Saturday, August 31, 2013

Junk science

I often see sociopath research that by itself is not dubious, but the implications or the conclusions that the researchers draw from the evidence seems stretched, non sequitur, or wholly unsupported by the data. For instance, I wrote about research suggesting that the sociopath's corpus callosum is longer and thinner than the average person's brain, resulting in a faster rate of transfer of information between the two hemispheres of their brain. Rather than cite this as a possible advantage of the sociopath brain, researchers conjectured that this might explain why sociopaths have "less remorse, fewer emotions and less social connectedness." What? Maybe it's just my lack of understanding, but that conclusion doesn't seem to follow at all from the fact that sociopaths have a more efficient corpus callosum.

Sometimes the problem with the research or logic is the complete circularity of the research -- i.e. the tautology of the assertion people who manifest antisocial traits tend to behave antisocially. For instance, a new study found out that people who self-report that "what matters for me is the bottom line,"will behave more ruthlessly and selfishly in prisoner's dilemma style games:

The study involved normal undergraduate students around age 19. The students were divided into small groups and told to converse on a topic of their choice for 10 minutes. Then, they were separated and given a questionnaire to measure their psychopathic tendencies. The questionnaire asked them to rate their agreement with statements, such as"what matters for me is the bottom line," or "I am often angry in social situations." There are two kinds of psychopathy, but this study was looking at the classic "conniving and cold" psychopaths.

Next, the researchers had the students play a "prisoner's dilemma" game, in which each person was given a sum of money that they could keep for themselves or transfer to a partner, for whom it would be doubled. For example, both people would start with $3; they could either keep $3 or give $6 to their partner. If the game has several iterations, it is in both people's best interest to cooperate and give the money away, because both will receive $6 instead of $3. But if it's just a one-shot game, it's in a person's best interest to keep the $3 for himself or herself, as there can be no consequence of not cooperating. (This experiment involved a one-shot game, though participants weren't told that fact.)

The students who scored higher on the questionnaire (meaning they were more psychopathic) were more likely to betray their partner and keep the money for themselves if that partner interrupted them more frequently (a sign of disrespect). The more psychopathic students were also more likely to betray a partner with whom they appeared to have less in common, and were therefore less likely to see again. In other words, those with more psychopathic tendencies only cooperated if there was something in it for them.

The conclusion:

"Traits such as deceitfulness and conceitedness — as opposed to honesty and humility — involve a willingness to take advantage of others when the opportunity arises."


Friday, August 30, 2013

Borderline personality disorder vs. sociopathy

This was an interesting article from the Psychology Today blog relating an experiment done examining the brain activity of sociopaths and comparing it to that of people with borderline personality disorder. Why these two disorders? Apparently, sociopathic and borderline traits occur with equal frequency among violent offenders, but they reach their antisocial behavior in different ways:

Typically, antisocial offenders with borderline personality disorder are emotionally reactive, unable to regulate emotions, bereft of cognitive empathy (knowing how another person feels), rageful, and reactively aggressive. By contrast, antisocial offenders with high psychopathic traits can be characterized as emotionally detached, cognitively empathic, morally problematic, exploitative, and proactively and reactively aggressive.

The experiment:

The investigators took MRI scans of the two groups of antisocial offenders, with the aim of exploring differences in the cerebral structure of their brains. All offenders had been convicted for capital, violent crimes (including severe bodily injury such as murder, manslaughter, robbery, or rape) from high-security forensic facilities and penal institutions and were formally diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. There was also a comparison group of healthy men.

The results:

The antisocial offenders with borderline personality disorder had alterations in the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex regions, which are involved in emotion regulation and reactive aggression; there were also differences in the temporal pole, which is involved in the interpretation of other peoples’ motives. By contrast, the antisocial offenders with high psychopathic traits showed reduced volume mostly in midline cortical areas, which are involved in the processing of self-referential information and self reflection (i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate/precuneus) and recognizing emotions of others (postcentral gyrus). 

I thought this was interesting. I wrote previously about the connection between sociopathy and alexithymia, or the decreased ability to identify, understand, and describe one's own emotions. This trait has been linked to a lack of empathy, the idea being that if you are unable to understand your own emotions, you don't stand much of a chance of understanding the emotional worlds of others. I feel like I don't understand my emotions, that they feel out of context to me, like I'm getting only snippets of a movie played backwards. This feeling probably contributes to my weak sense of self. This brain scan study seems to comport with this theory -- that sociopaths suffer from an ability to process self-referential information and to self-reflect, and that consequently sociopaths have flexible understandings of not only morality, but basically every human trait.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nature vs. nurture

