Monday, September 30, 2013

The Gervais Principle (part 3)

A reader sent me a link to the latest edition of the Gervais Principle. From the reader:

Have you read the final installment of the Gervais Principle? You mentioned the previous installments in older posts, but the last section is much more insightful and relevant to sociopaths than the previous ones. 

Venkat basically describes sociopaths as ultimate social nihilists that progressively learn that every single ideal or moral calculus that gives meaning to human existence as social constructs. In the end, sociopaths find immense freedom in a world that has no meaning except what they create or choose to acknowledge. This means that sociopaths can still coexist peacefully (social contracts), both with empaths and other socios. I identify very strongly with this nihilism, and I have frequently mentioned the idea of an absent god before I read the Gervais Principle, but I also feel that you do not identify very strongly with this description, given your adherence to the tenets of Mormonism, unless I am misinterpreting you. What are your thoughts? 

Here's what I replied (makes the most sense if you read the article first):

Thanks for this! I enjoyed it a lot. I especially liked this part:

"The mask-ripping process itself becomes revealed as an act within the last theater of social reality, the one within which at least manipulating social realities seems to be a meaningful process in some meta-sense. Game design with good and evil behaviors."
I feel like a lot of sociopaths stop at that stage for a while. They give me a hard time for revealing their methods, as if playing a game was any less meaningless than everything the empaths are up to.

I think it is that sort of nihilism that allowed me to write the book and be so flippant about it and possible ramifications. Some people think my zen attitude is from my mormonism. Maybe. It is true that if you believe in religion then a lot of things in life just don't matter much. But if you don't believe in religion, then for sure nothing in life matters much. So that's where I sort of am on Mormonism. I'd like to think that I will continue to exist forever and be a god. If that doesn't work out, oh well, there's really no such thing as "wasting time" doing one thing over another. But I do think my conception of God is really different from most people's, including most Mormons. The Otherwise Occupied God, or the God who might care about us but has the perspective to not really be as caught up as we think he might be in what all we get up to (or he cares about different things than we think).

The article's most basic argument, in reference to the emphasis that the "losers" place on social interactions and the accompanying emotional checks and balances:

But by their very nature, emotions overweight social behavior over material substance. Having a $100 bill thrown contemptuously at you hurts. Being politely handed $10 feels good. The Loser mind, predictably, sees the first act as a slight and seeks revenge, and the second act as nice and seeks to repay it.

We saw an example from the The Office last time. In the sales-commissions episode we find that for the support staff, sharing in the salespeople’s commissions and being thrown a thank-you party are emotionally equivalent. Both heal the emotional rift, but one leaves the salespeople vastly better off.

The Sociopath as Priest

It is this strangely incomplete calculus that creates the shifting Loser world of rifts and alliances. By operating with a more complete calculus, Sociopaths are  able to manipulate this world through the divide-and-conquer mechanisms.  The result is that the Losers end up blaming each other for their losses, seek collective emotional resolution, and fail to adequately address the balance sheet of material rewards and losses.

To succeed, this strategy requires that Losers not look too closely at the non-emotional books. This is why, as we saw last time, divide-and-conquer is the most effective means for dealing with them, since it naturally creates emotional drama that keeps them busy while they are being manipulated.

Sociopaths encourage this mode of processing by framing their own contributions to betrayal situations as necessary and inevitable. They also carefully avoid contributing to the emotional texture of unfolding events, otherwise their roles might come under scrutiny by being included in the emotional computations.

For theatrically skilled Sociopaths, other non-vanilla affects are possible. “Divine anger” (Jan),  ”charming but firm elder” (Jo Bennett) and “unpredictable demigod” (Robert California) are examples. These framing affects are designed to shape outcomes without direct participation, in ways that cannot be achieved by neutral low-reactor affects.

These non-vanilla personalities operate by adding to, or subtracting from, the net emotional energy available to go around in Loser emotional calculations, but without intimate involvement. Sociopaths basically create the emotional boundary conditions of Loser life in simple or complex ways, depending on their skill level.
Guilt is the one emotion that Losers cannot always resolve for themselves, since it sometimes requires quantities of forgiveness that mere humans cannot dispense, but priests can, as reserve bankers of the fiat currencies of Loser emotional life.

Other good nuggets:

  • manufacturing fake realities is very hard. But subtractive simplification of reality is much easier, and yields just as much power.
  • Sociopaths exercise agency on behalf of others. They do not grab power. Power is simply ceded to them.
  • Sociopathy is not about ripping off a specific mask from the face of social reality. It is about recognizing that there are no social realities. There are only masks.  Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.
  • There is, to the Sociopath, only one reality governing everything from quarks to galaxies. Humans have no special place within it. Any idea predicated on the special status of the human — such as justice, fairness, equality, talent — is raw material for a theater of mediated realities 
  • Non-Sociopaths dimly recognize the nature of the free Sociopath world through their own categories: “moral hazard” and “principal-agent problem.”  They vaguely sense that the realities being presented to them are bullshit: things said by people who are not lying so much as indifferent to whether or not they are telling the truth. Sociopath freedom of speech is the freedom to bullshit: they are bullshit artists in the truest sense of the phrase.
  • Non-Sociopaths, as Jack Nicholson correctly argued, really cannot handle the truth. . . . The truth of values as crayons in the pockets of unsupervised Sociopaths. The truth of the non-centrality of humans in the larger scheme of things.
  • When these truths are recognized, internalized and turned into default ways of seeing the world, creative-destruction becomes merely the act of living free, not a divinely ordained imperative or a primal urge.  Creative destruction is not a script, but the absence of scripts. The freedom of Sociopaths is the same as the freedom of non-human animals. Those who view it as base merely provide yet another opportunity for Sociopaths to create non-base fictions for them to inhabit.
  • Morality becomes a matter of expressing fundamental dispositions rather than respecting social values. Kindness or cruelty, freely expressed. Those who are amused by suffering use their powers to cause it. Those who enjoy watching happiness theaters, create them through detached benevolence.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Famous sociopaths: Wernher von Braun

Nazi or opportunist? A reader sent me this video on top rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, widely credited for getting the U.S. to the moon, but at what cost? The reader writes:

skip to 1:29 in --

Charming, clever guy who did what it took to make his dream comes true.  A bit like Steve Jobs.

The video has a charming impression from one of von Braun's contemporaries about what his personality was like: "Here was the man who had created those bombs. He attacked my house. I was not a friend of his. Right from the start I had to resist becoming a close friend of his because he was charming. He could charm the pants off anyone and he was a very clever man. You knew that right away. I had tremendous arguments with him because he maintained that he was only a scientist, that he was not a Nazi and I said, 'That's nonsense, you belonged to the Nazi party.'" Apparently President Eisenhower was one of the few that did not succumb to von Braun's charms, but that did not stop von Braun from manipulating the U.S. Congress to fully fund his space/moon pursuits by preying on the public's fears of the Russian threat.

Chameleon, liar, non-political opportunist? Either way, it's an interesting example of someone who was able to navigate the politics, the mob sentiment (both Nazi Germany and the cold war) and manage to manipulate people who could not understand the importance of his work by using that age old tactic -- playing upon peoples' fears.

