Monday, December 31, 2012

Chew toys

A reader asks:
Do you like to be the boss in relationships? What I mean by that is do you respect boundaries at all for instance, open others mail, walk into the bathroom on somebody, check cell phones, hide things, lock doors and have the only key, that kind of thing. What the hell is that anyway? I thought it was insecurity.
My response:
I don't like to be the boss in relationships. I like to be in relationships with equals in power. I don't like to run all over people, but I do like playful sparring, people who act slightly difficult with me, people who need me to win their devotion again and again. I need stuff to do, stuff to think about. I grind my teeth at night, and without the little plastic guard I'd grind my teeth away. That's how I feel about relationships. I grind on them the same way I grind on everything else in life, so I like it when the people I'm with give me a chew toy -- rather than letting me chew on their favorite shoe.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


A reader writes:
I'm a recovering addict, clean from drugs for 8 years. I notice a higher concentration of ASPD (Anti-Social Personality Disorder) addicts in 12-step fellowships and was wondering if there is a connection between addiction and ASPD. I displayed sociopathic traits as well as addictive behaviors long before I picked up drugs. I've found those of us with ASPD have a harder time fully addressing the various aspects of our addiction than those without. Just curious if you're a recovering addict as well.
My response:
I'm not a recovering addict but I know that I am very prone to addiction so I have actually tried to avoid addictive substances. I always want to try everything at least once, but I can usually tell when something is too good to be good for me, if you know what I mean.

Sociopaths allegedly don't learn well from experience/mistakes. I think that is because we have a higher tolerance for pain, discomfort, etc. This can be a huge advantage in situations where pain is paralyzing or otherwise not constructive. It also makes us dangerous to ourselves, though. We're like those people who can't feel physical pain. I have had way more near death experiences than anyone else I know of in my peer group or family. I'm also reckless emotionally and mentally. I have taken on emotional or mental burdens before that have led to the brink of a breakdown. We have to be extra careful about what we do to ourselves because we don't have the risk-averseness and emotional/psychic pain to signal to us to stop doing something because it is hurting us. I can see how this would make us especially prone to acquiring addictions.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Gervais Principle (part 2)

The second part talks about how sociopaths and non sociopaths (losers or clueless) behave.

On how sociopaths behave:

The bulk of Sociopath communication takes places out in the open, coded in Powertalk, right in the presence of non-Sociopaths (a decent 101 level example of this is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Hermoine is the only one who realizes that Prof. Umbridge’s apparently bland and formulaic speech is a Powertalk speech challenging Dumbledore). As the David-Jim example shows, Sociopaths are in fact more careful in private.

Why? Both examples illustrate the reasons clearly: for Sociopaths, conditions of conflict of interest and moral hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations.  To function effectively they must constantly maintain and improve their position in the ecosystem of other Sociopaths, protecting themselves, competing, forming alliances, trading favors and building trust. Above all they must be wary of Sociopaths with misaligned agendas, and protect themselves in basic ways before attempting things like cooperation. They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath.

So effective Sociopaths stick with steadfast discipline to the letter of the law, internal and external, because the stupidest way to trip yourself up is in the realm of rules where the Clueless and Losers get to be judges and jury members. What they violate is its spirit, by taking advantage of its ambiguities. Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation. That’s a story for another day. Good Sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality. Evil Sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck. Losers and the Clueless, of course, avoid individual moral decisions altogether.

On how non-sociopaths rarely are able to pull off sociopathic techniques themselves:

So what is going wrong here? Why can’t you learn Sociopath tactics from a book or Wikipedia? It is not that the tactics themselves are misguided, but that their application by non-Sociopaths is usually useless, for three reasons.

The first is that you have to decide what tactics to use and when, based on a real sense of the relative power and alignment of interests with the other party, which the Losers and Clueless typically lack. This real-world information is what makes for tactical surprise. Otherwise your application of even the most subtle textbook tactics can be predicted and easily countered by any Sociopath who has also read the same book. Null information advantage.

The second reason is that tactics make sense only in the context of an entire narrative (including mutual assessments of personality, strengths, weaknesses and history) of a given interpersonal relationship. The Clueless have no sense of narrative rationality, and the Losers are too trapped in their own stories to play to other scripts. Both the Clueless and Losers are too self-absorbed to put in much work developing accurate and usable mental models of others. The result is one-size-fits-all-situations tactical choices which are easily anticipated and deflected.

And the third and most important reason of course, is that your moves have to be backed up by appropriate bets using your table stakes, exposing you to real risks and rewards. A good way to remember this is to think of Powertalk as decisions about what verbal tactics to use when, and with what. The answer to with what is usually a part of your table-stakes. The stuff you are revealing and  risking. If you cannot answer with what? you are posturing. You are not speaking Powertalk. 

I thought this was interesting, particularly on the heels of this recent post about Sherlock Holmes' ability to conceptualize the inner worlds of others. The author has another similar post about constructing narratives in bargaining situations (e.g. "I'm just a poor student, I don't have that kind of money to spend"), locking in the other party to a narrative that favors you ("I appreciate that you are a local business that offers fair prices to loyal customers"), and building upon the narrative until it becomes so convoluted that the other party is not able to keep up with the verbal sparring so the deal must close. It reminded me of these findings that people with more creativity tend to be less moral.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Gervais Principle (part 1)

Someone sent me a link to the Gervais Principle a long time ago, but it was too long to catch my interest at the time. I kept hearing about it, and someone just recently emailed me again about it, so I decided to actually sit down and read. Essentially it is a theory of how social organizations (specifically businesses, but not exclusively) develop based on the three social roles that people assume -- sociopaths, clueless, losers.

The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties). The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks.

According to the article, the life cycle of every organization looks like this:

A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction rather than a runaway explosion. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself and anything of value is recycled by the sociopaths according to meta-firm logic.

The Sociopaths enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top. The contribute creativity in early stages of a organization’s life, neurotic leadership in the middle stages, and cold-bloodedness in the later stages, where they drive decisions like mergers, acquisitions and layoffs that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive.

  • The Sociopaths enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top. The contribute creativity in early stages of a organization’s life, neurotic leadership in the middle stages, and cold-bloodedness in the later stages, where they drive decisions like mergers, acquisitions and layoffs that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive.
  • The Losers like to feel good about their lives. . . . They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot.
  • The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm — the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned. 