This New York Times article states the obvious -- bad parents can't take all the credit for good children and good parents can't take all the blame for bad children. Interestingly, it goes out of its way to say that bad behavior does not necessarily equal sociopathy:
“I don’t know what I’ve done wrong,” the patient told me.
She was an intelligent and articulate woman in her early 40s who came to see me for depression and anxiety. In discussing the stresses she faced, it was clear that her teenage son had been front and center for many years.
When he was growing up, she explained, he fought frequently with other children, had few close friends, and had a reputation for being mean. She always hoped he would change, but now that he was almost 17, she had a sinking feeling.
I asked her what she meant by mean. “I hate to admit it, but he is unkind and unsympathetic to people,” she said, as I recall. He was rude and defiant at home, and often verbally abusive to family members.
Along the way, she had him evaluated by many child psychiatrists, with several extensive neuropsychological tests. The results were always the same: he tested in the intellectually superior range, with no evidence of any learning disability or mental illness. Naturally, she wondered if she and her husband were somehow remiss as parents.
Here, it seems, they did not fare as well as their son under psychiatric scrutiny. One therapist noted that they were not entirely consistent around their son, especially when it came to discipline; she was generally more permissive than her husband. Another therapist suggested that the father was not around enough and hinted that he was not a strong role model for his son.
But there was one small problem with these explanations: this supposedly suboptimal couple had managed to raise two other well-adjusted and perfectly nice boys. How could they have pulled that off if they were such bad parents?
To be sure, they had a fundamentally different relationship with their difficult child. My patient would be the first to admit that she was often angry with him, something she rarely experienced with his brothers.
But that left open a fundamental question: If the young man did not suffer from any demonstrable psychiatric disorder, just what was his problem?
My answer may sound heretical, coming from a psychiatrist. After all, our bent is to see misbehavior as psychopathology that needs treatment; there is no such thing as a bad person, just a sick one.
But maybe this young man was just not a nice person.
For years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.
But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.
When I say “toxic,” I don’t mean psychopathic. . . .
I often tell readers that not every asshole ex of theirs is a sociopath, and the same applies for misbehaving children. In this situation, though, I actually think it is foolish to discount the potential role of sociopathy. There is a strong genetic but weak environmental link to sociopathy, which is consistent with having two normal sons and one sociopathic one. Furthermore, although inconsistent discipline may not be enough to cause anyone to become a sociopath, it could trigger sociopathy in someone who was genetically predisposed to it, as sociopath children are particularly sensitive to incentive structures and perceived fairness (i.e. consistency and reciprocity). I obviously don't know the full story, but just based on the article, the description fits sociopathy, at least for this kid.

After spending time with my family recently, I am more convinced that nurture had a significant role to play in my development into a sociopath. When people ask me whether I had a bad childhood, I tell them that it was actually relatively unremarkable, however I can see how the antisocial behaviors and mental posturing that now define me were incentivized when I was growing up -- how my independent emotional world was stifled and how understanding and respect for the emotional world of others died away. Still I don't think I was "made" into a sociopath, nor was I born one. I feel like I was born with that predisposition, that I made a relatively conscious decision to rely on those skills instead of developing others, and that the decision was made in direct response to my environment and how I could best survive and even thrive in that environment. It's a bit similar to this author's description of her own survivalist adaptations:
If you’ve read much about writers, you know that many of us grew up with an alcoholic parent or in some otherwise dysfunctional home. Me, too. Kids who are raised in households where feelings of safety and predictability are up for grabs might be more likely to turn into storytellers. We spend a lot of emotional energy trying to guess what might happen next, and mentally drawing up different contingency plans. It puts us in the “what if” habit early.
Genetics are important for sociopathy, but environment plays a crucial role as well. Although the NY Times article notes that "[f]or better or worse, parents have limited power to influence their children," such that they should be reluctant "to take all the blame — or credit — for everything that their children become," unfortunately (or luckily?) they can still take quite a bit of blame (or credit) for sociopathic children, particularly with new "studies suggesting that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching." Knowledge is power.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The paternalistic pull of conscience

I asked a reader why it is a relief to know that his ex was a sociopath. His response:
Woah, Never thought about that one, I guess it makes me feel better because of two reasons.

First reason would be that it means that I can just let go, As I've read sociopaths can't change, I'm not saying "Can't get better" on purpose because I don't think you're that much different to people who can't see certain colors or can't hear certain tones. If it she can't change that means I have the complete right to let her go and not try to help her and still feel good about myself.

Second reason is that it gives me the right to actually blame everything on her, keep my hands clean as some people say. I guess I sound about low on the empathy when saying that but truthfully that's how I feel.
My response:
That reminds me of a comment one of the socio readers once wrote: "Empaths are the idiots who will help anything that's in pain or distress for no other reason than its state." A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed a wild animal intrude on civilization. The animal was in no danger, the area wasn't that urban, but people were so surprised to see it that they began discussing what they should do about it, how they should protect him. To me it seemed bizarrely paternalistic and presumptuous for these people to assume that they knew better than this animal how best to survive, or to see any potential action on their part as anything but unwanted interference. Anyway, I guess you can't help it, but what you said reminded me of seeing people react to that wild animal.
Normal people are always trying to do the right thing, God love them, which makes it even more tragic when things like this scene from a television series happen, as described by the New Yorker:
When the three [friends] head out of the city for a day hike, in the first episode, Joe hits a possum in the road and is torn about what to do. He can’t tell whether it’s dead or alive, and he decides that the only humane solution is to make sure it’s dead, so he backs up over it, then pulls ahead again. It becomes clear that the possum is definitely not dead, as they look back and see it walking across the road. Of the three guys in the car, Joe is the most upset by this mess; at first, he thought he might have killed the animal, then he tried to kill the animal, and now he’s left wondering whether it will die because of him. It’s to the show’s credit that this isn’t (only) a metaphor for the uncertainty and the inevitable mistakes of adult life; the scene is viscerally disturbing, and you watch it closely, as if some magical method for undoing irreversible damage will reveal itself, not just to Joe but to you, too.
I always say that one of my biggest fears is well-intentioned people, from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the colonization of the New World, to everyone who has ever done something "for my own good."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Psychopath: the documentary

This hour long documentary is probably worth watching, particularly for people who are just learning about sociopathy. For the sociopaths, most of it will seem a little over the top, but for some reason that passes as science and journalism when it comes to the dreaded sociopath.

Interesting moments:

27:42 What sociopaths are doing/thinking when they are talking to you.

31:14 Nature vs. nurture -- environment alone isn't enough to create a sociopath, otherwise we'd see more sociopaths in war torn areas, also "intervening" with child sociopaths.

34:40 Biological basis for the condition.

42:40 Treatment.

45:05 Mandatory brain chips and/or "surgical intervention" for sociopaths.