If he was a sociopath, would he qualify as a "good" or a "evil" one?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Seeing the good in the bad

I liked this reader comment on what it was like to be the victim of "ruining":

Calm down on the ruining part. My worldview was totally twisted two years ago by a socioblabath. After the initial shock I was recovering for months. I that I could never experience joy again. In my following psychological quest for answers I became aware of things I was obnoxious to before. Before the path crossed my yellow brick road, my main concern were my looks. I made myself up before an exam as if I was going to Fashion Week. Histrionic. Promiscuous. Superficial. Attention-craving. Self-centered. The only thing I like about my former self that I, even then, felt happiest when making others feel good about themselves and their lives. But I was so busy trying to be a Kim Kardashian, that I hardly took the time to do so. At 24 I was behaving like a deluded child. Then I was hypnotized and drained by that 'thing'. In hindsight, what really broke my heart is that I failed to charm him. I thought I was a bonus in his life. I thought he was lucky to have me be infatuated by him. But the only time he felt good with me was in the end. When I looked at him in pure shock for witnessing the manifestation of evil. You could tell he loved that. And now, two years later? I appreciate my friends and family as never before, I hardly wear make up and it looks like I'm graduating cum laude for my masters. Instead of plotting my new headtwirling look, I'm busy helping my retired neighbours get money from their insurance company for their sinking floor. What I'm trying to say is: because of that asshole I realized I was heading in the wrong direction. Ruined? 

Another along similar lines:

I second this. My life too was enhanced by a psychopath. At first I thought he was my ideal man - tall, dark, handsome, rich and charming. I soon found out he was a self-obsessed user. These days I know a thing or two about evaluating a person's character quickly.

I am happier and more joyful than I have ever been because I learned first-hand that all that glisters is not gold. I have re-aligned my values and my life is richer. Plus I can spot an asshole at a thousand paces. Wealth per se no longer impresses me. It's all been quite freeing. I wish I'd met him sooner.

And a sociopath's appreciation of being called out:

Having someone else call you out on your bullshit is beautiful too. The beauty lies in the display of ability and intelligence, whether it's my successful lie or the other person's successful perception of my lie. Seeing someone else be beautiful does not diminish my appreciation of its beauty.

Friday, September 27, 2013


I thought this was an interesting sentiment that supported a concept that I have long found helpful in terms of directing your behavior for both sociopaths and non -- imagining the effects of your behavior on your future self.

The tendency to live in the here and now, and the failure to think through the delayed consequences of behavior, is one of the strongest individual-level correlates of delinquency. We tested the hypothesis that this correlation results from a limited ability to imagine one’s self in the future, which leads to opting for immediate gratification. Strengthening the vividness of the future self should therefore reduce involvement in delinquency. We tested and found support for this hypothesis in two studies. In Study 1, compared with participants in a control condition, those who wrote a letter to their future self were less inclined to make delinquent choices. In Study 2, participants who interacted with a realistic digital version of their future, age-progressed self in a virtual environment were less likely than control participants to cheat on a subsequent task.

This supports sociopath researcher Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt's assertion that the main personality trait separating successful sociopaths from the less functioning ones is conscientiousness, or an awareness of and distaste for unpleasant future consequences. In other words, a dynamic version of a cost-benefit analysis. As one sociopathic reader described it:

the only reason i don't act upon my urges is the knowledge of reprisal. i don't necessarily fear consequence; i simply acknowledge it as being more inconvenient than some short-lived gratification. as a matter of fact, the inconvenience of consequences is the only thing that holds me back from my desires. the wants themselves run the gamut of importance... sleeping with a woman who isn't my wife is not ethically or socially objectionable to me. overall, the impact on the world because of 'cheating' is incredibly minimal. the risk-analysis of temporary physical enjoyment Vs long-term stability is more effective in decision making than any kind of ethics. refusing to slow down at an intersection, when i have the right-of-way and someone pulls out in front of me, is not ethically or socially objectionable to me. however, going to jail and being locked in a cage seems especially repugnant- not to mention the hassle of repairing my vehicle.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pushback (part 2)

The reader responds:

Thank you for your response, but I think your missing the gist of what I was saying. First off, who says being sexually attracted to the same sex is wrong? That's merely a matter of opinion, so there is no factuality involved in that idea. Secondly, if you read carefully what I wrote you'd see that I never said that thoughts are more important than actions. I said that the only thing that really matters/matters most of all in the end is INTENT and even alleged sociopaths who claim to be devoid of conscience and ignorant of others' feelings have that. Thoughts are the mid-way between actions and intent. One acquires intent, then thinks about how to manifest it and follows through with acting on thoughts bred of intent. What you think or do is subservient to what you are actually trying or intending to think or do. It's a person's intent that shows them for what they really are. Actions fail, thoughts deviate, intent remains from begining till end and is therefore, most relevant and important. Intend-think-act...intentions come first and are the basis for all else. They can be hidden from others, falsely projected as something they are not or used as a justification for any lame thing done but a person knows what they mean to do, even a sociopath. In regards to Mormonism, I'm no expert at all but I have grasped the basic beliefs of the religion. As I said, I was raised in the church, but I am no longer an active member nor do I suscribe to their basic belief system or even consider myself an actual Mormon. While I feel they are good people with all good intentions (the most important thing) I think they are a bit jaded on the workings of the hereafter and I have a big problem with their denying women the privilege of holding the priesthood, something which I believe women are naturally better suited for anyway. And what about the fact that not until the 70's could african american men hold the priesthood? These issues (among numerous others) don't jive with me but that is a whole other subject for a different time. You are the one who claims to be an upstanding Mormon who "even teaches Sunday school" (your words). My question/issue is how can a real sociopath be a truly good Sunday school teacher? That's a bit scary to me. Sociopaths are the epitome of selfishness so why would a sociopath desire to be a teacher of any sort? It's not particularly prestigious and is one of the most selfless positions anyone could wish to hold. Neither of these jive with sociopathy. Why are you a Sunday school teacher if you have no regard or thought of other people's feelings? This again, comes down to intent. What are your motivations/ ultimate intentions for doing good works (like teaching Sunday school)? Are they selfish or selfless? Is it about control? Is it to be a God someday?....because as I said, if that's all it is Good Luck! You're supposed to do something like teach Sunday school in order to help children to be the best that they can be, which is for you, apparently, God. You don't teach it so that YOU can become a God, rather you teach it in order to help THEM become Gods. A pretty basic premise which may have  eluded you. Going through the motions of being a "good person" doesn't mean anyhting if your intentions and motivations are selfish (i.e to be a God). Good works should be born of selflessness, otherwise they're not as good as they should be. On the other hand, if you're a Sunday school teacher for the correct reasons (to help those kids be the best they can and reach God-stage) then I guess you wouldn't really be a sociopath as you would clearly be excersisng a conscience and be caring for the well-being of others. Then what would you have? Your identity would be lost (as it seems to be largely, or wholly, based upon your alleged sociopathy) and you'd be saddled with the responsibility of caring about how you make others feel and selfless actions in order to be a halfway decent person. If cognitive empathy is possible, and it is, perhaps you should try. Your life would be much fuller and you claim intelligence. It sounds like your sociopathy wasn't something you were born with, but rather a coping mechanism that you adopted as a child because you didn't get the kinds of emotional responses and attention from those closest to you (parents) in order for you to feel genuinely cared for, appreciated and loved (and in turn be able to care about and love others). Kids learn mostly through example, so if your mom was the distant detached individual that you paint her as every time things became emotional with the person closest to her (your father) well then, it makes sense that you learned to mimic such behavior and took it to the extreme, as you sound like a pretty thorough person. Everyone needs specific types of attention as a child in order to become the best that we can be (which entails selflessness, not selfishishness). Very few of us get it.You just deal as best you can, which is always possible to do without hurting others. Kids do crazy things in order to get attention (as you did) and even negative attention is attention. When those efforts fail, well, we all deal differently. But, your supposed to look at your parents and figure out exactly what you DON'T want to be, not take on their worst qualities or turn into them. Caring for others is a learned behavior in a big way. It's harder for some than others, but for those with half a brain it's always possible. I have a smart kid who is on the autism spectrum and he's figuring it out. I can see that he's the type of person who, if he never got the correct types of attention from those closest to him, may very well grow up as someone like you. But he won't. He'll definitely easily succeed at whatever he chooses to do, as you claim to have done, but he's going to be happy inside (and have to hurt too) because he can feel other people. Maybe you're using the label of sociopath as an excuse to not have to feel (it hurts) or take responsibility for lame stuff you do/did. You've also created an entire identity through it and a life that, to a big extent, seems to revolve around it. In your case, your parents clearly didn't give you what you needed (emotionally), but get over it. It's done.You're not stupid and claiming to be a sociopath is most likely a cop-out. Yea, there are alot of sociopaths out there, but all of the real ones are weak, ignorant and stupid. All of those conniving and calculating people who are labeled sociopaths are simply people who didn't get everything they needed when they were young and/or were hurt horribly which resulted in them feeling horribly hurt. There vicious and vile actions are responses to the pain that was inflicted on them, their spite. But you  can't feel hurt without a conscience and these people did/do and it's the reason for all of their vile deeds. Real sociopaths aren't created (those are simply kids who've been fucked up by those closest to them) they are born that way (stupid and mentally and consciously lacking). In regards to your motivation for being a Sunday school teacher, if it's to be a God then your acting in an utter opposite manner of godliness. Believe me, I'd love to make it to God status too but I'm pretty sure that it's gonna take alot more than correct actions and a selfish desire. I think you need to care about people too...and those Mormon Sunday School kids are going to be needing someone who really and truly DOES sincerely care in order to end up with healthy heads because the whole Mormon thing is a mind-fuck for a thinking kid.

My second and last response:

Ah, I see. I guess then that what we largely disagree about is that what "really matters/matters most of all in the end" is intent. As you said regarding whether same sex attraction is wrong, it seems to me to be largely a matter of opinion and not of fact.

I teach Sunday School because they asked me to and I think they asked me to because I'm good at it. I like to perform and teaching is like performing. I like to get people to think about different things or see things in different ways (like I do in the book and the blog). I think I have learned to care for others. I'm not sure what having a conscience has to do with caring for others. As I see it, a conscience is largely built on feelings of guilt, which I don't really have. But I can want to do "good" things for other reasons than just to avoid feelings of guilt. Why not just because I like to? Because it makes me feel good to be liked or to do something well?

I take responsibility for what I do. That's what writing the blog and book is all about, understanding what exactly was the nature of the things that I have done and who I am. I don't necessarily care about the label sociopath. It wouldn't make me sad to not be a sociopath. Spending all of this time writing and thinking about it has been interesting, particularly since I have mainly focused on myself and how the diagnosis does or does not map onto my own perceptions and behavior, however my life has never revolved around the label or diagnosis. The book and the blog are basically just 20% of my life. I have feelings. I feel happy, disappointed, stressed, angry. I just have a hard time giving them meaning or context. I don't feel upset with my parents. I like them, particularly my mother. I don't hold grudges. I like being around my family and friends. I have a normal and happy life. I'm not sure what you think I am trying to avoid in life (cop-out) by identifying with the term sociopath. Do you think it's possible that I am not completely self-deceived?

I'll tell you a quick story. When I scheduled an appointment to get diagnosed, I was very busy at the time. The psychologist sent me several tests ahead of time called self-report tests where you just fill in bubbles that apply to you. There were hundreds of questions and I didn't feel like I had enough time to fill them out before I had to meet with him, so I sent them to my closest friend to fill out for me, who filled them out knowing me as well as she does. It turned out that I did have enough time to fill them out myself, but I was still curious about whether my answers differed from hers so I compared them. Her responses were different from mine in only a handful of the hundreds of responses. I think I was a little surprised at how consistent our responses were with each other. I sent the responses off to the psychologist and ended up scoring in the 99th percentile for psychopath on those tests, even when compared against both genders and all age groups. If I lied and manipulated those tests to score high on sociopathy, I also must have lied and manipulated in the exact same way consistently around my friend for the past decade and more. I must have lied and manipulated before I even knew what the word sociopath meant, since I was a child and all through my adult life. It's possible that the test scores don't accurately reflect my true personality. I probably am smart enough to manipulate the tests to a certain extent, but why would I? And some of the tests I took I was not at all familiar with, so I wouldn't have known what the "sociopath" answer was "supposed" to be. I just answered as I understood myself to be. And according to those tests performed by an expert in the field, my results were consistent with sociopathy. And I teach Sunday School. These things that I've said about myself happen to actually be true. And they can seem like a contradiction, but so do a lot of things (I am both an easy-going and aggressive driver and maybe you are a strict but loving mother).

I disagree with you that the "real ones are weak, ignorant and stupid" and I think a lot of prominent psychologists would disagree with you as well. If not, if you're right, if I have to be weak, ignorant and stupid to be a sociopath then I guess I am not actually a sociopath.

Anyway, I don't know if this has cleared anything up for you. I think I understand what you're saying, I just disagree about a lot of your underlying assumptions, I think. Which is fine. Maybe you're right and I'm wrong.

In any case, best of luck with your son. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pushback (part 1)

I've gotten a lot of interesting pushback and challenge on who I am and things that I've asserted either on the blog or in the book. I appreciate the time people take to write me and give me their opinions. There are a couple questions and issues that I've noticed keep coming up. The following is sort of a typical exchange that happens to touch on a lot of these issues. Maybe it will help to clarify some common misconceptions.

A reader starts out writing:

Regardless of how much you seem to pride yourself on you unfortunate disorder of sociopathy, it is a sad sad thing to be void of conscience and the ability to associate with or care for other people's feelings. I feel bad for you for the fact that you don't feel for others. That's the best part of living and. And I feel bad for your  utter ignorance regarding your Mormon religion. Your motivation for being a member of a religion is...what? Ego? To reach the point of Godliness through manipulative actions that help you to succeed in life? Good luck on that. Your take on what Mormons believe has been twisted to serve yourself and little else. I'm surprised that you haven't grasped the basic tenets of such a religion even though you are an active member, but that seems to be fairly common in the Mormon community. Your spirit is stunted which is the precise reason you feel the need to follow a religion that you've malleabalized to your own liking in your head. Mormon's do believe that everyone has the ability to be as God is since God has been/is what we are now. But getting to that form takes a hell of a lot more than action and Mormons do not believe that actions are all that matters. Being aware of other's states of being in this existence and giving a shit about that matters as well. I was raised in the Mormon church and I was certainly never led to believe that your thoughts and motivations don't matter,rather the opposite.Your thoughts and motivations are at the basis of all of your actions and it's your intentions that matter most. Therefore actions are the lowest on the totem pole.That's what I was taught. Everyone messes up, everyone thinks horrible thoughts sometimes, but what you WANT to do with those actions actions, thoughts and feelings, what you strive for and intend in your heart is the only thing that ultimately really matters. All of the success in life doesn't matter even a little in God's eyes if you don't give a shit about anyone else to begin with. So sorry for your misunderstanding your whole life.  