The Gervais principle:

  • Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

The entire article is interesting but most relevant for this audience probably is the description of the career of the sociopath:

The future Sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average Loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out — through experiments and fast failures — that the Loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-Loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.

It reminds me of my own experiences being fired from jobs in which, although I was generously compensated compared to a lot of jobs I could have been doing, it was clear to me that my role was to be a worker slave for others to profit off and I had other plans.

There were also very interesting discussions of the clueless, particularly the amazing feats of self-deception required for them to continue their arbitrary and ambiguous roles, the perfect position for a narcissist.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sociopaths in literature: Dangerous Liaisons

I shall have this woman; I shall carry her away from the husband who profanes her; I shall even dare to ravish her from the God she adores. What a delicious pleasure to be alternately the cause and the conqueror of her remorse! Far be it from me to wish to destroy the prejudices which torture her! They will add to my happiness and my fame. Let her believe in virture, but let her sacrifice it to me; let her slips terrify her without restraining her; let her be agitated by a thousand terrors and not be able to forget and to crush them save in my arms. Then I agree, she may say “I adore you,” and she alone among all women will be worthy to say so. I shall indeed be the God she has preferred.

-- Valmont, Dangerous Liaisons

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Test-driving psychopathy

Kevin Dutton, author of the Wisdom of Psychopaths, tells the story of how he test-drove being a psychopath (excerpted from his book):

"The effects of the treatment should wear off within half an hour," Nick says, steering me over to a specially calibrated dentist's chair, complete with headrest, chin rest, and face straps. "Think of TMS as an electromagnetic comb, and brain cells—neurons—as hairs. All TMS does is comb those hairs in a particular direction, creating a temporary neural hairstyle. Which, like any new hairstyle, if you don't maintain it, quickly goes back to normal of its own accord."
TMS can't penetrate far enough into the brain to reach the emotion and moral-reasoning precincts directly. But by damping down or turning up the regions of the cerebral cortex that have links with such areas, it can simulate the effects of deeper, more incursive influence.

It isn't long before I start to notice a fuzzier, more pervasive, more existential difference. Before the experiment, I'd been curious about the time scale: how long it would take me to begin to feel the rush. Now I had the answer: about 10 to 15 minutes. The same amount of time, I guess, that it would take most people to get a buzz out of a beer or a glass of wine.

The effects aren't entirely dissimilar. An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s---, anyway?

There is, however, one notable exception. One glaring, unmistakable difference between this and the effects of alcohol. That's the lack of attendant sluggishness. The enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it's on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel's. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it's been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher.

So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear—all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.

I suddenly get a flash of insight. We talk about gender. We talk about class. We talk about color. And intelligence. And creed. But the most fundamental difference between one individual and another must surely be that of the presence, or absence, of conscience. Conscience is what hurts when everything else feels good. But what if it's as tough as old boots? What if one's conscience has an infinite, unlimited pain threshold and doesn't bat an eye when others are screaming in agony?
I shake my head. Already I sense the magic wearing off. The electromagnetic sorcery starting to wane. I feel, for instance, considerably more married than I did a bit earlier—and considerably less inclined to go up to Nick's research assistant and ask her out for a drink. Instead I go with Nick—to the student bar—and bury my previous best on the Gran Turismo car-racing video game. I floor it all the way round. But so what—it's only a game, isn't it?

"I wouldn't want to be with you in a real car at the moment," says Nick. "You're definitely still a bit ballsy."

I feel great. Not quite as good as before, perhaps, when we were in the lab. Not quite as ... I don't know ... impregnable. But up there, for sure. Life seems full of possibility, my psychological horizons much broader. Why shouldn't I piss off to Glasgow this weekend for my buddy's stag party, instead of dragging myself over to Dublin to help my wife put her mother in a nursing home? I mean, what's the worst that can happen? This time next year, this time next week even, it would all be forgotten. Who Dares Wins, right?

I take a couple of quid from the table next to ours—left as a tip, but who's going to know?—and try my luck on another couple of machines. I get to $100,000 on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" but crash and burn because I refuse to go 50-50. Soon things start to change. Gran Turismo the second time round is a disappointment. I'm suddenly more cautious, and finish way down the field. Not only that, I notice a security camera in the corner and think about the tip I've just pocketed. To be on the safe side, I decide to pay it back.

I smile and swig my beer. Psychopaths. They never stick around for long. As soon as the party's over, they're moving on to the next one, with scant regard for the future and even less for the past. And this psychopath—the one, I guess, that was me for 20 minutes—was no exception. He'd had his fun. And got a free drink out of it. But now that the experiment was history, he was suddenly on his way, hitting the road and heading out of town. Hopefully quite some distance away.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rethinking empathy

Journalist Maria Konnikova uses the example of Sherlock Holmes' "perspective taking" ability to put himself in the mind of others to rethinking what we might mean by (or what is truly value about) empathy. The entire article is worth reading, here is just the first few paragraphs to give you an idea of what she is talking about:

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? It might be a deerstalker, a pipe or a violin, or shady crimes in the foggy streets of London. Chances are, it’s not his big, warm heart and his generous nature. In fact, you might think of him as a cold fish — the type of man who tells his best friend, who is busy falling in love, that it ‘is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’. Perhaps you might be influenced by recent adaptations that have gone so far as to call Holmes a 'sociopath'.

Not the empathetic sort, surely? Or is he?

Let’s dwell for a moment on ‘Silver Blaze’ (1892), Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the gallant racehorse who disappeared, and his trainer who was found dead, just days before a big race. The hapless police are stumped, and Sherlock Holmes is called in to save the day. And save the day he does — by putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.’

Holmes takes an imaginative leap, not only into another human mind, but into the mind of an animal. This perspective-taking, being able to see the world from the point of view of another, is one of the central elements of empathy, and Holmes raises it to the status of an art.

Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion. Perhaps that cold rationalist Sherlock Holmes can help us reconsider our preconceptions about what empathy is and what it does.

This is something that I have discussed before -- the difference between empathy and imagining what it might be like to be someone else.

The perspective taking is also an interesting phenomenon, particularly because it appears that it can be taught, as evidenced by the success of an intervention program for at risk youths, which teaches the youngsters perspective taking through the use of regular interactions with an infant volunteer (see this fascinating description).

