Mind Matters — Love, Conscience, and Sociopaths

Many years ago, early in my career in Pittsburgh, a handsome and charming man came to my office to begin the process of a custody evaluation. He was a high profile professional in a large corporation. Despite his appearance and his impeccable credentials, his demeanor and words worried me. Whatever it was he said as he walked out the door got me to thinking, “This man has sociopathic tendencies and if my report doesn’t coincide with whatever he wants, he will ‘make me pay’—literally!” I didn’t follow my instincts not to accept the case. Instead, I foolishly said yes. Sur enough the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) confirmed my suspicions. This man did indeed score high on the sociopathy scale. Turns out his attorney was also rather unscrupulous—this was well known by his colleagues!

Generally, neither side in a custody evaluation is “delighted” with the outcome. The purpose of such an evaluation is to have the best interests of the children as the priority; that means that compromises on the part of the parents need to be made. Most of the time, people do come to terms with what is best for the children.

Not so in this case. Both the client and his lawyer, in true sociopathic syncopation, attacked my credibility and competence. There was no accepting of any part of my evaluation, which included many hours of interviews, testing, writing. Rather than pay my fees, this man wanted to sue me. My lawyer, in turn, was ready for a fight and wanted me to sue him. Instead, I returned his initial payment and had him sign a paper to basically cease and desist. He got what he wanted—he “won” but I think, in the end, his child lost big time.

Another experience with a sociopath also occurred in Pittsburgh, while I worked at a methadone clinic. Again, the man was charming and handsome and had everyone believing he was so great.

LS was my supervisor, but I began to get suspicious of different things he would say to me. When I discovered he was sabotaging my notes to put me in a bad light, I informed the director (who had also been my grad school associate). He thought I was being paranoid when I told him LS wanted me out and wanted his job. Fortunately, the psychologist I was seeing did not think I was paranoid at all and suggested I quit if I could, which I did. Months later, the director called and said that everything I had told him was true and that LS was fired. Years later, I heard that LS was drug dealing with a physician, but, in turning evidence against this physician, he got immunity. Ah, the Teflon ways of the sociopath. Somehow nothing ever sticks to them—at least until it finally does.

Why these personal stories now? I have been re-reading The Sociopath Next Door by psychologist Martha Stout. It has re-awakened my awareness about sociopathy and society.

Stout was prompted to research and write about sociopathy after years of working with people who have been harmed by sociopaths, oftentimes from within their own families. Her premise is that “to create a better world, we need to understand the nature of people who routinely act against the common good, and who do so with emotional impunity … by seeking to discover the nature of ruthlessness, can we find the many ways people can triumph over it.”

Sociopaths are the four percent of people who have no conscience and thereby have no guilt, no remorse, no concern for others. They take no responsibility for their actions and instead blame, deflect, and project onto any individual or group who appears to them to be an obstacle to their getting whatever it is they want.

Stout contends that the sociopath’s lack of conscience is so out of the norm that most of us with a moral compass may miss their devious and destructive behavior and be taken in by their charm and outward demeanor. If sociopaths are confronted for their destructive and uncaring behavior, they adamantly refuse to take any responsibility: lying, gaming, and winning at all costs is their modus operandi.

It is Stout’s contention that the human condition, how we get along in society, is about having a conscience, and that conscience actually has its root in love and connection—attachment.

We have a conscience because we have a sense of connection to others and to the common good. Sociopaths lack conscience and therefore do not have loving connection with anyone or anything. They use and exploit their family, their “friends”, but there is no love or care or concern. Everyone is a pawn in their game and they think they are the winners and that everyone else are losers.

We can be duped by the hollow charisma of the sociopath, but in the grand scheme of life, conscience is what endures. How we care and connect with our families and care about all families is what gives meaning and hope.