Friday, May 14, 2010

The Modern Sociopath

(News-Herald, May 13) They don’t make sociopaths like they used to.
Sociopaths were dashing, charismatic liars, cheaters and manipulaters. They were dangerous, even if they were charming. To them, other people simply were not real, and therefore the sociopath felt no guilt or empathy when using others as disposable set dressing in the sociopath’s ongoing live-action play entitled “It’s All About Me!!”
Sociopaths appeared in pop culture as engines of death and destruction. A dozen slasher movies and their sequels are built around a soulless, relentless sociopathic killer. The psycho with a chain saw stood in for the unkind, unyielding grinding gristmill of the world. He was everything Out There that was out to get us.
But our cultural sociopaths have changed. Nowadays millions tune in, for instance, to watch the exploits of Gregory House, a character whose disregard for other human beings is monumental, and Bones, a scientist whose ability to connect with other human beings is virtually non-existent. These characters appear in dramas, but we have funny sociopaths, too. Sheldon of Big Bang Theory and Barney of How I Met Your Mother are characters who are shamelessly self-centered. Sheldon’s attempts to intellectually dissect the behaviors of friendship and Barney’s use of women with less regard than usually given for Kleenex—these are the source of weekly laughter for millions of folks.
These are the super-competent sociopaths. Dr. House would be completely unemployable, except that he’s the most brilliant doctor in the tv world. These characters provide fictional entertainment even though, in real life, we wouldn’t put up with them for five minutes.
The old scary sociopaths were our fears—take a wrong step, and something bad will get you. The new sociopaths are our fantasy—wouldn’t it be fun to be so smart and capable that you could treat people badly with impunity.
However, real-life sociopaths fit another mold. I call these guys the benign sociopaths, because most of the time they are relatively harmless.
Small town life provides some insulation from classic real-life sociopaths. These guys tell big, grandiose lies to create a scenario that celebrates their excessive awesomeness, but that’s hard to pull off here. We may remember the guy who touted his service record and claimed to be a famous celebrity’s personal pilot, and we’ve seen more than one boss who tried to manage various groups by telling each set of people a different set of lies. They’re gone; the short loop of small town talking short-circuits standard sociopathic smokescreens.
Not that the internet doesn’t add a new wrinkle. With an afternoon and some software, I can set up web pages to make me look like the heroic CEO of a massive, powerful organization. But it’s still the classic sociopath’s way to use people as props for the larger-than-life fantasy playing in his head, and once those people outlive their usefulness or stop playing their part, the sociopath will drop them like hot rocks. In a small town, it doesn’t take long to pile up enough hot rocks to burn you.
A benign sociopath is quieter, less obvious. He may not be all that bright, and so his dreams are not that big. Instead of being surrounded by the human and material props of great wealth and fame, the benign sociopath may dream of being good enough at his job that his underlings don’t question him and he doesn’t have to take any difficult phone calls.
The benign sociopath finds dealing with employees, customers or clients frustrating because he is literally incapable of grasping any viewpoint other than his own. When they try to express their concerns to him, they might as well be describing Mars in Greek. He becomes frustrated because he cannot imagine how anybody could see any view other than his. He doesn’t really have any idea what you just said to him, so he will just repeat himself until you go away.
The benign sociopath finds these interactions so bothersome that he will lie and manipulate to avoid them. He loves email, because you can’t talk back to him, and he’ll give you information at the last possible minute so you don’t have time to disagree with him.
How to deal with a benign sociopath boss? Like all sociopaths, he’s living in a personal fantasy in which he’s beloved, successful, and undisturbed by everyone else’s reality. If you can keep breaking down that fantasy, you might have a chance for change. Or he might just pick up a chain saw.


Thomas Sheridan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry said...

I believe there may be such a thing as an "enlightened benign psychopath" who behaves as if he were moral and empathetic, but is not. I mean enlightened psychopath as someone who knows that "honesty is the best policy" and thus behaves honestly. The "enlightened psychopath" understands that in the long run, telling the truth is the most advantageous behavior. Just because one lacks empathy or moral grounding doesn't necessarily mean they capitulate to these deficits. There are plenty of reasons to behave decently without resorting to empathy or morality. Moral, altruistic and empathetic behavior can be seen as pragmatic. So, just because you are capable of murduring someone without the impediment of moral qualms or empathy doesn't mean you'll do it. You may justifiably recognize that behavior as being disadvantagous or contrary to your life goals. If I'm able to ride my bike up a steep canyon every other day, it doesn't mean I'm going to actually do it. Also, your description of sociopaths leaves a lot of people out. Suppose you live with your family, are obese, have diabetes, have sores on your legs from the diabetes and fail to care properly for yourself. You know that once you become too ill to care for yourself, your parents or siblings will be stuck with the job. Isn't that psychopathic? Its certainly not empathetic. What about people giving disingenuous excuses or rebuttals to arguments? I see this all the time in people. They resort to saying things they, obviously, know are not true. Are they psychopaths? Lets look at disregard for laws, or thinking you are above the law as a trait. I jaywalk all the time, am I a sociopath? I know people who love to cook for their friends and take all night to cook a meal. They're idiots. I chalk it up to ADHD, or being distracted. My point is that painting this behavior as sociopathic is both presumptive and absurd. Let's look at "vanity". I always like to say at the heart of every paranoid is a person who over inflates his self worth. I had a friend who had this problem and I used to rebut him by saying "look, I'm the one with a job, I'm the one writing legal briefs to courts and exerting an influence on the legal system, if they're after either of us, they're after me". Are paranoids psychopaths? I know people who suck with their finances and ask for loans or help from their friends because they face eviction, for example. Are they psychopaths? Certainly they are not thinking of their impact upon their friends or family when they engage in poor money management. Also, I have seen a couple of references on these pages referring to Bill Clinton as a psychopath. That is just insane! Because he lied under oath about a "non-relevant" matter, that should have been excluded from his trial because it was more prejudicial then probative? The Lewinsky questions lacked any relevance in the case..i.e. consensual sexual relations does not, in any way, prove unsolicited and unwanted sexual advances or a propensity for those types of acts. Consensual sex, even in the context of an affair, is not relevant in a case that concerns rape or sexual assault. I would have lied too. It was a witch hunt. It was meant to reveal his private personal faults to the entire world. The vicious people who forced him to answer the questions about Monica Lewinsky are far more psychopathic than Bill Clinton. I also find that people manipulate all the time. Gosh, ever met a used car salesman? Ever been sold a lemon? You're casting a big net. At the end of the day its, like you said, what you do and not what you are. I, for example, might feel that I am a psychopath, but that doesn't mean I have to "act" like one. So, if I am, at heart, a psychopath, I say judge me for what I do and not for what may or may not reside in my heart and mind. And no, I am not admitting that I have a psychopathic mind set.

scp1957 said...

Harry started out with general cases and then devolved into scatter-shot self-defense. Threatened by the article, methinks. Must have hit a mite too close to home.

Casey Purdy said...

I guess you have never heard of Asperger's Syndrome.

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