The Sociopath Enigma

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We love Sociopaths.  With an almost ghoulish glee we watch the latest dramas broadcast for that thrill of the unknown or unknowable, the darker side of human nature.  Being the observer without being involved.  You only have to look at the shows that are so popular:  Dexter, Bones, NCIS, CSI, Wire in the Blood and many more.  All of them having appearances by, or headlining the psychopath.  The movies are there to tantalize too; Hannibal or American Pscyho.

If you believed everything you saw on television you would think that all Sociopaths are violent criminal masterminds with blood on their hands.  The actual fact is that most people with Anti-Social Personality Disorder (The clinical diagnosis that includes the Sociopath and the Narcissist) would demonstrate no overt violence.  A good majority of them never draw attention to themselves in any negative light.

In the most simple terms, a sociopath has a lack of  conscience.  There is no, or little, emotional connection to those around them, or the world at large.  The connections they make are about personal gain, or “winning the game”.

If every person suffering from ASPD was imprisoned for a violent crime, our prisons would be bursting at the seams.  Consider that one in twenty-five people classifies as having enough of the indicators to be classed a sociopath.  Based on a total UK population of  58 and a half million people, 4% of those are Sociopaths; That is a total of 2,340,000.  Of course it is not all doom and gloom.  That means that 96% of people are not Sociopaths.

The tricky thing when picking out the Sociopath is that their rules are not our rules and their triggers are not our triggers.  We tend to see our world very much in shades of our own.  We measure other people’s behavior on how we think we would act in the same situation.  Quite often the person devoid of any conscience will think very differently about goals, perspectives and cares little for the opinions of others.

The catch is that you can never be sure that you are in the presence of a sociopath, because they look just like everyone else.  They don’t have a t-shirt proclaiming their lack of conscience and they don’t have to let you know by any law.  The sociopath has two very powerful weapons in their arsenal.   The first is the superficial charm.  They can be very engaging people, stand out from the crowd.  They can be the sort of person you meet and feel like you have known them for years.  Paul Ekman himself once said that he would know a sociopath straight away, because he would want to invite them to dinner within five minutes of being introduced.  For most, the sociopath would appear to be “such a lovely person”.  The sociopath is a manipulator with such Machiavellian ability that even when you suspect that something isn’t right, they will have you doubting yourself.

I have been in direct contact with a sociopath, who to this day is probably unaware of this fact.  Let us call him A.  A never really seemed to want much out of life.  But the idea of working for a living was something that just didn’t seem to fit with the life style that he wanted.  He would like to spend his days pottering about the house about a hobby or just watching television.  He had lots of acquaintances, indeed he seemed to develop new ones on a weekly basis, and they were always ready to offer a hand out to get him through when he was struggling.   He claimed depression and this was the reason that he was unable to work, and oh how he wished he could be better so that he could get on with his life.  A had a partner, let’s call him S.  S doted on A.  He would do just about anything for him and was always there when he was needed. Despite this A still managed to develop these friendships that turned out to be so much more.  When S became aware of these assignations, he was told by A that there was nothing to them, and it was just idle gossip from people who wanted to hurt A.  A would often say how pathetic he felt and how depressed.

This is the key to the second weapon that the sociopath uses, and the most powerful.  They use our pity against us.  They make us feel sorry for them.  They manipulate the words and how they feel so that our heart goes out to them.  A performed this feat regularly and potently.

We have since parted ways and had I known then what I know now I would never have got into a situation like that.  The one person I do feel sorry for in all of this is S.  S probably had no clue that he was simply a meal ticket.  When S and A split, S was probably made to feel that it was all his fault, that there was something he had done to make the break up happen.  In reality S was no longer any use to A and had been cast aside.

The sociopath uses our very nature against us. They know far better how we work than we do and they use our compassion and conscience as a weapon against us to further their own chances of “winning the game.”

The American Psychiatric Association states that someone should be classed as a Sociopath of they have at least 3 of the following seven characteristics:

Failure to conform to social norms.

Deceitfulness and Manipulation

Impulsive and failure to plan ahead

Irritability and Aggressiveness

Reckless disregard for the safety of oneself or others

Consistent irresponsibility

Lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

Without doubt A had 6 of those seven characteristics.

 

Even today I still look back on the situation as it was and think that I should have known better.  But the fact of the matter is, that even if I had, A would have manipulated the situation to make me doubt myself, even with all my natural instincts.  Key to that fact is that the sociopath having no conscience would not show remorse or guilt for any of their actions.  One of the most valuable factors in detecting deception.  Risk of discovery for the Sociopath is also reduced.  By experience they know they can talk themselves out of a situation, so even if they are caught out, they will have you doubting your own ideas.

