Are You a Sociopath?

Many characteristics of the sociopathic personality—charm, ambition and impatience, an ability to attack problems with cold-hearted logic (not letting emotions get in the way)—are useful to society.

In her memoir, Confessions of a Sociopath (Crown, 2013), a lawyer writing under the pen name M. E. Thomas states flat-out: "I am a sociopath," explaining "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." In a May 7, 2013 Psychology Today article, M. E. Thomas parses the "struggle to react appropriately" clause a bit less ambiguously: "Remorse is alien to me. I have a penchant for deceit."

Note: In real life, "M. E. Thomas" is apparently Jamie Lund, the listed owner of the domain name (and the selfsame Jamie Rebecca Lund who until recently taught law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas). 

In her 300-page memoir, Thomas (Lund) takes on the formidable task of trying to demystify one of psychology's murkiest backwaters, the combination of traits subsumed under the general heading of sociopathy: traits that may or may not (depending on whose definition you want to go by) include superficial charm, narcissistic tendencies, lack of empathy (and corresponding inability to feel remorse), difficulty in forming long-lasting romantic relationships, and/or indifference to social norms (especially around morals and ethics).

Unfortunately, there is no consensus view of what constitutes sociopathy. (Don't be quick to point to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual's section on Antisocial Personality Disorder. It hardly represents a "consensus view" among clinicians, let alone research psychologists, sociologists, and the many others who study this area.) Until recently, in fact, psychologists tended to conflate sociopathy and psychopathy, since the personality traits for both conditions have significant overlap (e.g., poverty of affect, difficulty forming long-lasting relationships); likewise, there is still healthy debate on the extent to which antisocial behavior—rather than personality traits per se—should be considered in formulating a definition of sociopathy.

The World Health Organization's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, tenth edition (ICD-10), defines something called dissocial personality disorder, characterized by the presence of three or more of the following:

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings of others;
  • Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations;
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them;
  • Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence;
  • Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment;
  • Marked readiness to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.
  • M. E. Thomas, not unexpectedly, puts her own spin on things, emphasizing plasticity of personality—and bisexuality (or at least, a certain fluidity of gender and sexual preferences)—as two of the more reliable (in her experience) signatures of sociopathy. Thomas (Lund) cites Cal State University (Northridge) professor Howard Kamler, who argues:

    It is not just that [the sociopath] is lacking a strongly identified moral identity, he is likely lacking a strongly identified self-identity almost altogether.

    Thomas (Lund) describes at length what it is like to be self-aware without a self-construct, constantly inferring one's self-essence indirectly (through the reactions of others), somewhat like detecting dark matter in galaxies by their effect on nearby stars. "I make people scared when I stare at them this way," she might note, in a social setting. Ironically, Thomas talks of having learned a great deal about human social interactions by watching TV serials and movies (which are, of course, fictional, involving actors). She also refers, repeatedly, to the Cathy character in Steinbeck's East of Eden as a reliable model of sociopathic behavior—again failing to acknowledge the fictional nature of the data source. This seeming indifference to fictional vs. real-world social data is (arguably), in itself, quite telling.

    One of Thomas's main points is that sociopaths are often wrongly villainized. Not all sociopaths are criminals (most crimes are, in fact, committed by empaths who go off the rails). More than that, Thomas argues (persuasively) that many characteristics of the sociopathic personality—charm, ambition and impatience, an ability to attack problems with cold-hearted logic (not letting emotions get in the way)—are useful to society. We see the proof every day: The most successful lawyers, doctors, actors, politicians, statesmen, military leaders, and corporate executives frequently do exhibit many of the signature characteristics of sociopaths (if not also psychopaths). Indeed, capitalism is set up to reward those who have no qualms about profiting off the labors of others. (No less a champion of capitalism than Forbes Magazine has noted the "Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy and Capitalism.") Likewise, in politics, those who go far tend to be smooth-talking manipulators who carefully calibrate their moral code to the requirements of the moment. This not new, of course. Machiavelli wrote extensively about it in the 1500s.

    Nevertheless, Thomas (Professor Lund) will win few fans with her discussion, in Chapter 7, of Emotions and the Fine Art of Ruining People. "Ruining people. I love the way the phrase rolls around on my tongue and inside my mouth. Ruining people is delicious." Power, Lund says, is all she has ever really cared about in her life:

    ". . . physical power, the power of being desired or admired, destructive power, knowledge, invisible influence . . . The acquisition, retention, and exploitation of power are what most motivate sociopaths. This much I know."

    Thomas goes on to describe various relationships (hers and others) she has ruined, people she has duped emotionally, coworkers whose professional efforts she has tried to derail, teachers she has brought complaints against. All harmless chicanery? Read the book and judge for yourself.

    One point I do agree with. It's not the personality traits you've acquired (through birth or upbringing) that define you; it's what you choose to do with them. Thomas (Professor Lund) tries, many times, in many ways, to acquit herself of her sociopathic tendencies and paint herself as a sympathetic character, but her actions speak for themselves, and I suspect that if she continues to have trouble holding a job or holding onto a longterm relationship (troubles she admits to having, over and over again in the book), it will not be because of any label anyone applied to her. It will be, quite simply, because of the things she has done; her own (confessed) behavior. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun once said, "When deeds speak, words are nothing"—something every sociopath would do well to keep in mind.

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