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The sociopath’s irrational optimism

We’ve discussed many of the sociopath’s traits, such as his missing empathy and compassion; his tendency to remorseless interpersonal exploitation; and proclivity to audacious acts of lying, deception and sundry other violating behaviors.

Now, I’m tempted to add to the mix what I call the sociopath’s tendency to “irrational optimism.”

By “irrational optimism,” I mean the sociopath’s irrationally optimistic belief, if not conviction, that he’ll either evade or, somehow, otherwise prevail over, the real, probable consequences of his actions.

Consider this brief, hypothetical interaction between a sociopath and his partner, who learns with certainty that he, the sociopath, has been cheating on her with three different women simultaneously:

Partner: How could you do that?
Sociopath: Do what?
Partner: Sleep with three different women behind my back. Are you f*cking demented?
Sociopath: First of all, that’s abusive. So stop right there and don’t abuse me. Second, I didn’t sleep with f*cking anybody. Not that I haven’t been tempted, given how lame our sex life is.
Partner: Why are you lying? I know who these women are, and I can prove you’ve been sleeping with them. Do you think I’m that f*cking stupid?
Sociopath: Let me ask you something. Why the hell would I sleep with three women and risk getting some f*cking STD? Think about it. You know me…or maybe you don’t? Does that make any sense?

The sociopath here is (or was) irrationally optimistic on two levels—first, that he’d be able to perpetrate this caper, undetected, indefinitely; and second that, once busted (as, now, he is) he’ll be able to squirm his way out of accountability.

We could address many aspects of this interaction, but I’d like to emphasize his last argument: “Let me ask you something. Why the hell would I sleep with three women and risk getting some f*cking STD? Think about it. You know me…or do you? Does that make any sense?”

This argument captures, I think, the sociopath’s “irrational optimism” beautifully. In offering the glibly insulting invitation to “think about it,” he makes a spectacle of his audacity and contempt: he really expects, and believes his partner should, accept his invitation [to think about it].

But even more than expecting her to “think about it,” which is outrageous enough, he expects her, in his irrational optimism, actually to be persuaded by his argument. In his irrational optimism, he is hopeful, if not confident, that she’ll choose to disbelieve the evidence she holds indisputably in her hands in favor of accepting his insulting logic.

How classically sociopathic is this?

More importantly, what contributes to the sociopath’s irrational optimism?

We might begin with his malignant sense of entitlement—that is, the sociopath’s belief that he is entitled to obtain the gratifications he wants. One of the most dangerous aspects of the attitude of entitlement is how it renders impotent—denudes of power—rule, limits and laws.

When you feel entitled to something, if it’s not accomodatingly forthcoming, you feel entitled to take it. You’ve laid, in your entitlement, a kind of psychic possession of what it is you want, so that now it becomes, in your mind, yours—specifically, your right to have.

And so if someone (or something) obstructs your seizing what now, in your mind, is your right to possess, then you are free to take it—to take, in fact, whatever is yours—by any means necessary.

Conferring this entitled status upon oneself encourages the irrationally optimistic view that, one way or another, accomodation looms…it must!

Closely related to this is the sociopath’s grandiosity: he believes he can and should succeed at his high-wire machinations because he’s that good, that clever and—it can’t be stressed enough—that entitled.

His grandiosity may take the form of thoughts like, “Sure, normal guys couldn’t pull this shit off, but I’m not your normal guy.”

And so, when you feel like you can do things that others can’t—especially things unsupported by “reality”—this is grandiosity. And grandiosity feeds, I believe, very directly, the sociopath’s tendency to irrational optimism.

Then there is the sociopath’s contempt, so inseparable from his grandiosity. As we discussed, the sociopath, in the example above, expects his insulting argument to succeed, either because he’s convinced he’s smart, clever and persuasive enough to be found so convincing, or else he’s convinced that his partner is dumb, naïve and/or desperate enough to believe him. (Or both!)

As a consequence, the sociopath’s contempt leaves him at constant risk of underestimating others, and overestimating himself. In his irrational optimism, fed by his contempt, he fails to appreciate how close he is always is—perhaps just one more reckless risk away—from being busted.

What else feeds the sociopath’s irrational optimism? How about his stupidity?

This may sound provocative, but let me explain. I suggest that blind faith supports a perspective of irrational optimism, and the sociopath operates with a kind of blind faith. That is, he operates in the blind faith that, somehow or other, he’ll escape accountability for his latest transgression.

Where does his blind faith come from? Two good sources, I’d suggest, are his grandiosity and arrogance—they blind him, I contend, to certain realities, effectively making him stupid on some level.

And his stupidity reinforces his irrational optimism.

Quite obviously, I’m not talking I.Q. stupidity, but rather judgement-level stupidity. The sociopath’s personality pathology mars his capacity to make wise, intelligent judgements in many circumstances.

(My use of “he” in this article is a convenience, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed. This article is copyrighted © 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW).



488 Comments on "The sociopath’s irrational optimism"

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  1. one_step_at_a_time says:

    r babe

    what complicated lives they lead; it’s a wonder their adrenal systems don’t just conk out and kill them by the time they are 40. But then again, one would have to register ‘stress’ for the adrenals to be affected.

    makes me wonder about the financial situation of my spath.

    ‘he’ was going to help me out financially. i hoped for it and consequently didn’t give enough time and energy to taking care of my worsening situation. I should have been taking care of things, instead i was taking care of ‘him’.

    one of the places i have ‘a need/ unfinished business’ (am reading the betrayal bond)



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  2. eileen says:

    This is another very good article! I couldn’t get my head around his blatant lies – even after I found out everything about him and kicked him out he still found the audacity to deny everything. I had been talking for 3 hours with his other girlfriend/wife-to-be, and there he was telling me he had never met her!
    And as part of the stalking that followed he was acting as if nothing happened, as if he did nothing wrong…which is not completely crazy, it’s actually a good strategy – I saw through it of course, but some people might have thought: if he was that guilty surely he wouldn’t dare coming here? – Really there should be more awareness about sociopaths. Most people including therapists would try and explain their behaviour as if they were human – human people with flaws, but with motives that somehow we can relate to – but there’s no way to understand intellectually what they do and why they do it without prior knowledge of sociopaths. I’m very grateful for this site, it helps so much.



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