Even though she insists that Sherlock is not a sociopath, I couldn't help but notice some similarities between the way he thinks and the way I think. For instance, a tendency to not think linearly:

But he is also a man of inordinate creativity of thought. He refuses to stop at facts as they appear to be. He plays out many possibilities, maps out various routes, lays out myriad alternative realities in order to light upon the correct one. His is the opposite of hard, linear, A-to-B reasoning.
This default of abstract thinking has helped me immensely in my own career, and the article mentions that this sort of mental flexibility also enabled "an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be." although also means I often have to have my thoughts translated to others or reverse engineer explanations that are more universally palatable than my own scattered thought processes. And when used in the context of imagining other people's minds, better than typical empathy?

Here are some other advantages according to the article:
  • In sterilising his empathy, Holmes actually makes it more powerful: a reasoned end, rather than a flighty impulse.
  • No doubt Holmes would argue that his lack of emotion gives him a certain freedom from prejudice, as much as a lack of warmth. And recent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it.
  • Because he actively avoids distorting his view of others with his own feelings, "he ends up as a less egocentric and more accurate reflection of what someone else is thinking or experiencing at any given point."
  • Just think how precise are Holmes’s insights into people’s characters, their whims, their motivations and inner states. . . . In our own attempts to understand others, we might think such minutiae below us — why bother with such petty concerns when there are emotions, feelings, lives at stake? — but in ignoring those petty details, we lose crucial evidence. We miss the signs of difference that enable us to walk in those shoes we don’t deign to look at closely. 
  • Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.
  • The psychologists Ezra Stotland and Robert Dunn distinguished the ‘logical’ and the ‘emotional’ part of empathising with similar and dissimilar others. They understood the first as an exercise in cognitive perspective-taking, and the latter as an instance of non-rational emotional contagion. More recently, Baron-Cohen has described how individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder might not be able to understand or mentalise, yet some are fully capable of empathising (in the emotional sense) once someone’s affective state is made apparent to them — a sign, it seems, that the two elements are somewhat independent.
  • Feelings are not entirely absent from Holmes’s empathic calculus, but they are not allowed to drive his actions. Instead, he acts only if his cognition should support the emotional outlay. And if it doesn’t? The emotion is dismissed.
 She makes a lot of other great points, like how empathy, although evolutionary useful, is unreliable, biased, and often flawed. It's a good overall argument for how one can have low emotional empathy and not necessarily be malicious. She ends with:

Sherlock Holmes might be described as cold, it’s true. But who would you like on your side when it comes to being given a fair say, to being helped when that help is truly needed, to knowing that someone will go above and beyond the call of duty for your sake, no matter who you are or what you might have done? I, for one, would choose the cool-headed Holmes, who understands the limits of human emotions, and who seeks to ‘represent justice,’ so far as his ‘feeble powers allow’.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sociopathy as spectrum disorder

I thought this was an interesting and straightforward explanation of what it means for something to be a spectrum disorder, particularly when we're talking about psychopathy, and the difficulties it introduces in terms of understanding and diagnosing individuals with that particular disorder. From a Wall Street Journal book review of the Wisdom of Psychopaths:

In one of her stand-up comedy routines, Ellen Degeneres riffs on those commercials for depression medications that begin: "Do you ever feel sad?" Ms. Degeneres's sardonic response: "Yes, I'm alive!" Everyone occasionally feels down, so mild depression might indeed be considered part and parcel of living. Recent research suggests that, like pain, it may be a way of coping with a bad situation by making a change. One problem with most psychological diagnostic tools, in fact, is that they attempt to squeeze into a well-defined box behaviors that are, on some level, not all that unusual. So the criteria lists grow and the diagnostic labels broaden into what psychologists call "spectrums."

"Psychopathy" is a spectrum personality disorder characterized by callousness, antisocial behavior, superficial charm, narcissism, grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, poor impulse control, and a lack of empathy or remorse. Popular culture invariably associates psychopathy with serial killers like Ted Bundy, who, after raping and murdering numerous women in the 1970s, boasted that "I'm the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you'll ever meet." Yet a slate of publications on psychopathy over the past two decades—from Robert Hare's path-breaking 1993 book "Without Conscience" to Simon Baron Cohen's 2011 "The Science of Evil"—reveals that about 1% to 3% of men in the general population could be classified as psychopaths. That is more than four million people in the United States alone, and they aren't all potential Ted Bundys.

The spectrum of psychopaths includes CEOs, surgeons, lawyers, salesmen, police officers and journalists. According to Kevin Dutton, the rest of us could learn a thing or two from many of them. In "The Wisdom of Psychopaths," the Cambridge University research psychologist notes that in many circumstances, such as in business, sports and other competitive enterprises, it is beneficial to be a little charming, tough-minded, impulsive, risk taking, courageous and even a bit socially manipulative. We have the makings of a dangerous psychopath only when that little bit of charm becomes devious manipulation; when self-confidence escalates to grandiosity; when occasional exaggeration morphs into pathological lying; when tough-mindedness devolves into cruelty; and when courageous risk taking slides into foolish impulsiveness. 

It's this sort of fuzziness that has led me to sometimes question whether I think that psychopathy is even a real thing. The difficulty is the heterogeneity in the psychopath population and fuzzy dividing lines between normal behavior (if perhaps a little extreme or rare), and disordered behavior. Of course there is evidence that psychopath brains look different, although the research is still very young. Still, I often have wondered what my brain would look like in one of these fMRI tests that some psychopath researchers perform, would it look normal or abnormal and in the same ways that psychopaths brains appear? I have often thought that my brain has to look abnormal, that there is no way I could have such a different way of thinking than everyone else without my brain reflecting that difference. But people say that is a common fallacy -- believing that you are different from everyone else. Then again, I probably prefer that error than to erroneously assume that everyone thinks exactly like me.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Who is friends with a sociopath?

A reader told me about a new television show that has been advertised as "The Following on Fox -- Even Serial Killers Have Friends."