Microchips in the brain is by far the scariest idea I have even heard of to "deal" with the "psychopath problem," and I have heard of a lot of creative ones involving islands, internment camps, or specialized soldiers. My favorite comment:

“we will replace ‘dysfunctional’ brain mechanisms with microchips” what the…!?!?!?!!! no you wont, i’ll quite happily be labelled as psychotic for violently opposing such an idea! ultimate mind control! ill be thankful for some violent psychopaths when the powers that be try that one!!!! The moral authority of these guys is terrifying to say the least it absolves them as ‘normal’ people, my definition of psychopath would include anyone who thinks mind control chips are an acceptable course of action! microchip control for difficult people who dont fit into a society that worships money and rewards the ‘industrial psychopaths’ with untold riches. i wonder if we are all a little bit psychotic and these therapists are the abnormal ones in trying to standardise emotional response to life events- prescribing that any given situation has a ‘proper’ emotionally standard response? the guy who describes the psychopaths abnormality as reading someone else’s faces and tailoring what they say in response- like this is some sort of weird anomaly. pathologically frightened control freaks are what the therapists come across as by their own diagnostic criteria, desperately seeking to reign in the personalities they cannot understand. i’ve watched some scary documentaries by alex jones et al about social control but this one is far more frightening in its implications. eugenics is alive and well, cull the abnormal, praise be to the sheepthinkers.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Embracing your place on the sociopath spectrum

I think it's important to remember that most people think that sociopathic traits fall on a spectrum. There's nothing so totally different about a sociopath, it's more the suite of particular traits and the intensity of them that distinguishes them from the typical person. A reader tries to find his own place on the sociopathic spectrum:

I've just finished reading your book, and wanted to thank you for writing it. True honesty, combined with acute self-knowledge, is so rare in any autobiographical work that it's truly a gift when I come across a gem like this.

I suppose I should preface by saying that I'm not exactly sure if I'm a sociopath. I lack some of the characteristics you describe, such as sensation-seeking tendencies and fluid sexuality.

That being said, as I read your book I couldn't help but identify with so many parts of your story. You are basically me, cranked up to eleven. That is, I do seem to possess many of the traits you mention, just to a somewhat lesser degree than you do.

Power is the dominant lens through which I view social relations. I am sometimes scarily confident in my ideas, to the extent that people absorb the philosophies and biases I project almost by osmosis. Then I get sick of them because they've become intellectual carbon copies of "me". I have trouble believing in the concept of love or fixed identity since I have not had the experience of feeling them before - at least not in the sense most people seem to mean them.

Recently I had a dispute with a friend which ultimately ended the relationship. Typically enough, I held all the cards while she engaged in emotional outbursts, but despite the fact that I "won" in the end, I still felt disturbed because this was a relationship I wanted to keep, yet I could not see anything I would have done differently to salvage it.

Somehow, my friend had expected her emotional threats to have an impact on me that was different from what rationality and the balance of power would have suggested. This wasn't the first time something like this had happened, and it made me feel uncomfortable to realise I saw things in a way that was fundamentally different from other people, and that I could not seem to bridge that gap despite my best efforts to consider other strategic paths.

That's when I discovered your book.

I don't know if you realise what a gift you've given to people like me (us?). Reading it was like discovering an oasis in an alien desert. After months of searching for answers in literature, philosophy and even random internet forums and blogs, all of which seemed completely irrelevant to what I was going through, I found your Confessions to be a rare source of solace.

It's incredibly inspiring to read about someone older and more experienced than me, who seems to share the very traits I have, and who has nonetheless managed to create and (even more importantly) maintain a successful life and career.

I used to feel guilty about manipulating people, but more and more, I'm coming to understand its absolute necessity if I am to make my way in this world and achieve my goals. Your book has given me further assurance that this is not only necessary, but could in fact be seen as an ethical, charitable thing to do. If it makes empaths happy to be deceived in certain situations, where's the harm in that? Perhaps my real sin has been in being half-hearted about my schemes, instead of going full bore ahead and ensuring that I get away with them fully. Not just doing the minimum to get by (clumsily), but doing whatever is necessary for a graceful, virtuoso performance.

Thank you for casting light on an alternative system of ethics, a way of living life that works for people like me. I felt like I was reading a version of Seneca's "Letters" that was personally addressed to me.

I've never written to an author before, but you struck a chord with me.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sociopath mentor

From a sociopathic teenage reader:

I am 17 years old and recently suspected that I am a sociopath. I am not looking for any conformation however your book helped to understand who I really am and has been more of a 'finding myself' exercise as I have always felt detached from society and those around me. Your book mentions adaptations to surroundings. I have had many changes in my life that I have had to adapt to and would be distressing to the average person. I think many sociopaths don't realise they are because of the belief that they are no different than anybody else and through being able to convince themselves of the 'lie' it goes un-noticed. My ambition in life is to be a successful lawyer or maybe a professor such as yourself. I have had no role models I can relate to in my life and oddly I feel as though you may be my inspiration. I love your anecdotes in the book and how you were quite scrappy. 

I understand that your identity must be kept a secret and I admire you for publishing the book to help others and all you went through with the blog. If possible I would like to know who you really are purely for the reason of researching your articles and having a name to my role model. I will never reveal it to anyone because to undermine your work is unreasonable and not important to me. 

It worries me how many are bent on the eradication of us and so we should 'hide in plain sight' and use our own intelligence to survive. I recently have told those close to me about my sociopathy and they are fascinated. I enjoy the uniqueness and ability to share my accomplishments as one with them. We are faced with a dilemma we crave human interaction and yet destroy it. Like a black hole requiring more matter yet obliterating and consuming it.

I hope you can be of assistance and feel free to class this as a 'book response' on your blog if you wish. I know you like doing it.

