The sociopath is commonly thought to be a cold, sadistic, manipulative person who knows no moral boundaries in pursuit of their goals. Adolph Hitler and Tony Soprano have both been called sociopaths but neither are (necessarily) accurate examples. In common usage, the word sociopath is colloquial for the self-directed psychotic. However, the word loses its utility for being a real condition when it’s so broadly applied.
People who write about sociopaths tend to agree that the sociopath’s defining characteristic is a lack of conscience, empathy and remorse; this gives way to a cold and calculating personality. Reportedly, intelligent and adaptive sociopaths do quite well as salesmen, executives, attorneys, and academics. A sociopath in short is somebody who does not give a damn about you but can put on a good show to get what they want.
What I find interesting about sociopathy is that its defining characteristics are sometimes sought after. Whether it is the mafia man who callously kills his opponents and says “it’s only business” or the lustful vampire who eagerly victimizes to survive, there is a romantic element to the sociopath’s condition. There must be something liberating and empowering to have no remorse.
Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton believes sociopaths are natural persuaders. His research involved interviewing sociopaths to get a glimpse of their methodology. Dutton claims sociopaths have a natural knack for identifying their victim’s weaknesses; the sociopath then pushes the buttons that exploit those weaknesses. Pushing buttons does not necessary call for an unpleasant experience—appealing to a person’s self-concept is one way sociopaths manipulate their victims (Dutton).
Honestly, to me, it sounds an awfully lot like a sales seminar. “Be sure to find something to compliment the receptionist on.” “Engage the client on her own interests.” These are snippets of advice I’ve heard from salesman, which are simply specific techniques for appealing to a person’s self-concept.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting topic so I went looking for a sociopath and found one. Sociopath World: Inside the Mind of a Sociopath is a blog written by an anonymous self-proclaimed sociopath. Though it’s possibly a work of fiction, I believe that the person writing it truly does identify with the sociopathic condition. The blog has been active since 2008 and there are hundreds of posts. I have only read a few articles but what I have read has been well written. I can’t really characterize the author but there is an uncanny intellectualism and rationality to his or her writing. I would definitely recommend the blog as the autoethnography of a sociopath.
The self-identified sociopath does raise a few questions.
First, I want to say that I do not believe in black or white conditions. If I were a psychiatrist, I would hand out labels very sparingly. Probably all people experience schizotypal symptoms in their life and many have schizotypal tendencies but it’s insufficient to label them schizophrenic. Likewise, I believe sociopathy must exist on a gradient spectrum. What shade of gray makes you a full-blown sociopath?
I am ultimately wondering what the consequences of self-identification are? Labels are a way of making sense of the world so I suppose self-identification helps one come to terms with their self. Interestingly the comments on Sociopath World sometimes read like a support group for sociopaths. The idea that sociopaths (feel as if they) suffer from their condition is somewhat counterintuitive.
Though I believe biological and genetic factors play a significant role in personality, I am ultimately a situationalist who believes in the power of social influence in the construal of attitudes and identity. I could point to any of social psychology’s benchmark experiments (Robbers cave experiment, Stanford prison experiment, Milgram experiment, Asch Conformity, etc) to support my situationism philosophy.
One theory comes to mind. Social identity theory states that we derive our self-concept from our social memberships. Our identity is otherwise a social construct. A membership need not be an organized group but a type or category. Otherwise, we view ourselves as being a type of person and as the theory goes we probably view ourselves as being a multiplicity of types.
Stereotype threat is an interesting phenomenon where self-identification to a stereotype leads to stereotype conforming performance. Self-Identifying as a sociopath is only tightening the momentum.
Of course, one need not identify as a sociopath to be one. I am only curious as to what the benefits of self-identification are. That said, I believe many people possess varying degrees of innate potential to be a sociopath.
We see a remarkable ratio of people willing to commit atrocities in obedience to authority in both life and in experimentation. In accord with activity theory, I believe there is a threshold in doing where we internalize our actions. The Milgram experiment combined with the Stanford prison experiment only demonstrates that normal people can be pushed beyond that threshold. Social influence needs not be that dramatic. The author of Sociopath World makes an astute observation of his or her own condition, writing…
“After spending time with my family recently, I am more convinced that nurture had a significant role to play in my development into a sociopath. When people ask me whether I had a bad childhood, I tell them that it was actually relatively unremarkable, however I can see how the antisocial behaviors and mental posturing that now define me were incentivized when I was growing up — how my independent emotional world was stifled and how understanding and respect for the emotional world of others died away. Still I don’t think I was “made” into a sociopath, nor was I born one. I feel like I was born with that predisposition, that I made a relatively conscious decision to rely on those skills instead of developing others, and that the decision was made in direct response to my environment and how I could best survive and even thrive in that environment.”