My first response:

Yes, I know what you mean. As you say, it cannot just be actions that matter, because then my down syndrome relatives would be in trouble every time they did something wrong-ish (e.g., counterfactually, sexually abusing a young child). On the other hand it can't be that thoughts are the only things that matter, otherwise if you are gay you're pretty much toast because you can't really control being sexually attracted to members of the same sex, and actually aren't we all sort of toast because haven't we all looked at someone else to lust after them, or had any other sort of bad thoughts pop into our heads? The truth is that we can't control our thoughts, or at least can't prevent having certain thoughts. Yes, we can choose what to do with those thoughts, and that's why I think one's actions are particularly relevant when one is discussing dealing with a mental disorder that is characterized by having unsavory thoughts. I think we probably agree on this, that the whole point of life is to try to conform one's behavior to a particular standard and in so doing eventually/hopefully change one's brain wiring? But also I don't consider myself an expert on Mormon doctrine, particularly not this particular area which has always sort of been hard to reconcile for me (do sociopaths have a place in Mormonism or mainstream Christianity?, etc.).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Sociopaths and normal people are not so different. We're more like different breeds than different species. Different breeds of dogs can co-habitate and produce other great dogs, and I think sociopaths and other normal people can enjoy a similar result. Dogs have it easy, though. They have an owner or master to mediate differences between them, such as intervene during a useless fight. I think having a third party mediator would also help ensure a successful socio/normal relationship, whether business, family, or romantic. Perhaps a therapist or a trusted friend could fill this role – an enforcer that the sociopath will trust or face certain consequences, like the end of a relationship. This is, of course, assuming that the sociopath wants to be in the relationship, otherwise the threat of the ending the relationship is not much of a threat at all.

I think that the main problem in a socio/normal relationship is the inability to understand the point of view of the other. Little things aren’t dealt with, needs aren’t being met, misunderstandings abound. If there is some need that is consistently not being met or problem that is not being attended to in the relationship, it will eventually build up until it is blown out of all proportion, like medical diagnostic shows where people go crazy or blind because they have a copper deficiency. To even be able to pinpoint the problem, you have to be able to describe it accurately, which can be harder than it looks. I just read an article about it being difficult to diagnose appendicitis in small children because they aren’t able to accurately describe the locus of their pain – they don’t have the vocabulary or shared experiences with their doctor to do so. I think something similar happens with sociopaths and normals, that problems could be addressed if only they could first be identified. In the meantime, something so simple as a nutritional deficiency or small infection left untreated could easily compound into something serious or life threatening. These little problems can do so much damage, but many of them are very preventable if you knew what to look for.

I think this is why a knowledgeable third party would be crucial in helping the sociopath/normal get past the inevitable impasse -- someone with the emotional/intellectual equivalent of dynamite to blast through all of the bullshit. A touchstone to keep things from getting out of hand.

Somebody besides the cops.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sociopath quotes: hunting

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.

Ernest Hemingway, "On the Blue Water," Esquire, April 1936

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why you can't control your thoughts

Sociopaths can't control what they think. That may be scary, but there's something even scarier -- neither can you. From New Scientist via Gizmodo:

Forget complex math problems, logic puzzles, memorization. The hardest thing you can try to do with your brain is to not think about something. It's virtually impossible. But why? As New Scientist explains, it has to do with what thoughts are actually made out of.

Keeping up the religion theme from last post, some people have told me that it is not enough to do the right thing, you need to also have the right intentions or motivations. Vice versa, it's not enough to avoid doing wrong things -- you cannot even desire the wrong thing. The evidence that Christians give me is Matthew 5:27-28:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

The thing is that research suggests that the average college man thinks about sex a couple of times an hour and the average college woman only slightly less frequently. That's maybe a million times in a lifetime? A lot of sinning. But let's get away from silly sex sins and get more serious. What about killing? Have non-sociopaths ever thought, "I could kill that guy!" Have most people? Has everyone? Everyone except Gandhi and Mother Theresa? I guess we're all sort of scary that way. But it's probably good that we're like that. It might explain why we are on the top of the food chain instead of extinct.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Not feeling bad about not feeling bad

I thought this story from a reader was very interesting, particularly the parallels with my own life. I especially find her thoughts about religion to be very familiar:

I just recently started doing research on sociopaths.  Years ago a girl that knew me well said she thought I might be a sociopath but I brushed it off thinking that I’m nothing like the monsters sociopaths are portrayed as.  That’s why I find your website so refreshing.  Its not claiming all sociopaths are the same, nor are they always people that should be avoided at all cost.  Last week again I had someone close to me say they think I have sociopathic tendencies.  I started reading from your website and I do see a lot of similarities.  I’ve always felt different from everyone else.  I have an very emotional mother and growing up I could never understand her reactions to things.  Most of the time when I see anyone get emotional or upset by something it’s not like I don’t care, I just don’t feel it. I want to understand it like a puzzle.  I’ve always struggled with the concept of guilt.  I grew up in a very religious family and feeling remorse and repentance for your mistakes is considered to be key for forgiveness of sins.  I’ve always really struggled with what guilt is exactly because when I’ve done things I know I shouldn’t have, I don’t get an emotional response.  Me knowing it’s wrong is always based on logic and knowing what’s expected of me.  When I have done something wrong I do regret it but it’s usually because I see it as a failure on my part to live up to an expectation that either I or others have placed on me and I hate feeling like I don’t have control over myself or I have failed in anyway.  I know I have been cruel to people before and have messed with and manipulated people’s emotions.  When I was young I did it because watching how easily people could believe something or be manipulated was entertaining.  Now it’s usually only when I feel wronged or slighted and I never feel bad about it because it does seem justified.

I have a great job, a few close friends and overall I think I’m a very stable person but I do feel different.  I was disconnected from my family entirely for a year and I never felt an emotional sense of missing them.  My parents are normal people, never abused me, always supportive so when I hadn’t seen or talked to them for a long time I was hoping I would feel something but I mostly just felt indignant and irritated when I asked for help with different things and they ignored me.  On the reverse side while I usually get bored with guys very quickly there was this one guy that was almost impossible for me to let go of.  He has a PhD in psychiatry and he’s always fascinated me.  Whenever I saw him do something to intentionally irritate or passive-aggressively insult a friend simply because they told him something he didn’t want to hear I became more drawn to him.  Everything about our time together was intense but I would feel this gaping sense of loss any time he had to go or I didn’t see him for a while.  Even now I compare other guys to him and I can’t be bothered.  I don’t know why with one guy I could miss him so intensely but with my own family I feel so indifferent.  I don’t want to be a difficult person to be around but whenever I want something and I see a way of getting it I instinctively start shifting and manipulating the people around me to get it.  I think what I want usually benefits other people as well so I don’t feel bad about it and when a close friend who knows how I am calls me out and tells me she feels played I can’t help but feel she’s missing the bigger picture. I have also done a lot for the people close to me. I’ve gotten them jobs, found them nice places to live and helped them out of bad relationships.  I don’t think I’m a bad person or ‘evil’ and yet I am so disconnected from the people around me.  I mentioned I’m religious.  I do believe in God but recently I’ve had people in my religion ask me ‘heartfelt’ questions.  They’re the only questions I’ve ever struggled with.  I found myself trying to take apart the meaning of the questions, remember if I had heard other people express their answers before and guess what they wanted to hear because inside I didn’t understand, there was nothing indicating how I felt about it.  Explain why I want to be part of the organization, how guilt and repentance have motivated me to correct my actions; deep down I still don’t really think anything I’ve done has been all that bad.  Knowledge of the consequences and not wanting to see myself as a failure have taught me not to make the same choices.  I do want to make God happy but I don’t see why my actions or way of thinking would make him unhappy.