 

 

What are customer testimonials really saying?

Every day we are surrounded by advertisements.  Billboards, buses, radio and of course the internet and television.  Even watching a video on youtube.com these days fires an advertisement at you.  How often have you seen those adverts that have a testimonial in them?

“I used ‘Product x” and within 2 weeks I was a millionaire with beautiful skin!”

We take them for granted, we may even occasionally pay attention, but what are they really saying.

We can listen to the words, but are they the real words of the customer, or are they scripts?  Are these really customers or are they actors?

We take a lot of things at face value, especially in advertising, and rarely pay attention to what is going on until we have made a decision that we are planning to buy.  But what if the advertisement is sending out the wrong message.

I have looked at a couple of ads this evening and had the briefest analysis of what is going on with the people providing the testimonial.  Some of them are really great ways of honing your skills at MFE detection.

Slips of disgust, anger, emblem slips, sadness.  All the signs are there in direct relation to the comments that are made.

I have posted one here for your view.

let me know what you think of the first couple and their statement.  Would you believe their testimony?  Does this give you a good impression of the company or a bad one.

I welcome your views, let me know what you see and think and I will post my views as a comment in a week.

 

Isn’t it all a bit…

Isn’t just looking at body language a bit pointless?

I had a discussion over this with a friend a while ago.  We were discussing body language, micro-expressions, she asked “Don’t you think it is all a bit pointless, if you are spending so much time looking at the body language, how are you meant to do anything else?”

How right she is.  Not about it being pointless, but more about the effort of will that is required to focus on so many things happening at the same time.

When we are making an assessment of someone for credibility there are five channels of communication that we need to focus on.  Focussing on five very different areas for the minutia of information and then comparing that with the signals you are getting from the other four channels, it could give you a headache.  Making sure that the questions that you are asking are pertinent and then listening to the response while also thinking the next question up.  Is the response appropriately worded, at the right speed and pitch, is the language distancing?  At the same time what is the posture like, what are the emblems being shown and do the expressions match the details of what is being said?

But if we restrict ourself to just body language, as many practitioners do, we are missing a lot of information.  It would be like looking at a tapestry down a toilet roll tube.  You would only see a tiny part of the image and wouldn’t get the whole picture.

Assessing someone is like driving a car.  You have to control acceleration, gears, clutch, braking, monitoring the instruments, steer and keep an eye on everything that is going on outside the car.  When we first learn to drive, all of these things take a huge amount of concentration, but as we become a lot more accomplished, some things become second nature.  It can be the same with the assessment process.

Some people have an advantage where they have a natural talent, just like some formula one drivers have a natural ability in driving in comparison to your average road driver.

There are ways that you can make this easier on yourself.  Work in pairs or teams with one person asking the questions and listening to the answers, and the other person focussing on the non-verbal elements.

But remember,  before all you must try to establish a base line – the normal operating level of the person.  Without the baseline it makes it difficult to spot the deviations from normal that give us something to focus on.  Baseline does not just happen, and should have some time devoted to it.  Establishing normal operating levels but also what a genuine emotional response looks like.  Take your time and become familiar with normal.

This is something that is nearly always missing in job interviews.  A couple of minutes chatting about inconsequential things can make a huge amount of difference in finding out what is really going on with someone.

 

The Truth

Terry Pratchett stated in his book ‘The Truth’, “A lie can get around the world before the truth has its boots on!”

From our earliest years, right from the moment we start to communicate (from as young as 6 months old it is believed) we develop the ability to deceive.  There are so many reasons to lie:  to protect ourselves, to protect others, for some personal gain or to spare someone’s feelings.  But is there ever a reason that a lie could be justified?  Could the motives for the lie excuse the lie itself? And can we always be sure someone is telling the truth?

Firstly, let us remember one of the key tenets of the lie catcher:  There is no single indicator for a lie.  What you do get are hints and pointers that something might not be quite right, what Dr Ekman calls ‘hotspots’.  Individually these do not indicate a lie, merely that there is something happening that justifies a further investigation.  When you put these hotspots together you get a clearer picture that something is leaking out that they may be trying to keep hidden.  Again this may not be a lie, just something they don’t specifically want you to know.

Lies contain thoughts and feelings, but in order to make a lie work a lot of thought needs to take place.  This extra work is often called cognitive load; when your mind is heavily focussed on thinking, feeling starts to show through, and the feelings shown may not match the story being told.  This is emotional leakage.  The more consequential the lie, the more likely you are to leak information.

