Recent events have increased my curiosity about sociopaths—terrorists, mass shootings, politicians, The Big Short, and non-criminal business people who use others to get what they want. I’d like to share what I’ve found.*
Who’s a sociopath?
Sociopaths (or psychopaths or people with antisocial personality disorder) make up about 4 percent of the population. That’s actually quite high. Think about 25 people you know personally. One of them is likely to be a sociopath—a person without a conscience, a person who knows right from wrong but doesn’t care. Did I get your attention?
Relax, because very few sociopaths are murderers. They are mostly manipulative moochers who delight in charming and swindling others. That in itself can be devastating too, so do take care to avoid being one of their victims.
Sociopaths are nearly always invisible because we make excuses for their behavior. We can’t fathom someone wanting to hurt us just for the sake of it so we attribute other reasons to their transgressions, like “it was a mistake” or “they are immature” or “clueless” or just “weird.” We cannot imagine living without guilt or empathy. It’s like trying to imagine infinity. We just can’t do it, so we don’t see it even when it’s right in front of our eyes.
Don’t worry, even experts get taken in by sociopaths. You are not a sucker for being duped by one yourself.
How do you spot a sociopath?
“The combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person’s forehead as you will ever be given.” –Martha Stout, Ph.D.
Think about an employee who works for a sociopathic boss. The boss may repeatedly bark out orders at his employee to do outrageous things, like respond immediately to his impulsive urgent demands or produce an enormous amount of work in an unreasonable amount of time. When the employee finally gets the nerve to speak up, the boss looks sad and launches into a sob story about how bad a communicator he is and turns the whole thing around until the employee is consoling him instead of getting the boss to back off. He’ll take it one step further and tell the employee how extraordinary she is and how much he appreciates her. She is thrilled at the compliment and is hooked.
The pity play
When you pity someone, or have sympathy for them, they have you wrapped around their finger. If someone treats you badly then breaks down sobbing when you call them on it, you’ll likely cave in and reassure them rather than get your needs met. Beware! For a sociopath, that’s exactly how they want it.
Are sociopaths good for business?
It could be argued that the corporate world supports sociopathic behavior. We justify conscienceless actions by saying a company’s only obligation is to maximize profits for its shareholders. We rationalize paying hard-nosed executives excessive bonuses by saying it’s the only way to attract the “best” ones—the ones who will maximize profitability for the shareholders. Paradoxically, executives tend to receive their bonuses in these very shares.
The corporate world rewards sociopathic leaders. We admire the leader who gets results and overlook the means he uses to get them. Look at how many tyrants are in leadership positions in organizations. We excuse their unacceptable interpersonal behavior by saying they’re invaluable to the company, quietly settling sexual harassment suits to keep them in power. We have a high regard for leaders who are able to make the “tough decisions,” like reducing healthcare benefits or laying off thousands of workers to improve profits for the shareholders.
Smart, driven sociopaths can be highly successful business people. They rise to the top, wield great power and earn large amounts of money, leaving a silent path of destruction in their wake. They use charm and determination to get what they want at other people’s expense but no one sees it because they believe the leader is working for the good of the company, not just themselves. Remember, a sociopath has no conscience; they are only in it for themselves and they carry others along only to the extent that it helps them.
The problem with sociopaths in business is they often trip up. Another characteristic of a sociopath is excessive boredom. Sociopaths tend to make risky decisions for the thrill of it. When a sociopath is making risky decisions for a company, it can land the company in dire straits. No worry for the sociopath though, because she will likely land on her feet elsewhere. The investors and employees, however, will be left with a big mess.
*This blog post is based on information in the book The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, by Martha Stout, Ph.D.