I am sort of curious to watch it just to see what types of people are his friends. Then I read this unrelated blurb from an NPR writer:

Most (and Least) Important: This is both. The most and the least important event I witnessed in 2012. I’m walking past a school. Two girls, maybe six years old, wearing parkas, carrying bookbags, come flying out the school door, step in front of me close enough for me to hear, and one of them leans toward the other says says, “What if you’re a serial killer? Who’s going to be your friend then?” I turn. The two girls are weighing this question. Having friends—this is a thing they know. Everybody needs one, even the nastiest among us, but this is a toughie. They stop to mull: Who might like a serial killer? “Maybe…” says the second girl, “other serial killers?” They look at each other, uncertain. (Not a big enough pool? Is that what they’re thinking?) Then the first girl says, “I know!” “What?” says the second. “How about just…killers?” More to choose from! They hug. Problem solved. They walk up the block holding hands. Friends are the solution to everything. This is their news. This is what they know.

Should I be worried about my friends? The ones that know about the blog, etc., sometimes wonder if they too are sociopaths. Is it possible to be friends with a sociopath without being at least a little sociopathic?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Heroes and sociopaths

I have posted before about how being a sociopath can make you *feel* like you are a superhero. I think this feeling (narcissistic self-import) is relatively common among sociopaths. For instance, I stumbled upon this not-me description of it here:
Being a sociopath doesn't mean you have to be evil. We struggle to feel the difference between right and wrong, but we do know the difference since we have had it drilled into our heads since we were children, right? Fact is, us sociopaths have more choice in this world than the rest. That is because we can choose to be heroes or we can choose to be villains. No one else can do that, they have to be what they are, they are born a certain way, they will always be that way. Us sociopaths can change to our surroundings. We can do anything we choose to do.
Interestingly, some say this feeling goes both ways -- that superheroes can sometimes feel (or act) like sociopaths.
We look at heroes and do-gooders as a special sort of breed: people who possess extraordinary traits of altruism or self-less concern for the well-being of others, even at the expense of their own existence. On the other end, sociopaths also have an extraordinary set of traits, such as extreme selfishness, lack of impulse control, no respect for rules, and no conscience.

As crazy as it sounds, there may be a closer link than than most people would think between the extreme-altruistic personality and sociopathic personality. Would it shock you to know that two people, one with the traits of extreme-altruism (X-altruism) and the other the traits of a sociopath, could be related? Even siblings? And that their personality traits are very similar, with only a few features to distinguish them? Research by Watson, Clark, and Chmielewki from the University of Iowa, “Structures of Personality and Their Relevance to Psychopathology” [pdf], present a convincing argument in which they support the growing push for a trait dimensional scheme in the new DSM-V to replace the current categorical system.

[X- altruists are risk takers and rule breakers.] When they are faced with that moment, they just act. Compulsively. Barely considering any other course. The lack the impulse control to stop themselves from doing “the right thing” when it comes to the welfare of others, yet ironically, it almost always results in some form of negative consequence for themselves. They have no problem breaking the rules when it means helping an innocent, yet they highly value the importance of obeying rules in other contexts. That’s crazy, you say? Now you’re getting the idea.

[but sociopaths are unfeeling monsters, altruists are so great, bla bla bla]

Interestingly, these two type of individuals, the sociopath and the X-altruist, may appear similar in their displays of behavior, and at times, even confused for the other type. If an X-altruistic person is compelled to break rules without remorse in order to help a disadvantaged person, is may seem as if he is acting rebelliously, especially if the motives behind his behavior are not known. On the other hand, a sociopath may donate a large sum of money to a charity, a seemingly altruistic behavior, but his actions may have been motivated by his selfish need to appear better than or more generous than a colleague. The defining characteristic that separates the two personality types is their ability to empathize, either not at all or too much, which then drives the extreme behavior of each.
And my favorite comment from the article:
Interesting article, but not without bias, and in my opinion, unprofessionally written. Never before have I heard a health-care professional refer to a sociopath as "nasty". As a behavioral specialist, I would expect you to know better than anyone that sociopaths do not choose their hereditary personality disorders anymore than your beloved X-altruists do. Why call names?

And how do you define virtue and "good" intent? Is not the X-altruist's all-consuming desire to help others, at the expense breaking these rules you seem to value so much, just as selfish as the sociopath?
followed closely by this one:
Your intentions are obvious. Try as you like, we'll never associate heroes with sociopaths.

And the social order will thus survive, despite your kind's attempt to weaken and destroy it.
It's an interesting point, though. Are sociopaths considered "bad" just because they seem to do, on average, more "bad for society" type things? If so, can't we just punish the "bad behavior" without singling out everyone with the condition and eradicating them? For another interesting look at heroes and sociopaths in fiction/media, see this article on the "heroic sociopath," including such gems as this rationalization of Peter Pan: "He's only slightly less uncaring towards others as his nemesis Captain Hook and comes across better mostly because his sociopathy is a result of being a perpetual child, whereas Hook really has no excuse." Aspies or Auties, anyone? I'm not so much saying that the hate against sociopaths isn't at all warranted, more that there is no principled way to hate sociopaths and not hate other people/personalities/disorders that are widely accepted or even beloved in society.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Seducing a sociopath

An unusual question from a reader:
I've read some of your articles on your website. I have checked most of the titles but I didn't find one thing I was looking for. I might have just overlooked it. So what interests me is: if my sociopath boyfriend broke up with me, is there any way to seduce him back? How?
My response:
This is a really good question and you are right that no one has ever asked me it before. I didn't even know that people might want to do something like this until you asked. I have a feeling that it will end up being somewhat contextual. In other words, it will depend on your particular circumstances. Could you give me a little bit more background about your relationship with your boyfriend?
This was followed by another email from the reader with details, to which I responded:
I have been thinking a lot about your email. I think from what I read, you smothered him. ("So why we broke up: because he never showed his love, and I realized he didn’t care about me. I knew that but I hoped that with time he could get to like me. I was very kind to him, showed him my love in many ways. And the more I showed it the colder he turned.") Sociopaths can't handle excessive emotional output from anyone. If the sociopath really likes you, then the worst thing you can do is get all upset about something the sociopath has done. ("He hurt me every day, I was crying a lot.") I can get really angry when people cry because I have hurt them. It's sort of like a slap in the face -- "You monster, look what you have done to me." You probably were just unable to really accept him for how he was, or be able to put up with it, or maybe you were, but he saw what an effort it was causing you and how hurt you were becoming because of it. ("So I told him that if he could not live a day without telling me bad things, then we should consider parting." He agreed, saying it was better “so you don’t have to have these arguments again.” And never replied to me again. That was 8 weeks ago.") So he broke up with you so that you both wouldn't have to be in a dead-end relationship anymore.

In terms of seducing him back again, I sort of doubt you would be able to. Your best hope would be to wait for him to try to reconnect with you. If he doesn't, you are out of luck. If he does, then play cold/rational/normal/hard-to-get. Act like nothing bothers you. Pretend that you don't have any emotional needs. After a while of that, suggest that you hook up, but just for sex. Since you say he is sensitive about his body, tell him something about his body that you particularly crave. Appeal to his vanity. Sociopaths can be flattered just as easily as anyone else, you just have to find their weakest spot or their greatest insecurity and exploit it. I don't know, maybe I'll ask my readers for other ideas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Right and wrong

While I was in the bush, one of my companions had an object lost and likely stolen at one of the lodges we stayed at. Our guide was really angry about it, much more so than my friend. He was very religious and was constantly talking about "that is a very bad thing" (was it?).  At one point he said that he also had been tempted to steal objects from his clients that would have been the equivalent of a week's salary or more for him, but that he had never stolen anything in his adult life. And in that moment, I swear to you, I thought, "yeah, neither have I," despite having spent one year on such a shoplifting spree that I stole more days than not, among other exploits. Of course as I kept thinking about it, I remembered my career as a thief but still found it hilarious that I was nodding along with my uber-moral guide about what a bad thing stealing was.

I have written about this before (and forgotten about it, which is too funny given that the last post was all about how I have a tendency to forget anything shady from my past), but more in the terms of self-awareness. Which doesn't necessarily explain what happened shortly after.

I was watching what essentially was a morality play for children. There was a scene about theft, nearly identical to how I used to steal most frequently. One of the characters had stolen and I felt this anxiousness for him. When his friend suggested that they actually pay for the item, I wanted him to do that. I actually felt that stealing was wrong in this situation. I had a moment where I thought to myself, I am cured! I have a conscience. And then I remembered all of the stealing I had done (again) and asked myself, "why do you think that this instance of stealing is wrong but you never were capable of recognizing it before?" Was it because this children's program had simplified the subject enough and given sufficient cues such that even I was able to pick up on the wrongness of the stealing? Am I fine understanding the abstract concepts of right and wrong, just mixed up on the real world applications? Was the program inherently manipulative, my pangs of .... whatever more a tribute to my easy suggestibility than to having successfully birthed a conscience? Was it because the situation was so parallel to my own past, a past that I had to basically negative condition myself out of, Pavlovian aversion therapy style, in order to get myself to stop and to start leading a more legit lifestyle? I still don't know.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Autism whitewashed, sociopathy maligned (again)

For as socially lacking as auties supposedly are (and interestingly this seems to be one of their key press points -- don't hate us because you think we are a cold, unfeeling jerk, we're just socially awkward), they sure do seem to be in the cool kids' club of socially acceptable. Coming fresh off the heels of my last post, this amazing piece of investigative journalism:
“One of the most devastating myths about children with autism is that they cannot show affection. While sensory stimulation is processed differently in some children, they can and do give affection. However, it may require patience on the parents' part to accept and give love in the child's terms,” Colston said.

A person who fully understands that they are harming others and simply does not care is called a “sociopath.” A sociopath is adept at reading social cues, is very aware of the feelings of others, and knows precisely how to respond in order to get what they want. They simply do not care whether or not their words or actions harm other people or often, society in general.

Autistic people have no intention of harming or upsetting others. They simply lack the ability to read and respond to social cues. For example, while most children learn that a smile from their friend means the other child is happy through everyday social interaction, an autistic child may have difficulty understanding facial expressions.
Thanks for the shout-out, auties. Next time, though, why don't you try to defend yourself without making us a scapegoat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"I am Adam Lanza’s mother'

From a reader:

There's a popular blog post circulating pretty fast around from a mom who has a son with a pretty dangerous mental illness, not properly diagnosed. The message of the post seemed fairly positive, but I found myself taken aback by how she handles her kid, and then goes on to say that he could be the next massacre shooter without proper help.

Is it just me, or does this kind of thing seem inherently wrong? I watched the Child of Rage documentary, and if anyone was going to become a killer, it was that kid, but after some proper therapy and rehabilitation, she ended up pretty damn well-adjusted.

I know you've talked about the issue with labels in the past, and in light of these massacres and a new-found interest in mental health being the root issues of them, it just seems that treating a kid like an unpredictable prisoner is just wrong. I mean, if a child can't even turn to their family for support and understanding, then you've essentially isolated them mentally and emotionally. If they're that unstable, they're not going to have even friends to turn to. When the kid turns 18, he's going to cut loose, because the only people who could have helped him didn't. Considering the behavior she described, if someone doesn't find a way for him to adjust, he's going to go to prison sooner or later.

And this is exactly how they're treating people like sociopaths. Giving them a supposedly incurable mental disease label, and then just settling for locking them and throwing away the key. What life is that?

Speaking of which, currently in the States, 56% of prisoners have a diagnosed mental disorder. So much for the asylum...

I don't know if I have much of an opinion about the macro problem of mental illness. When I first read the blog post linked above I was sort of turned off for a lot of reasons, including the one the reader mentions. I thought about it for a little while, though, and re read it and realized that the mother is not really advocating anything in particular, so much as just wanting to add to (or open up) the conversation on mental illness.

The truth is that I don't really think that this can be addressed effectively on the macro level, but rather any truly effective solution/treatment, at least for children, will be better parenting or people in substitute parenting roles. It reminds me of this selection from the NY Magazine article on autism mentioned yesterday: “A lot of kids are just delayed in development, slow to talk, or anxious, or hyperactive, and a lot of kids are just terribly parented. . . . We see a lot of diagnosis-of-childhood kids, whose parents have never set limits, plus kids who are temperamentally difficult to raise."

That is not to say that parents of severely disturbed children have necessarily done anything "wrong." But I do believe in the plasticity of the child's mind and that there are ways to improve any child's behavior if one thinks creatively enough about it. This is also not to say that every parent is capable of parenting a child with these particular special needs. To the extent a label helps the helpless parent, I can see that possibly being a positive in the child's life. But to the extent that applying labels limits their/our beliefs about whether a child is redeemable or not, then yes, I believe that "labels for life" are counterproductive.

