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"Am I A Sociopath?"
February 28, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

The Madoff Tapes "One evening, my home phone rang. “You have a collect call from Bernard Madoff, an inmate at a federal prison,” a recording announced. And there he was."

Single-page version.

The Atlantic has a "tl;dr" roundup.
posted by zarq (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The author of this article is Steve Fishman, who has been writing cover story profiles for New York Magazine for more than a decade. Some of his other work:

* The Intensive Pet Care Unit: "The Animal Medical Center uses some of the most advanced medical technology known to man to treat dogs, cats, turtles, even rats. Crazy, you say? Not if the pet was a member of your family." (From 2000)

* Louie Lump Lump's Bad Night at Rao's: "At Rao’s on 114th Street, Mafia types with guns rub elbows with Sopranos actors—it’s all part of the show. But when Louis Barone pulled out his Smith & Wesson and shot another man at the bar over an insult, the show turned real."

* The Miracle Survivors: "In Stairwell B of the North Tower, 16 people lived amid the avalanche of concrete and steel. But surviving was only the start of their struggle." (From 2003)

* Mommy's Little Con Man: "When NYU senior Hakan Yalincak was arrested and put in jail after attempting to cash a forged $25 million check, his mother, Jackie, tearfully supplied a sketchy, convoluted explanation for everything. And when, a month later, she too was arrested for fraud, it seemed she’d taught her son everything she knew." (From 2005)

* Small Miracles: "Dr. Jan Quaegebeur doesn’t just repair sick children’s hearts—he reinvents them. How gifted is he? Ask 3-year-old Dorothy McCollum. Or her mom." (From 2003)

* I Dream of Diane: "What do you do with the grief and guilt when your wife drives the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway with a van full of kids and a body full of alcohol, and ends up in a crash that kills eight? You put her in a shrine." (From 2009)

* The Devil in David Berkowitz: "The way the man once called Son of Sam sees it, Satan and Jesus have long been fighting for his soul. Thirty years ago, when he killed six and terrorized the city, the Devil was winning. But now Berkowitz says that Jesus has the upper hand. And a growing flock of renegade Christians believe he’s an apostle of the Lord." (From 2006 - Previously on MeFi)

* The End of the Game: "Rising from seedy Manhattan gambling rooms to the best casinos in Vegas, Stuey Ungar, New York's greatest cardplayer, always bet it all." (From 1999)

* Howard Stern in Space: "Coming to you via satellite, a brave new radio world, from the once and future king of all media......featuring the Craptacular." (From 2005)
posted by zarq at 9:44 AM on February 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


I keep remembering that Kevin Bacon ad and thinking, "Bernard Madoff is responsible for that ad."
posted by Joe Beese at 9:52 AM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


He's right about one thing. It is rigged towards the institutions. The retail investor is kind of screwed.
posted by josher71 at 10:00 AM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love how he thinks that all the good stuff he did (which was basically inventing technology for handling trade volume...it's not like he was rescuing orphans and curing AIDS) should somehow offset the gigantic turd of evil he pooped onto the world.
posted by spicynuts at 10:03 AM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Fundamental Attribution Error means we are always liable to overestimate individual evil and underestimate the problems in the system that created a tendency towards that evil. It's entirely possible that Madoff is like the subjects in the experiments by Stanley Milgram and Phil Zimbardo, an ordinary guy who finds himself involved in clearly evil behavior because he was in a situation that encouraged it.

I'd rather think Madoff is a complete piece of shit, but I have to admit that it's also likely that Wall Street as a whole is a complete piece of shit, and Madoff is just that brazen portion of it which was easy to catch, identify as criminal, and prosecute.
posted by edheil at 10:29 AM on February 28, 2011 [13 favorites]


I don't underestimate either. It's entirely and most likely possible that both are equally evil. After all, an organization is only as good as its members.
posted by spicynuts at 10:32 AM on February 28, 2011


Of all the arguments that I think might sway even the relatively incorruptible, a view of the whole system as compromised (if not flat-out rigged) might be the most swaying. If you know it's so shot through with corruption that you can't beat it honestly, why not play their game -- or even cheat the cheaters?

Everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed...
posted by weston at 10:39 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Madoff was the one who admitted to himself that he was crooked, and played anyway. Or, to put it another way, his crookedness was too simple to allow. There were too few layers between the takers and those being took.

