Confessions of a sociopath: A life spent hiding in plain sight
“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”
- Dante Alighieri
Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a sociopath? Or maybe you would rather not even think about it? M. E. Thomas (a pseudonym), the author of Confessions of a sociopath: A life spent hiding in plain sight doesn’t need to imagine it, she experiences it every day. She is a diagnosed sociopath, and one that seems to enjoy that state. She decided to share her experiences with a broader audience, first on her blog (www.sociopathworld.com) and recently also in a book.
Before I started reading the book, I quickly flipped through the pages. One sentence popped out: "Ruining people is delicious. (...) I indulge in inserting myself into a person's psyche and quietly wreaking as much havoc as I can." It sounds more like an excerpt from a psychological thriller written by Jeffrey Deaver than a real account. After I started reading the book, the general tone was the same. In the opening scene, the author describes how she dispassionately watches a baby opposum drown in her swimming pool - it wouldn’t benefit her directly to rescue the opossum and being a passive witness to someone’s suffering doesn’t mean much to her.
If you feel morally disgusted by this behavior, it is a good indication that you are not a sociopath. Asking about how it feels to be a sociopath might be a wrong strategy, as seemingly sociopaths experience emotions in a quite different way. Although they are still prone to anger, they have a much higher threshold of experiencing fear, not to mention moral emotions, such as guilt, shame or condemnation. Thomas cites research done by Jean Decety showing that dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, responsible for modulating emotional moral judgments, are less active in sociopathic brains. Even though this demonstrates a biological basis of sociopathy, categorizing sociopathy as a strictly biological condition would undermine the importance of environmental influences on biological conditions and differences.
In fact, it might be better to ask how a sociopath thinks and perceives the world. Basically, a sociopath sees her social environment as a power play in which she needs to win. The goal in itself - the money or someone’s humiliation - is less important than the act of winning. Thomas is constantly monitoring her social environment to gain knowledge about other people’s weaknesses and possibilities to win. As she doesn’t have the intuitive understanding of social reactions, she must meticulously research human behavior so that she can adapt successfully and reach her goals. Needless to say, as an intelligent sociopath she is extremely successful at it - she used to work as a regarded attorney and nowadays teaches law as an academic professor.
When you think about Dr. House (American TV series, ed.) you can get an idea as to how lack of empathy can increase someone’s professional skills in certain areas. The ability to make unbiased and rational decisions, together with the insatiable need for power often brings sociopaths to high managerial positions. Depending on intelligence, sociopaths can be found in either prisons or at Wall Street. Additionally, sociopaths’ inability to experience emotions protects them from mood disorders, such as depressions and anxieties. However, there is a trade-off. Research on decisions shows, for example, that emotions can help us make better decisions rather than hindering us (e.g. Stephen & Pham, 2008). Fear might be a warning signal when a situation gets too risky, protecting us from investigating too much in options that might have negative (long-term) effects. There are also other advantages of emotions that we usually don’t think about, such as learning how to be careful with dangerous tools. An illustrative example of how the lack of emotions can be hindering in simple tasks can be found in the book: Thomas admits that she doesn’t use knives anymore because she couldn’t get herself to be more careful with them.
The book definitely brings important questions about the traditional understanding of morality and subsequent cruelty resulting in “honor” killings, religious wars or Guantanamo, in comparison to meticulous acts of sociopathic violence. The title of the first chapter “I’m a sociopath and so are you” painfully points out the selfishness of some “empathic” behaviors. The calculating manner of interacting with others can be seen as just a different shade of how “normal” people act. Thomas questions our double morality: when accused of a nasty crime, would you rather be defended by an empathic lawyer who is morally disgusted with your deed or would you choose a sociopathic one, who would look for the best strategy to win the trial?
While reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder - why has Thomas written such a self-disclosing book? Both on her blog and in her private life, she admits to disclosing as little information about her identity and personal life as possible, so where does the need for a confession comes from? In an interview, Thomas admitted that it might be another form of risk-seeking behavior. The fact that she can be disclosed and stigmatized thrills her and provides a necessary dose of adrenaline. Additionally, the book is a memorial to her achievements in ruining people, thus feeds her narcissism. She admits that “my story lines focus on how smart I am or how well I play a situation” and she often refers to herself as a predator - unscrupulous, unemotional, smart and always looking for new victims.
I can definitely recommend reading Thomas’s book. If for nothing else, then to understand the sociopathic mind better. One person out of 25 is a sociopath, so based on statistical grounds we are bound to meet some on our way. The book definitely has a hypnotic quality to it - it is interesting, entertaining and very well written. One of the sociopathic features is the ability to maintain unbroken eye-contact, which makes most people feel uneasy, like a mouse hypnotized by a cobra. When you read the book you might also feel hypnotized and you can’t stop reading. But although you might gain more knowledge and might be able to understand a sociopathic mind on a cognitive level, it is much more difficult to “feel” it. And it is probably better this way.