Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Power hungry

A reader asks why sociopaths are so power hungry, do I suspect any historical or contemporary figures were/are sociopaths, e.g. Machiavelli, and how to learn to think like a sociopath.

I honestly don't know why sociopaths are so concerned with gaining power. I don't think it is necessarily unique to sociopaths, obviously, but I would say that it seems to apply to the vast majority of sociopaths. Perhaps there is something evolutionarily implicated here, that for the same reasons that sociopaths were evolved to not have a conscience, they were also evolved to crave power?

There's something very primitive about the sociopath's drive for power, like the sex drive, but it can manifest itself in many ways. For instance, I think a lot of sociopaths just want to make people jump, or at least know that they can. Some of them want the classical form of power, for example some political or business position or the money that can buy the power. Some of them, like me, channel the drive for power to include power over oneself, one's impulses and inclinations.

I do think that Machiavelli was a sociopath. There are a lot of people that I sort of suspect are sociopaths, but it's really hard to tell if anyone is without being privy to their thought processes. Anything else is complete speculation. For instance, I got in this idle debate once about whether Angelina Jolie was sociopath leaning. In my mind she had some of the clear identifying factors: creepy attachment to family, volatile, bisexual, and loves Ayn Rand (libertarian leaning politically). The person I was arguing with could not get over her humanitarian work, which to me is a nonstarter because there could be plenty of reasons why she does that. You know? Like why do I write this blog? People always want to know stuff like that, but there could be a million reasons, including accumulating power, respect, being able to influence the dialogue about a particular subject, etc. And with Angelina Jolie, how can you explain the other stuff? Like the fact that she has a look that makes people want to cry and she can be equally seductive with straight women as she is with men? But really I could go either way with her, and without looking inside her head there's no way to know for sure.

There are few people that I would feel confident to say are sociopaths, most of them literary because we actually get to see the "honest" picture of how they think, e.g. Tom Ripley, Cathy from East of Eden, and some others I have mentioned on the blog.

How to learn to think like a sociopath? I don't know, find one to apprentice with? But I would be careful. I think after you learn to think like a sociopath, there is something about you that changes and you can never really go back. I think this is particularly true if you learn to think like a sociopath at a young age and had all of those sociopathic neurological pathways reinforced instead of the "normal" ones.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I've been meaning to write a post on the childlike qualities of sociopaths for a while, but luckily a reader did it for me:
I'd like to prod something on which I haven't found a discussion on the blog, yet. To wit, the issue of the emotional childishness of the (apparently) typical sociopath. Personally, I find that despite my relative intelligence, rationality, education (and modesty~), etc., there's an undercurrent of selfish, childish rage beneath many of my actions—and even the associated thought patterns. I refer to the people in my sphere of influence as my "toys" and so on. Standard objectifying/dehumanizing nonsense. I doubt I need to explain it in any great detail, but it frames my following thoughts. Like a child, I become unreasonably angry (and violent) when people damage my toys. Like a child, I am fickle and become easily annoyed when they don't meet my needs, e.g., they're busy or unresponsive when I want them to spend time with me, even (or especially?) when the reason they can't is outside their control. It tends to be a short-lived annoyance, as I usually find something to do eventually, but it's irritating nonetheless.

On another level, there are benefits to this (rather literal) inner child. Datamining is a commonality between us, but this may be where our methods diverge. When collecting data, I am of two minds; in the developed, relational part of my datamining process, I am calculating, rational, blah blah blah; in the instinctive collection phase, however, I can take in large amounts of "raw" data, uncolored by preconception, overthinking, or other noise. I can then feed it through the relational mechanism and form otherwise disparate data into a cohesive whole, or I can leave it unprocessed if the situation calls for it. In this way, it is possible to prioritize information. The brain being as it is, this is a mostly instantaneous and automatic process. I imagine it would be a bit of a chore if it were more deliberately conscious.

I gather from your writings that some of this will seem familiar, but I'm curious about your thoughts.
Childish traits include being heavily self-involved, pettiness, manipulation as a primary social tool, tantrums, anger issues, impulsivity, an overindulgence in certain things without knowing when to stop (like eating the equivalent of candy until we get sick), among others. There are also childlike traits, like love, naiveté (until disabused of it), a perhaps overly simplified way of looking at the world, and a sensitivity to rejection and its corresponding desire to please.

Sociopaths share a lot in common with children, it's why we can get along so well with them. In fact, I think child sociopaths only really learn their opportunism and jaded mentality by attending the school of hard knocks. That's one reason why I think the comparison between sociopaths and aspies is so potent for me. I have wondered if I would have ended up seeming like a helpless, clueless aspie if only I were raised on a deserted island isolated from the harshness of the world, Blue Lagoon style.

I'm looking at you, society.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

The Empath's Cheat-Sheet for What a Sociopath Really Means

I love this, from an anonymous reader:
The Empath's Cheat-Sheet for What a Sociopath Really Means

1. I love you: I am fond of your companionship and put you above most, but never above me. Consider it an honor.

2. I'm sorry, forgive me: I really do not enjoy the fact that your mood has altered. Please revert back to normal.

3. I'd do anything for you: I'd do plenty to keep you right where I want you to be

4. My condolences for your loss: *crickets* ... It's just a body. See you later when you aren't being an emotional train-wreck.

5. S/he fills my heart with joy: I haven't had this much fun playing in a long time, and the sex is more than acceptable.

6. I love my family: They're mine.

7. That's simply shocking: You've touched my morbid bone. No need to stop now...

8. Deep down, I feel I'm a good person: I'm not in prison and I stopped abusing animals, mostly. What more can you possibly demand of me?

9. I'm not a monster, I'm a human too: I'm trying to seem human, give me a break. It's not like this is particularly natural for me.
Does anyone have a number 10?

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ennui of a puppetmaster

From xkcd:
I was explaining to a friend last night that although part of me likes the fact that she is damaged because her vulnerability gives me a degree of power over her, it is not necessarily something I need to consummate to enjoy. Sometimes, like in physics, potential power can be just as enjoyable as actually exercised power. In the same way that a classic car collector can enjoy cars he never drives or a wine collector enjoys wine he never drinks, sometimes the achievement of some advantage, either known or unknown by the other person, is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Oxytocin debunked?

