Skip

"My greatest regret is that I'm not a sociopath."
April 4, 2012 8:29 AM   Subscribe


 
By amazing coincidence, I was thinking exactly the same thing this morning as I watched Dexter while I worked out, and listened to a dramatization of The Talented Mr Ripley on my way to work. Literary sociopaths are typically charming, intelligent, and untroubled by those pesky little social and moral problems that plague the rest of us. We envy them the way we might envy an embezzler who manages to get away with his millions.
posted by ubiquity at 8:34 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sociopathy isn't a pattern of behaviour. It's a master explanation for a pattern of behaviour.

The examples this writer has used are too broad in scope because he relies on the pattern idea rather than the explanation idea. House may be regularly misanthrophic (at least highly curmudgeonly) in his attitudes towards his patients. But the show has gone to extensive lengths to present explanations for his misanthropy that shows he does care about others but is very screwed up with his emotional history i.e. he is not sociopathic
posted by Bwithh at 8:43 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Dexter isn't even a literary sociopath. The show is at its best when it shows how Dexter himself is an unreliable narrator of his own emotions.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:44 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Something I noticed but have no theory about since I tend to read about rather than watch television and mainstream movies (yes, special snowflake, blah blah) - these sociopaths are almost always men, right? All the ones Kotsko name-checks are. I suppose there's a few women sociopaths (the villain in The Devil Wears Prada?) but they are cast as villains, not as enviable.

In terms of what Kotsko says about the sociopaths-at-the-top: yes, of course, it's rich-people culture reproducing itself. Rich people know rich people and don't know very many poor people except as inferiors; government officials barely even do their own grocery shopping. Naturally the insular culture that develops is one where there's not only no lived experience of, say, lacking health insurance, but not even any folkloric or second-hand experience. And naturally there is great, great ego-based resistance to challenging that culture - even leaving aside any economic and political concerns. (Right now there's quite the bunfight over on Crooked Timber over David Graeber's new book, and half the bunfighting is, deep down, because Graeber is an anthropologist and his assumptions about what makes humans go are different from those of liberal technocrats - no matter how much of the critique they may share, the anarchist and the liberal technocrat have incredibly different assumptions and cultures, and there's all kinds of narcissistic wound stuff going on.)

This is one of the reasons that I am an anarchist - because one insular culture (even if we envision a benevolent one) should not have massive power over others.
posted by Frowner at 8:44 AM on April 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Another example to ponder: BBC1's Sherlock, who actually says in Season 1, "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a sociopath."
posted by clever sheep at 8:45 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Be glad you aren't a sociopath. Really.

Sociopaths do not experience a broad range of feelings as strongly as normal people do. The absence of positive feelings tends to make life seem unreal, flat, and unimportant so the sociopath is inclined toward "over the top" behaviors that overstimulate the lacking sense of self-actualization. And the absence of negative feelings such as pain, humiliation, and regret remove the barriers against such over-the-top behavior that the rest of us feel.

Sociopaths do experience a few feelings normally. The most reliable of these are dominance and victory, and this makes them fierce and ruthless competitors.

Since they are not distracted so much by real emotions, sociopaths can be very adept at acting emotional. In my experience they tend to be intelligent, funny, and personable as long as they haven't decided to see what color your blood is. (There probably are stupid sociopaths, but given the readiness with which they get into trouble they probably don't last long IRL.)

The impression I have gotten from the four sociopaths I've known too closely (and the three knife handles sticking out of my back) is that it isn't all that much fun to be them; life is a constant struggle against flatness and boredom, and the temptation to betray friends and create drama just for the sense of having something to do can be irresistable even when one knows it's stupid. The need to dominate or win can be excruciating when those things are out of reach. And no matter how well you cope, eventually you end up alone.
posted by localroger at 8:48 AM on April 4, 2012 [39 favorites]


I suppose there's a few women sociopaths (the villain in The Devil Wears Prada?) but they are cast as villains, not as enviable.

Huh. Not my reading of the Miranda Priestly character at all.
posted by rtha at 8:49 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bwithh: "Sociopathy isn't a pattern of behaviour. It's a master explanation for a pattern of behaviour."

sadly, it's this very view that makes reducing sociopathic behavior almost impossible.
posted by rebent at 8:51 AM on April 4, 2012


I suppose there's a few women sociopaths (the villain in The Devil Wears Prada?) but they are cast as villains, not as enviable.

Female literary sociopaths tend to fall into Wicked Stepmother or Femme Fatale roles. And then there's Cruella DeVille, who's sui generis.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:52 AM on April 4, 2012


Huh. Not my reading of the Miranda Priestly character at all.

