A reader asks how she can better interact with her lower-functioning sociopath ex for the benefit of their child:
Growing up with an extremely high functioning sociopath for a best friend, I perhaps not understand but appreciate the logical thinking that comes along with not having to consider others' emotions. I've seen the game well played, but my soon to be husband keeps shooting himself in the foot. He is now destitute, living without so much as a car and is about to lose everything he will ever make in the divorce settlement. Have you met any sociopaths who completely sabotage themselves to this degree? Is this a challenge to him, an insult to me, or a result of a game gone horribly wrong? Or am I missing the point entirely? Is there a way to encourage him to use his advantages for more productive means or am I dealing with a real chump and should call it a day?My response:
Sociopaths are allegedly slow learners, particularly experiential learning, which I'm sure is a large part of why sociopathic criminals are very likely to re-offend. Sociopaths don't respond effectively to punishment because they don't fear punishment in the same way that neurotypicals do. Dr. Hare illustrated this in a study where participants watched a timer ticking down to a painful electric shock. Normal people would get increasingly anxious as the time for the shock approached, but psychopaths did not. Because sociopaths do not fear consequences in the same way empaths do, they are prone to making the same mistakes over and over again. Even mice can be trained to stop pushing particular buttons that lead to certain negative consequences, but sociopaths struggle. Because sociopaths are risk takers, they also tend to be overly optimistic about their chances. Finally, sociopaths are largely emotionally empty -- their lives do not have much meaning beyond the power they can acquire and gratification in which they can indulge, so they don't have much to lose.
Still, if sociopaths seem oblivious to punishments, at least the more successful ones are surprisingly sensitive to incentive systems. My personal theory is that the lowest functioning sociopath is only sensitive to immediate rewards, while the highest functioning sociopath has learned to also feel pleasure in accumulating delayed rewards. For example, low functioning sociopaths might be enticed to do an honest day's work for a honest day's pay, but are less likely to save money for retirement. For whatever reason, I am able to experience part of the pleasure today of anticipated rewards, which is probably why I managed to fund my retirement by age 30?
How would i use this knowledge to train a low functioning sociopath? I think the same way that you might train a small child or a pet -- break up rewards into small, frequent, easy to achieve increments. For instance, if he does a small task, you will let him have more time with his daughter, you will let him borrow your car, you will let him be late with support payments, whatever the small reward you want to provide is. He probably won't like thinking that you are messing with him or manipulating him, which to him will smack of a power struggle or paternalism, so try to find some natural connection between his actions and your responses to his behavior. For example, if he picks up your daughter on time, you won't have to pay the babysitter extra money to stay, so you are willing to send her out with spending money. Or his calling ahead when he cannot make his appointed visitation allows you to make other arrangements so you do not need to miss work. In economic-speak, sociopaths are rational actors, perhaps the purest form of rational actor, as that term is defined. You can always count on them to look out for their best interest, and as long as what you want is also something they want, they can act in your best interest as well.
All being self-interested means is that we love ourselves, family, and friends more than perfect strangers.
— M.E. (@sociopathworld) July 20, 2013