On the micro level, I feel like the biggest opportunity for children, particularly for those who are damaged but not quite mentally ill, is for them to feel a paradigm shift in their own concept of self. Like the girl in Child of Rage who was taught to believe that "when I hurt other people I'm hurting my good self." Maybe I'll write more on that later.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Everyone on the autism spectrum

This NY Magazine article, "Is everyone on the autism spectrum?" has some pretty funny moments, but this is probably the most relevant. In regard to the difficulty of making psychiatric diagnoses, particularly amateur ones:

Men have caught on and, in a kind of inverted gaslighting, begun to describe themselves as having Asperger’s as a way of controlling their spouses. “Having Asperger’s-like syndrome does not give you Asperger’s,” says David Schnarch, a Colorado-based couples therapist. “Having a big belly does not make you pregnant. I’ve not seen a single case of what I would consider to be diagnosable Asperger’s. But I have seen any number of cases of wives accusing husbands of it, any number of cases of husbands claiming to have it.” It’s the new ADHD, he says. “The wife doesn’t want to accept that the husband knows what he’s doing when he’s doing something she doesn’t like.” Schnarch recalls a man who phoned him the day before a scheduled initial couples session and announced that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. “As soon as this happened,” Schnarch says, “I knew I had difficulty.” He contacted the referring therapist, who said he’d suspected the man had Asperger’s because he said things to his girlfriend that were so cruel he couldn’t possibly understand their impact. As far as Schnarch was concerned, it was an all-too-familiar instance of ­sadism masquerading as disability. “If you’re going to perp, the best place to perp from is the victim position.”

I like the part about big belly not making you pregnant -- PCL-R, anybody? And the flipside of the coin are the self diagnosers who need a diagnosis to give them a sense of ... antisocial belonging?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Moonstruck and cages

This is not really that topical, but I was watching the film Moonstruck on the plane. There are two pieces of dialogue I had forgotten about. The one-handed Nicholas Cage character explains to Cher how he lost his hand:

                         It's wood. It's fake. Five years ago
                         I was engaged to be married. Johnny
                         came in here, he ordered bread from
                         me. I put it in the slicer and I
                         talked with him and my hand got caught
                         cause I wasn't paying attention. The
                         slicer chewed off my hand. It's funny
                         'cause - when my fiancĂ© saw that I
                         was maimed, she left me for another

                         That's the bad blood between you and

                         That's it.

                         But that wasn't Johnny's fault.

                         I don't care! I ain't no freakin
                         monument to justice! I lost my hand,
                         I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand,
                         Johnny has his bride! You come in
                         here and you want me to put away my
                         heartbreak and forget?

Later she tells him what she thinks of him:

                         The big part of you has no words and
                         it's-a wolf. This woman was a trap
                         for you. She caught you and you could
                         not get away.
                              (She grabs his wooden
                         So you chewed off your foot! That
                         was the price you had to pay to be
                              (throws his hand down)
                         Johnny had nothing to do with it.
                         You did what you had to do, between
                         you and you, and I know I'm right, I
                         don't care what you say. And now
                         you're afraid because you found out
                         the big part of you is a wolf that
                         has the courage to bite off its own
                         hand to save itself from the trap of
                         the wrong love. That's why there has
                         been no woman since that wrong woman.
                         You are scared to death what the
                         wolf will do if you make that mistake

Later he tells her what's up with her life:

                         And what do you know? You tell me my 
                         life? I'll tell you yours. I'm a 
                         wolf? You run to the wolf in me, 
                         that don't make you no lamb! You're 
                         gonna marry my brother? Why you wanna 
                         sell your life short? Playing it 
                         safe is just about the most dangerous 
                         thing a woman like you could do. You 
                         waited for the right man the first 
                         time, why didn't you wait for the 
                         right man again?

I thought this was such an interesting concept -- "playing it safe is just about the most dangerous thing a woman like you could do." I sometimes feel this way when I think about things that might be considered "playing it safe," like planning on being in a job for longer than three years, being in a committed relationship, otherwise locking myself into something, caging myself in or allowing myself to be caged. I realize it is actually a dangerous thing for a person like me to do. I realize that I probably won't be able to stay locked up like that forever and that when I finally try to extricate myself, there may be significant damage to myself and others.  

It reminds me of the letter Amelia Earhart wrote to her husband George Putnam before they wed: "I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage." And commenting on her own capriciousness in a letter to a friend, "I don't want anything, all the time." So true.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Promoting prosocial behavior

This was an interesting recent article in the NY Times, "Understanding How Children Develop Empathy," but I thought some of the parts about the source and development of prosocial behavior were just as interesting--particularly that it is not just about (or even primarily) about empathy:

By itself, intense empathy — really feeling someone else’s pain — can backfire, causing so much personal distress that the end result is a desire to avoid the source of the pain, researchers have found. The ingredients of prosocial behavior, from kindness to philanthropy, are more complex and varied.

They include the ability to perceive others’ distress, the sense of self that helps sort out your own identity and feelings, the regulatory skills that prevent distress so severe it turns to aversion, and the cognitive and emotional understanding of the value of helping.

And this part about how people can be taught to feel the rewards of prosocial acts:

Experimental studies have shown that the same brain region that is activated when people win money for themselves is active when they give to charity — that is, that there is a kind of neurologic “reward” built into the motivational system of the brain.

“Charitable giving can activate the same pleasure-reward centers, the dopaminergic centers, in the brain that are very closely tied to habit formation,” said Bill Harbaugh, an economist at the University of Oregon who studies altruism. “This suggests it might be possible to foster the same sorts of habits for charitable giving you see with other sorts of habits.”

The other theory of prosocial behavior, Dr. Huettel said, is based on social cognition — the recognition that other people have needs and goals. The two theories aren’t mutually exclusive: Cognitive understanding accompanied by a motivational reward reinforces prosocial behavior.

But shaping prosocial behavior is a tricky business. For instance, certain financial incentives seem to deter prosocial impulses, a phenomenon called reward undermining, Dr. Huettel said.

I thought that made a lot of sense, that a lot of prosocial acts stem from a greater cognitive understanding that other people have needs and goals. I feel like the more aware I have been taught to be about the inner worlds of others, the more I am naturally inclined to defer to those needs and goals, especially when it is hardly any trouble to me and means so much to them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sociopath quotes: shell

“Excitement and depression, fortune and misfortune, pleasure and pain are storms in a tiny private, shell-bound realm – which we take to be the whole of existence. Yet we can break out of this shell and enter a new world.”