I read an excerpt from your book online just now and just in the small portion I read I see a lot of similarities.  When I was a teenager I had this girl I couldn't stand and I used to break into her house and rearrange little things around her room and memorize snippets from her diary to work casually and discretely into regular conversation to mess with her.  I even get the staring thing, I constantly have people think I'm glaring at them or trying to seduce them because I don't look away like most people. I just read a couple paragraphs but I think I'll have to buy a copy soon and take a read. It's interesting some of the things I recognise in myself. Even putting myself in life threatening situations... almost bleeding out on a camping trip because I didn't want to call attention to my injuries, look weak or have people try to assist me when I figured I could deal with it on my own.

I’m emailing I guess for curiosity and understanding.  I know this is the way I am and I don’t think it’s ‘bad’, just different.  I struggle with having to control myself, I want to have fun, I want to take chances and I enjoy seeing how one action can lead to a ripple effect in my favour but I don’t think I’m dangerous or need to be fixed I just want to know if that’s how sociopaths sometimes feel.  Like I said, I just started looking into this and I’m not saying I am a sociopath or think it’s terrible if I am. I just want to know more.

In my religion, there are a lot of people who think that emotions are the way that God speaks to you or a sign of true repentance (godly sorrow). But that's not necessary. As LDS Elder Richard G. Scott taught:

A testimony is fortified by spiritual impressions that confirm the validity of a teaching, of a righteous act, or of a warning of pending danger. Often such guidance is accompanied by powerful emotions that make it difficult to speak and bring tears to the eyes. But a testimony is not emotion.

And why would we need to feel things? Why would God make a group of people who were doomed to hell the moment they were born that way? But some religions believe that, I guess. Also some people believe that gay people are going to hell?

Friday, September 20, 2013

The psychopath problem

The psychology world seems to be taking a fresh look at sociopathy. Apparently once people dared question the infallibility of Hare's diagnostic criteria, the Psychopathy Check List Revised ("PCL-R"), it opened the door for other heresies against established views.

In his new book "Forensic Psychology: A Very Short Introduction," David Canter, a psychology professor at the University of Hudderfield, briefly describes the psychopath problem:

Until you have met someone whom you know has committed horrific violent crimes but can be charming and helpful, it is difficult to believe in the Hollywood stereotype of the psychopath. Without doubt, there are people who can seem pleasant and plausible in one situation but can quickly turn to viciousness. There are also people who just never connect with others and are constantly, from an early age, at war with those with whom they come into contact. If we need a label for these people, we can distinguish them as type 1 and type 2 psychopaths. The former have superficial charm, are pathological liars, being callous and manipulative. The clearest fictional example of this sort of psychopath is Tom Ripley, who has the central role in many of Patricia Highsmith’s amoral novels. The type 2 psychopaths are more obviously criminal, impulsive, and irresponsible with a history of juvenile delinquency and early behavioural problems.

Another label that may be assigned to people who are habitually involved in illegal, reckless, and remorseless activities that has a much broader net than ‘psychopathy’ is ‘antisocial personality disorder’. But we should not be seduced into thinking that these diagnoses are anything other than summary descriptions of the people in question. They do not help us to understand the causes of people behaving in these unacceptable ways. Some experts have even commented that they are actually moral judgements masquerading as medical explanations. So although the labels ‘personality disorder’ and ‘psychopath’ do summarize useful descriptions of some rather difficult, and often nasty, people, we need to look elsewhere for explanations of how they come to be like that.
The psychopath problem for society is "how do we keep psychopaths from acting in antisocial ways?" The psychopath problem for psychologists is "what are we really dealing with here?" Before psychologists can even begin understanding psychopaths, they must be able to identify them. Before psychologists can identify psychopaths, they must be able to understand them. It's a classic chicken/egg dilemma that leads critics like our favorite narcissist Sam Vaknin to quip that "psychopathy seems to be merely what the PCL-R measures!" and probably led the good folks putting together the DSM to eventually exclude psychopathy as a diagnosis in favor of the more criminal-sentencing friendly ASPD.

Still, these tests are being used, and brains of people flagged by these tests are being scanned and studied, helping scientists to learn more about . . . the brains of people who would be flagged by these tests. Some of the new discoveries or theories about psychopathy jive with my own personal experiences, and some of them strike me as being less than accurate -- an attempt to add an epicycle to support some of the weaker premises that provide the basis for the modern study of psychopathy. Maybe it is true that we are on the verge of a breakthrough, as some psychologists think -- a unifying theory of the causes and explanations for psychopathic behavior. If we are, I think it will have to be a product of fresh thinking, rather than continuing to focus on the same "20 items designed to rate symptoms which are common among psychopaths in forensic populations (such as prison inmates or child molesters)."

Thursday, September 19, 2013


A reader asked me:

Given that the way the word "sociopath" is used within language, its definition is extremely ambiguous which in effect renders it less meaningful due to the possibility of multiple interpretations. I just read your book and you can already see how some tendencies you have (in your book) are not fully coherent with the general accepted definition, but I think you understand that already and hence why you wrote the book in the first place. What I wanted to ask you was, after reading your book I noticed that you said if you put enough effort into a relationship you can make it last and make a real connection. This is something I'm having trouble with recently, all my relationships with others seem so superficial and for me that is kind of depressing, how is it for you? Have you found special people who you can genuinely connect with and not merely extract some ulterior pleasure, is it possible for you to see another person as more than a means to an end but an end in itself is what I'm asking here. 

My response: This is an interesting question, about whether I can see another person as an end and not just a means to an end. I don't think I ever will completely, but I try to think that way. And now maybe with certain relationships, 40% of the way I view them is an unconditional appreciation? I think this is particularly more interesting for people that have done so much for me and seem so much like an extension of me, like my mother.

Relationships are still really hard for me, though. Even just recently, one of my closest friends said that she needed to take a break from me. I have yet to maintain a long-term romantic relationship. My relationships have gotten better than they used to be in a lot of ways, but they still have problems.

I know what you mean about the superficiality of the way we interact with the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely engaged in it at all. I'm most interested and engaged when playing games with people, but it's more like a bandaid then any sort of permanent solution. And playing games can make problems and sort of increases my sense of isolation in a lot of ways. I'm sort of hoping that living more openly and authentically will allow me to feel like I am finally engaging with the world in a way that is both rewarding enough to be satisfying and stable enough to be sustainable. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sociopaths = sadists?

