Australian View on Social Behaviour: Sociopathy

May 21, 2013

An edited extract from Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas, published by Sidgwick & Jackson on June 1.

Sociopaths: feeding a need for stimulation.

Sociopaths: feeding a need for stimulation. Photo: Getty Images

If my life were a television show it would start like this: It’s a pleasantly warm summer day in a beautiful southern clime. Sunlight glints off ripples in the pool. The sliding door opens with a gentle rumble. A young woman steps out in her flip-flops and a black Speedo swimming suit. Her skin is darkly tan from lifeguarding at the local municipal pool.

Today she is giving a private swimming lesson. She flings a towel on a deck chair and kicks off her sandals. There’s a casual recklessness about the way she does these things, as if letting loose wayward objects into the world with abandon. That’s when she notices the ripples on the surface of the water.

She sees there is something moving in the pool. It is so small she doesn’t recognise it until she’s close – a baby possum, its tiny pink paws frantically paddling, its even tinier pink nose struggling above the surface of the water. The poor thing must have fallen into the pool in the night.

Masking the truth … sociopaths are experts at disguising their feelings to get what they want.

The young woman grabs a net, the camera cutting in as it lowers, dipping into the surface of the water, catching the baby possum under the belly just in front of its hind legs. With a quick, almost effortless movement, the net drags the opossum under the surface until its head is fully submerged.

The animal thrashes, its tired body now alert to a new threat. It struggles loudly, whimpering and squealing, until it finally manages to free its hindquarters from the lip of the net. But it’s barely able to gasp a breath before the net comes down again. The angle of the net is awkward though, and the animal is able to writhe out of its trap.

The young woman sighs and the net is lifted. The baby possum feels relief wash over it for a fraction of a second, only to resume its desperate paddling. The woman drops the net on the ground, grabs her towel and heads back inside. Moments later she is on the phone with her private student – today’s lesson is cancelled; there is something wrong with the pool. She grabs her keys, flings her front door open, and skips down the stairs to the muscle car that she’s been driving since her 16th birthday.

When she returns home at dusk she sees a dark shadow at the bottom of the pool. She grabs the net, scoops up the small bundle on the first try, and pitches it over the fence into her neighbour’s yard. She drops an extra chlorine tablet into the pool and heads inside. Fade to black.

The predator stare
I am a sociopath. I suffer from what psychologists now refer to as antisocial personality disorder, characterised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as "a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others". Key among the characteristics of the diagnosis are a lack of remorse, a penchant for deceit, and a failure to conform to social norms. I prefer to define my sociopathy as a set of traits that inform my personality but don’t define me: I am generally free of entangling and irrational emotions, I am strategic and canny, I am intelligent and confident and charming, but I also struggle to react appropriately to other people’s confusing and emotion-driven social cues.

I am not a murderer or a criminal. I have never skulked behind prison walls; I prefer mine to be covered in ivy. I am a typical well-respected, young academic, regularly writing for law journals and advancing various legal theories. I donate 10 per cent of my income to charity and teach Sunday school every week.

Maybe you are a sociopath, too. Recent estimates say that one per cent to four per cent of the population, or one in every 25 people, is a sociopath – that’s higher than the percentage of people who have anorexia or autism. Never imprisoned? Most of us aren’t. Only 20 per cent of male and female prison inmates are sociopaths, although we are probably responsible for about half of serious crimes committed.

Do you have plenty of friends, paramours or admirers? That doesn’t disqualify you; in fact quite the opposite. Despite our bad reputation, sociopaths are categorically known for exceptional, albeit superficial, charm. In a world filled with gloomy, mediocre nothings populating a go-nowhere rat race, people are attracted to the sociopath’s exceptionalism like moths to a flame.

You would like me if you met me. I am quite confident about that because I have met a statistically significant sample size of the population and they were all susceptible to my charms. I have the kind of smile that is common among television show characters and rare in real life, perfect in its sparkly teeth dimensions and ability to express pleasant invitation. I’m the sort of date you would love to bring to your ex’s wedding.

