As we think about sociopaths, let’s remember that they can make diverse presentations, which can make it hard to know if (and when) you’re dealing with one.
Although sociopathy is a personality disorder, it’s complicated by the fact that sociopaths have widely diverse personalities.
There are smart sociopaths and dumb sociopaths; gregarious sociopaths and more withdrawn sociopaths; engaging sociopaths and paranoid sociopaths; calculating sociopaths and more impulsive sociopaths; socially skilled, and socially unskilled sociopaths.
There are charismatic sociopaths and sociopaths with dull personalities. There are sociopaths who may leave you feeling remarkably comfortable, and sociopaths who may leave you feeling extremely creeped-out.
Some sociopaths are physically violent personalities, while others are no more prone to violence than you or I.
Given this diversity among them, what, then, do sociopaths have in common?
I take a stab, below, at answering this question, which itself isn’t so cut and dried. But what follow are some qualities that I believe all sociopaths have in common.
All sociopaths are emotionally shallow.
While sociopaths don’t have a patent on emotional shallowness (nonsociopaths can be emotionally shallow), they do have this terrain thoroughly covered. All sociopaths, without exception, are emotionally shallow.
It’s not that sociopaths don’t have and feel emotions. They are human beings, inclined as they are to transgress others. They want things. They feel their discomforts, pleasures, cravings.
But what sociopaths lack, fundamentally, is emotional interest in others. They may be interested in what others have [for them]; that is, what others have [for them] may evoke, and even stimulate, their emotions. However, they are not interested, genuinely, in who others are.
The sociopath, for instance, may recognize, and even pay very close attention, to your mood. But his interest in your mood will hinge on how your mood affects his agenda.
He is like the amoral child who, watching his mother and shrewdly detecting her vigilant energy, decides it’s not a good time to lift the five-dollar bill off the kitchen counter. He has read her carefully, and perhaps accurately. But his interest in her state of mind, and emotions, is limited to the advancement of his agenda.
All sociopaths are disloyal individuals.
I see this as a truism about sociopaths. Sociopaths may seem and even act loyal, but only so long as they calculate that the cost of their loyalty hasn’t yet exceeded its benefit [to them].
As soon as the sociopath discerns that the cost of his loyalty exceeds the advantage, he betrays those to whom he’d apparently been “loyal.”
His self-interest, in other words, is paramount, and supercedes his capacity for self-sacrifice.
All sociopaths are habitual transgressors (without meaningful remorse) of others’ boundaries.
Whether calculating or more impulse-driven, sociopaths are habitual boundary violators, without genuine remorse for their hurtful effect on others. Some (not all) sociopaths “get off” on their exploitation—meaning that, for them, the process of exploiting is the motive force that drives their exploitation.
Sociopaths may be childishly fascinated by the exercising of their power to “push the envelope,” to “pull off” capers and dodge accountability.
Their lack of remorse—lack, indeed, of any form of genuine accountability—is one of the perplexing aspects of this personality disorder. And there’s probaby not a single explanation for this.
All sociopaths grossly lack compassion.
A lack of empathy is commonly ascribed to sociopaths, but I sometimes wonder if the sociopath’s lack of compassion isn’t a more germane descriptor.
Part of the problem with empathy is that people view it differently—arguably, there are different “types” of empathy that elude a single, unifying definition.
You will sometimes hear people say about sociopaths that, rather than lacking empathy, they actually use their empathy exploitively. I don’t see it that way. I view a mindset of empathy as the antithesis of the exploitive mindset—thus, someone feeling empathic (by my definition of empathy) could not use his empathy to exploit. That would be logically impossible.
But I think we escape this definitional confusion altogether when we consider sociopaths and the issue of compassion. In this regard, I assert that all sociopaths lack genuine compassion for others.
I’m suggesting that, even more than his empathic deficiency, the sociopath’s gross lack of compassion enables his infamous abuse of others’ dignity and space.
(See an upcoming post, Sociopathy: A Disorder of Compassion, for an elaboration of this idea.)
All sociopaths lack appropriate shame.
Sociopaths’ deficient levels of shame support their exploitive tendencies. Shame gives us pause, and sociopaths do very little “pausing.” Most of us contemplate the factor of shame, or prospective shame, in the decisions we make.
Our automatic, often unconscious review of how shameful we’re likely to feel following a chosen action allows us to think twice before executing it. It gives us room to cancel a plan whose execution we deem, on reflection and in anticipation, risks reigning shame down upon us.
Sociopaths lack shame to fear. Lacking shame to fear disinhibits them from pursuing destructive ideas that the rest of us, more often than not, will “pass” at.
Sociopaths are audacious personalties.
As I’ve indicated in several LoveFraud pieces, there is something audacious about the sociopath. He is prone to behaviors that leave the rest of us, whether as victims or witnesses, shaking one’s head. His levels of gall, hubrus are astonishing.
Where the nonsociopath, as just discussed, will find opportunities to scrap a bad plan, the sociopath is more likely to eschew prudent consideration (and reconsideration) and pursue the flawed plan, anyway.
His audacity—see my LoveFraud piece, The Audacity Of The Sociopath—is a curious and troubling aspect of his personality.
Sociopaths are liars and deceivers.
Lying and deceiving are close cousins, and sociopaths routinely do both. But this doesn’t make them necessary good at either (although they may be). A sociopath may assert, as if he really believes it, that he broke the world record in the mile, but this doesn’t make it a good lie.
The premise is preposterous; and so what’s most striking about the lie is its audacity, not its believability.
Sociopaths often, for instance, defend untenable positions from, it seems, sheer contempt for their audience. Consider this interaction:
Wife: I saw you with your secretary at Chile’s, today, at 12:15. You were kissing.
Sociopath: What are you talking about? I didn’t leave the office all day.
Wife: I saw you. Don’t bullshit me.
Sociopath: Yeah right. Ask Allen…we were in a meeting at 12:15. Go ahead. Why don’t you fucking call him and ask him?
Wife: I knew you’d say that. I already called the office. Allen’s in San Diego, and you know that.
Sociopath: You’re fucking crazy. You know what, stop fucking stalking me! That’s your problem. Maybe if you’d stop fucking stalking me you’d actually find something valid to accuse me of!
Wife: Don’t change the subject. You’re lying.
Sociopath: No…this is the subject. You’ve got a fucking stalking problem. So let’s not change that subject. You know what, honey? One of these days your fucking stalking’s gonna really drive me into someone else’s arms.
Wife: You were kissing her, John.
Sociopath: You know what? Fuck you. How ’bout that? Fuck you.
Rife with sociopathic machinations, this interaction starts with the assertion and insistence of a preposterous lie, then maneuvers quickly into deflection, gaslighting and other abusive strategies.
In upcoming posts, I’ll extend the list of traits that all sociopaths, I believe, share in common.
(My use of “he” in this article was for purposes of convenience, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of expressing the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)
(This article is copyrighted © 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW)