The sociopath’s imperturbability has been widely noted. However, this is a generalization, not true of all sociopaths in all situations.
A sociopath around whom the net is closing, who recognizes that he’s played his last card and finds, alas, that the game is ending and that he faces inescapable consequences—sociopaths in this circumstance may feel forms of perturbability, like anxiety and worry.
But in situations where he perceives his security (however unrealistically) to be relatively unthreatened—especially where his grandiosity and sense of omnipotence remain relatively intact—the sociopath can be curiously imperturbable.
Imperturbable, that is, in the commission of his violating acts, as well as in the subsequent striking sangfroid with which he’ll brazenly perpetuate his deceit even when confronted with his flat guilt.
How do we explain this?
First, I pose a question: Have you ever played a really cruel practical joke or, if not, witnessed one (with enjoyment), that left its victim torturously duped, perhaps even mildly traumatized?
I’d suggest that the mindset involved in conceiving and executing such a prank, even the mindset (as a witness) involved in merely enjoying it, is temporarily rather sociopathic in several ways.
I stress temporarily because nonsociopaths will inhabit this state of mind only briefly and experimentally, and then, on the assumption that any suffering the prank causes its victim will be experienced as relatively fleeting and superficial.
But I use a “practical joke” analogy because I think it describes somewhat accurately the sociopath’s basic perspective in the world. Life, for the sociopath, is something like a big stage on which to perpetrate forms of ongoing deceit to suit his shifting agenda for comfort, convenience, tension discharge, and other gratifications.
After all, at the motivational heart of the “practical joker” is the driving question, Can I pull this off? This is a question, among others—a kind of perpetual carrot, if you will—that compels sociopathically-oriented personalities.
And the socopath’s response to this implicitly posed question is felt, if not implicitly answered, as, “Of course I can pull this off! I can pretty much pull anything off! Watch me do it! Watch me get away with this!”
In other words, the sociopath’s cocky faith in his powers of chicanery nicely captures his inflated grandiosity and sense of omnipotence. To put it even more basically, the sociopath thinks he is good, really good. And in inverse proportion to how smart he thinks he is, he thinks that you are just as stupid.
This is the sociopath’s signature contempt, and let us not underestimate it: You are as stupid as he is smart.
In the end, the sociopath ultimately takes neither you, nor anyone, seriously. And it’s not that he chooses not to respect people. It’s not that he’s unwilling to take others seriously. It’s that he can’t. And make no mistake: his inability to take people seriously, in an authentic way, is a core aspect of his disorder.
Does the nonpsychotic sociopath, intellectually, know right from wrong? This is a frequently posed question, to which the answer is yes. Intellectually, the nonpsychotic sociopath is usually well aware that his behaviors are exploitive and violate legal and interpersonal laws and boundaries.
But the point is, he just doesn’t care. The sociopath just doesn’t take these laws and interpersonal boundaries seriously, because he doesn’t take you, or others, seriously.
And so this is where his imperturbability enters. When you don’t take others seriously; when, on some level, others are a joke to you; when a malignant contempt pervades your view of others, then you can have your way with them, you can use them for whatever purposes suit your immediate agenda. Moreover, you can cause them pain and outrage as you seek your own ends unburdened by normal feelings of responsibility, accountability and guilt, because you don’t just don’t take them seriously.
So you’re caught in a lie? So you’ve been busted? Big deal. So your denials are preposterous? Big deal. Let’s remember, you are slick and smart enough to convince any stupid person to disbelieve the indisputable evidence of your guilt!
And even if you can’t persuade them to give you a pass this time; even if they’ve busted you cold this time, and your normally reliable glibness doesn’t spring you from the present trap, so what? After all, there’s no shame or embarrassment to be busted by someone you don’t take seriously.
And so the sociopath’s imperturbability, in this light, can be seen as a natural byproduct of his malignant disrespect of, and contempt towards, others. It is a pathological imperturbability, not an admirable, enviable one. His is not the imperturbability of a “cool cat,” or an enviably placid temperament, or the imperturbability that can derive from a certain hard-earned wisdom, confidence and perspective.
No, the sociopath’s imperturbability is that of an emotionally, interpersonally sick individual who, at bottom, has no true emotional stake in others.
And so finally, in his relationships with others, what he stands to lose, through his exploitation, is felt to be as superficial, and dismissable, as anything he stands to gain.
(My use of male gender pronouns in this article is for convenience’s sake and not to suggest females aren’t capable of the behaviors discussed. This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)