The NY Times reports on recent research about the "‘Everyday Sadists’ Among Us." The research suffers from a large degree of circularity, that is people who respond yes to questions like “I enjoy mocking losers to their face,” “I enjoy hurting people,” and “In car racing, it’s the accidents I enjoy most” also tend to be more engaged in killing bugs or inflicting loud white noise on opponents in a game? Ok. Not revolutionary or enlightening, in fact that may be the least controversial finding you'll read today.

What's more interesting is the characterization of how sadism fits into other related disorders like sociopathy:

In 2002, Dr. Paulhus and colleagues had proposed a cluster of traits they called the Dark Triad: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The traits are present in many people not currently in jail or in therapy.
***He has been investigating if everyday sadism should be added to the cluster — a Dark Tetrad.

“Psychopaths want to get things from people and don’t care about hurting them to do so,” he said. “Yet sadists look for opportunities to hurt people, and prolong it for their own pleasure.”

Studies also indicate that sadists will choose to hurt people without provocation, even if the act takes time and effort — the only reward being the pleasure of inflicting cruelty.

So psychopaths aren't necessarily sadists according to Dr. Paulus. But who are the sadists then? And how many are there? The sample size of the experiment was too small to make any sort of guesses about how much of the population is an "everyday sadist." But out of the jobs that people could volunteer for, over half chose to take part in bug killing rather than clean toilets or endure pain from ice water. So are over half of us sadists? Maybe even more because some sadists might happen to love (or fear) bugs? Or less because some people who love to kill bugs aren't necessarily getting off on the bugs pain, but may be into something else (sense of empowerment?).

Possibly the most interesting thing about this research is its attempt to pathologize yet another trait (sadism) that seems to actually be common in the general population. For instance, they list enjoyment of hockey fights and schadenfraude as clear examples of sadism. I guess that makes almost every sports fan and suburban housewife a sadist? It's pretty clear why people would rather think it was an isolated disorder rather than acknowledge its actual prevalence. As sociopath researcher Scott Lilienfeld said: “We prefer to think, ‘There’s sadists, and then there’s the rest of us.’ ”

The attempt to villainize some forms of enjoyment of violence/suffering while ignoring that most of the population watches violent media, plays violent video games, and has engaged in some form of intentional violence or hurtful activity reminds me of the song "Trouble" from the Music Man. The song features the protagonist making huge distinctions between the honorable game of billiards and the degrading game of pool in order to stir the people up into a morality frenzy of us vs. them: "Well, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community." Replace "pool" with "sociopath," "sadist" or the "scientific" label du jour helping to keep normal folk in a different category from evil doers, and it's basically a perfect parallel?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Borderline = part time sociopath?

This was an interesting comment about how borderline personality disorder actually does manifest itself sometimes similarly to sociopathy, but that it is just one of several stages:

One of the hallmarks of BPD is the shifting of mindsets over time with a denial of previous mindsets at the time one is dominant. This is called identity diffusion...the person becomes split into different pseudopersonalities. In the case of the BPD, these are described in Deconstructive Dynamic Psychotherapy (a psychodynamic, evidence-based treatment for BPD) as the guilty perpetrator mode (I'm bad and beyond redemption. No one should care about me or help me.), the helpless victim mode (I'm good but helpless, there are bad others out there as well as potential ideal rescuers), the angry victim mode (I'm good but powerless and you're bad and victimizing), and finally the demigod perpetrator mode. In this fourth mode, borderlines are emotionally detached, engage in self-soothing behaviors, and often take advantage of others egocentrically. In this state of mind they do resemble sociopaths. But it is not the presence or absence of these traits that defines the disorder, but the rapid and sudden shifting from mode to the other. Sociopaths have more stability to their personality traits, rather than shifting from one to the next in response to interpersonal triggers. 

Does this sound right, borderline people?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beware of pride

In church I heard someone recite the quote "Usually our criticism of others is not because they have sins, but because their sins are different than ours." I have a theory. If we had to break down the seven deadly sins, I would think that sociopaths are overrepresented for gluttony, lust, sloth, and wrath. Throw in deceit and invasion of other people's personal autonomy, and that is maybe 85% of the bad behavior of sociopaths? Empath seven deadly sins tend to be more greed, envy, and pride; sins come from the very thing that they treasure the most, their personal interconnectedness with others. One can be a glutton, or playboy, or lazabout, or hothead pretty much by oneself. Envy explicitly involves comparing oneself to another, typically in the same culture -- someone that you might interact with regularly. Pride is also a sin of comparison, as LDS President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, "for though it usually begins with 'Look how wonderful I am and what great things I have done,' it always seems to end with 'Therefore, I am better than you.'"

[P]ride turns to envy: they look bitterly at those who have better positions, more talents, or greater possessions than they do. They seek to hurt, diminish, and tear down others in a misguided and unworthy attempt at self-elevation. When those they envy stumble or suffer, they secretly cheer.

Similarly, greed depends on what you are exposed to. If you are raised in poverty, greed might mean the desire to eat meat every day. In more affluent cultures, greed might mean the desire for a trophy spouse

I know these are fine distinctions, because aren't sociopaths greedy egocentrics who think they're better than most people? Yes, but they are much less caught up in a desire to maintain their place in the social hierarchy. They don't feel greed because they just go after what they want, so don't feel deprived. They don't feel envy because they think they're better than others. They do feel pride, but they would feel pride no matter what situation they're in and who they're surrounded by -- that is, they don't necessarily need to be around their "lessers" in order to feel "better."

I was thinking about this when I read yet another story about a young person committing suicide due to vicious and unrelenting bullying. She was 12 years old and she jumped to her death after 15 middle-school children texting her such things as "Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly" and “Can u die please?” The thing is that she wasn't ugly. She was pretty and apparently smart and a cheerleader. How could someone like her become the target of such hate? Apparently there was a dispute over a boy she dated. And maybe the fact that she lived in a mobile home? I wonder why things like this happen, what is the trigger to this seeming mob mentality. Maybe there is a sociopath ringleader, could be. But are all 15 bullies are sociopaths? No, empaths are susceptible to the siren call of bullying, I think more susceptible than sociopaths.

A sociopath uses bullying as a tool. An empath lives bullying as a lifestyle. There is something that is compelling about bullying to empaths of all ages and cultures. How else to preserve the social order and their tenuous place in it? In fact, research supports this. Bullies are neither at the very top or the very bottom of the social hierarchy but just under the top, envying those that are just above them and willing to sell out those under them to finally make it to the coveted top:

In her work videotaping children, she has found that 85 per cent of the time, an act of bullying is witnessed by other children. And 75 per cent of the time those watching are encouraging the bully, Prof. Pepler adds.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Better than you are

Along the same lines as yesterday's post, a song about being better than you are and how it is our choices that ultimately define us.

Would you like to swing on a star?
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a mule?

A mule is an animal with long funny ears
Kicks up at anything he hears
His back is brawny but his brain is weak
He's just plain stupid with a stubborn streak
And by the way, if you hate to go to school
You may grow up to be a mule

Or would you like to swing on a star?
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a pig?

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face
His shoes are a terrible disgrace
He has no manners when he eats his food
He's fat and lazy and extremely rude
But if you don't care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig

Or would you like to swing on a star?
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a fish?

