(This article is copyrighted (c) 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. The use of male gender pronouns is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)
“Loyalty” and “the sociopath” are incompatible terms. We’ve discussed many traits of the exploitive personality, but let’s not minimize a very vital one: deficient loyalty. Clearly, deficient loyalty is a sociopathic characteristic.
A deficiency of loyalty can be disguised very well by clever, self-serving rationalizations. But you will not find the case of a true sociopath about whom you will ever be able to say: he (or she) was really, through and through, truly loyal.
Loyal? What does “loyal” mean? It’s actually pretty simple to define: when you are loyal, you “have the backs” of those who’ve “had your back.”
You “have their backs” because you want to “have their backs.” You are glad, if not grateful, for the chance to “have the backs” of those who’ve had yours. This is loyalty. It’s application feels good, and it feels consonant with the loyal individual’s “value system.”
Now, in some cases “loyalty” can lead to corruption. For instance, look at law enforcement: cops, corrections officers, will often “have each others’ backs”—they will often “go down” protecting their own even in scandals where, intellectually, they are well aware that laws were broken (by colleagues and friends), and the public’s trust violated. But they “have each others’ backs,” sometimes stubbornly and illegally. Their loyalty to each other may, in a rather complex way, sometimes contravenes other “values” they may have, such as ethical ones.
In a person of conscience, this may produce real conflict and stress. In someone with a weaker conscience, this may not be the case.
In some cases, the “whistle-blower,” who might “look” more honest and courageous than his seemingly more ethically-challenged colleagues, might be more sociopathic than his “corrupt” counterparts who, in snubbing authority and the law, maintain “the backs” of those who had his (or hers).
I am not judging this phenomenon in any way at all, just pointing out its sometimes complexity.
So “loyalty”—its demonstrations (and abdications)—can encompass serious moral complexity.
This is a case where, of course, not all evidence of disloyalty is a hot red flag of sociopathy, but “disloyalty” is absolutely a feature of the sociopathic personality.
And this is especially true: when “loyalty” becomes inconvenient, now we have something to evaluate. When it’s “inconvenient” to be loyal, watch the disloyal individual (and sociopaths) shed their capacity to “seem” loyal with a variety of disturbing rationalizations, and sometimes without even the need to explain. Watch them, in any case, emerge in their truer colors.
If there is a single quality, in fact—a single, true trait—whose presence alone virtually “rules out” sociopathy, it is arguably “loyalty.”
You simply cannot be “loyal” to those in your life who have been loyal to you—that is, be truly loyal to them even when it’s no longer expedient to be so—and be truly sociopathic.
As I said, true loyalty and true sociopathy are simply incompatible concepts, and will never describe the same individual.