That was totally a rando guess based on reading about the movie, on the theory that there had to be some....so discount as needed.
posted by Frowner at 8:55 AM on April 4, 2012


This is brilliant. He left out the vampire craze as a symptom of this -- the idea of immortal soulless killers as sex objects is clearly driven by the attraction of sociopathy. Even more delicious when the killers have a trumped up conflict between their inherent bloodthirstiness and the remaining fragments of human qualms.
posted by zipadee at 8:56 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


His examples aren't sociopaths. And what "we" love isn't sociopaths, but people willing to do what we fantasize doing but won't try because of the social consequences.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:57 AM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


I know someone who once admitted to another friend that he thought he might be a sociopath. He's also one of the most deeply unhappy people I know, constantly bouncing from one set of life decisions he utterly disdains to another one he hates even more and treating almost everyone around him like garbage or, if you're lucky, a potential one-night stand. Like most mental health issues, it's not particularly romantic from the inside.
posted by Copronymus at 8:58 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting thesis, but I think he runs into conceptual problems when he equates the pop-culture sociopaths with figures from the highest echelon of finance; if I understand him correctly, he suggests that disempowered regular people become unbearably discontent with their obligation to moral considerations in the context of shameless regulatory capture and open plutocracy, and the sociopath fantasy enables them to imagine how far they could make it in a world that's shown itself to disproportionately reward people who will do anything to get ahead.

But I think a lot of regular people *are* fairly indifferent to moral consideration in a way that makes them substantially similar to the sociopathic fictional characters, but they generally lack the genius or talent that enables those figures to succeed; Don Draper, despite his faults, gets to the top in large part because he creates incredibly effective and insightful advertising. Dexter has great psychological insight, I infer, not being a fan of the show. Cartman is evil, yes, but the idea is that he's an evil genius. His schemes are ambitious and he pursues them with vigor. What's more, all of them tend to work in isolation, to the extent that their success is connected in some way with their lone wolf orientation.

These traits are not characteristic of the masters of the universe that Kotsko refers to. But of course that might not matter. What matters is how people who watch those shows perceive things.

And I have to give him credit for this delightfully sympathetic sentiment:

In a society that is breaking down, the no-win situation of someone flagrantly cutting in line repeats itself over and over, on an ever grander scale, until the people who destroyed the world economy walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in “bonuses” and we’re all reduced to the pathetic stance of fuming about how much we hate that asshole

GOD do I hate that fucking asshole, and feel pathetic for being able to do nothing more than seethe.
posted by clockzero at 9:02 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Cartoon shows have been fascinated by sociopathic fathers (with varying degrees of sanity) ever since the writers of The Simpsons realized that Homer was a better central character than Bart."

On what planet is Homer considered a sociopath? Or is Kotsko secretly giving a nod to the finer, nerdier distinction between Stupid Homer and Asshole Homer?
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:04 AM on April 4, 2012


In a society that is breaking down, the no-win situation of someone flagrantly cutting in line repeats itself over and over, on an ever grander scale, until the people who destroyed the world economy walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in “bonuses” and we’re all reduced to the pathetic stance of fuming about how much we hate that asshole

GOD do I hate that fucking asshole, and feel pathetic for being able to do nothing more than seethe.


I am reminded of that scene from Super where Rainn Wilson decides to punish the line-cutter.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:12 AM on April 4, 2012


(Oops. Second clip on that page)
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:13 AM on April 4, 2012


In Awkwardness, I argued that the proper response to our culture-wide awkwardness is simply to embrace rather than try to avoid awkwardness. After all, if the social bond of awkwardness is more intense than our norm-governed social interactions, it also has the potential to be more meaningful and enjoyable. Such a strategy sacrifices comfort and predictability, but it’s not clear that comfort and predictability in our interactions are always desirable anyway.



Here, I agree with him.

However, the Masters of the Universe form a community and approval from this community is important, not irrelevant.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:16 AM on April 4, 2012


My greatest regret is that I’m not a sociopath.

I'll bet that opening sentence was supposed to provoke me, and make me want to keep on reading.

