Imagine you can make yourself invisible (at will) and, thereby, effectively innoculate yourself against the consequences of your violating behaviors.
This playful scenario posits a power bordering on omnipotent. You can do what you want, when you want, to whom you want, secure in the knowledge that you can get away with it.
Your invisibility effectively liberates you from the normal rules and boundaries that regulate interpersonal conduct.
Now let’s be honest…with this power, how many of us would use it for our own amusement, and to our own advantage?
The true answer: most of us?
Remember, I said “let’s be honest.”
None of us, of course, so far as I know, possesses this power, thank goodness…and let me add that, while I suspect many of us would find some temptingly interesting ways to wield it, I am not suggesting that, endowed with such superpower, most of us would use it in cruel, hurtful ways.
As a matter of fact I think that, for many of us, possessing such a power would carry a burden. I imagine, for instance, a clash ensuing—a clash between opposing forces. That is, between a first force, call it our primitive thirst for self-gratification, and a second force (and the only force with the power to keep the first in check)—our conscience (our heeding of which enables us to sleep reasonably well at night).
So what am I getting at here?
Although I’m not suggesting that sociopaths operate with a belief in their literal invisibility, many of them, I am suggesting, operate with a metaphorically comparable mindset. I call it the immunity mindset.
The immunity mindset, as I’ve implied above, is a mentality characterized especially by the audacious belief and confidence that one can transgress others with, well, immunity.
It must be a heady feeling, indeed, to harbor the conviction that you can pull off sh*t most others would simply find too risky and, more importantly, too shameful to endeavor?
By way of example, imagine that you’re on a crowded subway and are seized with the lascivious impulse to grope an unsuspecting neighbor? The non-sociopath seized with such an impulse may consider it briefly, entertain and even enjoy the fantasy, but then retires it harmlessly.
He retires it for several reasons, chief among them his fear, first of all, of being caught, and just as deterrently, because he knows that the shame that would ensue from his action would supercede, probably greatly, the gratification to be enjoyed from his exploitive act.
Shame, we know, is a powerful deterrent against antisocial behavior. And so it follows that a lack of shame is a wonderful asset to carry into an exploitative endeavor.
Sociopaths, lacking and unencumbered by shame—specifically the anxiety, self-consciousness, negative self-judgement and nervousness that accompany shame—find themselves thus freely poised to engage in exploitative behaviors from which non-sociopaths will typically desist, and to do so, moreover, with the imperturbability of supremely composed individuals.
Their lack of shame, in other words, enables their composure.
In my subway example, the sociopath will grope his neighbor because, first of all, he wants to (and sociopaths, remember, do and take what they want); furthermore, because he lacks, as noted, the anticipatory shame that typically deters most of us from “acting-out” our violating impulses; and finally (and to the heart of this column), because he is as confident as if he were invisible that he will get away with his violation.
Let us imagine, for instance, that his victim whirls around and accuses the sociopath, publicly, of groping her. The non-sociopath would find such a public accusation mortifying. The sociopath, however, just as securely as though he’d been invisible, will calmly deny the charge, or else just as calmly finger the guy standing next to him as the guilty party.
He might say, with remarkable equanimity, “I don’t know what you’re talking about…you’ve got the wrong guy….I wasn’t even standing here…so it couldn’t have been me. It was that guy.”
Now what kind of world is this in which the sociopath is living?
It is a world in which others are the ultimate objects with which to jerk around, toy, menace, and entertain himself: a world in which he, the sociopath, can imagine doing pretty much anything he wants to anyone, while enjoying, if not relishing, his perceived immunity from accountability.
This is another way of suggesting that many sociopaths aren’t just playing, in fantasy, the game of imagine if you were invisible, how would you exploit your power? Effectively, they are carrying this mentality, what I call the immunity mindset, into the real world.
It is a mindset steeped in a deep, grandiose sense of omnipotence; a mindset, I would add, that leaves the sociopath feeling empowered, and at liberty, to violate others sinisterly with his strange, striking, signature lack of worry, shame and constraint.
(My use of “he” in this, and other posts, is not to suggest that females are not capable of the behaviors described. This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)