Do you have an inflated view of yourself? Sociopaths are known for having egos so full-bodied they could be considered Rubenesque. I exude confidence, much more than my looks or social stature would warrant. I am not very tall but present solidly with broad, strong shoulders and an angular jaw. My friends often remark on my toughness and swagger. But I am just as comfortable in summer dresses as I am in cowboy boots.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of my confidence is the way I sustain eye contact. Some people have called it a "predator stare", and it appears that most sociopaths have it. Our failure to look away politely is often perceived as being confident, aggressive, seductive or predatory. It can throw people off balance, but often in an exciting way that imitates the unsettling feeling of infatuation.

Ever find yourself using that charm and confidence to get people to do things for you that they otherwise wouldn’t? Some might call it manipulation, but the word manipulation is so ugly. Manipulation is where the traits of a sociopath take a distinct turn for the nefarious in a lot of people’s minds, but I don’t see why. It is just fulfilling an exchange. People want a particular thing – to please you, to feel wanted or needed, to be seen as a good person – and manipulation is just a quick and dirty way to get both people something they want. Indeed, I believe that most people who interact with sociopaths are better off than they otherwise would be.

We observe our target and strive to become a facsimile of whatever or whoever that person wants – good employee, boss or lover. It’s not always the case that the facsimile is malicious or ill-intentioned. It makes the target feel good for the course of the transaction and usually ends without harm.

Of course everything comes at a price – we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t getting something from you, often money or power or simply even the enjoyment of your admiration and desire, but this certainly does not mean that you get nothing out of it. Maybe some might think the price is too high. But the truth is that if you’ve made a deal with the devil, it’s probably because no one else has offered you more favourable terms.

Do you approach questions of morality with ambivalence, finding it easy to justify your own or others’ behaviour with a reference to "survival of the fittest"? There is probably no universal, and certainly no objective, morality. Despite millennia of arguments among theologians and philosophers, no one can really agree on the contours and parameters of morality. Like many people, I adhere to a religion that gives me moral guidance. The practice of it is just good sense – it keeps you out of prison and safely hidden in the crowd. But the heart of morality is something I have never understood. My view of morality is instrumental. I abide by conventional dictates when it suits me, and otherwise, I follow my own course.

Are you good at making decisions on the fly? Sociopaths are known for being spontaneous. I get restless; I find it hard to focus on one project for a particular length of time or to keep a job for more than a few years. Sociopaths tend to crave stimulation and are easily bored, so we tend to make snap decisions. The darker side of impulsivity is that we can become fixated on an impulse to the exclusion of all else, unable to listen to reason. Whereas most people experience impulsivity as hotheadedness, I become cold-hearted.

I have never killed anyone, but I have wanted to. I have rarely wanted to kill those close to me; more often it has been a chance encounter with someone who caused me consternation. From my own observations, I have found a sociopath’s need for stimulation plays out in very person-specific ways. I’m not surprised that some sociopaths would fill this need via criminal or violent acts.

It also seems perfectly plausible that others would feed their need for stimulation via other more legitimate routes, pursuing careers in firefighting or espionage or duking it out in corporate boardrooms. My thought is that sociopaths who grow up poor among drug dealers are likely to become sociopathic drug dealers; sociopaths who grow up in the middle and upper classes are likely to become sociopathic surgeons and executives.

Have you succeeded in rapidly climbing the corporate ladder in a competitive field like business, finance or law? If charm, arrogance, cunning, callousness and hyper-rationality are considered sociopathic traits, it’s probably no surprise that many sociopaths end up as successful corporate types. Robert Hare, one of the foremost researchers on sociopathy, believes that a sociopath is four times more likely to be at the top of the corporate ladder than in the janitor’s closet.

"Manipulation" can be translated to the ability to inspire and lead others. Overblown confidence is necessary to survive the hard knocks of business. Due to our inability to empathise, sociopaths are perfect for all the dirty work that no one else has the stomach for, such as firing and downsizing. Easily distracted? That’s situational awareness. Constantly in need of stimulation and love playing games? These characteristics promote risk-taking, which in business often equals reward. It seems that where we do not crash and burn, we have the potential to achieve dizzying amounts of success.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you recognise yourselves in these descriptions and are sociopaths but have never realised it. If this is you, welcome home.

