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).