It didn't.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:34 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


My theory is the reason we like watching the bad guys is they do more interesting stuff and they initiate most of the action. The good guy is playing defense. When we watch a basketball game we always give more props to the guy who scores a bunch of points but the guy who plays good D is just as valuable.
posted by bukvich at 9:46 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think people really "wish" they were sociopaths, they think they do because "sociopaths" on TV aren't "sociopaths" so much as talented and confident people unburdened by fear or anxiety, and are successful because of it. Of the people on the list, Dexter is the closest to a true "sociopath" on that list, but people don't want to be Dexter because he's a cold-blooded revenge fantasy (at least, not everyone), but because he's a socially awkward nerd whose weirdness is accepted and even praised by the people around him (Seriously, if I cared more about the show, I'd do a ton of research and writing on Papa Morgan and his influence on how Dexter turned out)

House and Draper aren't emotionless, they're practically HAUNTED by their emotions, they're just really good at managing them. The fact that they're included on this list (and Homer Simpson, really?) shows that a depressing amount of people haven't internalized the "be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle" maxim: it's imagining that people who don't break down and cry, or can hold themselves together, or overcome their own mental/physical/emotional shortcomings, or at the very least manage them to be functional and even successful in day-to-day life says more about the viewer's "empathy" than House, Draper, or Dexter's.

In fact, House is probably the worst example of a TV Sociopath I can think of: the asides where he explains what a pulmonary embolism is (the thing that gives him his limp), when he describes his constant pain, the sadness that shows through the cracks of his wall of sarcasm are subtle, but heartbreaking. That's what makes him different than say, Becker: he's not just a piss-ant that got into medicine: He's literally the smartest doctor in the entire state, but no one ever believes him until the end of the episode, he lives with constant physical pain, he can't move, he's become addicted to pain killers on account of that, and on top of that, HE'S got to be the one to pick up his cane and get work done because everyone is too busy sitting around discussing their feelings, scolding him for his addiction (despite there being a very clear reason for it) and generally ignoring him until they need him to do the job they can't do, never really praising him even when he does because "sure he's the only thing keeping this hospital open and us employed, but he doesn't smile when he does so fuck him".

House knows he's the smartest guy in the room, but he also knows how people see him. Remember the ends of the episodes where he tries to get himself to join his coworkers in a social setting and he just can't bring himself to? How excited he is when someone dares to even try to get under his armor? He's downright tragic: The failure of the average person to see that because they can't see past superficial markers is like people who see dogs wagging their tail and smiling even after they've been gravely injured: they use their own feelings and behaviors as the metric with which they measure their empathy for other people, and literally don't recognize it when it doesn't look like them.

Sociopathy indeed.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:49 AM on April 4, 2012 [22 favorites]


My theory is that sociopaths are epically bored. Only their reward systems seem to work properly.
posted by provoliminal at 9:53 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The fantasy of the sociopath, then, represents an attempt to escape from the inescapably social nature of human experience.

Law and Order: Criminal Intent runs at 8 PM every weekday night here and I happened to watch part of one that featured Roy Scheider as a sociopathic serial killer and thinking something similar. The TV sociopath is the ultimate loner, outsider and party of one who answers to no one -- the ultimate anti-hero. And also the ultimate hipster. His judgments of taste are a matter of life and death.

If power corrupts, then petty power corrupts pettily and the bulk of the acts of cruelty done daily are doled out in tiny naturopathic doses to the people immediately below by the people immediately above, starting with family first and then at work. The sociopath is a power fantasy for the immediately powerless. He never gets humiliated. He gets even.
posted by y2karl at 9:57 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


From the perspective of a lifelong depressive, fictional "sociopaths" (Ripley and Dexter for example) are often attractive for the way they register how arbitrary most social codes and appropriate behaviors feel. They recognize what other people expect and desire, without really being able to get invested in those things themselves, except as a means to an end. The interesting ones are, of course, pretty high-powered, which I agree is wish fulfillment. Still, having to play by rules and meet standards whose importance one can recognize but not force oneself to care about--well, that's every day for some people with depression.

My favorite articulation of this is from Susan Sontag's essay "Under the Sign of Saturn":

"Dissimulation, secretiveness, appear a necessity to the melancholic. He has complex, often veiled relations with others. These feelings of superiority, of inadequacy, of baffled feeling, of not being able to get what one wants, or even name it properly (or consistently) to oneself — these can be, it is felt they ought to be, masked by friendliness, or the most scrupulous manipulation."

It's not sociopathy--or even "sociopathy"--exactly, but these representative figures sure look familiar to a depressive.
posted by Idler King at 10:04 AM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Dexter does not fit his thesis because Dexter is a moral force that operates outside of standard moral norms. He may represent a fantasy of removing oneself from social constraints, but he does not represent a desire for reckless amoral self interest.

Heck, he probably most symbolizes the fear of becoming what we despise. If we could become the all-powerful arbiter of justice we want to be, how strong and how rational must we remain to be keep from becoming corrupt and deserving the very punishment we deliver.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:13 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dexter does not fit his thesis because Dexter is a moral force that operates outside of standard moral norms. He may represent a fantasy of removing oneself from social constraints, but he does not represent a desire for reckless amoral self interest.

