Lawyers who practice criminal defense wear many hats. Those who visit our offices arrive there in many ways. Some have been falsely accused. Some are productive citizens who made a bad decision. Some create legal problems through immaturity and will ultimately grow and learn through their brush with the law. Some of them, well…let’s face it, are sociopaths. Many estimate that three percent of all people are sociopaths. Whether you practice law or not, it is an important life skill to know how to deal with them…
I am not qualified to discuss psychology; however, through working in the criminal justice system for twenty years, I believe that I can pass along a useful framework, more art than science, for understanding the perspective of people who have no empathy or human feelings as most people understand them. There are many numerous destructive personality types or traits, including narcissism or explosive anger, which land their owners in trouble with the law. A sociopath is a more general description, however, of someone who is incapable of empathy. That is to say, a sociopath feels no more discomfort in watching a fellow human suffer than he would feel in watching a dandelion being picked. This is not a choice. They do not see suffering and choose to ignore it. Rather, they simply are not capable of feeling it. To explain the difference, think of something you are unlikely to feel, such as euphoria at eating a raw beet. Now compare this to something that you literally could not feel, such as hearing a high frequency sound that is out of the range of the human ear. This is the difference. They are hard wired not to even slightly sense the emotions of others. They are very sensitive, however to their own feelings.
Sociopaths are usually expert at imitating human emotion, particularly empathy. This is a skill that they learn at an early age. For that reason, they are often quite charming. People who complain of their misdeeds are often not believed at first. Contrary to Hollywood, sociopaths are not all serial killers or even cruel people. Just like others, their abilities or potential do not always define their behavior. Like everyone else, they have tastes and preferences. The fact that they are capable of cold-blooded murder does not mean that they will choose to commit one. In the same way that not all tall people play basketball, sociopaths are not all interested in violence or cruelty.
However, in my experience, they do tend to enjoy playing games with people. Dishonestly taking credit for a project at work, cheating at school, or convincing a neighbor to move his fence - what these days is called “drama” - is the realm of the non-violent sociopath. They feel no guilt about it, and it must be fun and exciting for those who cannot feel any consequences. Sociopaths leave a trail of betrayed friends and lovers, abandoned family members, hurt co-workers and broken confidences more often than a trail of bodies in shallow graves.
So, how do they think? Why do they bother to play games with people when they have no feelings about them? The best metaphor I have come up with is this. When I was younger, I used to play chess. One year, my parents got me a chess computer. After a few years, a teacher noticed that I played chess, and she asked me if I would travel to the elementary school and play against one small child every day. The elementary school teachers the game as a reward for good behavior. For me to understand how a sociopath thinks, I compare the feeling of playing against the computer to the feeling of playing against the child. Against a computer, there is no emotion, but still there is the thrill of the game. Against a young child, feelings must be considered. The desire for victory must be balanced against the desire to provide an enjoyable game and a positive experience for the child. For a sociopath, in my opinion, all human interaction is like playing chess with the computer. There can be stunning victories or loses in the game. There is excitement, tension and victory or defeat. But there is no emotional component to it – only the thrill of the game. That is how sociopaths see their relationships with others – as a chance for excitement, a chance to battle back and forth to keep the day interesting. But they can no more feel the effect that the game has on the others playing any more than I could have felt bad for beating the chess computer.
So, how do you deal with someone is expert at manipulating you, enjoys playing games with you, and feels no shame for doing it? The answer is first, to recognize the most common plays of the sociopath. The most common sign is the pity play. Sociopaths know that the easiest way to manipulate people is to get their sympathy. Expect them to invent sad stories. It makes them seem vulnerable, and kind people want to help the vulnerable. In a professional setting, if you must deal with them, draw boundries and stick with them. If you must supervise a sociopath or work as a peer, never let your guard down or let that person into your personal life. They will keep pushing until they find a vulnerability to exploit. The best way to deal with a sociopath, once you recognize the signs, is simply to walk away. You are not likely to come out of the relationship unscathed, and you can not change a personality disorder.