A fish won't do anything, but swim in a brook
He can't write his name or read a book
To fool the people is his only thought
And though he's slippery, he still gets caught
But then if that sort of life is what you wish
You may grow up to be a fish

A new kind of jumped-up slippery fish
And all the monkeys aren't in the zoo
Every day you meet quite a few
So, you see it's all up to you
You can be better than you are
You could be swingin' on a star

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ad hominem

I was arguing with a friend about Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning). My friend did not think that Manning was a "hero" but rather that she was a tragic example of being so messed up by her transgender identity that she ruined her life by leaking all of that government information. It was hard not to think that my friend was just using Manning's trangender identity as an excuse to write her off and downplay her efforts.

People love to write other people off based on personal characteristics. I was reading an article about "journalese" (the jargon of journalists) that defined the word "coffers" as "Where organisations of which we disapprove keep money." Another recent article about someone the journalist clearly did not like described the subject's "dilapidated Victorian home," his "appearance more akin to Coronation Street’s hapless cafe owner Roy Cropper than a cutting-edge satirist," his "battered Toyota vehicle," and his "gap-toothed" maw.

We call these ad hominem arguments and they work because of our reductionist desire to simplify the world and people into clear cut categories of good and bad, troubled or heroes. From Wikipedia:

Ad hominem arguments work via the halo effect, a human cognitive bias in which the perception of one trait is influenced by the perception of an unrelated trait, e.g. treating an attractive person as more intelligent or more honest. People tend to see others as tending to be all good or tending to be all bad. Thus, if you can attribute a bad trait to your opponent, others will tend to doubt the quality of their arguments, even if the bad trait is irrelevant to the arguments.

Under this reasoning, of course we can't believe that Private Manning acted in what she considered the best interests of her country -- how could she when she was in the midst of a gender identity crisis? Similarly, Edward Snowden seems simply too "weird" or unpredictable to be a hero.

What is particularly self-defeating about this type of thinking is that it suggests that certain types of people are not capable of certain actions. Transgendered people cannot be patriots. Eccentric people cannot be acting in what they think is the greater good. Ugly people cannot have good or important or at least legitimately controversial ideas. Disabled people cannot be commander in chief. Sociopaths cannot do pro-social things? The more we know about people's personal lives via social networking and the eternal memory of the internet, the easier it will be for us as a society to get tripped up in these fallacies. But the truth is that we can never predict people's behavior, especially not based on their appearance or their feelings about their gender, or how eloquently they're able to articulate their beliefs. And we can never know someone's true motivations. All we know and all we can see is what they say and do. So why can't we judge those things based on their own intrinsic merits, without also "considering the source"?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Easy to love

Under the title "Bad Dog," a writer tells the story in the NY Times of her relationship with her dog -- a creature that did not get along well with others, was unpredictable, and overall poorly behaved. Her thoughts on what it means to love unconditionally:

It’s easy to love a well-behaved dog. It’s harder to love Chance, with his bristly personality and tendency toward violence. Yet in the end, I measure the success of my relationship with Chance by its challenges, because if I can’t love him at his most imperfect what use is love?

I had a work colleague who gushed about his new dog when we first met. He worked in a remote office, so we didn't see each other that frequently, but when we did, I would always be sure to ask him about his dog (I have found that dog owners love to talk about their dogs). One day I asked him  about his dog and he told me that he was thinking of giving the dog back to the pound. I was pretty shocked. The dog was hard to potty train and tore up the furniture, so had to be kept at doggy daycare almost every day. The dog was expensive and time-consuming, more than the owner had anticipated. Owning a dog was not as convenient and rewarding as planned, so he was going to return it like you might return a television set that had failed to live up to expectations.

Of course I don't care what people do with their pets, but I did think this was an odd turnaround. Man expects unconditional loyalty and devotion from his best friend but he does not return it? Not quite Old Yeller material. Then again, what did the dog do to deserve a good life? Should we feel obligated to be nice to things that are not nice to us -- to give to people or things that cannot or do not give back to us in commensurate ways?

Along those lines, I got a little bit of pushback from this recent tweet and subsequent exchange:

Ok, but does that mean people should have no problems being friends with someone who is a parasite, leech, or a sociopath? If there's such thing as unconditional love for all creatures, does that include sociopaths? And relatedly (but even more puzzlingly), some people act as if empathy is this great thing, but empathy doesn't seem that powerful or that special if it doesn't allow you to empathize with people who can't empathize back. Can you empathize with sociopaths? 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

As I wrote a like-minded friend, I have been recently thinking about the world of Oz. In Oz there are apparently witches, both good and bad. Anything remarkable that exists in that world is consequently attributed to witchcraft. When Dorothy shows up and kills the wicked witch, everyone is dying to know whether she is a good witch or a bad, as if her being any sort of witch is a foregone conclusion. The most interesting thing to me, though, is that their leader, the "wizard," is not a wizard/witch at all, but a charlatan who plays on their expectations of what their world looks like. He is a stranger in a strange land, someone from a different world, who doesn't think like they do. He uses misdirection and cheap tricks like gunpowder pyrotechnics and robotics to imitate the sort of witchcraft that the Ozians take for granted as an everyday occurrence. The wizard does all of this to hide in plain sight, but not just hide -- thrive. And not just thrive -- rule. My friend wrote:

Very interesting parallel there. If we wanted to play with the analogy a little, we could say that the Wizard is a literary example of how some sociopaths operate, including the whole “he isn’t as powerful as we thought he was” motif. He manipulated the people with the real magic. It was as if his deception was itself a kind of magic, potent enough to make himself the most powerful man in Oz. That is totally apropos. As you know, I believe that power is in one sense an illusion. I believe that people are always freer than they think they are. Because they believe in the social rules and roles and because their emotions almost compel them to even, they create power structures out of thin air, with most of them at the bottom of said structure. Awfully convenient for those at the top, don’t you think? ;)
This may all be true, but perhaps the strangest aspect to the story of the wizard is that he willingly gives up all the power and fame and return home to his native sepia-toned Kansas via the hot air balloon. This suggests a preference. Whether for loneliness or emptiness or meaninglessness, that for all of the wizard's success at assimilating into the world of Oz, he would rather live in a black-and-white world where everyone is just like him rather than all the color and glories of Oz.

And was he a good wizard or a bad one? Dorothy accuses him of being a bad man, to which the wizard responds, perhaps slyly, "Oh no, my dear, I'm a very good man; I'm just a very bad Wizard." Does he mean that he is not really a wizard at all, or that he realized that the wizard he was pretending to be was best categorized a "bad" wizard in the same way that Glinda is a "good" witch and the witch of the west was "bad"? Combined with the fact that he leaves Oz, maybe he thinks that it was "bad" to pretend to be a wizard in the first place, although he probably just fell into the role (literally), given his circumstances.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Power corrupts

Organisms can be very adaptable to fit the needs of a particular situation. For instance, certain animals like clownfish will even change gender depending on the exigencies of procreation. Humans change too. Even neurotypicals can become monsters in the right circumstances. Interestingly, it's not just childhood abuse and abandonment that sets neurotypicals off but (wait for it) -- power and the sense of moral superiority, inter alia, to which it leads. From the Wall Street Journal:
Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

But first, the good news.

A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most "powerful" and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

This result isn't unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. "People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner.