I've written on oxytocin before -- the connection some researchers have made between oxytocin and empathy, calling it the "moral molecule" or the "kindness hormone", and the odd coincidence that about 5% of the population do not release oxytocin at the usual stimulants and 1-4% of the population is psychopathic, etc. It seems like a wonder hormone and a justification for empathy and social bonding all at once. Or is it? This was an interesting summary of some recent findings that shed more light on oxytocin, suggesting that its affects are much more complicated than some believe, to be filed in the ever-expanding "empathy not all its cracked up to be" file:

It’s been called the cuddle hormone, the holiday hormone, the moral molecule, and more—but new research suggests that oxytocin needs some new nicknames. Like maybe the conformity hormone, or perhaps the America-Number-One! molecule.
In the past few years, however, new research is finding that oxytocin doesn’t just bond us to mothers, lovers, and friends—it also seems to play a role in excluding others from that bond. (And perhaps, as one scientist has argued, wanting what other people have.) This just makes oxytocin more interesting—and it points to a fundamental, constantly recurring fact about human beings: Many of the same biological and psychological mechanisms that bond us together can also tear us apart. It all depends on the social and emotional context.

The article breaks the recent research findings into five main categories:

1. It keeps you loyal to your love—and leery of the rest.

2. It makes us poor winners and sore losers.

3. It makes you cooperative with your group—sometimes a little too cooperative.

4. It makes you see your group as better than other groups (to a point).

5. It does make us trusting—but not gullible.

Some of the interesting quotes include:
  • [O]xytocin plays a critical role in helping us become more relaxed, extroverted, generous, and cooperative in our groups. Sounds utopian, doesn’t it? Perhaps a little too utopian. . . . The oxytocin-influenced participants tended to go with the flow of their group, while the placebo-dosed participants hewed to their own individualistic path. Oxytocin is great when you’re out with friends or solving a problem with coworkers. It might not be so great when you need to pick a leader or make some other big decision that requires independence, not conformity.
  • If a group of researchers in the Netherlands dosed you with oxytocin, you might find yourself developing a sudden affection for windmills, tulips, totally legal soft drugs and prostitution, and tall, blonde, multilingual bankers. You might also decide that the life of a Dutch person is more valuable than that of, say, a Canadian. That’s exactly what Carsten De Dreu found in 2011. His study was sternly criticized for overstating its effects—and yet it’s not the only one to find that oxytocin seems to make us really, really, really like our own groups, even at the expense of other groups.
  • The drug “soma” from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World probably contained some oxytocin. The two-minutes hate in Orwell’s 1984 probably got the oxytocin pumping as well.
  • We may like being part of a group so much that we’re willing to hurt others just to stay in it. The desire to belong can compromise our ethical and empathic instincts. That’s when the conscious mind needs to come online and put the brakes on the pleasures of social affiliation.
I particularly liked this conclusion that along the lines of every-virtue-is-also-vice:

“We do have to be in the right environment to be virtuous.” That might be the bottom line with oxytocin—and, indeed, any neural system that bonds us to other people: The impulse to join and conform in a group is always very strong in human primates, and so the key lies in choosing the right group—and then not getting carried away. 

Friday, October 25, 2013


I chose that title instead of demonizing or stereotyping or scapegoating, but they are all getting at the same basic human impulse. I really liked how this recent comment stated it, in response to this assertion: "People’s memory is the biggest resource towards learning and avoiding people that will hurt them again":

No two people are exactly alike, but we all share common traits. You've learned to identify and avoid the people who have hurt you, and that is good. However, that memory only relates to the specific people who have harmed you. Expanding that experience to cover large groups of mostly unrelated people will lead to racism, scapegoating, and stereotyping. That makes you the aggressor and them your victims, and you'll find that the people you harm will learn to avoid you as well. 

The rest of the comment is also interesting:

You didn't seem to catch this, but "The one thing I know is we are constantly being born" is a metaphor. My interpretation is that we are always facing new circumstances, and in facing them we enter a new world every day.

Animals are capable of learning, especially when the stimuli are rewards and pain. Animals live in the wild, hunting or foraging, searching for mates, bearing and caring for offspring. If their offspring survive to become self-sufficient, then they have lived full lives. The gift of intelligence merely allows people to be alive without living, doing none of the things they were born to do.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The valuable sociopath

A reader discusses what she appreciated about her sociopathic ex:

your site has been such an amazing source of information. it's been a learning curve for me and i feel like i've reached the part of the curve where i can say, "oh, i get it! i get what that must be like!" i think i am an extreme empath and want to understand others "from the inside out". i have an almost need to enter that person's mindset and feel it for myself. really interesting, your goal of making the world a bit "safer" for sociopaths to make themselves more known. wow. 

i had a sociopathic boyfriend for a few months, he was non-violent but definitely expressed desires to kill and i know that he could. and yet, as i told a friend once, it was the most freeing person to be around. because he had no filter and no care, i could tell him any darker thoughts or any politically and socially incorrect thoughts and the conversation would just flow. there was no punishment for thinking "incorrectly." that felt valuable. he also taught me to be very wary of people's motivations, he read them like an open book. empaths can be just as clandestine as sociopaths, though for different, less malicious ends.

I liked how this reader mentioned that he had no judgment for thinking incorrectly. I think that is one of the biggest things that my friends and paramours like about me. Apparently closed-mindedness is quite common, and exists within every belief system, conservative/liberal, religious/non, etc.

The relationships that tend to not work out are the ones where the person doesn't realize how tolerant I am being of their opinions and idiosyncrasies. Instead, they have this weird notion that I must just agree with them on every point (and of course why wouldn't I, because their opinions are always correct). I would say this is true (at least to some extent) with 80% of the population that I encounter.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fleeting emotions

My sister and sister-in-law have several children that are the same ages as each other. Children all have different personalities, but I have also seen some trends in how these particular children act based on their mothers' parenting styles. My sister is a little emotionally detached herself and is not an overly emotional parent. Her parenting style fosters independence. Her children go places by themselves before they are in the double digits of age. The children have a lot of autonomy, responsibilities, and experience real consequences for their actions. My sister-in-law is more the typical, doting mother. She is anxious and her children live in a safe bubble of love and protection. When her children speak, we stop and listen. They get choices about certain things like what to eat for dinner, but most of the time they are being told what to do from hour to hour. It's easy to see that there is not a one-style-fits-all approach to parenting. Both approaches have their plusses and minuses.