-- Eknath Easwaran

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Seeing through a glass darkly

A reader asks, "How can we be close to people or things if we can't feel?" My response:
It's a good question. I don't think we can do it in normal ways, we just have to figure out what works for us. Have you ever read the Helen Keller story? Very fascinating. I remember being amazed when I first read it, just thinking about this girl who had no frame of reference for anything that we consider part of the "real world" other than touch. I found it so curious that she was smart, was able to spell words, but was just unable to understand that the words applied to different objects, that there was such thing as a word. I had first heard the story when I was young and i remember most of my young colleagues seemed less impressed by her. I felt that they didn't really understand that someone could have an entirely different existence than theirs, even in the same world, the same city, the same family even. I think I had my own Helen Keller epiphany-moment when I read her story. Before, I had thought of everyone as being essentially robots existing in a world solely for my interactions and my benefit. The story was such a detailed account of another person and I remember it making me think: different people exist, just like different animals exist, and people can be as different from each other as a fish from a llama or a cow from a parrot. Of course I still thought that most of the people around me were the same-ish, like dolphins (including me, when really i turned out to be a shark). But I think this was a good way to learn the lesson because when I did discover I was a shark, I wasn't horrified. I just thought i was a natural variant, had an entirely different world view from most, like Helen Keller.

I had already learned not to let who I was interfere with who I wanted to become. I had already made the decision not to be defined by my race or my height or my age or my gender or my intellect or anything else. That may sound funny because I refer to myself as a sociopath and have this blog all about what it is like to be a sociopath. I may use the term sociopath as shorthand for the type of person I am, the particular genus and species of human animal, but I do not let it define me. I do what I want to do. I realize that my world, my experiences, my relationships, my love is not the same as anyone else's love, but I have all of those things. Maybe other people want to say, "poor you" (or "you monster," depending on their inclinations), "you'll never have what I have." I just want to say to those people, "yeah, you're right. Thanks for pointing out the obvious." So let them sit at holiday tables eating roast beef while I am eating tofurkey, let them have their emotional dramas and outpourings while I remain blissfully unaffected. I have no shame in who I am, and frankly I find it offensive when people ask, "do you ever wish you were different?" Can you imagine asking that of someone of a different race? or a different gender? or even someone with a disability? I should answer, "yes I wish I was different, I wish I had the ability to completely ignore inane comments."

But to more specifically answer your earlier question, I don't suffer from depression, and I don't even really suffer from loneliness, thanks to a large circle of family and friends. I actually find some meaning and joy in playing my "part" in society. I just think of it as every day is someone else's birthday, so I have to be on my best behavior and be nice to them. I try to get lost in pleasing other people, making them happy, making their world better. It is actually rewarding, and reinforces and maintains personal ties (which I appreciate), and indulges my desire for power as well. I have tried living a lot of different ways, but I have been happiest and most stable when I have been trying to have an others-centered life rather than a self-centered life. I'm not saying that the latter is any sort of "wrong" or a "bad choice," that is just what has worked for me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Socios: all in the family

This is one of my favorite songs. I love the lyrics: "One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn and another child grows up to be somebody you'd just love to burn. Mom loves the both of them, you see it's in the blood. Both kids are good to mom -- blood's thicker than mud." Of course when I first heard the song I thought I heard "Somebody that just loves to burn," which was obviously more applicable, but the rest is true -- my family loves me just as much as my empath siblings. But with the holidays upon us, I have been thinking about socio family members. Some think that as many as 1 in 25 people are sociopaths, and if that's the case you'd imagine that even more people have a sociopath in the family. Or maybe you turn out to be the sociopath in the family, like the man in this article:
Jim Fallon recently made a disquieting discovery: A member of his family has some of the biological traits of a psychopathic killer.
* * *
Three years ago, as part of a personal project to assess his family's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, Dr. Fallon collected brain scans and DNA samples from himself and seven relatives. At a barbecue soon thereafter, Dr. Fallon's mother casually mentioned something he had been unaware of: His late father's lineage was drenched in blood.

An early ancestor, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1673 for murdering his mother. That was one of the first recorded acts of matricide in the Colonies. Seven other possible killers later emerged in the family tree. The most notorious was distant cousin Lizzie Borden of Fall River, Mass. In 1892, she was accused and then controversially acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an ax.

As a lark intended to enliven family get-togethers, Dr. Fallon decided to analyze the data from the Alzheimer's project to see whether anyone in his family matched the profiles of killers he had studied. His initial subjects included himself, his three brothers, his wife, and the couple's two daughters and son.
* * *
To his surprise, Dr. Fallon found that the analysis of his own brain showed he had inherited certain high-risk forms of MAOA and other various aggression-and violence-related genes.

"I'm the one who looks most like a serial killer," he says. "It's disturbing."
* * *
"I'm still in balance, but I seem to have low emotional engagement," says Dr. Fallon, noting that the brains of many cold-blooded murderers reveal a similar picture.

Dr. Fallon thinks that one vital factor may have prevented him from becoming a killer. "I had a charmed childhood," he says. "But if I'd been mistreated as a child, who knows what might have happened?"
The moral of this story to me is be careful how much you preach about genetic testing and forced imprisonment of sociopaths because you may turn out to be one of us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Altruism, cruelty, and sociopathy

I have been thinking recently about whether lack of altruism is a sociopathic, but not necessarily sociopath-specific trait. I have also been thinking about whether, if altruism is the result of an excessive amount of empathy, is cruelty necessarily the result of too little empathy?

A reader recently wrote questioning whether he could meet the diagnostic criteria for ASPD (Asperger's). After listing the behaviors that he considered sociopathic, he equivocated:
Then again, I do care about my friends and all. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think I feel a little bad when I walk over someone's heart. And I never walk over someone with the sole intention of hurting them. So I am definitely not a sociopath. Yet, if your blog is anything to go by, then I can't be too far from being a sociopath (a mild sociopath, of course).
My response:
Yeah, I was just going to say, not all sociopaths are out there hurting people just to hurt them. What does that even mean? That you gain pleasure from their pain? I never hurt people to watch them suffer. I do it for my own purposes, to get in a better position, etc. I feel like a good analogy is the stock market. When you short trade stocks you are basically doing a wealth transfer from you to whomever you are buying low from and selling high to. It seems like you would have to be a sociopath to engage in that sort of business, no? But people do it all the time. They just probably don't like to admit that that is what they are doing. Same thing in the emotional/social realm. You make alliances, you may consider certain people "on your team," in a way of self-insuring should disaster strike. But people who are not on your team are people who will either gain from your loss or vice versa. That's just the way of things in this mostly zero sum game.
Is my worldview cruel? Does seeing the bulk, if not the entirety, of human relations as a zero sum game part of what makes me a sociopath? Or am I just seeing the world clearly?