Of course, these scientific findings contradict the cliché of power, which is that the only way to rise to the top is to engage in self-serving and morally dubious behavior. In "The Prince," a treatise on the art of politics, the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli insisted that compassion got in the way of eminence. If a leader has to choose between being feared or being loved, Machiavelli insisted that the leader should always go with fear. Love is overrated.

That may not be the best advice. Another study conducted by Mr. Keltner and Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business, measured "Machiavellian" tendencies, such as the willingness to spread malicious gossip, in a group of sorority sisters. It turned out that the Machiavellian sorority members were quickly identified by the group and isolated. Nobody liked them, and so they never became powerful.
I feel like every high-functioning sociopath realizes this and either acts genuinely friendly, or is very stealthy about hiding any malicious intentions. It continues:
Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.


Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they're important people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.

[E]ven fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn't, then the facts are conveniently ignored.
[P]eople in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight.
Hypothesis: neurotypicals are currently in power as a mob/group. They are easily corrupted by that power in ways that make them behave more like sociopaths, but unlike sociopaths they unquestioningly assume that they are always acting for the good of humanity because they are "good people," whereas sociopaths can never do "good" because they are "bad people".

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The functional sociopath

I liked this recent comment from a reader about whether it makes sense to write sociopaths off as being hopeless cases:

I think it is ridiculous when people say that you (author of Confessions of a Sociopath) must be a fraud; presumably because you are successful and have a certain amount of respect for rules. Most experts agree that there are sociopaths in all walks of life and some say they are particularly attracted to law and business management. 

Maybe the people who don't believe you are hung up on the "impulsivity" issue. 'Sociopaths are supposed to be impulsive so how could one make such long-term plans?' they might ask. But everything is a matter of degree. Everyone is impulsive, non-empathetic, arrogant or manipulative sometimes in some contexts. In sociopaths, these traits are much stronger than in the general population, but human nature is such that many people learn to work their way around potentially limiting mental attributes and conditions. Some introverts can enjoy parties. Some sufferers from anxiety disorders can learn to relax. 

If at least some sociopaths can control themselves enough to work hard to get what they want (and we must admit that many do if we want to keep talking about sociopathic stock brokers and politicians), and many are able to stay within lawful behavior as well (just about any book on sociopathy will note that they are not all criminals or violent), it seems plausible that there could be some who develop attachments to others or a sense of values. These would not have to be based on empathy. A person might see that following rules increases their chances of getting what they want out of life. They might have an asthetic preference for order. The company of certain people might make them feel good. The idea of a functional sociopath is fascinating and I think the book and blog are great. 

I am not a sociopath myself, but have a high level of empathy and the very un-sociopathic traits of self doubt, worry and guilt (and have been in treatment for a variety of anxiety and depression-related problems for a long time). I have a hard time imagining life without empathy, but I kind of envy sociopaths for their boldness and it is fun to imagine what it would be like to be uninhibited like they are. 

I think I've talked about this before. I'm baffled by why people would insist that sociopaths are untreatable, unredeemable. If there's even a chance that they could be legitimate members of society, why wouldn't we want to explore that, at least consider the possibility?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Mind blame

Nobel Prize winning neuropsychiatrist writes an op-ed for the NY Times "The New Science of Mind" about the biology of mental disorders. He first uses the example of how psychotherapy and anti-depressant pharmaceuticals both change the structure and functioning of the brains of depressives, but one works better than the other depending on the neurological roots of the patients' depression. He also uses the genetic example of how an extra copy of genetic sequence means an increased risk of autism and its accompanying anti-social tendencies or a missing copy of the same sequence leads to Williams syndrome and its accompanying intense sociability.

Our understanding of the biology of mental disorders has been slow in coming, but recent advances like these have shown us that mental disorders are biological in nature, that people are not responsible for having schizophrenia or depression, and that individual biology and genetics make significant contributions.

The result of such work is a new, unified science of mind that uses the combined power of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to examine the great remaining mysteries of mind: how we think, feel and experience ourselves as conscious human beings.

This new science of mind is based on the principle that our mind and our brain are inseparable. The brain is a complex biological organ possessing immense computational capability: it constructs our sensory experience, regulates our thoughts and emotions, and controls our actions. It is responsible not only for relatively simple motor behaviors like running and eating, but also for complex acts that we consider quintessentially human, like thinking, speaking and creating works of art. Looked at from this perspective, our mind is a set of operations carried out by our brain. The same principle of unity applies to mental disorders.

In years to come, this increased understanding of the physical workings of our brain will provide us with important insight into brain disorders, whether psychiatric or neurological. But if we persevere, it will do even more: it will give us new insights into who we are as human beings.

Like most other mental disorders, sociopaths are characterized by both genetic and neurological differences that distinguish them from neurotypicals. I'm not saying that sociopaths aren't responsible for their actions, but they're certainly not responsible for being sociopaths. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Boundaries: help or hindrance?

A reader asked about her sociopathic-seeming significant other, bringing up an interesting point about boundaries:
He knows he has thing's inside of him that work different from most people. I don't like to say, "normal" because to me, he is pretty normal or tries to go with the flow as much as he possibly can. I know to always be on my guard, and I have noticed that if I seem more like it does not bother me and if I am more stern with my remarks and answers, he seems to like that. Is that normal I suppose.
I don't know if I can speak for all sociopaths on this point, but I myself like well-defined boundaries, at least in personal relationships that I am interested in maintaining, and it sounds like he is the same. It is a little unusual for a sociopath to be in such a long relationship. By now he no longer derives most of his pleasure in the relationship from the constant acquisition of power, through playing games with you, seducing you, etc. You must provide something else to him that he values enough to try to keep the relationship working, whether stability, a front/beard/respectability, money, someone to take care of his kids, intimacy, or any other number of things. Basically you are still a profitable endeavour for him -- he may pay $100K a month to keep the thing running, but he gets at least $101K a month in return, so he'll keep that up forever. In other words, his brain is constantly running a cost benefit analysis of staying with you: all the time and effort it takes and possible negative consequences ($100K) compared to all of the benefit he receives ($101K). Just like a business, he might let things dip into the red here and there on a bad month, but ultimately will not continue seeing you if he sees it as a losing endeavor.

You being stern helps him keep the account in the black by reducing expenses. There is always going to be a certain amount of waste in a business, including breakage of merchandise, worker injuries, broken machinery, or hurt feelings. To fix that, businesses establish rules to promote optimum precautionary measures. For instance, instead of the business paying thousands of dollars to replace broken merchandise, they institute rules about putting breakable merchandise on the bottom shelf. Simple measures like properly training workers and forcing them to wear safety equipment (boundaries), can keep costs down and a business solvent. You are performing the same function with him when you establish boundaries. Instead of little things building up until you melt down emotionally (broken machinery), you are training him how to properly operate your machinery, so to speak.

Of course he will still do some things to hurt the business intentionally for his own gain, maybe the emotional equivalent of embezzling money, but when he does those things intentionally, he has no problem with them. Just because he kicks around the furniture one time does not mean that he wants to be accidentally stubbing his toe two weeks later. So some "stern" things you say will just make him angry and defensive, but if your sternness is just a matter of routine maintenance to prevent catastrophe, he will welcome any advice from you just as you would welcome the advice of a trusted mechanic.
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