If anything, the show makes a good deal of how out of how Harry's Code had held Dexter back so much. Dexter becomes rootless when he does start feeling things for other people, but he does not have any structure as to how to deal with this. When the show works, and granted I stopped after Season Five, it deals with how Dexter is neither fish nor fowl, neither sociopath nor normal person.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:24 AM on April 4, 2012


His examples aren't sociopaths.

He's not talking about actual sociopaths, but teevee sociopaths. Television sociopathology has about as much to do with real sociopathology as real amnesia has to to with Gilligan getting bumped on his head by a coconut.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:27 AM on April 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


Also schizophrenia is not actually multiple personality disorder.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:45 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, autistic kids typically don't solve crimes.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:50 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, autistic kids typically don't solve crimes.

That's what made the incident so curious!
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:57 AM on April 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Replace "sociopath" with "bad boys" and/or "villains" and you have the 657,894th such article ever written.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 10:58 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some sociopaths are especially good in bed, that is, before the picks and shovels come out.
posted by Oyéah at 11:11 AM on April 4, 2012


Isn't being a sociopath one of the requirements for running for political office in the U.S.?
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:18 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Frowner: "This is one of the reasons that I am an anarchist - because one insular culture (even if we envision a benevolent one) should not have massive power over others."

It's interesting you say this, because I was thinking that the author's idea:

The fantasy of the sociopath, then, represents an attempt to escape from the inescapably social nature of human experience.

sums up a lot of what's wrong with Rand/Rothbard (yes, I know they hated each other)-style libertarianism. The fantasy of the complete Individual, apart from society and owing nothing to it, totally self-made, interacting only when and in the manner that he chooses, etc. It's this same fantasy of escaping the inherent social nature of human experience.

I realize you're not talking about that particular flavor of anarchism, but I can see the equivalent on the left in the people who fantasize about society breaking down and we all returning to tribal units. It seems to me the same urge to escape the messiness of society into a fantasy society of your own creation and choosing.

Though this isn't to say there is much more to anarchist thought, it just struck me in relation to this article.

0xdeadc0de: "The fantasy of the sociopath, then, represents an attempt to escape from the inescapably social nature of human experience.

Dexter does not fit his thesis because Dexter is a moral force that operates outside of standard moral norms. He may represent a fantasy of removing oneself from social constraints, but he does not represent a desire for reckless amoral self interest.
"

I think this is a misreading of Dexter, at least how Dexter originally was in the first season or so, before the series began degenerating into a superhero show. As Sticherbeast notes, Harry's code was imposed on Dexter. Originally Dexter was not a moral force at all. He didn't kill criminals out of a sense of justice or anything. He killed them because Harry saw that Dexter was going to kill and so forced him to abide by this code and channel the killing into something approaching positive. Dexter by himself wouldn't care who he killed or why, he was just satisfying his urge.

Unfortunately, over time he morphed from that into a superhero: he kills to avenge, to help people, for justice.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:20 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, over time he morphed from that into a superhero: he kills to avenge, to help people, for justice.

And I think Season 4, which was the best season of the show after Season 1, did a very good job of showing how these superheroics were incompatible with the happy family life that he had secretly loved. Harry's Code would only work on a sociopath; as soon as you started to develop real feelings and ambivalence about things, it became very destructive.

It's a shame that the show went off the rails like it eventually did, but when it was good, it was very, very good.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:33 AM on April 4, 2012


People don't want to be Dexter because he's a cold-blooded revenge fantasy (at least, not everyone), but because he's a socially awkward nerd whose weirdness is accepted and even praised by the people around him.

What's totally interesting to me about this is that so many of these recent "sociopathic" characters are almost a conflation of sociopathy and Aspergers. Sherlock, who's been mentioned upthread, describes himself as a "high-functioning sociopath" (which as far as I know is not even a real thing), but for most of the first season he's played much closer to the popular perception of autism spectrum: he's not a particularly smooth talker, he's generally not very good with people, and he's effective at crime-solving because he is very smart and appears completely unaware of social convention.

Then you get the second character that I can't believe nobody's mentioned: Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network. Zuckerberg is nasty, manipulative, and needlessly cruel to almost everyone, but it's Sean Parker, not Zuck, who comes off as the shallow and charming sociopath. People are fascinated by Zuck not because he's knowingly doing evil (as you could argue about sociopaths, vampires, or "bad boys") but because he has extremely specific goals that require and enable hurting everyone around him.