Risky business
I do all sorts of risky and often stupid activities. One summer I lost all of my savings trading high-risk options. Not only were the options risky, I took an incredibly risky approach to them – holding when I should have sold and putting all of my eggs in one basket. Even after many failed trades, I still took unnecessary gambles. I couldn’t make myself feel the pain of losing money in a way that seemed to matter.

I’ve always loved to cycle in cities, partly because it’s so dangerous. If a car starts creeping into my lane, I will punch at it or use my portable tire pump to swing at it. If a car cuts me off, I will follow it until I catch up, then dart in front and come to a skidding halt, forcing them to slam on their brakes. Maybe there is a small thrill in taunting drivers or risking my life savings, but mainly it’s that I just don’t feel sufficient anxiety in these situations warning me to be more careful.

I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten food poisoning from eating rotten and questionable food, but I never seem to learn my lesson. A few years ago I woke up naked on the floor of a YMCA shower. I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there, but I am sure it was something stupid. I don’t have the off switch in my brain telling me when to stop – no natural sense of boundaries alerting me to when I am on the verge of taking something too far.

Once when my brakes started going out, I opted to drive my car into the mechanic’s rather than pay for a tow, even though I had driven much too long on the brakes, until they were all but useless. It was rainy that day and I had to drive several miles on a steady decline. It’s not that bad things don’t happen to me; they do. But I just don’t feel that bad about them. I have an extremely robust sense of optimism and self-worth that keeps me looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses.

Self service
In contract law, there is a concept called "efficient breach". This occurs when complying with the terms of the contract would result in greater economic loss than simply paying the other party’s damages that have resulted from your non-performance. In efficient breaches, it is often the immoral choice that leaves everyone better off. If I want to break a rule and am willing to suffer the consequences, I should be allowed to make that choice unhindered.

When my good friend’s father was diagnosed with cancer, I cut off all contact with her. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her; in fact, I loved her very much – perhaps too much. But I found I could no longer enjoy any of the benefits she had provided to me – superior advice, interesting conversation – because she was horrible to be around most of the time. I had overinvested and was running many months into the red with no improvement. I found that I could not wear the mask of compassion or selflessness indefinitely without acting out in ways that were hurtful to us both. And so I cut off all ties and walked away. There were damages on all sides, but I had no other means of mitigating them, so it was an efficient breach. My abandonment of her was to her benefit, particularly considering that my behaviour was only going to get worse – that I was already tapped out in terms of being able to be supportive.

I might have been a good lawyer but I gave up practice a few years ago, because it got boring, and I realised I am not very interested in helping people or corporations. I would much rather indoctrinate them, which is why I became an academic. I love teaching. Every year a new crop of students arrives to be charmed. I have a small cadre of legal "nemeses" that I play one-sided games with – other academics in my field whom I disagree with or don’t like. My scholarship often focuses on ruining theirs. People are often surprised to learn that I teach less than six hours a week, less than eight months out of the year. In many ways it’s a dream job for someone inherently lazy and unable to do grunt work like me, but eventually I’m sure I’ll get bored of it, too. My students love the charming quirkiness I exude. I am unusually attentive to their needs. My first few years I performed extensive market research, subtly surveying my students on hundreds of topics until my teaching had as much mass appeal as a Big Mac. I always get exceptional teaching evaluations that cite my thoughtfulness and my apparent lack of ego. I am described as witty and never condescending. It helps I am, according to one of my teaching evaluations, a "stone cold fox". Not true, but I am well aware of the research that attractive people get treated better and are perceived as being more competent than ugly people.

Consequently, I dress carefully for class. I shop for clothes that are both conservative and sexy, like a three-piece skirt suit with a vest that fits more like a bustier and a knee-length cigarette skirt cut to fit a pin-up model. If I wear a pantsuit, I’ll sometimes push the gender lines by wearing suspenders and a tie. To the men, I am an object of desire – a ready-made "hot teacher" fantasy. For the women I am a whip-smart, successful role model, who also has an eye for fashion and is not afraid to say the word "tampon" in class. All of this is a carefully calculated persona meant to appeal to the greatest percentage of the student population possible.