Does anyone here believe in unlimited, sustainable growth? Anyone even think that's possible? But look: our economic system is based on the premise that it is not only possible but necessary. Who's running the Ponzi scheme now?
posted by rusty at 11:11 AM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Awesome post, thanks.
posted by vito90 at 11:13 AM on February 28, 2011


The Fundamental Attribution Error means we are always liable to overestimate individual evil and underestimate the problems in the system that created a tendency towards that evil. It's entirely possible that Madoff is like the subjects in the experiments by Stanley Milgram and Phil Zimbardo, an ordinary guy who finds himself involved in clearly evil behavior because he was in a situation that encouraged it.

That's certainly how he's trying to spin it according to the article. Really though this is not much different from the stories you hear about the guy draining company funds to gamble in Vegas, telling himself that he's always one lucky roll away from making it all back. Even if you believe Madoff's version (which is not exactly coming from a trustworthy source), it boils down to his fund failing to make the kinds of profits he promised and him deciding to keep pretending that it made that much money.

If you know it's so shot through with corruption that you can't beat it honestly, why not play their game -- or even cheat the cheaters?

Again, that's what Madoff is trying to frame it as, but this was not some sort of crusade against the corruption of Wall Street. In order to keep his scheme from crashing down on him at any time during the 30+ years that he was running it, he had to work day and night to get new money invested, because that newly invested money was the only way he could pay anyone who wanted to take their money out. He took money from non profits and pensions, anyone who would write him a check with a lot of zeros on it.

Does anyone here believe in unlimited, sustainable growth? Anyone even think that's possible?

I also think the focus on growth isn't really sustainable in the long term, but at least in the stock market there's the idea that companies can and do put out more in profit than they take in. Madoff's scheme was basically just simple accounting fraud, just like Enron using shell companies and accounting tricks to make themselves look good on paper while they are actually tanking.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:18 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did Madoff Inc start out as a fraud, or was it one of those cases of trying to double down after a really bad bet and not being able to pull it off, like Nick Leeson?
posted by IndigoJones at 11:43 AM on February 28, 2011


No Bernie, you are not a sociopath. That word has a particular meaning and it indicates a person who does not experience certain feelings to the same degree as a normal person, and as a result they are both driven to excesses in order to feel self-actualized and they aren't dissuaded from these excesses because they don't feel pain or shame very strongly either.

Sociopaths have something biochemically wrong with them; they're very consistent in their range of behaviors and they can't be cured. You're obviously not a sociopath.

You are a monster. You just aren't that kind of monster. You're the kind of monster any of us could be if we were to listen to that voice that says $100,000,000 a year isn't enough, darnit you need to buy a yacht and airplane and screw what a really bad idea the thing is that you have to do to get there. That's not sociopathy, that's simple greed and stupidity.

Hope that clears that up, Bernie.
posted by localroger at 12:03 PM on February 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


You are a monster.

There are no monsters in this world, just people and the choices they make. Whether that makes one's outlook better or worse is up for debate.
posted by FatherDagon at 12:11 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


caveat: disregard prior statement if you REALLY know what's going on in the universe
posted by FatherDagon at 12:12 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The lizard people are monsters, but that's it.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:14 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think that I quite understood, before, that if the big early investors copped to the scheme, they'd be in a position to blackmail Madoff into pumping the returns. What a nasty business.
posted by endless_forms at 12:23 PM on February 28, 2011


I can't with a clean conscience condemn Madoff for his crime while at the same time ignoring the persistence of Social Security. Bernie's $65 billion disaster will look like pocket change next to the trillions that Ponzi scheme is likely to claim.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:37 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd forgive him if he's actively pursued investments from "bad" people like third world dictators, Haliburton board members, etc. but he happily involved friends, charities, etc.

We need some governmental service like Social Security contrary to all the republican's mad ramblings. You must realize the eligibility age for any state retirement system like Social Security was originally based upon life expectancy computations, usually roughly half the people should die before eligibility. Ideally, these 'old age insurance' programs should never state a fixed age, instead setting a floating eligible age to the minimum age such that (1) half the people are dead, (2) the payers exceed the recipients by a factor of five, and (3) capping workers payments at 1/5th benefits to prevent congress from stealing the money. All retirement planning would focus upon working until your savings should reach the eligibility age as predicted by population models. Yes, the government should issue mandatory old age insurance, but the eligibility age should be determined by real demographics, not legislated as a fixed age.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:40 PM on February 28, 2011


There are no monsters in this world

Having known several actual sociopaths, I can say quite confidently that this is not true.