I am grateful for the way I was raised. Some people have called it borderline (or just plain) abusive, but to me it was mainly characterized by freedom and creativity. Even the unpredictable outbursts from my parents had a use, they helped bond me and my siblings together in a way that is still remarkably tight into adulthood. We got along not just because we had to, but because we wanted to -- everyone recognized that it was better that way. We would play music together, play games together, play sports together, and do projects together -- all of which we recognized would have been impossible to do alone. Together we were better, stronger, and happier than we were as individuals. Consequently, my family does certain things very well. We're very good at subjugating our will to the utilitarian needs of the whole. We joke that we're a little like the Borg from Star Trek -- assimilation for the needs of the hive. That might sound like a nightmare for some, but it's really efficient and no one ever feels like they're held hostage to the potential drama and demands of divas and tyrants. Each member of the family has their role and expertise, and the rest of us defer to them on those points when we're together. Because this state is completely voluntary, we're also careful to make sure that no one gets overly disgruntled and opts out completely. If someone is feeling put upon, we address the issue openly and efficiently. People who cheat get informal social sanctions, typically in the form of my sister's wrath. But to make things work this way, no one is really allowed to take things personally or have "unreasonable" emotional reactions and expect to have those feelings validated. Someone can be upset and cry and no one will give him a hard time about it, but unless he can verbalize his problem and propose a solution, no one is really invested in anyone's fleeting emotions.

My sister's family is the only one that approximates this approach with her own children. The results are interesting. Her children are definitely more ruthless, calculating, and calloused than most of their peers (more than they should be?). But they're also really easy to reason with. They understand better than a lot of adults that just because they are feeling an emotion does not mean that it was caused by any particular thing or person -- that they can't control what happens to them, but they actually do have a lot of control over how they feel about things or how they interpret those feelings. They learn this from their parents. When my sister is in a bad mood, she tells her children that she's just "grumpy," so they shouldn't take her reactions personally. My niece picked up on this phrase when she was just a toddler. If you asked her why she was sad, she would frequently say "I'm not sad, I'm just grumpy." She meant that there was nothing in particular that she wanted solved, she was just not feeling happy and to leave her alone about it. My sister's family even plays at emotions, taking "grumpy" family photos the same way that some families take silly photos. They understand that their emotions are labile and often fleeting. The children are not as offended when people don't take their emotions "seriously" because they understand the difference between raw emotional reactions and actual problems that can be verbalized.

I'm sure this isn't the only way to teach children this particular skill and maybe this approach would be impossible for most parents to pull off or would harm most children more than it would help. But I thought that it was an interesting approach, and would be helpful to serve as common ground for parents of sociopaths (particularly if the sociopathic child had normal siblings). 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nature wills discord

Truth: nature wills discord. From Immanuel Kant's "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" (1784):

The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men.

By “antagonism” I mean the unsocial sociability of men, i.e., their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society. Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., as more than the developed form of his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish. Thus he expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, on his own part, is inclined to oppose others. This opposition it is which awakens all his powers, brings him to conquer his inclination to laziness and, propelled by vainglory, lust for power, and avarice, to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw. 

Thus are taken the first true steps from barbarism to culture, which consists in the social worth of man; thence gradually develop all talents, and taste is refined; through continued enlightenment the beginnings are laid for a way of thought which can in time convert the coarse, natural disposition for moral discrimination into definite practical principles, and thereby change a society of men driven together by their natural feelings into a moral whole. Without those in themselves unamiable characteristics of unsociability from whence opposition springs-characteristics each man must find in his own selfish pretensions-all talents would remain hidden, unborn in an Arcadian shepherd’s life, with all its concord, contentment, and mutual affection. Men, good-natured as the sheep they herd, would hardly reach a higher worth than their beasts; they would not fill the empty place in creation by achieving their end, which is rational nature. 

Thanks be to Nature, then, for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and to rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped. Man wishes concord; but Nature knows better what is good for the race; she wills discord. He wishes to live comfortably and pleasantly; Nature wills that he should be plunged from sloth and passive contentment into labor and trouble, in order that he may find means of extricating himself from them. The natural urges to this, the sources of unsociableness and mutual opposition from which so many evils arise, drive men to new exertions of their forces and thus to the manifold development of their capacities. They thereby perhaps show the ordering of a wise Creator and not the hand of an evil spirit, who bungled in his great work or spoiled it out of envy.

I have gotten a lot of flack for being ruthless, for ruining people, for going after my enemies with full force of mind and spirit, and particularly for enjoying it all (would Jesus do that? the God of the Old Testament seems to). What do we think of soldiers who enjoy killing? Monsters? What do we think of people who love beating their opponent soundly? Antisocial? What do we think of people who think that they are the best at what they do? Narcissists? Delusional? What do we think of people who are willing to get their hands dirty in order to achieve their goals? Primitive? Evil? One of my favorite things is to be beaten by a worthy opponent, so I have a hard time understanding when other people claim to be the "victim" of a sociopath who happened to, for example, outplay them at politics at work, or in a child custody battle, or business partnership, or any number of skirmishes that are necessary for the world to function as it currently does. I know that some people loathe the fact that this is life, that it makes us no better than animals. I love Kant's suggestion that it is exactly the opposite -- this antagonism is what prompts humans to strive to achieve something more than living like animals.

Along those same lines, from this NY Times article "Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?" (which hilariously suggests that primitive/poor are the only possible explanations for their particular brand of "antisocial" living):

 “It is very difficult to interpret their behavior based on our own 20th-century standards,” Alain Behr, a defense lawyer who represented two of the accused clan chiefs, explained by telephone from Nancy. “This community crosses time and space with its traditions, and we in Europe have trouble to integrate them. Yet they have preserved their tradition, which is one of survival.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

The drama/static of our minds

From a reader:

I just finished reading your memoir and I wanted to take a moment to thank you.  I am a clinical psychologist and am continually interested in expanding my mind and understanding of the human experience.  Your book helped me think differently about sociopathy, empathy, logic and choice.  Many people (especially clinicians) would like to think that there is a firm line between those who are "personality disordered" and the rest of them.  This presupposes that they are perfectly ordered in their own personalities.  Why is it that we allow ourselves to be 'a little depressed' or 'have some problems with anxiety' but the notion that we may all be on a spectrum of orderliness to disorderliness in regard to personality is so challenging?  While I do not identify with any one personality disorder per se (other than general traits of cluster B), your worldview and approach to life resonated with me at times.  I believe that working within one's system of thought and affect instead of against the grain will yield greater results.  This is especially true when I apply this to the clients I see in my private practice.  There is a difference between the drama that unfolds in our minds and the behavior we choose to enact in the world.  I teach my clients to remove (emotional) judgment from choices and evaluate different paths according to the cost benefit ratio.