Many Thanks

A fellow 'stranger'  

I liked this email because I think it summed up the dilemma for the young sociopath well -- people hate you and will treat you poorly just because of the label "sociopath," but what else are you supposed to do? Kill yourself? Everyone has to find some way to live and if there aren't opportunities for youngsters to direct their unique personality traits in a direction that is pro-social, then they are going to find other outlets. With that in mind, I'd be honored to mentor or give advice to anyone who finds themselves struggling with similar issues.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Addicted to a sociopath

A reader asks about his troubled relationship with a sociopath:

I have a confession to make. A sociopath was in love with me.  It was the highest high I ever experienced.  She abandoned all sense of common sense, but not her sociopathy.  She still flirted with other men, and still longed to be the center of attention in every situation where more than two people were involved. 
What changed?

I found her behavior to be untrustworthy.  Her flirtations aside, her need for me and her need to please me at every turn exposed her in-authenticity, making me doubt that this person would be accountable in the context of a long-term relationship.  I quietly and secretly began picking up clues and further cues from her behavior.  I soon realized that this person could morph herself into anything and anyone at any time.  Although fantastic as an actress, or a career as a skilled negotiator, I felt with gut wrenching conviction that this person could sell me out if she fell out of love, just as easily as she could change skins to meet the needs of a conversation. 

I decided to try out an experiment to see if this was so. 
Words to the unwise:

Be sure you are ready to know the truth of the questions you so passionately seek answered.  Sometimes trusting your gut and abandoning the need for experiments is the more sensible choice.

I'll just simply say I was correct in my assumptions - although she didn't sell me out as fast as I thought, once she did, she sold me out for concert tickets (example). 

The problem lies in that I am devastated by the loss of that love she gave, and the high I received from it.  I tried not to let it grow roots in me, but I was apparently unsuccessful.  Her cruelty near the end, and the pain that ensues as a result, shakes the roots and trembles within me, making the absence feel even greater. 

What's confusing is that now she contacts me all the time.  She wants to get together and know how I'm doing and tells me she still loves me.  For the most part I have turned her down each time.  A few days ago, I point blank asked her:
What do you HOPE for in your contact with me.  Do you want to be FRIENDS?  Or are you hoping to rekindle a relationship?  There is a large can of worms between us and for us to even have a friendship, that can of worms must be cleaned out and healed.  Then I went on to reiterate some of the pain she caused me.
She answered that she felt attacked again. That until she doesn't feel safe, she can only think of a deep and honest friendship.  I found that hilarious, since she lies so much about almost everything.  Has she truly changed?

Needless to say I remain confused about this situation.  She lied, she hurt, she flirted, she emotionally cheated.  The problem is that she did all that once I was in love with her.  When you love someone, what do you do?  You grow into them, understand them and forgive them.  I feel I am in a very challenging position.  Feeling a bit like your brother Jim who was able to see your needs and allow himself to get beaten up so that you may get what you needed, and he could therefore have a sense of peace.

The things I wonder are: 
Does she still love me?
Does she see that the things she did were wrong?
What options does this situation still hold?
If none, how can I walk away with some dignity?

Thank you for listening and for putting yourself out there.  Your influence is of Christian proportions!

My response:

She sounds like she is genuinely fond of you if she still stays in contact with you. I don't know if that's what you (or she) means by "love". She probably thinks she did some things wrong, but they probably are not the same things that you think she did wrong. Maybe she wishes that she hadn't done certain things that made her attitude towards you and your relationship so explicit to you, or maybe she wished that she had indulged you more than she had, to keep you happy. Apart from these small things, though, I don't believe she will fundamentally change. Rather I think that she would take your return as evidence that you were ok with who she is and how she approaches relationships. So those are your options -- take things on her terms, or don't. I don't know what more dignity you could want apart from being the one who decides what you want most in your life and acting on that. Everyone trades good things for things they want more.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Love is a choice

I really liked this recent comment about love:

We need to stop equating emotional responses with being good or bad. They just are.
And what is love? Sentiment? I've dealt with plenty of sentimental men and am generally unimpressed. I may sound like a sociopath but I've come to the conclusion that Love is the will to act constructively to preserve attachments we consider to be valuable. It's not a feeling- it's a choice, one that sociopaths are equally capable of making. The one important caveat- there is no such thing as unconditional love with a sociopath.

Is there such thing as truly unconditional love with a non-sociopath? If there is, it's the rare exception. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sociopaths in the news: Stealing babies

I actually don't know enough about the culture of China to be able to tell whether this would be considered something sociopathic, or rather something just a little opportunistic and coldheartedly pragmatic. The Los Angeles Times reports about an obstetrician in China who convinced parents and grandparents to give up newborns that she claimed were disabled or otherwise undesirable:

Her method, authorities and victims say, was cruel and effective: convincing families that their babies were dead or dying, or afflicted with incurable diseases or congenital deformities. In rural China, a lack of support and restrictions on family size can make people reluctant to raise a child with disabilities.

Police say the doctor's victims were often friends and neighbors, forced to make heart-wrenching decisions about whether their babies should live or die, thus becoming complicit in their purported deaths. Zhang, the families say, even charged them a fee of about $10 to dispose of the corpses.

Zhang is believed to have frequently preyed on the fears of the grandparents, who in the Chinese countryside are desperate for healthy grandchildren to carry on the family line. The mothers were frequently left out of the loop.

Part of the reason this could happen is that health care is not sufficient to care for certain babies who could otherwise survive, or a lack of support for people raising children with disabilities:

A generation ago, unwanted babies in rural China were dumped in a well or smothered. Zhang Wei of the Enable Disability Studies Institute, a Beijing-based advocate for the disabled, said a disabled child still makes life very difficult for rural families.