Adam Cadre has a fascinating little piece on The Social Network, which he ends thusly:
[Those who call] the poor "animals" and "savages" are fueled by the same thing as Mark Zuckerberg: contempt. So when their economic proposals call for more "belt-tightening," deeper cuts, further suffering, it's not because these things are necessary to fix the economy — inflicting pain isn't the price of these policies, it's the point of these policies. Those who propose them don't want to fix the economy. The economy is doing exactly what they want it to do: hurting people. What The Social Network points to is that the plutocrats aren't selfish. They're sadistic.
And at that point, you get a combination of fictional Aspergers and fictional sociopathy. The result is people who aren't awkward nerds who are praised for their behavior, but also aren't just evil hedonists. They're brilliant, driven people with goals that run counter to conformity, but they reach these goals with the maximum collateral damage possible. Hence, by Series Two Sherlock has gone from not realizing Molly is asking him out when she asks for coffee to using his crime-solving perceptive skills to humiliate her as much as possible, and Zuck builds an incredible social network largely fueled by pure sadism.

It's not even an escape fantasy so much as this perception that in order to create incredible things, you have to give up weakness, and weakness is displayed by caring about others. The difference between these people and previous generations' villains is that these characters are doing something objectively good, not just causing brilliant destruction like Nolan's Joker. It's a fictionalized version of those management guides that tell people to emulate Steve Jobs and yell at their employees in order to "weed out mediocrity."
posted by Tubalcain at 11:57 AM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's not even an escape fantasy so much as this perception that in order to create incredible things, you have to give up weakness, and weakness is displayed by caring about others. The difference between these people and previous generations' villains is that these characters are doing something objectively good, not just causing brilliant destruction like Nolan's Joker.

SPOILERS for Series Two Sherlock: Sherlock shows his moral strength by sacrificing that which he most values, which is his own reputation. He would rather "die" a fraud than let harm come to his friends. Compare this to Moriarty, who would happily let himself be known as merely an actor, and who readily kills himself when it's the most utilitarian option for himself. Sherlock can be callous and cruel, but he does have a form of integrity, and that integrity shows itself in his willingness to sacrifice that which could be his. It's an interesting variation on the idea that we admire these callous anti-heroes because they lack weakness: Sherlock is not weak for caring about his friends, because he expresses this weakness as "sacrifice," i.e. something that is his and is under his own control.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:08 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


What I have noticed is the absurd tendency of socially maladroit men to label themselves "I'm probably a sociopath," in candid intimate heart-to-hearts. The identity of "monster" is a much more comfortable than fuck up and one other thing that being a diagnosed aspie has taught me is that social skills don't fall on a strict neurotypical VS autistic axis. The internal narrative becomes that they meant or don't care that their clumsiness injures people because the reality of having to be bad hurts so much embracing it feels better. And when sometimes they do act unkindly by choice (everyone does), the guilt sits easier.

It's like the first clue I find that someone is adrift and clueless is that they believe in being a master manipulator. Telling me you know what makes people tick is practically a cry for help.

Now myself in particular, I'm a moderate grade sadist. I don't think I'd be inclined to murder anyone, but torturing someone to tears is my idea of a great Friday night (though the ethical constraints of my proclivities mean my yin is matched with a masochistic yang who generally finishes up such escapades under a blanket, tea mug clutched in trembly hands and high as balls on endorphins, probably post orgasmic to boot) I can say all the aspie distance and detachment gets burned away by the horrific-awful-mean-bad.
posted by Phalene at 12:40 PM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


The impression I have gotten from the four sociopaths I've known too closely (and the three knife handles sticking out of my back) is that it isn't all that much fun to be them; life is a constant struggle against flatness and boredom, and the temptation to betray friends and create drama just for the sense of having something to do can be irresistable even when one knows it's stupid. The need to dominate or win can be excruciating when those things are out of reach. And no matter how well you cope, eventually you end up alone.
posted by localroger at 5:48 AM on April 4 [19 favorites +] [!]


You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need.
You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street,
You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed.
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.

And after a while, you can work on points for style.
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake,
A certain look in the eye and an easy smile.
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.

You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder.
You know it's going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you
get older.
And in the end you'll pack up and fly down south,
Hide your head in the sand,
Just another sad old man,
All alone and dying of cancer.

posted by Sebmojo at 1:42 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Pink Floyd, from 'Animals', ICYDRI)
posted by Sebmojo at 1:43 PM on April 4, 2012


Telling me you know what makes people tick is practically a cry for help.

isn't it just, though
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:07 PM on April 4, 2012


House and Draper aren't emotionless, they're practically HAUNTED by their emotions, they're just really good at managing them. The fact that they're included on this list (and Homer Simpson, really?) shows that a depressing amount of people haven't internalized the "be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle" maxim: it's imagining that people who don't break down and cry, or can hold themselves together, or overcome their own mental/physical/emotional shortcomings, or at the very least manage them to be functional and even successful in day-to-day life says more about the viewer's "empathy" than House, Draper, or Dexter's.