I asked what she meant about the "drama that unfolds in our minds and the behavior we choose to enact" and whether her patients push back when she tries to get them to be less emotional in their decision-making:

As far as my comment goes, everyone has dark thoughts; some are more willing to admit them.  I believe that having the freedom to fantasize and think about whatever you want is freeing and allows you to work out other issues.  I actively promote this with my clients and generally find that even the most violent of fantasizing does not lead to action for those that I see.  In fact, it usually has deeper, symbolic meaning.  I don't believe in judging anyone if I can help it - natural consequences shape behavior.  If one is generally an asshole to others, that person will find he or she has few friends.  If that works for that person, then great.  Otherwise, it's time to review one's strategies and weigh the pros and cons.  Personally, I draw the line at not encroaching on the rights of others (even though I would often like to and most of the time don't really care about the rights of people I don't know or who wouldn't affect me).  I do this because of the natural consequences of not doing so (i.e. having to deal with pissed off people, losing friends, legal issues) but also because I believe this sort of discipline keeps me mentally fit and in control.  

As far as taking emotion out of decision making, I usually give clients a logical reason for examining issues in a particular way. Emotion tends to act as static for our cognitive minds.  I look at it like two data streams - one leans towards facts and the other towards instinct.  Both hold good information but since emotion is processed by an older part of our brain and doesn't work with information in the same way, we can't rely solely on it as a source of decision making and is better used as an adjunct.  Clients tend to see what I mean so it's not a hard sell.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Being seen

I've written before about how sociopaths have an uncanny ability to see, understand, and predict people's likes and behaviors. I've also suggested that if people are trying to throw a sociopath off their scent, they poison the well of information. But even if there isn't a sociopath specifically targeting things, people have mentioned that there is something unsettling about being seen for what you truly are. A reader writes:

I read a blog entry from July 2011 from a reader who is married to a sociopath and is herself an 'uber-empath'.  Her comments and your response resonated with me a great deal.  You said:

I think it's really interesting that him being able to see you to your core is a plus in your eyes. Do you think that is atypical for empaths? Don't they like to hide certain parts of them. Isn't that what I sometimes hear marriage self-help types preach? That there should be mystery in marriages? I have sometimes wondered whether that ended some of my relationships. I am always fine seeing people in all their imperfection, but sometimes I think the people I was with were not fine -- did not feel comfortable being laid bare like that.

I don't think 'regular' people do want to be seen so clearly at all, but that it's not something they consciously contemplate or contrive.  Life is mostly about being accepted and I think there is a great deal of fear-driven, unconscious shaping of personality in order to avoid rejection.  If someone is truly balanced, they will let others 'in' over time and with trust, which is a healthy protective mechanism.  They don't have a need to hide parts of themselves but nor do they need to be exposed unnecessarily.  People 'just know' when the boundaries of thought processes they are willing to share with others are being intruded upon and will move away from that.  

Why don't people want to be seen?  I'd guess at vulnerability.  For the same reason people don't reveal all their personal information and thoughts to say coworkers or people they've just met, they don't want someone to come along and just 'take' that information from them.  I'm just guessing but that may be how people feel if they sense that you know a lot about them that they haven't revealed at will.  I'd probably feel that way if I felt that someone who could be a threat to me did it.  Someone I shared an apartment with who has many sociopathic traits once told me that "he knew a lot more about me than I thought".  At the time, I didn't really know what to make of it and didn't worry too much because I didn't see him doing anything harmful.  But when I have thought back to that comment, I find it revealing that he felt the need to let me know that.  Only someone wanting to assert power would make such a comment.  It was a fairly innocuous attempt at letting me know that he was in charge of things... but some subsequent behaviour revealed that he had a pretty serious sense of grandiosity.  Perhaps people feel a loss of control if they feel that you know things about them?  

As a uber-empath myself, I do want to be seen in my entirety, flaws and all.  Otherwise my relationships are unfulfilling; not complete.   

I thrive in emotional environments like funerals and heated arguments, when others don't know what to do.  When I saw a friend last week and asked if she was ok (she clearly looked upset to me), she was surprised that I could tell that she was upset and said that no one else seemed to notice. I've heard this before . I can clearly see people's strengths and weaknesses, why they have a certain perspective, and what piece of the puzzle they are missing.  But I have no desire to use this against them and feel a much greater degree of responsibility to others than the average person.  

I don't know whether my interactions with sociopaths have helped me gain a sense of people. I'd say they've encouraged me to want to understand more and to seek out knowledge about the variety in the emotional lives of others and how they think.  As long as I can remember, I always wanted to understand my own mind, because I knew my perspective of things was different from those around me from a young age.  This has a lot to do with the family and community I happened to grow up in, which was very bourgeois.  I believe my parents are narcissists and that I learned to cater to their emotional needs, so there was training there. Then the efforts to understand my own resulting feelings.  But I'd say it also has a lot to do with nature too.  

I'd say that in the past, sociopaths have been attracted to me because of my openness, flexibility, willingness to be seen and vulnerability.  I was attracted to the intensity I felt and what seemed like deep connections.  And to 'being seen'.  But the on and off nature of those connections is what can be damaging to empaths, and was to me.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Quote: Power to the daring

"Power is given only to those who dare lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters: to be able to dare."

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Friday, October 18, 2013

How feelings lead to self-deception

One of my favorite books that explains the way most people navigate their feelings and relationships is Bonds That Make Us Free, by C. Terry Werner, founder of the Arbinger Institute. The book and institute are primarily about self-deception. Here's an illustrative quote:

“Fable: When we're stuck in troubled feelings we believe that all our feelings are true-- that is to say, we believe that by our emotions at that moment we are making accurate judgments about what's happening. If I'm angry with you, I'm certain that you are making me angry.

Fact: Though we truly have these feelings, they are not necessarily true feelings. More likely I'm angry because I'm misusing you, not because you are misusing me.” 

I wrote a little bit about empaths' tendency to endow their emotions with feelings of Truth here.

This recent comment reminded me of this principle:

I think most people don't consider sociopaths as 'unknowns'. Most people think they know everything there is to know, and no amount of reasoning or metaphorical musings is going to change that.

[P]eoples' lives revolve around sparing their conscience. All their thoughts and actions must be justified, and they treat their morality as if it's entirely objective. When someone gets a 'bad feeling' about someone, then the source of that bad feeling is evil. I've realized that there are topics I choose to avoid, they give me a 'bad feeling'. When I examine that feeling, though, I realize that it says more about my own inner workings than anything that's happening outside my head.

