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.

 

 

‘Tis much proved, that with devotion’s visage and pious action, we do sugar o’er the Devil himself.

We are all capable of deceit and of lying,  that is without question, but the reason for the lie could be just as important as the lie itself, especially when it comes to discovering the lie.   Dr. Ekman states that most people lie when there is something to be gained.  That could be financial gain, to prevent punishment, to protect others or even as social lubricants to allow social occasions to be more fluid.

Deceit that is for the protection of others will often be associated with feelings of guilt at the deceit being carried out, but there will be little of shame.  Shame would be apparent when we think of how others view our actions.  But what about when we deceive for personal gain?  The confidence trickster against the mark?

We have a number of issues when we are trying to pin down the deceiver.  When you are looking at personal gain by someone practised at deceiving for gain, very little guilt may be apparent.  They have been able to squash all sign of the subtle sadness from their face, or they have internally justified what they have done so that guilt is no longer felt.  If the possible gains out-weigh the guilt associated with the action in the mind of the deceiver guilt is less likely to show.  Guilt outweighing the gains and it is likely that the act would not have been done at all.  The sweet spot is when guilt and gain are very close to balanced.  The inner turmoil that will keep resurfacing is likely to become quite clear.

Confidence tricksters have usually become very good at what they do.  Think of the professional poker player, they are themselves in a way a confidence trickster.  They bluff and deceive to try to cause you into giving up the game.  Practice makes perfect, and in the case of confidence tricksters of all types this is true.  As they become more successful at what they do, then their risk of discovery starts to decline.  Risk is, as Dr. Ekman says, one of the biggest factors in being able to detect deceptive behaviour.

There are flaws in practised deception though, and one of those is the inability to account for all possible outcomes.  Throw in something unexpected.   Suddenly cognitive load has to increase as they go through the mental gymnastics of trying to work their way around the complication.  As soon as the brain is engaged the emotions can slip out.  Interviewing and interrogation uses some of these techniques to constantly keep the target of the questioning from settling in a comfort zone.  There are elements of the words used and the story told that can also give away signs of the story being constructed as opposed to being remembered, but that deserves a post of its own, or possible a number of posts.

The things to remember about constructed lies is they tend to follow a linear pattern.  They have a start, a middle and an end.  They follow a chronological telling because that is how they were constructed.  This is one of the reasons that random questioning can sometimes be successful. It removes the opportunity for linear stories.   Changing you questions to different parts of the story can be very useful.  This was shown to a degree in the show “Lie to Me”, when a suspect was asked to reconstruct events in reverse order.   Pick something from the middle of the story and ask them what happened before that.

There is an old adage that states “to be a good liar you must have a good memory”.  This is certainly true.  I would also say you have to be able to think laterally too.

People’s success at lying is not just dependent on the quality of the lie and the liar, but also the bias of the target of the lie.  Human nature means that most of us tend to have a truth bias, this is strengthened with people we respect and know.  There are certain professions of course that require a different bias, such as criminal investigators.   We don’t like to think that we have been lied to and sometimes this can be one of the biggest issues.  In a relationship it is usually the deceived partner who is last to know of the deceit; not because the signs weren’t there, but because they have been subconsciously ignored.  We are self deceivers, we lie to ourselves all the time and indeed each other.  Those social lubricants. “How are you?” “oh, I am fine!”

A lie is organic.  It grows and develops and eventually, without care, it can get out of control.  Lies are like scaffolding.  They rely on the strength of the other lies around them, and like chains, they are only as good as the weakest link.

Guilt and Shame, The same side of a different coin

Most people when they talk about Shame and Guilt are generally meaning the same thing.  But there are differences between the two and different reasons for the two appearing.

Both guilt and shame fall under the sadness family of emotions and have many similarities in body postures and facial expressions but there are also differences that are subtle in their appearance.

Lets look at the the dictionary definition of the two words:

Guilt [gilt] noun: A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offence, crime, wrong: whether real or imagined

Shame [sheym] noun: The painful feeling arising form consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous etc.

 

Their definitions are quite clearly different but we seem to blur the edges between guilt and shame quite a lot. Perhaps we need a more understandable explanation of what guilt and shame are about.

I see shame as internalised about how we are being perceived, you can associate it with the question “what would people think…?”  This is why I say it is internalised.  A lot of the time shame appears before we even have any interaction with others.  These feelings can then be increased depending on the reaction of others, especially those we respect.  I still believe that shame starts with us.

Guilt can be both internal and external and is based on our understanding of moral limits.  If we have broken a well established behavioural rule we are likely to feel guilt.  As these rules are socially recognised by all people from the same social group we know we have breached the acceptable.  It is important to know that guilt would only be felt if you also accept the same moral code.  For instance something that is acceptable in your own country but considered a crime elsewhere would not necessarily result in guilt, unless you were aware that you were committing a crime and accepted the reason behind the crime.

It is also important to know that you can feel shame and guilt independently of each other.  Lying to a person in a position of power to protect someone else may not be shameful but would still have elements of guilt.  Stepping out of the toilets with your skirt tucked in your knickers would not cause guilt, but may make you feel shame.

Think of a man whose mother is very ill with a serious terminal medical condition.  There is no prospect of getting better and she is in constant pain.  There is no longer a quality of life.  She asks her son to help her end her life.  In the performance of the act would there be a feeling of guilt?  Guilt based on the ingrained ethical rules of killing another is morally wrong may be overridden by the need to help his mother.  The moral and ethical need to prevent someone he loved from suffering my override this more distant legal issue.  By giving permission the mother may have removed some of the guilt issues.  Would he feel shame at the act?  It is unlikely, he is given permission, he is helping his mother and stopping the ongoing suffering.

This is a very important distinction to be understood when you are looking at the responses that someone gives you.  Motives play a big part in the shame response.  If someone believes, either rightly or wrongly, that they are doing something for the right reasons, shame is unlikely to appear.  If they know they have committed a crime or a wrong they will feel guilt.

I would also consider that guilt is a developed and reinforced response.  As we grow older and come into contact more and more with the rights and wrongs of our society, the moral fences we work within are reinforced and built upon.  Exposure to media and social interaction further reinforces the ideas of right and wrong, making it more likely that guilt will be felt if one of these boundaries are crossed.

As mentioned, guilt and shame both fall under the sadness family of emotions so there will be many similarities with the sadness emotion.  Eyebrows pulled in and up in the middle and down at the outer edge; a turn down of the outer edge of the lips.  Lowered shoulders or a slumped posture. Often there will be a turning away or a down and away head posture, especially with shame, an almost “don’t look at me” pose.

There is something very important to consider when we are looking at shame and guilt.  They are key factors to being able to detect deception.  The emotional leakage required to pick up on a statement that lacks credibility may not be present if the deceiver feels no guilt or shame over the act.  No internal ethical barriers are broken, there is nothing to leak.  There could be reasons for this to happen.  Lack of experience in that particular area (unknown crime with no past experience of the rules); Autism and other medical conditions that can affect the emotional understanding may give a different result.

However, there is one other group that would not show shame or guilt, but instead may even show excitement or happiness.  The psychopath does not have the same moral or ethical triggers as the rest of society.  Their own pathology will allow their behaviour without consequence.