Paul Ekman tried a number of experiments around lying and detecting lies.  How people lie and looking for that holy grail of a sign of lying.   Needless to say he didn’t find his single indicator, but did find some other interesting facts.   His experiments initially were flawed, he realised quickly that people being asked to tell a lie in a lab setting had no consequence to their lie and as such were more difficult to detect.

When a lie has no consequence to it or a risk in its discovery, the emotional load is reduced.  The makes is much harder to spot.  The risk could be personal such as a loss of liberty or freedom, a risk to health or even personal gain.  If a lie doesn’t matter it may not show unless someone’s own personal moral compass is set in such a way that lies are considered taboo.

In order to increase the tension in the situation Dr. Ekman added some factors to the test.  He offered financial reward if they could successfully get a lie past him.  He left his students in a room with an envelope that contained a sum of money.  He told them that they could take the money or leave it.  If they took the money they would have to convince him that they hadn’t.  If they were successful they would get to keep the cash.  Secondly he also told them at the start of their interview that he would be able to tell when they were lying and he has never failed.  He had just increased the apprehension about being caught and there was a financial risk in place.   Suddenly the emotional leakage increased and the lies became significantly more obvious.

To detect a lie you increase the chances when there is some risk to the liar.

People also find it more difficult to lie convincingly if they have an emotional connection to the subject of the lie.  Dr. Ekman further emphasised this with another experiment with another study group.  The group was told to describe a pleasant scene that they saw on a film.  Half of the group were shown a film of flowers and gardens and asked to describe what they saw.  The second group was shown a film of a rather involved surgical procedure but were still asked to describe a scene of flowers and gardens.

In the experiment nearly all the people asked to lie were spotted.  They all leaked a very fast, subtle expression of disgust despite their more over demeanour of happiness.

We know that someone who feels no emotional connection to the subject and fears no consequence of being discovered is more likely to escape their lie being discovered.  This is also one of the failings of the lie detector test or as it is more properly known the Polygraph.  Lie detector itself is a misnomer as it does not detect lies.  What it does measure are changes in the Autonomous Nervous System.  Heart rate, body temperature, respiration and perspiration.  All of these are signs of Emotional Arousal, not lies. Fear of being discovered and fear of being disbelieved look exactly the same.  Excitement and fear look very similar to the polygraph.  The advantage of the human over any machine so far created is we can determine the emotion being felt and probe appropriately.

Some people say that the eyes are a good sign of a liar, that they will avert their eyes from you while they are lying.  Others maintain that a liar is more likely to hold your gaze to see if a lie has been believed.  At the moment there have been no confirmed studies that prove one way or the other, regardless of what the body language books tell you.

There are also other theories that rubbing the nose is a sign of a lie.  Again not strictly true.  The nose contains erectile tissue that expands when extra blood flows to it.  This happens during moment of emotional arousal causing it to tingle.  The key here is emotional arousal not lie. and you need to understand what emotions are causing this any why.

A lot of body language books put great store in illustrators and manipulators.  Illustrators are the visual punctuations to verbal statements.  The visual way of exclaiming and underlining.  Think back to the film footage of Adolf Hitler’s speeches.  He used a lot of illustrators.   When speaking from memory or something you passionately believe in illustrators tend to be visible.  When cognitive load increased illustrators tend to decrease.  Again not necessarily a sign of a lie, just that a lot of though it going on.

Manipulators are the comforting gestures.  Many exponents of body language cite these as reliable signs that someone is uncomfortable.  Yes they do appear more with discomfort; however, they are very easily controlled and suspended.  They can be reduced with very little effort.

A lie can sometimes be very difficult to spot because as Sir Terry said, it can get around the world before it has its boots on.  Detecting a lie can take time and patience compounded by the fact that most of us are biased to accept what we are told as truth.

 

The Fear

Fear is one of the base seven emotions and as such is shared and demonstrated in the same way by practically every person on the planet.  I say practically as there are some rare medical conditions that result in a person being completely fearless.  I will discuss this at a later point.

Fear is an essential part of our emotional make up.  It is there to engage us into action when something threatens our well-being as a form of self preservation and to warn others there is something that could be considered a threat.  Surely this is a good thing?  But fear is associated with the Flight, Fight or Freeze response and can have consequences of its own.  Not to mention the issues that can be raised by prolonged exposure to fearful situations, the most common of which is stress.

Stress itself is not an emotion in its own right, rather it is an emotional state that can have a number of emotions associated to it.  Lots of people cite that stress is bad.  This is not strictly true.  Some stress can be quite positive, driving us forward, and given motivation to our actions.  Extended stress without respite however, this can be problematic.