Racism, bigotry, and discrimination stem not from some objective truth about the targeted population. It comes from parents, the media, and peers teaching young minds to dislike groups of people, and this dislike is rationalized by exaggerations and outright lies until the population is appropriately villified. I hate smokers because I find the stench of burning tobacco absolutely revolting. I hate hobos because they ask for and feel entitled to my money. They force an unwelcome interaction with me, be it through a pervasive miasma or trying to sell me pins and dirty papers.

Black guys and flamboyantly gay guys make me uncomfortable. I don't hate them, but I grew up in an ultra-conservative, ultra-white area. Fortunately, my family is not composed of bigots, so the extent of my racism and homophobicity is that I merely feel uneasy. I understand that this is a learned behavior, and the only way to unlearn it would be to interact with these people that make me feel uncomfortable, to teach myself that they are human, and not at all unlike myself. Most people, however, just consider people that make them uncomfortable to be evil somehow. It's much easier to reconcile their bad feelings this way, rather than recognize, admit, and try to change the fact that they themselves are the ones with the defect.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Selfish + Pleasure - Pain = Happy

This was an interesting blurb that a reader sent me about one person's idea of success in life:

Be selfish + seek pleasure + avoid pain = success

At first glance, you may think this formula encourages you to be the most greedy and self-absorbed person imaginable. In reality, exactly the opposite will happen.

This formula virtually eliminates all the short-term bad decisions most of us make about diet, exercise, money, and relationships.

If you just want pleasure, you might cheat on your spouse. But if you want both pleasure and to avoid pain, you won't do it.

If you just want pleasure, you will eat rich desserts. But if you want both pleasure and to avoid pain, you will likely eat less dessert.

If you just want to avoid pain, you might lead a quiet, sheltered and safe life. But if you also want pleasure, you will find a healthy balance between safety and excitement.

To use a simple example, I'm a passionate skier with three "kids." During three different periods, I had to give up much of my free skiing time to teach them to ski. That was a little painful - especially in my lower back - but the subsequent pleasure of skiing with my now-expert offspring far outweighed the pain of a few missed powder days. Teaching them to ski was incredibly selfish of me.

Enlightened self-interest that looks like altruism

Add these three elements together, and you will start behaving in a manner that others interpret as altruism. You will exhibit a strong interest in your community, peers and colleagues, because doing so is how you make the formula work on your behalf.

Here's the critical part: you must adopt all three! If you adopt just one, your life won't go so well.

If you just focus on pleasure, you'll end up with a superficial and unsustainable life. If you simply avoid pain, you'll never accomplish anything worthwhile. If you obsess with your self-interest, you'll become the greedy and selfish person I promised to help you avoid becoming.

The reader commented that this is very similar to how I approach my own decisionmaking process. Does this seem familiar to anyone else?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A story of exploits: love and marriage (part 2)

I replied:

I guess your wife is right, there are always "other" ways to go about doing things. I don't know if I would say "better," I actually think that what you did was masterful. If your wife is giving you a hard time about it, maybe spin it off as saying, "Look, this is just proof that I would honestly do anything for you. I know you're not planning on coming home with dead bodies in your trunk anytime soon, but I want you to know that if you did, I would be ok with it."

What do you think?

He said:
Since that incident my wife has come to terms with what I am.. or rather, what I am not. Someone who actually cares about the people around us, I say "us" because I do care about my wife.
She knows I don't process emotion "normally". I do love my wife, she knows the way I love is different from say, how her parents love each other or how the couple down the hall way loves each other. She seems to be ok with that kind of love because on the surface where everyone can see it, its the same.

Who's to say that a love fraught with logic and reasoning isn't just as good as what everyone else "feels" ? or whether or not its the same ? Maybe I process the "emotion" on a conscious level where in they process it subconsciously. I know what love is and how you're meant to act when you love someone I just don't "feel" love, for anyone. My wife is smart, attractive and very quick witted she serves a purpose, a barrier, she keeps me happy physically and together we are very fortunate financially, she makes me laugh and she "gets" me, up until that "incident" she had always understood me and made allowances for how I acted, the "incident" as we call it in our home was the first time she knew what I did was conscious thought not instinct which is what scared her I think, but now she has come to terms with that and is dare I say "impressed" with me.

I don't know though I do feel a niggling, like maybe she should be with someone who LOVES her in the true sense of the word. She is younger then me, and so much like me it's not funny, here's hoping she is either more like me then I know or learns to be like me maybe then I wont "feel" bad about keeping her.

I realize I rambled off the subject but though maybe you could use it for another topic ? Who is to say "we" as sociopaths are wrong in not feeling emotions as opposed to using logic and reasoning for a substitute?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A story of exploits: love and marriage (part 1)

Here is a fun story from a reader about his recent exploits:

Dear M.E,
I would like your view point on something that's recently happened on my side of the cage.

I have a "friend" of a friend of mine who on his bucks night decided to get a stripper, now that seems like the norm, not something I'm personally interested in, Anyways back to the story. On his bucks night after the stripper came to his house we moved on to the city to have a few more drinks and to see where the night took us, we ended up at another strip

The groom to be proceeded to have coitis with said stripper. I said nothing I like to keep "information" because you never know.

From the strip club to another club we see my wife and her friends dancing away we meet up and have a drink together my wife and I go outside to chat and be "married" we come back in my buck/groom to be is gone, I ask around about the groom and he is said to be in the toilet with none other then my wife's friend, they are making woopie (cute term for what was actually going on). Once again I keep this to myself. We go to the wedding they wed they buy a new house its all happy days, till recently they wronged myself and my wife, I wont say how or why but none the less wronged. I put into action my plan.

THE PLAN - by ME(not you me)
Step 1.
Don't let them know I'm upset, I like acting so this will be easy. Have lots of conversations about "adultery, cheating, infidelity". She is a paranoid person in general so making her think about these subjects will be easy as well.

Once these subjects take root in her mind we play the waiting game, I wait till Valentine's Day. I send her a bunch of flowers to the school she works at, then within the flowers is a note "your husband has committed adultery play the game and try and find out WHEN!"
My thoughts on this were as follows.
Flowers in front of her kids and fellow workers = Happy
Note that brings up a lot of topics shes already paranoid about = Sad

Happy + sad = Confused

Confused people make for an easy target, she will inevitably seek out someone to talk to about these "thoughts" she has been having, cue me, I can be very nice and helpful on hard to talk about subjects.
I will lead her to the "right" conclusion.

They had a BIG fight he admits something happened she forgives him we are all happy friends again.

