Part Two: Understanding sociopaths and their role in our writing and lives
In my first article about this, I looked at what a sociopath is, what distinguishes them from a “psychopath” (sometimes!), and some of the real-world implications of these differences. Now I’m going to explore deeper into what difference these insights can bring to our lives and particularly our writing.
What makes someone become a sociopath?
As far as I can tell, there are no good answers to this, just some correlating factors, so instead of anything scientifically tested, here’s my two cents.
I think that a sociopath is not medically different from other human beings in any clinical way. Maybe any of us could have turned into one. Instead, a sociopath is someone who makes a decision – in a specific situation, probably early in life – that “They don’t understand me and they never will.” (The ‘they’ may initially be their parents or peers or teachers or whoever, but it grows into a much more encompassing view of ‘everyone else’ over time.) This opinion becomes entrenched by actions and interpretations of what happens in life, because of the self-affirming bias that we know all human beings are subject to. It’s been well demonstrated, for example, how someone who makes little lies can quickly become desensitized to lying, and their lies can grow ever greater regardless of whether they’ve been ‘found out’ by others. (And lying is often a ‘classic sociopathic behavior’.)
I think my teasing explanation here can easily help us understand how (for example) a spoilt child, or one from a chaotic family, might be more likely to become a sociopath than people in a ‘normal loving family’, but that even in ‘happy families’, any sibling might turn out this way depending on their experiences in life and how they choose to interpret them.
So, like in the rest of this article, I’m suggesting a simple working hypothesis here, to help writers craft their characters. Not an iron rule to assume about every person who rubs you the wrong way in life. These tools can also do a lot of harm if they’re ignorantly or presumptuously misapplied – so apologies whenever I start repeating myself about that point, because it mustn’t be forgotten. Theories are just a prism.
Can a sociopath be ‘treated’ and ‘cured’?
Again, as far as I’m aware, there are no good answers to indicate that they can; the answer probably would lie in therapy, but therapy relies on the consent of the individual in order to succeed, and as I’ve suggested, the engrained personality traits of a sociopath may be a personal choice that has become increasingly hard-wired over time, and are now utterly integral to that person’s sense of self.
Sociopaths may well be drawn to particular drugs – I suspect cocaine appeals to them particularly well – and I imagine that most drug addicts become sociopaths by default as a result of their addiction. So, effective drug treatments can therefore be effective on these people, but again only if the person actually wants to change (and we should resist the moral temptation to label it as “get better” – sociopaths probably don’t think that having a conscience is better than not having one, in fact they might think it’s a foolish weakness).
Disheartening as this may be in life – for writers it’s actually good news. Because if the “evil character” in our stories actually wanted to “get better”, that would probably undermine the story we want to tell, a lot. And the fact that a ‘true sociopath’ will never relent – however wrong they are – helps us legitimize our “heroes” and the battle against them, and their final defeat. I also suspect that sociopaths have no true loyalties, other than to themselves and to whatever their goals are. As Stout points out, in the long term, they will probably lose sooner or later as a result of this arrogance and lack of trustworthiness (though in life there are clearly some cases where it’s only once they’re dead: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-37517619).
In THE SOPRANOS we can watch an acclaimed series in which nearly all the men are probably sociopaths, by the definitions of this article – and very engaging ones who we want to spend time with, which is a sign of the quality of the writing and its convincing portrayal of realistic characters of this type. There’s an amusing exchange in the final series in which Tony’s longstanding therapist, Dr. Melfi, is told by colleagues that the latest evidence indicates that therapy empowers sociopaths and helps them legitimize themselves and achieve their goals, rather than “making them better”. Her relationship with Tony breaks down for good soon after. He never does “get better”. It’s unlikely he ever wanted to. Whether he realized it or not, he just used the sessions to help him understand his situation and achieve his goals in life – many of which were highly relatable (strong family, etc) and keep us rooting for him throughout, in spite of the ‘violent’ or ‘evil’ aspects of his life.
Sociopaths in your life
If someone in your life does something shocking that you can’t understand the reasons for, you might usually ask yourself “Why would they do that?”, and spend a lot of unhappy time trying to piece the answer together. Encounters with sociopaths often leave people deeply hurt and mentally scarred for life for this reason. However, if that person is actually a sociopath, your question is the wrong way round. If it happens that this is a person who doesn’t have a conscience, nor guilt, regret or remorse – then why wouldn’t they do it?
These people can take on any identity that they choose in life. In fact, they might be particularly drawn to certain positive identities, because they know it will give them a position of strength and influence from which they can get their wicked way and be shielded and protected by their institution or company or the wider Establishment within their country. Because they do have empathy, sociopaths can be extremely convincing liars and emotional manipulators. This makes them very dangerous romantic partners, colleagues and bosses. Martha Stout’s book THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR is a guide to recognizing and coping with them – but her ultimate advice is basically to “avoid them”. Not much use if they’re already powerfully embedded in your life or community, or have already ruined your life. But at least understanding them can help you cope and move on.
Because of their self-centred attitude to life, Sociopaths are the sort of people who often treat life as a game, get whatever they can from a situation and move on shamelessly when things get messy – leaving people of conscience to live with the consequences and pick up the pieces. Lots of bad managers and politicians work in this way – and there are reasons why these roles would appeal more to sociopaths than to people who experience self-doubt or guilt in life, and why sociopaths would naturally progress more effectively once inside a professional sphere like these.