I don't think House and Draper are sociopaths either, but surely the idea that they are has more to do with their displays of extreme emotional cruelty towards sick, frightened people (House) and their callous treatment of people with whom they share intimate relationships (Draper) than with their amazing stoicism and success. I actually think Draper and perhaps especially House are terrible at managing their emotions. No, they don't go around in tears, but they certainly do express their pain, only in the most outwardly destructive ways they can. I have sympathy for them, but I don't think actual emotional fortitude looks anything like that.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:41 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Same goes for Snape in Harry Potter, another emotionally twisted character who gets a ton of undeserved credit for his emotional reserve. These people are all raging pits of misery who dole pain out precisely because they can't control themselves.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:45 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sebmojo: That's one of my favorite albums.

To expand on Phalene's comment a little, I think there is something of a continuum from unfeeling to hyper-feeling that goes a bit like this:
  1. Sociopaths
  2. Normal People
  3. Masochists
  4. Sadists
Sociopaths, as I wrote upthread, are driven by a lack of normal intensity limbic system feelings. There is one experiment, not replicated or anything, that suggests there might be a defect in the oxytocin neurotransmitter pathway. It's consistent enough in frequency and presentation that there's likely a physical cause.

Normal people are, well, normal. They seek pleasure and avoid pain and don't think about why all that much.

Masochists learn that properly contextualized pain can be perceived as pleasure, or as a "pleasure enhancer." Masochism is generally the exploration of hyper-feelings, feelings more intense than anything normal people ever experience. Much masochistic experience suggests that our pleasure/pain feedback system is modal, with the same pathways being used for both positive and negative feedback and with the mode setting subject to hacking. Masochism can also be learned by people who appear otherwise normal, because hyper-strong reward signals are hyper-strong rewards.

Sadists derive most of our pleasure vicariously. We do all the work and our partners get all the intense sensations, and we are fulfilled by that. (If we weren't, we'd probably switch. I never switch. I have zero interest in going under myself.) Our joy is found in the skilled manipulation of someone else's feelings, in their loss of control and their fear as they are overwhelmed by what we create.

There's a little parallel here with the sociopath's pleasure in victory and dominance, but it's really very different, as sociopath #2, the only woman of my four, spent hours explaining to me. She loved the art of manipulating people, and she found me fascinating on general principle (different = shiny + interesting) but she found it baffling that I'd go to so much effort for so little personal reward.

People have the misconception that sociopaths are cruel. My experience is that they act cruel, usually because it displays dominance and as with everything else they do all out of proportion to the feeling they get out of the damage they cause. But they don't take moustache-twirling cackling pleasure in their cruelty. (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dead-on portrayal of this flat-aspect faux-cruel streak.)

To enjoy cruelty you have to be capable of enjoyment, and of empathy -- things true sociopaths don't do well. Most of the pop-lit "sociopaths" the OP is thinking of are really conflations of sadistic and sociopathic traits that IME are rarely found in the same people. After all, taking cackling glee in someone else's pain isn't really consistent with deadpan acting about anything.

Perhaps that's why James Bond always comes out ahead -- he's a sociopath, and most of his enemies are sadists. Sadists are about having fun. Sociopaths are about winning.
posted by localroger at 4:09 PM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


In regards to male/female distribution of sociopathy--

Mealey (1995) The sociobiology of sociopathy:
"sociopaths are individuals on the extreme end of a normal distribution whose genetic component is (1) polygenic and (2) to a large degree, sexlimited. [Sex- limited genes, not to be confused with sex-linked genes, are those which are located on the autosomes of both sexes but which are triggered into expression only within the chemical/ hormonal microenvironment of one sex or the other. Common examples include beard and mustache growth in men, and breast and hip development in women.] If a large number of the many genes underlying sociopathy are triggered by testosterone or some other androgen, many more men than women will pass the threshold of the required number of active genes necessary for its outward expression. According to the two-threshold model, those females who do express the trait must have a greater overall “dose” or “genetic load” (i.e, they are further out in the extreme of the normal distribution of genotypes) than most of the males who express the trait."
posted by ohshenandoah at 5:19 PM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, it takes all kinds to make up a human society. Darwinian genetic variation creates both conformists and non-conformists, successes and failures, oddballs and introverts, some genuinely nice people, and a few amoral alpha chimps who bully everyone around them until they get bit by a venomous snake, and then everyone in the tribe laughs at them as they suffer for their hubris. Nietzsche had some pretty odd views on this question, which Freud thought were strange but interesting...
posted by ovvl at 6:55 PM on April 4, 2012


ohshenandoah -- based on an excessive and unpleasant history of personal experience, I have to say that sociopathy has nothing to do with sex at all. But it's easier for a sociopathic woman to pull off the acting job necessary to pass as normal because women are expected to act a role in more ways than men, and an imperfect ability to do that still looks natural and conformist.

