Let’s start by clarifying something that may have been confusing before this. It can be expressed as a formula, as follows:
The only difference between these three terms may be one of degree and maybe not. The term in the middle is the one you will find in the DSM and therefore is the most clinical. The one on the left is the one that is the most cunning and carnivorous to the movie viewing audience, while the one on the right really speaks to the subjects’ inability or unwillingness to follow societal rules. But to me, this is no more than hairsplitting because the outcome of dealing with these people is about the same, that is, after you leave an encounter check your body for wounds, your pockets or purse for their contents, and, when you get to your computer, your bank and other personal accounts to make sure they have not been hacked and those contents emptied also.
Now that you are sure that you are safe, let’s begin.
I have been told on many occasions that I am a hard-ass. Some people are quick to get away from me. This doesn’t really bother me much. What bothers me much more is the assumption by those who try to take advantage of me that I will react the same way that most people have reacted to them in the past.
Let’s examine this for a minute. What can a sociopath think of me on first meeting? I am a psychologist. That means that I care about people and that I want to try to understand them. I should also want to understand the person in front of me who is sizing me up. By definition I am expected to be a bleeding heart. That’s simple enough. But, I can tell you I am not Jesus and do not aspire to be like him.
What happens if they learn that my reactions to their usual prompts are not typical? What should they do then? Either get angry or get away from me as quickly as possible. Anger is the typical response. It is the way people react who encounter something or someone they don’t understand if they resent having to think a little harder about themselves and the situation to better grasp why their normal set of behaviors don’t work suddenly. That should be an invitation to change, but is so rarely taken that way.
And what should my response be? The expected response is that I explain myself, something that I do not always feel obliged to do. And that can be unsettling even for most people, including sociopaths. So, what is going on here? What are the rules in human interaction? When is it acceptable to break them and when not? That is the real puzzle here.
A sociopath approaches social expectation as fluid and creating situations that can be taken advantage of. The vast majority of people in our society, perhaps most western societies, operate on a set of assumptions, many of which come out of religious teachings, even though the religious element may have been stripped out the assumptions among some people. Among these core beliefs, the ones that work most powerfully for deceivers is the expectation that people are fundamentally good and mostly do harm out of confusion or moral blindness, next is that for people to get along with other people they have to mean what they say and deal honestly, and lastly that a person can’t have a meaningful and useful life without having a positive outlook.
Warm-hearted as I am and being a psychologist to boot, quick with a joke and a smile, you’d think I share these core beliefs. The truth is I don’t. I don’t believe that people are fundamentally good. I do, however, think that people have the potential for good, but I don’t usually expect this out of them. Rather, I think that people are people. Well, you might think, that doesn’t mean anything. But, it does mean something. What it means is that, if you put almost anyone in certain situations, they will react the way others do. I include myself in this equation. I never think that people do what they do out of goodness, but that their reasons for doing what they do might be a product of circumstance and that even the warmest heart can assume a selfish posture if the conditions demand it or even if they don’t demand it, but when the temptation is just too great.
Welcome to the world of being human. Even the best of us can sacrifice our honesty under certain conditions, conditions that vary according to the individual. That means that, although we may expect a principled response from others, not everyone acts on principle, but they may explain their actions using principle even though they might not give a second thought about it. So that, if you catch them at something, social expectation makes it easy for those taking advantage of you to blame you for holding such a negative thought. It violates everything that we are taught about thinking positively of others and ourselves. Well, gee, how did we survive in the caves for all those years, except by getting over on our fellow creatures?
And now that I have revealed myself in all my cynicism, how do I get along with my fellows? Why, realistically, of course.
People expect others to tell them the truth. Sociopaths know that and they do tell others the truth or, at least, a form of truth that is convenient and believable, unless they think they can get away with outright lying with certain individuals. It is also well known that sociopaths are seductive. They know how to smile and flatter and seduce people into believing them. Especially on a first encounter, it is only normal for most people to expect others to tell the truth, since there is no obvious reason to lie to someone they have never met before. But, there is a reason to lie even under those circumstances if the liar has some expectation of gain that the receiver of the lie is unaware of.
So, while the person lied to finds him/herself dancing in a circle when they have never learned how to dance before, the question becomes what to do about it? That answer is amazingly simple. Just do what I do. Listen to what a person says and see how it conforms to what that person does. If the two don’t match up, the words are soon sacrificed and the behaviors become the major focus in any interaction I have with them. That can even be to the point that a person can say something to me that I will not even hear, but instead I will comment on the actions that are in front of me, that are interpretable, and are a far better indicator of a person’s intentions.
Welcome to my world. It may not look like it, but I can assure you it is a much safer and saner world.