Most people are just people; they are averse to hurting other people because it is natural to have some empathy for others. They may hurt others by accident or through inconsideration but afterward they will feel bad and they will be less likely to do it again. Not monsters even if we've all done a few things we're not proud of.

Some people are born monsters and nothing can be done about it. In the case of sociopaths, they make up about 2% of the overall population and about 40% of the prison population. They do not feel empathy, or much of anything except for dominance and victory. They can easily lie and feign emotion (because unlike most of us, scrunching up their faces to feign anger or fear doesn't actually cause them to have distracting feelings) and they will casually discard years of loyalty for no apparent reason except a moment of boredom. Beware of these people. If you realize you know one, RUN.

Some people are made into monsters. This happens many ways, but history has shown that one really effective way to do this is to give them absolute power. The exercise of power gradually undermines empathy, since people who do not share your power don't seem real. Over time an otherwise normal person comes to think it reasonable and natural that the strong should crush the weak. These people still have feelings, and are notably different than actual sociopaths, but still very dangerous because of their power and callousness. Monsters.

Madoff had legitimately made enough money to retire in style and set his family up fabulously, but he consciously decided it wasn't enough. You can say that's just a person making a decision but it's a decision that made him a monster to those he defrauded. Most of us need to use a gun or a bomb to achieve that level of monstrosity, but Madoff managed to do it with a ledger.
posted by localroger at 1:48 PM on February 28, 2011


There are no monsters in this world...

Seriously? Well, I wish I lived in your world.
posted by rain at 5:03 PM on February 28, 2011


No Bernie, you are not a sociopath. That word has a particular meaning and it indicates a person who does not experience certain feelings to the same degree as a normal person, and as a result they are both driven to excesses in order to feel self-actualized and they aren't dissuaded from these excesses because they don't feel pain or shame very strongly either.

Sociopaths have something biochemically wrong with them; they're very consistent in their range of behaviors and they can't be cured. You're obviously not a sociopath.
Ugh, that's such B.S. "Sociopath" isn't even in the DSM-IV. It's a popular term but it's not scientifically backed, for one thing, and there certainly isn't any evidence that there is anything "biochemically wrong" that prevents them from feeling emotions.
Having known several actual sociopaths, I can say quite confidently that this is not true.
...
Some people are born monsters and nothing can be done about it. In the case of sociopaths, they make up about 2% of the overall population and about 40% of the prison population.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Again "sociopath" isn't even scientifically well defined term so there is no way to even tell if someone is a "sociopath" or not, much less get any kind of statistics about the prison population or whatever.

---
That said, I honestly don't understand why the average person should dislike Bernie Madoff. What he did isn't any worse then any other run of the mill con-man. The only difference is the scale. But the other thing is who he stole from: mostly the hyper-wealthy. People who And a ton of money and for the most part believed there was a scam going on, that Madoff was doing insider trading and they were in on the scam, not the marks. I'm not saying they all thought that but a lot of them did.

The only suffering that people experienced was the pain of losing money that they, for the most part, didn't even need. The language that's used to describe Madoff is just so bizarre. People are talking about him like he's Ted Bundy or Idi Amin or something. There's just no comparison.

And on top of that, a lot of the victims are getting some portion of the money back anyway. Seriously, get a grip. He's a criminal, but not much worse of a criminal then the average person in the slammer. In fact, I would argue that he isn't nearly as bad. He never pointed a gun at anyone, much less shot anyone, he never stole money from someone who would starve or freeze without it. Who cares?
I can't with a clean conscience condemn Madoff for his crime while at the same time ignoring the persistence of Social Security. Bernie's $65 billion disaster will look like pocket change next to the trillions that Ponzi scheme is likely to claim.
Except for the fact that you're totally wrong and don't know what you're talking about.
posted by delmoi at 5:43 PM on February 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


I can't get too worked up over Madoff either. It's not like ge bilked little old ladies out of their pension checks.

