What is the single most powerful signifier of sociopathy?
How about, lack of empathy?
I don’t think so.
As an isolated factor, I don’t think lack of empathy best nails the sociopath.
Many millions of people, after all, lack empathy and aren’t sociopaths. Also, exactly what constitutes empathy is a subject of some disagreement. Some LoveFraud members, in fact, question whether sociopaths even lack empathy (some asserting, to the contrary, that the sociopaths they’ve known have used their capacity for empathy to exploit them).
But the biggest problem with lack of empathy is its weakeness in explaining the single, truly best signifier of sociopathy—the characterological exploitiveness of the sociopath.
It is a high level of exploitiveness that most singularly exposes the sociopath.
Now exploitiveness is also associated with the narcissistic personality. For this reason extremely destructive (“malignant”) narcissists can be hard to distinguish from sociopaths. Still, a high level of exploitiveness is rarely the single best signifier of narcissistic personality disorder, whereas it is, I suggest, the best single indicator of sociopathy.
Why does lack of empathy fail to explain the sociopath’s exploitiveness? It fails because most people who lack empathy are not exploitive. Just consider the autistic spectrum disorders: Lack of empathy is commonly associated with these disorders, but exploitive behavior is not.
Now it is true that empathic individuals will generally be nonexploitive. Why? Because their empathy will prove a deterrent against exploitative impulses or ideas. Empathy, in other words, surely is a powerful deterrent against exploitation.
But in someone nonexploitative (someone, say, with Asperger’s Syndrome), empathy will not be needed for its deterrent effect. However, in someone inclined to exploitation, lack of empathy will be a missing deterrent in a situation where deterrence is urgent.
Effectively, the sociopath’s exploitive nature is undeterred by empathy, which is missing, thus liberating him to exploit. And it is the sociopath’s tendency, or compulsion, to exploit, I propose, that best characterizes his sociopathy.
I’d be remiss not to clarify my working definition of empathy. Empathy, as I use it, is an experience, or appreciation, of another’s experience that, depending on the situation, elicits a thoughtful, respectful, perhaps nurturing, but never exploitive, response.
While some sociopaths may possess an evolved capacity to read others’ vulnerabilities, this doesn’t make them empathic.
It is the particular response to someone’s vulnerability that indicates the presence of empathy, or exploitation. It is the particular response, or pattern of responses, to someone’s vulnerability that separates the empathic individual from the predator.
In this respect, I regard the sociopath as seriously, and given his exploitive personality, dangerously deficient in empathy.
What about his remorselessness? Certainly the sociopath’s remorselessness is quite notable and diagnostically significant. However, I would argue that the sociopath’s remorselessness is a byproduct not of his lack of empathy, but of his exploitive personality.
Many people who lack empathy are remorseful, for instance when informed that an action they took, or something they said, left someone else feeling damaged. They may struggle to relate emotionally (or even intellectually) to the effect their behavior had on the wounded party (their deficient empathy); but they are upset to learn that their action caused damage.
In other words, they feel remorseful even though their empathy is deficient.
However, exploitation and remorselessness go hand in hand. The essence of exploitation is the intentional violation of another’s vulnerability. The exploiter knows, on some level, that his behavior is exploitive.
By definition, the exploiter is grossly indifferent to the damaging effect of his behavior on his victim. All that matters is his perceived gain, his demanded, greedy satisfaction. There is indifference to the loss and damage to others resulting from his self-centered, aggressive behaviors.
This sounds a lot like callousness; and we recognize callousness as another of the sociopath’s telling qualities. But I would suggest, again, that the sociopath’s callousness derives not from his defective empathy, but rather from his characterological exploitiveness. Most people with deficits in empathy are not callous. On the other hand, the exploitive mentality will engender a callous perspective.
I discussed in a prior post the audacity of the sociopath. I suggested a correspondence between audacity and sociopathy. But here, too, we want to get the causality correct: audacity doesn’t make for sociopathy; but the exploitive mentality will make for staggering audacity.
(My use of “he” in this post is for convenience’s sake, not to suggest that men have a patent on sociopathy. This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)