A couple of months ago I was contacted by Caitlin Dickson, a reporter for the Daily Beast blog (the online presence of Newsweek magazine). She was writing an article about the book Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas. She asked me what I thought of the book. I explained that I refused to buy it so I hadn’t read it, although I did read Thomas’ article in Psychology Today (which was online). Here’s my previous post about the book:
I talked to Dickson about the millions of sociopaths who live among us, and how destructive they are. I explained Lovefraud’s work in helping people recognize, avoid or escape them. I recommended that she call Dr. Liane Leedom for an authoritative explanation of this complex personality disorder.
Dickson was not interested in my information, and included none of it in the story she wrote. She didn’t bother calling Dr. Leedom. Instead, this cub reporter (graduated from journalism school in 2010) wrote an article that struck me as being sympathetic to sociopaths. Read:
How to spot a sociopath (Hint: It could be you), on thedailybeast.com.
Point by point critique
Here are some points of the article, along with my comments
“Sociopathy is not simply a disorder of serial killers but one that exists on a spectrum, plaguing to varying degrees a large portion of successful, apparently well-adjusted people.”
Yes, sociopathy is not just for serial killers and it does exist on a spectrum. But “a large portion of successful, apparently well-adjusted people” are not sociopaths. Experts estimate that sociopaths make up 1% to 4% of the population—that doesn’t qualify as a “large portion.”
Of this small slice, many sociopaths are obvious criminals and substance abusers, and many more can’t seem to hold their lives together. Still, there probably are millions of sociopaths who do appear well-adjusted — to everyone but their spouses. And the people who work most closely with them know that their success is built on bullying, intimidation and playing loose with the rules.
“Psychopathy, more or less, is the clinical term for sociopathy, and the two are often used interchangeably.”
Psychopathy is not a clinical term; it is the term that researchers use. Clinicians call it “antisocial personality disorder.”
“A September 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ranked U.S. presidents in order of their possession of a psychopathic trait called ‘fearless dominance.'”
“Fearless dominance” is not universally accepted as a trait of psychopathy. However, I can understand how Dickson could have been influenced by the idea, because several scientific papers have been published about the concept. In fact, it was the subject of a heated debate at the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy conference that I attended in June.
One side argued that fearless dominance is part of psychopathy and is linked to success. The other side argued that fearless dominance is not a valid concept and reminded the group that there is nothing good about the psychopathic personality disorder. In my opinion, the researcher speaking against fearless dominance had a much stronger argument and won the debate hands down.
“In 1980, criminal psychologist Robert Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R).”
The PCL-R was released in 1991.
“Thomas isn’t an actual killer—and she and other researchers emphasize that most sociopaths aren’t killers either. Instead, Thomas says her favorite preferred sociopathic pastime is ‘ruining people.’”
Dickson never says or implies that there’s anything wrong with “ruining people.” In fact, the article does not even hint at the true destruction that sociopaths cause.
“(John Edens, a psychology professor at Texas A&M) argues that ‘saying someone is a psychopath or not is drawing a bit of an arbitrary line in the sand,’ suggesting that all people likely possess a certain amount of sociopathic traits, some just more pronounced than others.”
This is an incredible oversimplification of two distinct concepts. First of all, Edens is right. Psychopathy syndrome — a group of related traits. It is also a continuum — individuals can have each of the traits to a different degree. The point at which someone qualifies to be “a psychopath” — usually the cut score of 30 out of 40 on the PCL-R — is somewhat arbitrary.
Secondly, although non-disordered people may have sociopathic traits, they score exceptionally low — perhaps under 5 on the PCL-R. The behavior of people who score 5 or less is nothing like the exploitative behavior of those who score over 30.
“There’s virtually no known treatment for ruthless, manipulative, law-abiding citizens who lack empathy. And, really, should there be? These are traits that are often attributed to success.”