Sociopathy isn't just a state people drift into. It's a very specific defect which is easy to recognize once you've been hit over the head a few times. People have been writing about it for more than 200 years and neither the description nor the estimate of what fraction of the population is afflicted changes much. And if you have never had the dubious privilege of meeting (and finding out the hard way that you've met) an actual sociopath, you have no idea.
posted by localroger at 7:01 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think one of the problems with the psychopath/sociopath/autistic or sadist descriptions is that the characteristics that make people possibly go off the rails are not predetermined and among those who do, there's often co-morbidity with impulses that are very counter to the health of the person- and rely heavily on other factors if they do get away with say, murder. Pickton, one must assume, thrived because Canada doesn't have the culture or resources to protect marginalized women but otherwise seems to fit the criteria of ASPD (anti social personality disorder). ASPD is characterized by impulsive behaviour and aggressiveness; this is not a cunning plotter. Heck, so is being a psychopath- these people are not exactly patient, they're immature. Their emotions are both present and dominate them- proto-emotions about immediate needs, basically a toddler walking around in an adult's body.

Autistic people, including those on the aspie spectrum, also have plenty of emotions, they just don't always experience them related to the same things the average human might. When Sherlock says "I'm a high functioning sociopath (not a psychopath)" the writer gave him a line where ASPD doesn't fit the character either, he sounds like just another wistful no-social-skills type putting on a hat. And honestly think we don't know what the hell we're doing when we're trying to figure our pathological personalities and psychology is still even disputing what a personality is and what to measure it with, whether OCEAN or Myers Briggs or some other test.
posted by Phalene at 8:59 PM on April 4, 2012


I do not wish to delve into the DSM or any other authority in the field of psychology, where the usefulness of sociopathy as a diagnostic category is in any case disputed. Yet as I understand it, real-life sociopaths are pitiable creatures indeed.
I was with the author up to this point. I read this as, "I should touch on the real science of sociopathy here, but I don't understand it."

Real-life sociopaths aren't even called sociopaths anymore. Sociopathy is called antisocial personality disorder in the DSM-IV.

I get the R. D. Laing angle on mental illness as a sort of liberation from the shackles of society and what have you, but this thinking tends to wander into mythologizing of mental illness. People suffering from antisocial personality disorder are certainly not liberated from anything.
posted by deathpanels at 9:14 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Moving from the mythology of the sociopath to the science of the person diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder is a good step, but why stop there? Some would move from the mythology of antisocial personality disorder to the perspective that Personality Disorders are Not Mental Illnesses
posted by rebent at 7:47 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally agree with the couple of folks upthread mentioning in their firsthand encounters with sociopaths they were just left with an impression of feeling sort of bad/pity for the sociopath. I've only encountered one, but her life seemed terribly empty and once you recognized the patterns of forced drama she instilled it with to add color, you just felt sorry for her because she seemed pathetic and out of control. And the dawning realization she would never (at least not in her current mental/emotional state) really know how to love someone, what that feels like, was the saddest thing. It seems to doom the person to never knowing self-actualization.
posted by ifjuly at 9:36 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sociopathy is definitely a thing, and it is not ASPD. Sociopathy is very frustrating for psychiatrists because it doesn't always result in criminal behavior, as unpleasant as it is it can in some situations be adaptive, and it has stubbornly failed to respond to any treatment regime ever devised of any type, whether drug or therapy, despite two centuries of trying. Apparently the DSM-IV authors were trying for a less judgemental / more objective definition and defined the thing that was observed by Theophrastus and described by Pinel right out of existence.

I know sociopaths don't feel emotions at normal levels because I've had long talks with four of them comparing notes, and their accounts match and at those times I think they were in a mood to be level with me. (That can change in about 15 minutes no matter how close you think you are to a sociopath, but I'm pretty good at reading that weather report now.) They very consistently regard things we regard as consuming, passion inducing, or terrifying as games best played for maximum point return. This isn't something they drifted into or a failure of socialization; it's a pervasive and lifelong perception that the world is flat and sterile and other people are suckers for letting it get to them. None of my sociopathic ex-friends could remember feeling the kinds of emotions I described, and while a couple of them saw the advantage of being more involved in the world all four took pride in their relative ability to seize control of and dominate whatever social game they were playing. Emotional relationships were just games played for points so as to maximize one's return, and ended quickly when the points can't be made or can be made more readily elsewhere.

