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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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.