"The whole burden comes down on the family. There is nobody to help them, no money and no education about what they can do, so they abandon the baby," Zhang Wei said.

However, perhaps the most shocking example happened with a family who was convinced to give up a baby who was claimed to neither be clearly male nor female, due to the dishonor it would bring on the family:

"He is not completely male, but not female. It will bring shame on the family," whispered the doctor, Zhang Shuxia, a trusted family friend whom they affectionately called "Auntie." "Don't worry," Dong recalled Zhang telling him. "Auntie can help you."

She advised that Dong and his mother give up the baby, euphemistically, to let him be euthanized.

Now I understand that parents of newborns are probably vulnerable, particularly ones without a high level of education and sophistication, but can you imagine choosing to euthanize your child just because it failed to conform to particular social norms that had nothing to do with its health? Of course it is difficult to raise a child who is different in these ways, but it has nothing to do with actual physical disability and everything to do with a natural human intolerance for difference. People put enormous pressure on each other to conform, often enforced with bullying and shaming. Although sociopaths don't feel the same sort of pressure to conform or enforce conformity, I can imagine that they would use this pressure people feel against them, if it would benefit them. That's why I wonder about the obstetrician. Either way, the antidote is to be self-actualized and to not fear the opinion of the masses, something that these princess boys have down (and Bradley Manning, apparently, good for him).

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Worth the trouble

A lot of people wonder why anyone would be friends with a sociopath, or flat out assume that no one would want to be friends with a sociopath. The funny consequence to this mentality is that people assume that I must have no friends. The truth is that there are a lot of people who appreciate having me for a friend. I am not the type of person that they will come to if they just want a shoulder to cry on, but I am a great person to consult if there is a problem they want solved. I'm very good at coming up with workable strategies to help them accomplish whatever it is that they want. And I think a lot of my friends just appreciate my unique perspective, and even my amorality. I don't judge them, so they can be honest with me in a way that they can't really with most other people. People tell me a lot of secrets for that reason.

It's not even always the obviously positive or pro-social aspects of my personality that people are attracted to. I think sometimes they like the sort of negative or dangerous aspects of my personality -- the risk or excitement I bring to their life. Some of them are masochistic and like the pain. Some even like the ruining, perhaps because they want parts of them broken -- like breaking a jaw to reset it in better alignment. And I can see why too, so much of our personality is an accident of the way we were raised or the culture we were born into. Maybe we don't necessarily like those parts of ourselves and need a little help getting over them. You could see a therapist, or you could just enlist the help of your friendly neighborhood sociopath. That's why I found this recent email from a reader to be so interesting:

In high school I had a friend who was almost certainly a sociopath. He took pleasure in ruining people. I let him ruin me to a point. He tried to warn me in various ways. I paid no heed. But why not? I had something to gain by being 'ruined.' I was a painfully uptight young man. There were things I just wouldn't do. Under his influence, I did many of them and to my surprise, survived. He helped me with my scruples. (In Catholicism, 'scruples' refers to "An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not.")  I'm much more relaxed now, though still basically uptight.

I'm drawn to sociopaths. They have something I need. The smart ones, the ones who don't end up in jail, have a delicate moral sense. They know where the lines are. They find my scruples amusing, as if to say "Oh you poor thing, that thing your afraid to do isn't a sin in anyone's book. Someone should let you out of your little cage."

I've often wondered why he tried to warn me. Wouldn't a totally evil person keep his bad intentions to himself? Yes. So again, why the warnings? Mainly, he wanted to be understood. Everyone needs to be understood. In my opinion, the effort to understand a sociopath, though fraught, is worth the trouble many times over.

When I read that, I thought maybe the sociopath respected his friend enough to get a sort of informed consent? Or found the friendship worth enough that he didn't want to necessarily lose the friend by making him a target, so wanted to make sure that the friend was at least aware of what was going to happen? What do people think?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The downside of empathy

The author of the "Moral Life of Babies," Paul Bloom, writes for the New Yorker, "The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy." He first talks briefly about the origins of the word empathy and the science behind it. He then lists several recent books about how great empathy is and how lack of empathy is essentially responsible for the world's evil, concluding

This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

Why? First, it causes us to over-focus on problems with names and faces and ignore problems that are represented only by faceless statistics:

The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”

Because it is such a powerful emotion, it can be abused by bad people seeking to prey on your empathy:

[A]s critics like Linda Polman have pointed out, the empathetic reflex can lead us astray. When the perpetrators of violence profit from aid—as in the “taxes” that warlords often demand from international relief agencies—they are actually given an incentive to commit further atrocities. It is similar to the practice of some parents in India who mutilate their children at birth in order to make them more effective beggars. The children’s debilities tug at our hearts, but a more dispassionate analysis of the situation is necessary if we are going to do anything meaningful to prevent them.

And it is impossible to empathize with absolutely everyone, because it turns out that even if we loved each other as much as ourselves, we still live in a world of scarce resources and conflicting preferences where trade-offs and compromises must be made, and empathy doesn't really help us there either:

A “politics of empathy” doesn’t provide much clarity in the public sphere, either. Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with. Liberals argue for gun control, for example, by focussing on the victims of gun violence; conservatives point to the unarmed victims of crime, defenseless against the savagery of others. Liberals in favor of tightening federally enforced safety regulations invoke the employee struggling with work-related injuries; their conservative counterparts talk about the small businessman bankrupted by onerous requirements. So don’t suppose that if your ideological opponents could only ramp up their empathy they would think just like you.

One of my favorite paragraphs discusses how empathy wrongly and selfishly focuses people on retributive justice, largely because people want their feelings of outrage satiated by bloodthirsty justice:

On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.) But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term consequences. In one study, conducted by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov, people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence.