Imagine someone applying for a job.  It is the sort of job that they always wanted, they would really enjoy doing it.  It is for a company they would fight tooth and nail to get in to.  Stress has already begun.   As the date for interview gets closer the stress increases.  Is this fear?  Not really.  If we look at the idea of an emotion they are usually of rapid onset and of short duration.  Perhaps what is being felt in the build up to interview is better described as apprehension.  An emotional state that falls under the fear family.

Fear is about self-preservation.  It’s origins are in the Limbic system of the brain, responsible for the hard coded emotional responses.  This part of the brain can start a physical reaction before the cognitive side of our brain, the Neo-Cortex even gets involved.  There is no reason to fear, it is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat: surging adrenaline, increasing heart and respiration rate sending blood rushing to the limbs ready to fight or flee from danger.

Notice also that I say “perceived threat”.  There doesn’t actually have to be a threat only something that appears to be a threat.  Mistaking a shadow in a darkened house for a prowler is a perceived threat, once the cognitive part of our brain gets involved and re-assesses the situation it may then be confirmed as no longer a threat.

Stress can be a very damaging situation if it is not handled correctly.  There are situations where we have no control over the stress we may receive.  This is possibly the worse kind of stress.  Lack of control or the ability to change the situation can increase the stress this causes the stress to escalate.

Eventually stress reaches the breaking point.  The body and mind can’t take any more.  Once this point has been reached it is very difficult to turn around.  Thinking about the situation can bring on panic attacks.  Essentially, the body goes into a full fear response.  The body is reacting to a perceived threat of more stress than it can handle, that is contrary to its well-being.

Once an emotional script has been written it is very difficult, sometimes impossible to change that script and an alternative has to be created by the use of supportive therapy.

Understanding the reasons for fear can give us an insight into the reactions that some people have.  Fear can be one of the most difficult emotions to handle and control because of its very nature as a preserver of life.

 

Emotional Overload

Many people are frustrated by their emotions; “It’s like I am out of control!”, “The anger just wells up inside me!”, “I feel so down”

People usually say this and call these negative emotions.  You never hear people say “I wish I wasn’t so happy all the time.”  Why do we have such a resistance to these “negative emotions”?

Firstly, I don’t agree to the idea of of a negative emotion as such, as all emotions are necessary and serve a purpose.  Just because we don’t particularly like the feelings associated with them, they exist for a reason.  Perhaps we should focus on the reason why they exist rather than trying to avoid them.  Understand the triggers will helps us better deal with the feelings and the effects of the emotion.  They can be subtle and fleeting, barely the brush of a butterfly’s wing; or they can be absorbing, compelling and defying reason and common sense.

My interest began at about the age of 10 years.  I recall quite clearly being sat in my dad’s van while he was making a delivery and looking at my face in the side mirror on the door.  I clearly remember changing my face very subtly from anger to happiness and noticing how these very subtle changes could make such a difference.  I have a natural instinct for spotting these rapid signs of emotion that sometimes happen in just a fraction of a second, often called Micro-Facial Expressions or MFEs, or the subtle demonstration of an emotion.

These emotional signs can give an insight into deception, but they are not in themselves an indicator of a lie.  There is no single indicator of a lie, there is no Pinocchio’s nose.  What has to be considered is that when someone deliberately intends to deceive there is a conflict between the emotional load and the cognitive load, the challenge between thinking and feeling.  Understanding why these things happen gives us that insight.

These days I know a lot more about this subject and why I have the skills I do thanks to Dr. Paul Ekman.  Though I have always been able to spot these signs I was never very sure what I was looking at.  Dr Ekman put it into words and demonstrated the reliable signs of these emotions happening.  I can no put a specific name to what I am seeing.  Be that Fear, Anger, Disgust, Contempt, Sadness, Happiness and Surprise.

You may not always know the reasons for the emotions appearing, and some serious consideration should be given before jumping to a conclusion, questions need to be asked to understand the why of something.

The seven emotions mentioned above are the globally recognised emotions regardless of where you are from in the world.  Fear always looks the same, even when spoken language gets in the way.  The language of the visible emotion cuts through these barriers of language.

Even the idea of “Negative” emotions have their place. Sadness tells people we need support.  Anger warns others to stay out of our way.  Fear tells others there may be something that puts us all at risk.

Sadness and melancholy gives us time to recoup and ask for help.  By indulging our sadness we appreciate happiness more.

Accept your emotions but understand their origins.