I meet a lot of people at work and at conferences and I work hard at putting on the right act to optimise my standing in the profession. Unfortunately, like many, I’m bad at remembering people’s faces, typically because I did a quick valuation of someone as a person upon meeting him and figured he was not worth the effort. If he remembers me and I don’t remember him, I act like an idiot at first, then I flirt like mad. I touch shoulders, laugh heartily and repeat his name as often as I can. "Oh, Peter! I like the way you think!"

If he compliments me back I accept it with confidence, then turn the conversation to him and keep it on him. I am gracious and generous with compliments and expressions of interest. I create a rush of attention and flattery, with no apparent origin or goal.

I excuse myself abruptly. I always make sure that I leave the conversation. I am careful not to be left. If I’m stuck where I am, I veer the conversation to an area of personal expertise. You would be surprised at how delicate I am about the shifting of conversations. You would not notice it unless I told you. I ask at least a few more questions before I confess my own experience, interest, or knowledge of the subject matter. I am razor sharp. I tell witty stories or interesting factoids. Sociopaths typically don’t make small talk about themselves as much as normal people do. They will direct the conversation back to the new acquaintance as much as they can.

When I talk to people, the only thing I really care about is getting what I want. This is true of everybody, but I never am trying to get someone’s approval or admiration, unless it is a means to the end. I have no desire to talk. Instead, what I find most useful is collecting a mental dossier about everyone I know. Knowledge is power and if I know even something like where your grandmother is buried, I might be able to use that in the future. Consequently, it typically only makes sense for me to listen. If I’m not listening, I’m probably telling a joke or shamelessly flattering you. I probably would rather not be talking to you at all, but since I am, I might as well be polishing my charm.

Dangerous liaisons
There’s nothing wrong with the way I approach romantic relationships, but there’s something not quite right about it, either. One night, I strangled my "date" in my parked car. We had talked before about sexual domination, and so by then I felt I had implicit permission to bruise and strike, which is to say that I was reasonably certain that there would be no retaliation for my violence. I turned toward her and could see the question in her eyes: were we about to kiss?

I slapped first – hard across her face so that I could feel the memory of high, sharp cheekbone on the palm of my hand for several seconds afterward. I could see the shock flash across her face, then turn into fear, finally settling into a soft understanding, and then an open and hungry desire. She later told me that she did not feel out of control until I wrapped my hands around her neck and began to squeeze, because she knew that I was strong enough to really hurt or kill her. She said, though, that she trusted I wouldn’t hurt her and therefore felt adored.

I have strong arms and I might have killed her if I thought there would have been no consequences, but there were myriad reasons for not hurting her that had nothing to do with my feelings of adoration, not least of which was her prohibiting me from doing it again. I wanted to do it again, and I would several times after that night.

Dating my current boyfriend helps me to appear normal and socially well adjusted. He is of average height and has a respectable middle-class profession. He is handsome and well built, because I would never stand to have someone with whom I am so intimately associated be otherwise. Also, I enjoy his beauty immensely. His smile appears almost as sincere as mine, and he carries himself with a physical strength and self-competence similar to that which I have always admired in myself. Whenever we go out, he opens doors and pays for meals and does all of the things that a gentleman would do for his lady. I do not love him the way that he loves me, but for the most part, I treat him with kindness and generosity.

I occasionally have liaisons with men or women outside of my principal relationship, when a person happens into my life whom I feel a desire to possess. I do not view these relationships as cheating, but I keep them a secret anyway to avoid drama. In return for their devotion, I provide my romantic partners something they can’t seem to get from anyone else; to see a person’s hidden need and to answer it must be some form of public service. And in return, they give me whatever I want – attention, adoration, money, good advice, the pleasure of their body, access to more potential targets (their friends and family), or even just someone to carry bulk food items from my car into my apartment. It’s not quite an even quid pro quo, but remarkably, no one has seemed to mind too much.

Sociopaths are part of the grease making the world go round. We fulfil fantasies, or at least the appearance of fantasies. In fact, we are sometimes the only ones attentive to providing for your deepest wants and needs, the only ones so deeply attuned to them for no ulterior motive immediately discernible by you.

An edited extract from Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas, published by Sidgwick & Jackson on June 1.

This article originally appeared in Good Weekend.

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