It seems to me that a true sociopath is unlikely to genuinely believe in God, Heaven or Hell. Because if you arrogantly don’t believe in deserving to face any of the negative consequences of your actions on Earth – then you probably also think that other people are deeply foolish to let their lives be stunted by fear of eternal punishment from some unseen force that you’ve never seen for yourself. If you look at the real people who are presented as ‘evil’ within religious texts, you can easily see a rollcall of sociopathic personality traits, being exhibited by people who clearly value earthly powers and pleasures over going to Heaven or being vilified by History. Tyrants, greedy people, and people corrupted by ‘temptations of the flesh’ in those texts are usually demonstrating classically sociopathic traits, methods and motivations – and are typically presented in a very one-dimensional way, in the many books of the Bible and Qur’an that I’ve read. They – and so many of the most destructive people from history – only care about succeeding on their own terms within their own lifetimes, and couldn’t care less about the opinions of others after they are dead. And if you look at the edicts for being a ‘good’ person in religious texts, it’s tempting to say that a very high proportion of religious instruction is really just a guide to not living your life as a sociopath, and to focusing instead on doing good in the belief that you’ll be rewarded for it, even if you never see any sign or reward for that during your life. And thank goodness they do: in spite of modern misconceptions, religion at its heart is history’s most powerful force against sociopaths and the evils that they can generate whenever they get into positions of power and influence. We shouldn’t judge religions themselves because some bad people use them as cover for pursuing their own malign goals and ideologies.
Seeing the world afresh
Now that we know that a sociopath may not come across as being ‘different’ from the general population in any observable way, which famous people’s behaviour and attitudes make you wonder whether they are exhibiting the personality traits of a sociopath? Many of them might actually be pursuing positive goals – maybe vaingloriously. Of course, we can never know if someone really is a sociopath. Come up with a notional ‘watchlist’ (probably best not to write it down) and learn from their behaviour traits. Because of their single-mindedness and ruthlessness, maybe we can all learn something from their approach to life. (And, fortunately, the ambition and lack of loyalties we see in sociopaths means that a lot of the time they are battling and jostling one another, rather than jointly perpetuating the kind of global conspiracies that a lot of people find easier to believe than the muddled truth.)
Now go back to the sentences you wrote during my previous article, that begin “How could anyone…”. Answer them with a sentence that begins:
Because if that person was a sociopath…
The answer of course is that if someone is a sociopath, with no conscience and guilt and shame whatsoever, there’s no reason they wouldn’t do something, unless it was of no interest to them or they thought it would do themselves more harm than good in the long run.
Sociopaths as characters
Clearly, a very high proportion of ‘strong’ antagonists (and many protagonists too) in stories are likely to be sociopaths – but this can take a huge number of forms. Take a look at these familiar character identities and see whether you would consider them to be more likely to be a psychopath, a sociopath, or someone who’s probably not clinically different from the general population… think of the characters (and people) you’ve come across who fit these bills.
Maverick – Genius – Womanizer – computer hacker – ‘femme fatale’ – unscrupulous boss – murderer – serial killer – slimy/lazy boss – hard-nosed businessman – asshole – douche – bully – molestor/rapist – egotist – prodigy – young high flyer – drug addict – ‘difficult’ artist/musician – diva
Come back to these in six months’ time and see how you feel then. Life experience, and watching what other people do in the world over the time, gives a very important insight and perspective.
It’s worth noting that (for example) Harry Potter and Voldemort both have the same horrendous orphan backstories, and magic powers. But one turns out to be a sociopath as a youth and the other doesn’t. That’s all that’s between them, and it’s the driving force of the story. Maybe Harry owes more to his upbringing among the Dursley family than we realize – Tom Riddle/Voldemort grows up in an orphanage. (Voldemort may be a psychopath too, but he does show some ability for emotional manipulation as a teenager – towards Professor Slughorn for example – which may indicate a capacity for empathy. And, of course, it’s perfectly possible to be both a psychopath and a sociopath: life is a moving 3D spectrum, not a dropdown menu.)
Now look at your own antagonist characters. Which of them make more sense if you consider them to be a sociopath? Which ones are just well-intentioned people who are caught on the wrong side of some important cultural divide (such as the fathers in EAST IS EAST and BILLY ELLIOT)?
I’m suggesting all this, not because it’s necessarily all true, but because for a writer, this sort of insight into what makes a real character or villain work, is invaluable as a tool. Keep a healthy skepticism towards this whole subject, especially if you’re tempted to draw conclusions about real people in life, because jumping to conclusions could get you into a heck of a lot of trouble. I’ll link again to this critical New York Times review to remind us about why we shouldn’t let one book warp our view of life. But hopefully writers can find useful approaches in this that are well worth drawing from. Make up your own minds, and find your own answers to the questions I’ve raised in these articles.
Review from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/06/books/review/the-sociopath-next-door-ruthless-people.html?_r=0
One final thought. Stout’s subtitle, ‘The Ruthless Against the Rest of Us’. I think maybe we should update Marx’s claim that all history is class struggle, with something more like this: all history is a struggle between sociopaths and everybody else. Of course, it’s not quite true. But it’s an interesting angle to take on things. And as a writer, that’s what we should always be looking for.