Although Bloom also argues that empathy can often be the pull to act at all that a lot of people need, the truth is:

“The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy,” the psychologist Steven Pinker has written, “but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.” A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sociopaths feel emotion

I have been surprised by how often I hear or read someone saying that sociopaths don't have emotions or can't form emotional bonds with other people. Most often it's people talking about how sociopaths are soulless monsters or must live lives completely devoid of any real meaningful relationships, but sometimes it's someone saying that he couldn't possibly be a sociopath because he feels emotions and love, etc. This is all fallacy. The three main diagnostic criterions actually have relatively little to say about emotions: Cleckley only mentions "general poverty in major affective reactions" and a poorly integrated sex life, Hare's PCL-R also lists shallow affect, and the DSM-V's ASPD only says that sociopaths tend to experience irritability and don't feel remorse. Nowhere does it say that sociopaths don't love. Nowhere does it say that sociopaths can't form emotional bonds. There is not a single historical example of a sociopath who is a completely emotionless, robot loner, so I don't know from where people are getting this image of the emotionless sociopath.

I thought about this popular misconception when I read this recent comment:

"How does a sociopath know when the missing emotions that make him supposedly so different, since he does not feel them, are feigned? In other words how does he learn to differentiate between feigned and real emotions?"

I am sociopathic, but have some emotion. These emotions are egocentric and only arise with events I am directly involved with, but they are still there. I feel joy and happiness at doing my favorite activities and I can (but may not always) feel anger or sadness when things do not go my way. Nonetheless, these are 'feelings' because they provide information that goes beyond the intellectual analysis of the situation at hand.

Because I have those feelings I can easily contrast those with situations where I do not or am faking them. If I am 'acting' in such a way to not betray myself, and my only contribution to that acting is my intellectual state, then I know that there is an absence of feeling there. If one tells me about how their friend died and they are in tears, I know that I must contribute with an appropriate response so that they 1) do not realize my status and 2) are not feeling any worse. Going through the motions because of this intellectual realization is far different than the automatic response given by most non-sociopaths. I think, by and large, we realize that we are not giving the same response as non-sociopaths because we realize that we have to craft the *entire* interaction with another person, not just the words.

But I don't think even this idea of faking emotions is so different than most people. Do you always mean it when you say "oh, I'm so sorry to hear that"?

Of course who knows whether sociopaths are feeling the same emotions that everyone else is, but I don't think anyone's emotional palette is completely identical to anyone else. Rather people's emotions are going to depend on their culture, their belief system, their education, the societal expectations placed on them, along with the vast natural and physical differences between people's brain and brain chemistry. This applies particularly to a complex emotion like love. I was actually just talking to a friend about how the only reason he can tell his wife loves him is that she very actively ensures that he is sexually satisfied (she's not a sociopath, but this "complaint" could very well be said about many sociopathic spouses). But whatever, right? Who is to say that this is a lesser or less desirable love than someone who would love to hold your hand in a hot air balloon?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Economics and sociopathy

I was talking to an economist friend recently. We were talking about how economics is not just a dismal science, but that economists have a pretty dismal view of human nature, possibly because economists themselves are not generally altruistic or prosocial? He told me that economists are different enough from the general population that economics researchers can't use economics undergraduate students for their experiments because they tend to give very different answers than the average person. Specifically he told me about a game where everyone chooses to either put in a black marble or a white marble in a bag. If you put in a white marble, you increase the overall size of the payout/pie, but you just have one piece of that pie. If you put in a black marble, you get two pieces of the pie, but of a smaller pie. The optimal result would be for everyone to put in white marbles, and a lot of people actually do put in white marbles either because of altruism or optimism or guilt or whatever else. Economists and economics students, however, almost always put in black marbles. My economist friend was using this as evidence that economists are not good people. And if this one scenario was the only thing you knew about economists, perhaps you could say that the results of the experiment are consistent with the economists-as-bad-people hypothesis too.

But I gave him another quick scenario to see how he would handle it: imagine that you are at war, just you and five other fellow soldiers, all standing around in a circle. A grenade gets launched into the middle of the circle. If someone jumps on the grenade, only one person dies. If no one jumps on the grenade, there's a 20% chance someone might die and everyone will suffer moderate to critical injuries. Everyone is equidistant from the grenade and has an equal opportunity to jump on the grenade. Before I tell you what he said, I want the sociopaths who are reading this to think what they would do.

So, I asked my economist friend what he would do and he immediately replied, "I would jump on the grenade." Of course he would. He's rational and cares about efficiency. He would be the type of person in the trolley problem to throw the switch and kill the one to save the five, and apparently that answer doesn't change even when he is the one who needs to die. I think his answer surprised even him, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps because he had convinced himself that economists are soulless or at the very least selfish (i.e., rationally self-interested). But there's nothing remotely selfish or even self-interested about jumping on the grenade.

The reason I knew that this example would "work" on him is that he and I think similarly and it's something that I think I might do too. I like efficiency, and it would be efficient to fall on the grenade. Also I like winning, and it would be "winning" to thwart the enemy. It would be powerful, to smother the force of such a powerful device with just my body. Also I'm impulsive and not particularly attached to life. I actually think that a lot of sociopaths would do the same for one or more of those reasons. In fact, and I wish there was some way to accurately test this, I predict that a higher percentage of sociopaths would jump on the grenade than non-sociopaths, if for nothing else than the indecision or paralyzing fear that a lot of non-sociopaths might experience -- by the time they got around to making the decision, it might be too late. These are just guesses, but I don't think it's crazy to think that sociopaths might be braver and more pro-social in certain situations than normal people, just like economists might be more selfless than the average person in certain situations.