Monday, December 10, 2012


I often tell people that sociopaths are not necessarily malicious. They wonder what I mean by that and I have always struggled a bit to try to explain. While on this recent trip, however, something happened that I thought was a perfect example of what I mean.

I was sitting eating lunch, including some apples and bananas. I was caught up in conversation with a friend and we weren't paying attention when a monkey jumped into our eating area, grabbed the fruit and ran. It was pretty hilarious. My friend freaked out. The monkey didn't get my food only because I acted quickly to throw my jacket over it.

Ever since then she's been totally anti-monkey, considers them devious creatures. She always says things like, "They're staring me down. They're looking for weakness."And she's probably right. But it's not like they are out to get her because of who she is as a person or are even intending to take her stuff for the purpose of depriving her of her property or harassing her. All they want is her food. They are focused only on themselves. The point is not to hurt her. In fact, the effect that their actions have on others is an unintended consequence. If they could get the fruit in a way that did not hurt her, they would probably do that as often as the stealing. They just are looking for opportunities and when they see them, they quickly act upon them with no hesitation, compunction, or regret.

So too sociopaths frequently act based on a spirit of opportunism. They are not necessarily trying to hurt the people they exploit or victimize. They just see an opening and act on it. That's what I mean about a lack of maliciousness.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


I've been meaning to write about trust for a while now, but thought I would just share a short note I once wrote to a loved one about it:
We were talking about trust last night and I was thinking about it after I left and more this morning. I used to be terrible at trust. I didn't even understand it. Growing up there wasn't really anything around to trust, so it didn't even enter my worldview until adulthood. But I eventually learned about trust and now I really rely on it. I have such a flexible personality, and am so easily entreated for good and bad, but I have a very strong desire to always do the right thing. So I try to surround myself with people I trust, and people whose opinions I trust. Because I am so easily influenced, I try to be very discriminating about what influences I surround myself with. I need people I trust, not just to keep their word, but to help me be my best self. I need people whom I trust will have my best interest at heart and whose judgment I trust, because one day I may substitute their judgment for my own -- and that takes a lot of trust. It's like being blind and having someone lead you. It's like knowing you're prone to hallucinations and trusting others to let you know what's real and what's not. It takes a lot for me to trust people, but I trust you. I trust you with my life.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Life hacking

I enjoy reading research from behavioral economists, to learn more about why I and those around me do the things that we do -- what are our natural tendencies, inclinations, etc. I've been casually  following the field for the past decade or so. Initially its findings were sort of met with uproar by some, particularly from those who believe in a stronger form of free will than the evidence would suggest. When confronted with how easy it was to fool the average person or get them to behave with cruelty, there was disbelief and offense. I loved reading about these studies because they confirmed some of my suspicions about human nature and gave me insight into other areas of human behavior that I had not previously considered.

Now I read these studies more as a how-to for "life hacking," improving the quality of my life and making it easier on myself to think and behave the way that I think is optimal given my circumstances. That's why I liked this passage from the introduction of Dan Ariely's latest book, via Brain Pickings:

In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior. Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.

I think this is important for everyone, but perhaps particularly the personality disordered. Writing the blog and doing the research that I have done in the area of sociopathy has been largely targeted to do just this -- undertand the internal and environmental influences on my behavior so that I can restructure what I can for better outcomes.

I've learned a lot about myself over the years and I continue to learn about myself. Even on this recent trip, one of my traveling companions accused me of objectifying her -- treating her as just another thing to be managed. I would manage her the same way I would manage transfers between hotels and airports even though she is professedly one of my favorite people. I realized I have defaulted into this mode with everyone for the past couple of months, had gradually slipped into it without realizing. Of course I wish that she hadn't told me through a tearful and sudden outburst while I was in the middle of troubleshooting some technical problem, but still I was glad that she was able to pinpoint what exactly about my behavior was upsetting her. It took a while to remember why and how to admire/love her, but I did so by trying to remember past happy times, smelling her clothes, sitting unnecessarily close to her, etc. Creepy? I think so too, but it worked. The more I learn about myself, the more empowered I feel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

New experiences

I've been in the bush for the past little bit. While following our guide I thought about what it must be like to experience this same thing over and over again with slight variation. He would try to give us an idea of what was a good and a bad idea to do, where we were likely to see certain things and when we should hurry up because things were going to be even better at a subsequent location. He was quite knowledgeable, but perhaps because we were paying him, he didn't seem to really want to order us around to places. But all I really wanted to do was defer to his expertise because although I knew better my own thoughts and desires, he knew much better than I about the situation I found myself in and so overall it seemed to make the most sense to follow his judgment.

I thought, being in a relationship with a sociopath must be sort of like this. For the non-sociopath, everything is pretty new. For the sociopath, everything is a bit of deja vu. Like my guide, you are having slightly different experiences, but mostly they are variations on a theme. When I am in the beginning of relationships I always feel this way. I try to acclimate them to my way of thinking, that I am not a particularly emotional person, that I often need people to be very explicit about what they want from me, etc. People often balk a little at my descriptions of myself. Surely I am selling myself short, or making myself seem more abnormal than the facts would warrant. I'm not pushy about things. If they don't believe me, I let them find out for myself -- like my guide did on a particularly boring rabbit hole we chased for a while because someone in my group insisted that he knew better.

I'm not saying that guides are infallible or that they can't learn something new on every excursion, or that it's necessarily wise to leave important decisions up to a near stranger (particularly when they aren't aware of your own particular needs and desires). I guess I just thought it was an interesting parallel -- a good explanation for those people who find themselves starting a relationship with a sociopath, particularly when the sociopath seems to be constantly waiting for things to progress to the next anticipated stage while you are left completely baffled by what is happening.
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