$100,000,000 a year isn't enough, darnit you need to buy a yacht and airplane
I think it is pretty clear it wasn't just the money but the adulation of being a genius with money. That is the closest thing a guy like Madoff is going to get to being a rock star.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:58 PM on February 28, 2011


I think it is pretty clear it wasn't just the money but the adulation of being a genius with money. That is the closest thing a guy like Madoff is going to get to being a rock star.
I also think he became trapped, basically. If he tried to stop, the gig would be up. He had to keep going or the whole thing would fall apart. He was in his 70s, so he probably just hoped he'd die before it all fell apart. And add in the burden of trying to keep his kids out of trouble as well.
posted by delmoi at 7:50 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Obviously Madoff was a criminal, con man, whatever but monster? Really?

Any sophisticated investor looking at Madoff's statements had to know that something was up and anyone unsophisticated enough not to get it was pretty dumb to be managing their own money. Some probably didn't due their due diligence (staggering incompetence) but at least a fair few probably thought they knew who the sucker at the table was.
posted by Skorgu at 4:40 AM on March 1, 2011


delmoi, the term changes but the personality type very definitely exists, and descriptions of it have been quite consistent for hundreds of years. The main problem with identifying antisocial personality disorder as it's called now is that the ASPD's know they should hide their condition and are good at doing that. But assuming a candid subject, there are questionnaires which identify the condition pretty reliably.

I don't like the DSM-IV's definition and if you read up on it you'll find a lot of other people don't either. Sociopathy is the most recent term that was applied in the way I mean it when I talk about the four five people like that I've had the misfortune to encounter in my life.

Also there is some pretty solid evidence that people who score high on the wrong indeces for this also don't respond to oxytocin the way normal people do. Last time I looked that was science. I'd look it up for you but I suspect you're capable of doing that yourself if you're interested in posting something other than the word "bullshit."
posted by localroger at 5:48 AM on March 1, 2011


My own half-assed theory (which someone else has probably explained better) is that an inability to feel empathy is probably a normal human variation, because there are many times when it is useful to have people like that, to do some killing that needs to be done in order to preserve the tribe. It is unfortunately pretty severely maladaptive in a peaceful, orderly social system. But I doubt that we'll ever find anything physically "wrong" with such people (of whom Madoff is clearly not one, I'd add) any more than there's something "wrong" with gay people or people with red hair.
posted by rusty at 7:51 AM on March 1, 2011


Oxytocin makes people more generous, except for:
Interestingly, Zak found that oxytocin had no effect on two percent of the participants and that these students fit the personality profile of sociopaths.
It's early days in the research but that sounds like a physiological difference to me. (It also sounds like the term "sociopath" is not entirely out of vogue with professionals who publish in peer-reviewed journals.
posted by localroger at 10:09 AM on March 1, 2011


Also there is some pretty solid evidence that people who score high on the wrong indeces for this also don't respond to oxytocin the way normal people do.
You mean they don't become more racist when exposed to it?

People have no idea how the brain works. Neurochemistry is at the stage that chemistry was in the 1600s. We know certain things have certain effects but we really have no clue why. I mean come on:
Interestingly, Zak found that oxytocin had no effect on two percent of the participants and that these students fit the personality profile of sociopaths.
Two whole people!!!!? That sure sounds like a statistically relevant sample size to me!

Are some people assholes? Of course. No one is saying otherwise. But the idea that this is caused by some kind of defined neurological condition that turns people into inhuman monsters (or whatever) like an on or off light-switch is just ridiculous. In my view it's just something people like believing so they don't have to deal with how horrible human beings can be "Oh, this wasn't done by a normal person but rather by a sociopath (dunt dunt dun....)". There's no reason to think that these people don't just act this way because they are assholes, or that there behavior isn't anything that's not on a normal range of personalities.
posted by delmoi at 7:15 PM on March 1, 2011


Er, 2% not two people. According to the actual paper there were 68 people in the entire study, only 34 of which were given oxytosin. So only a single person would have shown this result, not two.

Not only that, there doesn't seem to be any mention of sociopathy or Antisocial personality disorder in the paper itself at all. It must just be something he mentioned to the reporter, and not something that actually passed peer review.
posted by delmoi at 7:22 PM on March 1, 2011


Oh and not top of that the author of the paper isn't even a psychologist, but rather an Economist. Which is a field with even more B.S.
posted by delmoi at 7:23 PM on March 1, 2011


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