One year passes, they get pregnant. time for step 2.

Step 2.
Month 1 and 2 - I have a new phone to play with, I start sending him random messages saying how I enjoyed myself so much with him.
He did as I thought played them off as a wrong number.

Month 3 and 4 - while around for barbeques and fun activities I started putting perfume into the air conditioner in their room. My wife has a great selection of perfumes she really has good taste I always compliment her on it.

Month 5 and 6 - myself and a mate start showing up every Friday night and Saturday night and taking him out with out making plans she comes home to an empty house, we take him to a strip club so he doesn't want to tell his wife where he has been, I tell him not to say anything because I don't wont my wife to know either, being as though he has already been in trouble with strippers we wouldn't want them to break up. She starts freaking out, but it seemed like she didn't want to say anything because of the baby.

Month 8 - I find some of my wife's lingerie and... well leave evidence on it.....I leave it in his Ute, wait a little to let it dry out etc. I start with the phone calls again and the messages. I send a note written in a woman's handwriting with the same perfume from month 3 and 4. I love how subtle a smell can be but how much power it can have at the same time its very exhilarating, the note says sorry. I send him another text that says I'm sorry I had to tell your wife I couldn't be the mistress anymore and that I accidently left some lingerie in his Ute.... his wife reads it and finds the lingerie - game over for them, they get divorced and she now has a baby by herself and they sell the house and are no longer happy. I win.

My wife has found out about this... from me, I think I wanted someone to know what I did maybe get some credit, but alas she is very.... upset that I have done something like this....I don't know I don't think I'm a sociopath in the basic sense of the word more so I just don't like being fucked over...anyways, what I was wondering is reading that do you think could I of approached it in any other way ? maybe a way that would get me in less trouble... I don't know.

some other me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Knowing you better than you know yourself

I saw this in a recent comment: "How could someone who feels no empathy for others possibly understand how to treat a child?"

It reminded me of something that one of my professors said once in the mid 2000s. He said that sometimes he would be in a bookstore, see a book he wanted to buy, but would put off buying it until he got home and could order it on Amazon. Why? Not because he wanted to get it for cheaper, but because he wanted Amazon to know about the purchase so it would be better at recommending books to him in the future. When I watch Netflix, I look at their recommendations for me, and their "star" ratings guess for how much I would like a particular film/television show. They're pretty accurate. And it doesn't take that many data points to pick you out from an otherwise anonymized list of a half million other Netflix subscribers. It's crazy. It turns out that we really all are special little snowflakes.

Has this never happened to you? That someone knew better than you what you would like? Is it empathy that helps them do it? Probably not, right? Because isn't empathy allegedly the ability to feel what another person is feeling? Does Netflix feel what I feel? Not likely, right? But Netflix still does a great job predicting what people want to watch. If I collect a bunch of data points on you, or a child, or your dog, or anything else, will I also understand how you would like to be treated? Will I know perhaps even better than you know yourself? My loved ones feel this way about me.

Maybe you're not the type of person who would go home to order a book on Amazon rather than buy it in the store (or one of the people making up the statistic that 75% of Netflix streaming selections come from recommendations from the site), but there are plenty of people who would value that unique service quite highly. This is particularly true of children who often have their true feelings and wants/needs superseded and/or ignored by the adults in their lives. And by the way, can empaths really understand what/how children think/feel? Unless they have a lot of time recently around people in that age, I have found that most adults are pretty bad at understanding or even caring about how kids feel.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Mob mentality

This was another interesting column in the New York Times about the history, origins, and power of fear + mob mentality in the U.S. Normal people sometimes don't like sociopaths because they don't like feeling that they are just a patsy to the sociopath's intrigues. They are hyper focused on thinking that the sociopath is the root to their problems. It may or may not be true that sociopaths are to blame for as many problems for which they are blamed. Historically, however, it is this fear, suspicion, and hate of "others" that not only perpetuates negative stereotypes to the utter disregard of reality, but leaves people open to be a further patsy to those who would capitalize off of their fear. These opportunists may include political or religious leaders, bosses and neighbors, and anyone else that would use your fear to drive their own ascension to power, or even turn other people's fears against you. Here are excerpts from the column:

A radio interviewer asked me the other day if I thought bigotry was the only reason why someone might oppose the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. No, I don’t. Most of the opponents aren’t bigots but well-meaning worriers — and during earlier waves of intolerance in American history, it was just the same.

Screeds against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque. The starting point isn’t hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.

Followers of these movements against Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and other immigrants were mostly decent, well-meaning people trying to protect their country. But they were manipulated by demagogues playing upon their fears — the 19th- and 20th-century equivalents of Glenn Beck.

Most Americans stayed on the sidelines during these spasms of bigotry, and only a small number of hoodlums killed or tormented Catholics, Mormons or others. But the assaults were possible because so many middle-of-the-road Americans were ambivalent.

Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days. But we should also recognize that historically this distrust has led us to burn witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
Historically, unreal suspicions were sometimes rooted in genuine and significant differences. Many new Catholic immigrants lacked experience in democracy. Mormons were engaged in polygamy. And today some extremist Muslims do plot to blow up planes, and Islam has real problems to work out about the rights of women. The pattern has been for demagogues to take real abuses and exaggerate them, portraying, for example, the most venal wing of the Catholic Church as representative of all Catholicism — just as fundamentalist Wahabis today are caricatured as more representative of Islam than the incomparably more numerous moderate Muslims of Indonesia (who have elected a woman as president before Americans have).

During World War I, rumors spread that German-Americans were poisoning food, and Theodore Roosevelt warned that “Germanized socialists” were “more mischievous than bubonic plague.”

Anti-Semitic screeds regularly warned that Jews were plotting to destroy the United States in one way or another. A 1940 survey found that 17 percent of Americans considered Jews to be a “menace to America.”

Chinese in America were denounced, persecuted and lynched, while the head of a United States government commission publicly urged in 1945 "the extermination of the Japanese in toto." Most shamefully, anti-Asian racism led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

All that is part of America’s heritage, and typically as each group has assimilated, it has participated in the torment of newer arrivals — as in Father Charles Coughlin’s ferociously anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Today’s recrudescence is the lies about President Obama’s faith, and the fear-mongering about the proposed Islamic center.

But we have a more glorious tradition intertwined in American history as well, one of tolerance, amity and religious freedom. Each time, this has ultimately prevailed over the Know Nothing impulse.