Whether or not my prediction is correct, I think this example also illustrates how dangerous it is to perform a couple experiments in controlled situations and extrapolate the data far beyond those particular situations. Sloppy science writers (and even serious researchers) make this mistake all of the time, e.g. if sociopaths seem to not show empathy in one situation, it's easy to make the (apparently incorrect) presumption that they never feel empathy. The truth is context matters immensely and we only know a sliver of all there is to know about ourselves and others. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Song: Lana Del Rey's Serial Killer

Wish I may, wish I might
Find my one true love tonight.
Do you think that he
Could be you?
If I pray really tight,
Get into a fake bar fight,
While I'm walking down
The avenue.
If I lay really quiet,
I know that what I do isn't right,
I can't stop what I
Love to do.
So I murder love in the night,
Watching them fall one by one they fight,
Do you think you'll
Love me too, ooh, ooh?

Baby, I'm a sociopath,
Sweet serial killer.
On the warpath,
'Cause I love you
Just a little too much.
I love you just
A little too much.
(Much, much, much).
You can see me
Drinking cherry cola,
Sweet serial killer.
I left a love note,
Said you know I love,
The thrill of the rush.
You know I love,
The thrill of the rush.
(Rush, rush, rush).
(You send me right to heaven),
Sweet serial killer,
(I guess I'll see him over).
Do it for the thrill of the rush,
Love you just a little too much, much.
(You send me right to heaven),
Sweet serial killer,
(I guess I'll see him over).
I love you just a little too much,
Love you just a little too much, much.

My black fire's burning bright,
Maybe I'll go out tonight.
We can paint the town
In blue.
I'm so hot, I ignite,
Dancing in the dark and I shine.
Like a light I'm
Luring you.
Sneak up on you, really quiet,
Whisper "Am I what your heart desires?"
I could be your
Keep you safe and inspired,
Baby, let your fantasies unwind.
We can do what you
Want to do, ooh, ooh.

Baby, I'm a sociopath,
Sweet serial killer.
On the warpath,
'Cause I love you
Just a little too much.
I love you just
A little too much.
(Much, much, much).
You can see me
Drinking cherry cola,
Sweet serial killer.
I left a love note,
Said you know I love,
The thrill of the rush.
You know I love,
The thrill of the rush.
(Rush, rush, rush).
(You send me right to heaven),
Sweet serial killer,
(I guess I'll see him over).
Do it for the thrill of the rush,
Love you just a little too much, much.
(You send me right to heaven),
Sweet serial killer,
(I guess I'll see him over).
I love you just a little too much,
Love you just a little too much, much.
(Just have fun), wanna,
Play you like a game boy.
(Don't want one), what's,
The thrill of the same toy?
La la, la la la, la la,
La la lie down, down.
(Just have fun), wanna,
Play you like a game boy.
(Don't want one), what's,
The thrill of the same toy?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll

A reader suggested that I expand my emotional horizons by taking MDMA, the pure ingredient in the drug ecstasy. I told him that it was an interesting idea, but that I sort of already manipulate myself into feeling other emotions via film, music, art, etc., and I wasn't sure if it would be all that different. I certainly don't plan on becoming an ecstasy abuser, so I wouldn’t really know how expanded my emotional horizons would be with that drug. It was an interesting question, though, and reminded me of something another reader had asked, whether sociopaths like music and what effect drugs have on a sociopath. My response:
I don't know if I can speak for all sociopaths, but I love music. I was raised in a musical home and am a classically trained musician, and have participated in many popular music groups. I would imagine that other sociopaths would like it as well, depending on how open they are to exploring their emotional side. There's no doubt that music is manipulative, as is film (primarily because of the music in it?). The whole purpose of music seems to evoke some feeling or sensation in the audience. Music makes you feel things, if you let yourself get caught up in the experience. It can be a good way to learn about other people, allowing you to experience emotional experiences the way other people experience them or the way the composer/lyricist experienced them. Music is like a drug in some ways because it forces you to feel something different, which is another one of your questions. When I am taking mind altering substances, I feel like a detached observer noticing the differences in my brain chemistry, realizing that I now feel happier or sadder or whatever it is I am feeling, as if the feeling is being forced on me. I don't really like it. I don't feel like it is a welcome freedom from my inhibitions because I don't have inhibitions. If anything, it is the opposite of freedom; someone is playing with my mind, playing with me like a puppet on a string. Maybe that's just me, though. I could imagine that certain sociopaths or certain substances might be used more like the way I use music.
Okay, no sex I guess, just drugs and rock'n'roll.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sociopathic morality?

This is an interesting summary of the dominant views in the scientific community regarding morality. Many have been discussed here before, including Jonathan Haidt's views on intra-culture morality and Paul Bloom's findings on the moral world of children. I liked this insight into the role that empathy/emotions play in morality vs. logic:

People who behave morally don’t generally do it because they have greater knowledge; they do it because they have a greater sensitivity to other people’s points of view. Hauser reported on research showing that bullies are surprisingly sophisticated at reading other people’s intentions, but they’re not good at anticipating and feeling other people’s pain.

The moral naturalists differ over what role reason plays in moral judgments. Some, like Haidt, believe that we make moral judgments intuitively and then construct justifications after the fact. Others, like Joshua Greene of Harvard, liken moral thinking to a camera. Most of the time we rely on the automatic point-and-shoot process, but occasionally we use deliberation to override the quick and easy method. We certainly tell stories and have conversations to spread and refine moral beliefs.
When you put it that way, it seems obvious why sociopaths would struggle with having an internal sense of morality.

My favorite part of the article, though, was this critique:
For people wary of abstract theorizing, it’s nice to see people investigating morality in ways that are concrete and empirical. But their approach does have certain implicit tendencies.