All four of them also convinced me for some time that I was an exception for them and that they really liked my company -- actually, I think they all did like my company, inasmuch as such people ever like anything, but it's just that the boredom always suggests a dramatic diversion eventually and they're not deterred by the potential consequences. I eventually realized that their defect makes them consummate actors; normally, when you make an expression with your face, you tend to feel the emotion your'e expressing. It's wired in. And this is distracting if you aren't really feeling that emotion or you are faking it. But sociopaths can feign love and joy and friendship without the distraction of real feelings being generated by their facial posturing. A normal person simply can't do that; even with a lifetime of training professional actors have to work around their own emotions. That's why acting takes training and is so hard to do well. The sociopath can simply emulate any expression he's seen work for someone else, though, without it affecting his plan. Or, more accurately, his plan to score points in the game.
posted by localroger at 9:59 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sociopathy is definitely a thing, and it is not ASPD.

Maybe, but that's changing the general clinical use of the term. Other options include things on the narcissistic/borderline camp, etc... But the thing about psychiatric definitions is that they need to be vaguely helpful in labelling a problem, and if they're not committing crimes, then landing in the care of a psychiatrist means you have to be unhappy or impeded by your condition. If you don't break the law, breach of relationship status expectations (for example) is nobody's business. It's not -nice- but being an asshole is a right under how we structure things at the moment.
posted by Phalene at 2:41 PM on April 5, 2012


But the thing about psychiatric definitions is that they need to be vaguely helpful in labelling a problem

Well, it's this mistaken belief that caused the clinicians to corrupt what was a perfectly sensible description; they simply don't like the idea that, while the condition can be described and identified quite reliably by anyone who has met a few examples, there's not really anything you can do about it. Treatment is useless; there are no courses of treatment that have any effect (except therapy, which makes it worse by giving the sociopath lessons on how to act more effectively), and commingling sociopathy with things like narcissism, borderline personality, or autism which do sometimes respond to treatment actually makes the whole field worse by simply being wrong.
posted by localroger at 3:13 PM on April 5, 2012


Treatment is useless; there are no courses of treatment that have any effect (except therapy, which makes it worse by giving the sociopath lessons on how to act more effectively), and commingling sociopathy with things like narcissism, borderline personality, or autism which do sometimes respond to treatment actually makes the whole field worse by simply being wrong.

Assuming the person is able to feed/shelter themselves and not plagued with impulse control problems or emotional distress, they don't have a problem in the medical sense. If they do have a problem it's generally something like "I am depressed because I feel like I make no lasting connections with people (because I try to win in everything)" or "My compulsive affairs border on a sexual addiction, so this sucks, now what?" It's not mental health's job to brain wash people out of being jerks.

That being said autism doesn't respond to treatment, you can only instill coping techniques with the symptoms and BPD generally needs something like consenting participation in cognitive behavioural therapy- hell all the personality disorders need patient compliance otherwise they're intractable. It's only the biochemical psychosis or emotional disturbances on the depression/anxiety scale that people can be drugged into relative health without consent.
posted by Phalene at 7:16 PM on April 5, 2012


Assuming the person is able to feed/shelter themselves and not plagued with impulse control problems or emotional distress, they don't have a problem in the medical sense.

If people like me who have learned to recognize them have figured out that the only way to deal with people like them is to RUN, they have a problem in the practical sense.

People who, unlike me, have not learned about them have a different practical problem which they will find out about the hard way.

You're right that medicine and law cannot deal with this problem. That does not mean it doesn't exist.

autism doesn't respond to treatment

I was under the impression that in some cases it does respond to intensive mirror therapy. Didn't Rain Man improve a lot after watching the movie made of his life 67,000 times?

In any case it's open IMO whether autism is biochemical or developmental in nature. I have no doubt whatsoever that sociopathy is biochemical. There is something fucking wrong with these people, not wrong like I got traumatically diddled at an impressionable age or nobody touched me when I was young or my parents spent my whole childhood telling me how worthless I am or my Dad died when I was 5 and I can't shake the feeling it's my fault. It's wrong like an important piece of navigational hardware never came online in the first place. It is very definitely, unmistakably, and consistently wrong.
posted by localroger at 7:53 PM on April 5, 2012


« Older Rhyme for rhyme til the mic stops working   |   Who the hell is ‘Prof. Brian J... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post