Americans have called on moderates in Muslim countries to speak out against extremists, to stand up for the tolerance they say they believe in. We should all have the guts do the same at home.
This is why I am anxious in crowds. This is why I am a libertarian. I think I have a healthy fear of persecution that helps constrain any inclination to persecute others. Similarly, I wouldn't mind if the tables were turned on some of those people who are so sure that they know what's right and best for everyone. Maybe if they were on the receiving end of persecution themselves, they wouldn't be so self-satisfied. But I am glad that with the prohibitions on women wearing face veils in France, protests against a Muslim community center in New York, etc., people who would normally consider themselves open minded, inherently "good" and "wise" individuals with clear definitions of "right" and "wrong" are being faced to stare down the barrel of reality.

I smell change.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Successful sociopaths

There has been some interesting research on successful sociopaths by, among others, Dr Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt, who gets interviewed by the BBC here. Here findings are summarized and referenced here:
Unfortunately, very little is known about successful psychopaths. This is because most of the psychological research conducted on psychopathic tendencies has been done on psychopaths who are incarcerated. For instance, Kent Kiehl has done some interesting research using fMRIs to examine the brains of incarcerated psychopaths. His research shows that such individuals suffer from significant impairments that affect their ability to detect emotions in others and to feel emotions themselves.

But what makes a successful psychopath different than an unsuccessful or "prototypic" psychopath? My colleague, Dr. Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt, recently examined this idea in an article just published in the Journal of Research in Personality. Dr. Mullins-Sweatt, along with her coauthors, asked experts in the areas of psychology and law to describe an individual they knew personally who matched the description I gave above regarding a successful psychopath. These experts were then asked to rate this individual on a variety of personality characteristics. From these responses, a clear, consistent description emerged that matched the typical characteristics of a prototypic psychopath in all ways but one: Conscientiousness.

In the personality literature, conscientiousness refers to the tendency to show self-discipline, the act dutifully, and to aim for achievement. People high in conscientiousness prefer planned, rather than spontaneous, behavior and are able to effectively control and regulate their impulses. Prototypic psychopaths are quite low in this trait, unable to put the brakes on their dangerous impulses and incapable of learning from their mistakes. Given this, it is no surprise that such individuals are often arrested and convicted for their heinous crimes. However, the personality ratings of the successful psychopaths depicted a dishonest, arrogant, exploitative person who nevertheless was able to keep their behavior in check by controlling their destructive impulses and preventing detection.
I take issue with the way "prototypic" psychopaths are described here. People have been aware of the existence of sociopaths for millenia, across many cultures. The common conception of the ne'er-do-well violent criminal sociopath has been around for only the past century or so. That sociopaths have survived (and thrived) this long suggests that the sociopaths who are capable of putting the brakes on their dangerous impulses and showing a certain level of self discipline are the prototypical sociopaths, not the ones rotting away in prison.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sociopaths and children

A reader asked what I would do if I had a child. My response:
I think sociopaths tend to like children more than they like adults. I do. You can be relatively honest, even authentically nice to children. Children don't have the same expectations of you. Children aren't secretly judging you for being "off." You don't have to wear a mask around children. You can be yourself and, if anything, they will think that you are funnier and a better playmate than most adults. Although, speaking of playmates, children of a certain age sometimes have difficulty telling whether I am considered an adult or a child by society's standards because I don't fit the typical adult behavior patterns.

Even though I like kids generally, I find certain children to be completely intolerable. It can be very difficult dealing with these children because they behave so selfishly and unreasonably. If it were just up to me, no problem, I could just ignore or terrorize them to get them to stop. But a lot of the time other adults (typically their parents) will placate them in ways that tend to put you out. It's ridiculous to watch how easily these adults are manipulated. These parents are just feeding the behavior. Children, like sociopaths, need well established boundaries to feel safe. Parents are doing children a disservice through their exaggerated efforts to appease. But these type of parents don't really care about the kid's welfare, not enough anyway. They're just doing whatever it takes to get the kid to shut up and get off their backs.

Another tricky thing about children is that adults expect you to be nice around them, to not tell them crazy things, to behave in certain socially acceptable ways, i.e. to behave how they would behave with a child. That's fine and I understand there are certain things that are considered off-limits for children. For instance, I recently acquired this impulse to choke people, including children. They're crying, or they're hitting me with something, or screaming at me and I just want it to stop so I reach out with both hands at their throats with these crazy eyes full of intent, like the cartoon character Homer Simpson. It is completely impulsive. I did that with a little relative recently. It was hilarious looking up and seeing his mother's anxious (slightly horrified?) expression wondering whether she should intervene or whether I was going to stop myself (I'm very open with who I am around my family).

So overall, I like children, but I like them best when I am given significant leeway with which to interact with them, or otherwise don't have judgmental, interfering adults around to distort my very natural interactions with them. I would imagine that I would have that in spades with my own children, so there's that. On the other hand, I wouldn't have the patience to deal with the everyday bustle that comes along with children. I would need to hire full-time help. A really interesting question is, if I did have a child, would I want it to be a sociopath or not? I'll have to think about that one...

Another thing, almost everything I said here about sociopaths and children would seem to apply equally to aspies and children.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The all in the family sociopath

A reader writes about his sociopathic family tree and what he believes led to his own sociopathic traits:

As a high functioning, truly, highly intelligent sociopath (well aren't we all) I.... "enjoyed" your book.

I figured out years ago I was a sociopath. I have a brother who is so the definition of "narcissistic personality disorder" his picture should be next to the definition in all books. I personally always classified him as a "psychopath" as opposed to my "sociopath". 

Our early lives we moved every few years. Dad was in the military. My brother and I came from an abusive household. I the black sheep, and he the "good" brother. I was physically, mentally and emotionally abused. Mom as well. Little brother got his fair share of the latter two as I recall. Dad never broke any bones. Never left bruises where people could see them. His intention, His terror, was part of his Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for us. I could see the overall methodicalness of it even as a young child. Keeping us off balance with random acts of kindness and random (or expected acts) of terror. Molding us into what he wanted us to be at the time. Clarity comes with hindsight, I know now that in many ways I had a good teacher. He was a highly intelligent, highly functional man who worked a Top Secret job for the government. He's gone now, not that he'd have spoken to me about it, but with what I now know, I'm certain he was in that APD spectrum somewhere.

Dad not only taught me the "ways and means" of dealing with the sociopathic tendencies, but the "ways of terror" as well. Mental, emotional, physical, all fair game in our household growing up. I always found the physical violence far to easy (I'm a big guy and can physically dominate most people easily enough) and prefer the mental and emotional manipulations more; more of a challenge. More "fun". Anyone can physically MAKE someone do something (say with a gun if nothing else), but manipulating them into WANTING to do it, far, far more satisfying.

