Tuesday, July 18, 2006

sociopaths: a field guide

I'm no psychiatrist, but I generally consider myself a good judge of human character (who doesn't?) so it's particularly rough on my self-image when I err. I am not a devious person by nature, so it doesn't always dawn on me when other people are being deceitful. And there are plenty of people out there whose entire raison d'etre is to deceive. I think for some, the need to lie is so ingrained into their method of survival that they actually lose their ability to discern truth from fiction. And this is what makes them so dangerous--to themselves and others--as well as difficult to detect: they honestly believe what they're telling you, at least at the moment they're telling it.

So if you're in a relationship, business or personal, with a person who exhibits more than a couple of the following behaviors, do not pass Go, get the hell outta Dodge--but you might want to grab that $200 on your way out because it's likely the only compensation you'll ever see.
  1. Chronic liars are mostly easily spotted because they tell small lies, what you might call "white lies," for no obvious reason. They concoct elaborate fictions when telling the truth--or saying nothing--would be simpler. They may do this to a third party even if you're standing there and you know the truth. If you don't contradict them, they know you'll be complicit. If you become more intimate with this person, they will expect you to back up their lies. And they will lie to you. Don't kid yourself about that point.
  2. When you do catch them in a lie, depending on the severity, they will either deny it or use charm to get out of trouble. They may justify it, but they will more likely construct an even more complicated story to validate the perceived discrepancy. If they are absolutely forced to the wall, they may cave under and flagellate themselves: "You're right, I'm a horrible person, I don't know why you put up with me.... *sob*..." until you relent.
  3. They are cagey about numbers, particularly when it comes to money and time. You can't pin them down to a schedule. You never know quite where they are. You end up spending more of your money on joint projects/purchases and they're always going to "pay you back."
  4. They always seem to have money for fun things, but not for essentials. They always have enough money to buy presents, buy back your goodwill in a crisis.
  5. They can always sweet-talk others into doing things for them but they never seem to reciprocate; they have a bad back, or a damaged knee, or are committed elsewhere, or are just too busy.
  6. They give the impression of working harder than anybody but never have anything to show for it. Regular displays of martyrdom are essential.
  7. They are often gregarious, but never seem to have any close friends. They have a wide range of acquaintances that they keep at arm's length, because their behavior can't withstand extended close scrutiny. They may be two-faced, accusing others of being phony or dishonest.
  8. Paranoia is a bonus. A recount of their day will largely involve how somebody tried to screw them or they put the screws to someone else. Somebody is always out to get them. If there's one thing I learned in retail, it's that the guilty customer is quickest to go on the offensive.
  9. When anything goes wrong, it's someone else's fault. Probably yours.
  10. Nothing is ever wrong, ever. If there's a crisis, they'll take care of it. They can't tell you how or when, they just tell you not to worry about it, it's no big deal, they'll take care of it.
  11. They borrow things and never return them.
  12. They steal. And if caught, they tell you they only meant to borrow.
  13. They tell you little bits of the truth, like, "Oh, I placed a little $10 bet this week in the office pool, didn't I tell you?" and you say, "Oh, that's okay," when the fact is they lost a thousand on the big game last Sunday.
  14. They usually have addictions. Some more destructive than others. Some more obvious than others. The question here is, which came first? Did the lying develop to cover for the addiction or did the addiction develop to placate the guilt over lying? Or do they both have the same not-yet-understood root cause? Does it matter?
Bottom line, sociopaths USE people. Depending on their needs and the severity of their disconnection from reality, they may feed off your time, your money, your affection, or all of the above. For a while, you may get what you need out of the relationship, as well, and you may think you can maintain a balance, but sociopaths are vampiric in nature: they're selfish and single-minded. Once a sociopath finds a giver he takes and takes until the source is tapped out, or wises up and severs ties.

In print, most of this looks like simple immaturity, but what's acceptable in a five-year-old is not acceptable in an adult. Anyone over the age of five should have a basic grasp of fair play, for example telling the truth, paying back what you owe someone, sharing toys and dividing labor. For a grown-up to not have a grasp of these basic concepts.... well, it's mentally deficient.


AJ Milne said...

That's all very well and good, but I'm still lost on this: how do you tell a hairy sociopath from a downy sociopath?

(Thinks about it...)

Okay. That was a lot funnier to me before I got the visual.

Birder jokes aside: I hope you're doing okay. It all sounds like stuff learned the hard way.

Anonymous said...

It has been my observation that most lying sacks of dirt think everyone is a lying sack of dirt. They are incapable of understanding honesty: mental deficiency to the nth power.

I agree with AJ. I figure the insights posted here were learned in the School of Hard Knocks.

A hairy sociopath has hair; a downy one, down. A biologist should know that.

Holly said...

how do you tell a hairy sociopath from a downy sociopath?

Easy. The downy ones shave occasionally. The hairy ones go for nine months without a haircut and tell everyone they're going to donate it to that wig charity.

This, too, I know from bitter experience.