They emphasize group cohesion over individual dissent. They emphasize the cooperative virtues, like empathy, over the competitive virtues, like the thirst for recognition and superiority. At this conference, they barely mentioned the yearning for transcendence and the sacred, which plays such a major role in every human society.

Their implied description of the moral life is gentle, fair and grounded. But it is all lower case. So far, at least, it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great.
It's an interesting argument. I see this skewed focus frequently with religious people. They often tend to want to focus on the nice, nondescript aspects of their religion where God is behaving well, not killing children or drowning the world or enacting all sorts of vengeance. But most versions of God have some sort of edge to them. All versions of God are powerful beings, after all. They wouldn't remain powerful without doing certain things to cultivate that power, including being awesome, formidable, transcendent, and great. If we think that godliness is a virtue, then it would also be a virtue for us to cultivate power and try to become more awesome, formidable, transcendent, and great. And you don't necessarily get to be that powerful by rolling over and being "nice" in every situation.

I find it really disingenuous for people to focus on the "nice" side of morality without giving any consideration to the obvious ying to the yang (unless it really is true that all conservative people are godless and going to hell). As a religious person myself, I sometimes have people get on my case about some of the more aggressive, competitive, and antisocial things that I do, claiming that they are not consistent with my religion. I am not necessarily humble the way they expect the religious to be humble (but which is better, to lie to yourself in order to be humble, or to honestly acknowledge both your strengths and your weaknesses?). I can be ruthless and I don't often doubt myself. There are things about me that seem a little too dark and edgy to be the Mormon/Christian I profess to be. But the Christian God can be ruthless too. The Christian God can be all the things that I am, given the right context. I just feel like I am coming at godliness from the opposite end that most people do -- that the cultivating power side of things happens to be my area of expertise and that I need to practice and work at the love side of things. And for other people maybe it is vice versa, but that we'll all eventually meet at our goal in the middle.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


A sociopath-leaning reader asked, "How are you able to determine your true self? Your true interests, your true you and not just a collection of identities you've worn?" My answer:
Good question. I guess I don't really expect there to be some underlying true me. I am partly my experiences. I am even more so my thoughts. I see my identity as being more a formula, less the numbers that get plugged in, and especially not the result of the formula. I am the way I perceive the world, the way I choose what I decide. Does that work for you? I know it's nice to think that you are someone or something definable. I call this the Harry Potter syndrome, people who want more than anything else to have some strange white bearded old man show up to their door and say -- don't worry, there's a reason why you are different, it's because you're a wizard, and not only are you a wizard, but you're a celebrity. Don't we all wish that we had that sort of defining purpose to our life. But we don't, I'm afraid. And those people that aren't like us are largely just amalgamations themselves. Or maybe you believe this: "People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates." Thomas Szasz
Reader's response:
I appreciate your well-reasoned response. Your example of the Harry Potter syndrome is right-on. I have always been unable to really grasp the Western culture, and especially American culture, desperate need to be succinctly defined, for their need to be truly unique, and their love of the ostentatious. For a while I thought my problem with the "masks" was that I never felt like their was a significant purpose and I have never been able to believe in a god or the other supernatural, though I did play the religious role quite well when I was a wee one.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Inside the mind of a narcissist

Here are a few anecdotes that a narcissist sent me recently:

Recently my housemate was annoyed at me. I'd been a stickler (a real asshole) about our house rules, and she was irritated at me for bothering her to comply. She's emotional enough that she'll stop saying hello and goodbye to you if she gets bothered at you. That sort of thing really rubs me the wrong way; even if I hate someone, it never is OK to be rude.

After a few weeks of her not greeting me, I noticed myself daydreaming about getting her illegal boyfriend deported. I was excited at the thought of retaliating. Given my previous experience reporting people, I figured I might have to lie in order to get them to take action, and I tried to think of what might work.

Normal people would think this is extreme, particularly given that I live with the guy and I like him. At times I pity him for having the awful girlfriend that he does, being stupid and having a difficult lot in life. But when I get angry enough at his girlfriend, it is easy for me to rationalize wrecking his life and really enjoying it. I can easily anticipate the thrill I'd feel at seeing it happen. Normal people would call this "evil": premeditated harming of other people, for my own selfish reasons.

I think this illustrates a key difference between me and others: I'm polite and rule-oriented, but potentially vicious, in a cold and instrumental way.

I've attempted to use the authorities to hurt people before. Once I was dating a former professor of mine (10 years older than me) going through a divorce. One day I woke up in her bed to hear her husband kicking my car and yelling. As I saw it, I was having sex with his wife, in her (formerly "their") house - 100% legal. Him creating a disturbance, trespassing on her property and kicking my car was 100% illegal. Had I had a gun, I might have easily killed him and tried to claim self-defense. We called the police. I explained to the cops that I wanted them to throw the book at him.

The cops explained to me that the criminal case probably wouldn't go anywhere, because of the extenuating circumstances: guy going through a divorce, another man in his bed having sex with his still legal wife. Of course I could pursue a civil action if I wanted, but that maybe the best thing was to just avoid antagonizing a guy going through the most difficult phase of his life. A few days later I called the INS (it was INS back then, not ICE) and tried to get the guy deported. They didn't do anything, which incensed me, because I had to reckon with the possibility of a potentially lethal confrontation with the guy.

Final anecdote: when my ex wife and I used to go on walks, she'd carry a gun. We'd had trouble with dirtbags and irresponsible dog owners in our area, so we figured we needed lethal force. We discussed it and concluded that if anything happened, it was crucial that she be the shooter, because as a pretty woman, she would certainly get off. So she carried the gun, and it was her job to shoot anyone or anything that needed killing. We talked about it like it was a math problem.
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