I have really never had much of a chance to actually discuss the intimate details of our "disorder" with another sociopath. All us "APD" people have similarities. A few of the similar SMALL details however, of our (yours and my and perhaps others)"condition", "blew" me away. 

The fake accent. Mine is a non-specific southern accent, "blunted" by many years of living in the Midwest; or so it sounds. Seems to instantly set people at ease. "He's just a good ol' boy." Hearing the consonants roll off your tongue. Funny enough, I used to do the "non-specific European" accent and dropped it for the "non-specific southern" accent, as it was proving to be far more useful and continues to be. I wonder if this is due to our "chameleon" abilities or is there some other underlying mental process that makes us change our speech?

The "sharp tooth". Wow. Such a small detail, but on the mark. Likely due to our "sensation seeking". Had anyone bothered to ask, I could have told them 20+ years ago I was a dopamine junkie. I truly believe we do not produce enough dopamine, which causes us to live our lives constantly searching for some sort of stimulation, so for a brief moment we can have "peace". "Feel"......"Normal"?

There were a few other small details as well that I did not expect. Playing drums and living in bad neighborhoods being two of them. Makes me wonder how much of the "us" we have is really us, not just a response to our expressed genetic heritage. I'd be curious at how many others you've communicated with have similar "accents", "sharp teeth", are good at keeping a beat and live in bad neighborhoods.

I have delved into BDSM for quite a while now. Yes, surprise-surprise, I'm a Dom. Choking, pain, asphyxiation; all can certainly be "fun". Knives are "fun" as well. 

The sexual "deviancy" and attraction to the BDSM world is more common among APD people I've noticed. As well as MANY other mental disorders it seems. A fertile playground. Not without its downside. I've had two stalkers in the last 10 years who didn't take kindly to me just dropping them from my life. Of course what really happened was I decided it was over, and manipulated them into either leaving or stepping over the "line" and doing things there was no coming back from. That cost/benefit analysis can be a bitch sometimes. Mostly for others.

In this day and age of sarcasm and violence, I often just speak the truth now. Just like the person you quoted in your book. People think I'm joking. At worst, I have a slightly "off" or "dark" brand of humor. "What are you thinking?", she asks. "I'm wondering what kind of noises you'd make if I held you down and bit a chunk out of your shapely ass." She laughs. I was telling the truth.

I'm really not sure why I'm writing this email. Certainly curiosity. I have never shared this information with anyone. 

In some way perhaps its comforting to know I'm not alone in my "uniqueness".

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Loving to cheat

To be filed in the normal-people-are-more-like-sociopaths-than-they-would-like-to-think folder (but sociopaths are evil because they lie and cheat!), the NY Times reports recent research suggesting that despite popular wisdom that people feel guilty for doing bad things like cheating, people feel pretty good after they cheat.  "Cheating's Surprising Thrill"

In the study’s initial experiments, participants were asked to predict how they would feel if they cheated. Badly, they generally reported.

Another set of participants was given a baseline assessment of their moods. Then they took a word-unscrambling test. After finishing, they were handed an answer key, told to check their answers and asked to report the number of correct ones. For every right answer, they would earn $1.

Participants did not know that researchers could tell if they corrected wrong answers; 41 percent did so.

The follow-up assessment of their moods indeed showed that the cheaters, on average, felt an emotional boost that the honest participants didn’t.

“The fact that people feel happier after cheating is disturbing, because there is emotional reinforcement of the behavior, meaning they could be more likely to do it again,” said Nicole E. Ruedy, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking.

Then she and her colleagues removed the financial incentive. A new group would take a test on a computer. The results, they were told, would correlate with intelligence and a likelihood of future success.

But 77 participants were told that if they saw a pop-up message offering them the correct answer, they should ignore it and continue working.

About 68 percent of this group cheated at least once, clicking the button for the correct answer. In the follow-up assessment, this group also reported a rise in upbeat feelings.

Why did people feel so good about cheating? Was it relief at not being caught? That would imply that while cheating, they felt stress or distress. Or had they deceived themselves, rationalizing or minimizing the cheating to feel better?

Stripping away these possibilities, the researchers found that those who cheated experienced thrill, self-satisfaction, a sense of superiority.

The effect persisted even when subjects cheated indirectly. Next, they would solve math problems with someone who was just pretending to be a participant. The fake participant reported the results, elevating the scores, thus cheating for both. But no actual participant objected. And again, they felt just fine about it.

“We were a little appalled,” Dr. Ruedy said.

I thought these reactions were funny. "We were a little appalled"? "The fact that people feel happier after cheating is disturbing"? Because this study is just a snapshot of reality. This is what people do everyday. If most people will cheat in situations like this, it just means that most people will cheat in situations like this. And that's a problem for governments seeking to maximize their tax revenue and insurance companies who do not get 100% accurate reports from their customers, but why do other people care? This is apparently just how people are. This experiment was not like the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, which put people in unusual circumstances to provoke unusual behavior. These were everyday people doing everyday things, and it turns out that people cheat about as often as they jaywalk or commit traffic violations. Where's the story?

The shock for me is not that the behavior is so common or that the participants were not wracked with guilt after committing such petty infractions, it's that anybody was "appalled" or found it "disturbing". Of course people are going to be happy about cheating because they are happy when they're winning. Our brain wants us to get ahead, our culture encourages us to get ahead. We are naturally competitive. You don't need to be an interspecies predator to get a rush from getting one up on someone, whether it is called "honestly earned" like a cunning stock trade based on another's ignorance or poor judgment, or is called "cheating" because it happens to exploit obvious loopholes in the system. It reminds me of the time my Swedish friend came to visit and I said the pleasure of capitalism over socialism is not that you get a particular thing, but that you get more than someone else. She didn't agree at all until we went to a theme park where we bought VIP passes that allowed us to go to the front of the line and she realized that a big part of her pleasure was not in going on more attractions, but in saving time as compared to other people.

Here's what I want in the follow-up study. Do the participants lie to themselves about the cheating? If they're not lying to themselves about the cheating, are we lying to ourselves about how frequently and guiltlessly people lie, cheat, despite having empathy, despite having consciences and the ability to feel guilt? Here's a crazy thought -- maybe we shouldn't want to discourage people from cheating more than we already do. Maybe there are upsides to "cheating" or the willingness to cheat. That would certainly explain why it is so prevalent.
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