

Interestingly, both routes to sadism operate in sociopaths. Jack Levin and others have written a great deal about compartmentalization in sociopaths. Sociopaths are also ruled by the power motive and so enjoy hurting because it is confirmation they are achieving power.

That gets me to warped empathy. Many, including Jack Levin, have pointed to the faulty logic behind the idea that sociopaths lack empathy. If sociopaths lack empathy then how can they enjoy another’s suffering? If they can’t identify other’s emotions how can they know they are inflicting pain and so get enjoyment? Is there any question that the sociopath that hurt you knew you were suffering?

Most of us have seen clearly the sadism of sociopaths, so we know they must have some kind of warped empathy. Empathy should lead to sympathy with another’s suffering not pleasure in another’s suffering.

In 1982, while reporting the results of a very well done study in which he found that violent sociopaths of normal to high intelligence actually have increased empathy, Heilburn* made the following statement:

“One way to interpret these results would be in terms of a sadistic, effective-processing psychopathic model of violence in which inflicting pain or distress upon another is arousing and reinforcing (pleasurable). Such a model would assume that acts inflicting pain are more intentional than impulsive and that empathic skills promote arousal and sadistic reinforcement (pleasure) by enhancing the psychopath’s awareness of the pain and distress being experienced by the victim.”

Now in 2008 researchers have obtained results that confirm Heilburn’s theory.

Researcher Jean Decety from the University of Chicago found that young sociopath’s brains light up with pleasure when they experience another’s suffering. In this study, the pleasure was especially present when the suffering was being inflicted by another person. How did the researchers demonstrate this? They showed violent movie clips to sociopaths and non-sociopaths then used fMRI to scan their brains.

Most importantly, the study showed no abnormality of the brain pathways involved in empathy. Sociopath’s empathy centers appeared to function just fine.

So how can I help you feel comfortable trusting the 90% of the rest of humanity who are not significantly sociopathic when I have already said that that most people can be sadistic under certain circumstances?

The answer is found again with motives, specifically the power motive. Learn to recognize the signs of excessive power orientation. It is OK to want a certain amount of power, but the pursuit of interpersonal power should not occupy a person’s every waking moment.

Well balanced people enjoy love and affection more than they enjoy power and control. I encourage you to learn to tune into love motives in others. I have found that consciously choosing to notice loving behavior in others has also helped me better recognize the power motive.

Avoid people who dehumanize others because whether or not one who dehumanizes is a sociopath, this compartmentalization is an important contributor to man’s inhumanity to man.

Lastly, I encourage you to stop supporting violent entertainment with your consumer dollar. Such “entertainment” fosters the development of sociopathy in at-risk youth. It also brings out the worst in everyone else.

*Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1982, Vol. 50, No. 4, 546-557



230 Comments on "Sadism and warped empathy in sociopaths"

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  1. OxDrover says:

    That was probably Jane Goodall, and I have read a great deal of her writings, and there have been others that killed and ate babies.

    Chimps really don’t have “empathy” in the way we do, feeling the other’s emotions. They do help each other out sometimes, but it is more in response to fear of revenge than in more altruistic thinking.

    In the 60s I spent time in Africa and south and central America as a wild life photographer and have spent quite a bit of time around captive primates from Chimps, Organgs, gorillas, and smaller monkeys and they do not benefit from human association in any way as far as I am concerned. I realize that some of them will not survive without the captive breeding programs but I am not sure that this is even a good idea to keep examples alive if they must live in artificial environments in order for the species to survive.

    What I have been reading lately about the gorillas being the worst victims of the bush meat trade and wars in the areas in which they live makes my heart weap, but it isn’t something over which I have any control. I still have good friends in Africa that I keep up with by e mail (I had hoped to be able to go there this year to visit before some of these friends who are elderly are gone but was unable to do so.)

    The outbreak of Cholera that is going on with the PSYCHOPATH dictator who is DENYING that it is a “problem” and refusing world aid to save people, is a perfect example of the governments that have plagued the nations in Africa since the time of the Pharoahs taking the Jews as captive slaves. I don’t expect it to change any time soon.

    I just finished a wonderfully researched book called “Slaves in the FAmily” written by a man who traced the descendents of his ancestor’s 1000s of slaves in South Carolina and even went to Africa to interview the descendants of some of the black slave catchers and sellers who sold their relatives to his relatives. It was a moving book, though I do not take any guilt trip about the fact that a few of my ancestors did own slaves (not to the extent that this man’s ancestors owned 1000s of slaves over a 200 year period, as many as 500 at a time on the brutal rice plantations in S. Carolina.) It was a time in history that I was not responsible for so I dont’ think I owe an apology to the descendants for what my ancestors did. What I DO owe other humans is compasson and caring TODAY and fair and honest treatment TODAY.

    Unfortuantely and fortunately at the same time, in the US and other “industrialized” nations, we are insulated from the “real world” of the third world’s lack of caring (in many cases) about the value of human life and the horror of inflicting pain on other creatures, including other humans.

    The psychopath rises to political power in the US but our society and the “rule of law” keeps some of the worst crimes from happening, but in many other countries where there is great poverty and great ignorance and limited resources, the lower portion of the population is viewed and treated worse than animals are treated by the psychopaths tht rise to power by brutality beyond measure.

    When you have seen a child with match-stick legs, and a swollen belly from starvation, you don’t forget that scene, and I never will forget seeing that child’s dead body being carried by a pitiful parent to take the body to the local “land fill” for burial without even a blanket to spare to cover the corpse.

    We bitch and moan about the psychopaths among us, and we should, but what has been done to US is nothing compared to the horrors being perputated in other parts of the world by psychopaths without any restraints of morals or law. When I start to feel sorry for myself, I read Dr. Viktor Frankl’s book “MAn’s search for meaning” about his years in the Nazi concentration camps and the emotional results it had on him. That man found TRUE MEANING in his suffering, and by golly, I intend to as well.

    If Viktor Frankl can find that he benefited from the years in a concentration camp and years of starvation, brutality and beatings, in which he lost everything except his life, then it is up to me to “benefit” from the chaos, fear and trauma that I suffered at the hands of the Ps in my life. I will be a better, stronger and more compassionae person not only to my family and friends, but to others as well. The best revenge is to live well.



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  2. fight says:

    A very interesting article about empathy versus cruelty…



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  3. blossom4th says:

    This article answers my “WHY?” question.I’ve been under the impression that sociopaths have no empathy.Admittedly this article speaks of psychopaths with violent tendencies that take pleasure in others’ sufferings.Spath could go either way.He could show sympathy for the suffering of some,but when it came to MY suffering,he just turned his head to the wall.And yet,he is obsessed with me!CONTROL!
    That is a dangerous situation that I cannot reenter!



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  4. 4Light2shine says:

    Blossom it’s tough to figure out what’s going on when they do things that don’t seem to fit in with the character we’ve come to expect. Mine surprises me sometimes when her responses and actions to others danger and suffering seems to be genuine. Maybe it is. Does she view them as extensions of herself, as possessions ? Steve Becker has some articles that describe the narcissiopath and the almost sociopath. I love how clearly he identifies and describes the behaviors that almost everyone I know is utterly clueless about. I will probably never have a clinical description of what she is. Are there elements of deception, gaslighting, manipulation, exploitation, evasion of accountability, entitlement, deadly charm, charisma, elevated testosterone, assertion of dominance ? Duh …. Yeah ! Is it a fair and reasonable conclusion that this is a dangerous, toxic personality ? So I can’t let cognitive dissonance cloud my mind and rob me of the clarity that I need to survive.



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