Here’s where Caitlin Dickson shows how clueless she really is. Let me be blunt: Sociopaths are evil. Sociopaths view the world as predators and prey — they are the predators, and everyone else is prey. Even those who appear to be successful leave a wake of destruction: ruined lives, abused children, financial wrongdoing and corporate collapse. Sociopaths are not ruthless and manipulative in business only — that’s also how they treat their spouses and kids. The human toll for this “success” is unbelievably steep, so it is a crying shame that there is no treatment for this disorder.
“In lieu of therapy, Thomas has discovered some alternatives to treatment. For one, she credits Mormonism, specifically its doctrine that anyone can change and its required social engagements, with keeping her on track.”
Sociopaths are not religious. They join churches to find easy prey. I wonder how many people Thomas targeted at the church? And if Thomas considers herself to be on track while ruining people for fun, what would she be like while “off track”?
“Sociopaths are mostly ‘problematic in terms of the stress they cause other people.’”
Stress? Stress is being late for work. Sociopaths are so abusive that many of their targets —including 21% of romantic partners — consider suicide. Some, tragically, go through with it, a phenomenon I’ve heard called “murder by suicide.”
“Said Lauren (friend of M.E. Thomas), ‘Her ultimate goal is to be out as a sociopath, accepted by society and not vilified.’”
M.E. Thomas wants to be accepted and not vilified, even though her favorite pastime is ruining people?
Keep in mind that sociopaths are not delusional — they always know exactly what they are doing. So when they engage in exploitative behavior, it is by their own choice. They can refrain from exploiting people. They do it all the time in the beginning of relationships, romantic or otherwise. They’re fun, helpful, caring, attentive — until the person is hooked. Then the knives come out.
Sociopaths are vilified for their behavior, which they freely choose. Society should do a better job of not accepting them, and holding them accountable for their actions.
“With regard to whether Thomas could legally be fired for coming clean, employment attorney Jessica Kastin explained that Thomas would probably have a very hard time making the case that she was being discriminated against because of her disorder.”
Sociopaths make lousy employees. They lie, cheat, back stab, steal from the company, swindle customers and create a hostile working environment. Is Dickson really suggesting that employers should not be allowed to get rid of them?
Skipping over the abuse
What really bothered me about this article is how the reporter failed to acknowledge, in fact, minimized, the harm sociopaths inflict on others. Sociopaths abuse people — physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually and/or financially. They are social predators. One researcher estimates that national cost of psychopathy is $460 billion per year. Hello? I’d say that’s a problem.
So why would Dickson write an article that was essentially sympathetic to M.E. Thomas and other sociopaths? I’d guess that Dickson is one of those lucky people who never had a run-in with a sociopath (so far). She may still believe that all people are basically good, and all people just want to be loved. She doesn’t understand that there are people in the world who are intrinsically abusive.
I was like that when I was a young journalist. Then I married a sociopath.
It also seems to me that when Dickson interviewed Thomas, the sociopath presented herself as a woman who was simply misunderstood, and was doing her best to cope with her disorder. Dickson didn’t understand how good sociopaths are at playing the victim, so she bought the story.
“I am naturally manipulative,” Thomas told Dickson. Guess what. Dickson was manipulated.
I can understand this young reporter not fully grasping the topic she was dealing with — as I said, I’ve been there. I remember some of the magazine articles I wrote when I was her age, and I now grimace at how naive they were. So my question is, where were her editors?
The Daily Beast is a sophisticated publication, edited by Tina Brown — former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. It claims to be dedicated to “breaking news and sharp commentary.”
So either the Daily Beast editors don’t understand this personality disorder — which is likely, because most people in the media, like the general population, don’t get it. Or, the Daily Beast is so intrigued by “sharp commentary” that they’re willing to say that sociopaths aren’t all that bad.
What’s scary is that the Daily Beast gets 18 million unique online visitors a month. So millions of people may have read this article and come away with the impression that sociopaths are just misunderstood people who play manipulative games — not that these people can ruin their lives.
This article is truly a disservice to all Daily Beast readers. But hey, at least it conveyed the point that sociopaths aren’t all serial killers.