How to Spot a Sociopath (Hint: It Could Be You)
A dishy book from an avowed sociopath has stirred up an awkward debate: perhaps all of us have a bit of the personality disorder. Caitlin Dickson on why that may not be such a bad thing.
M.E. Thomas describes herself as a cutthroat attorney who sailed through law school without much effort, landed a position at a prestigious law firm, and then became a professor. She also claims to fantasize about murder, drops friends when their personal problems get in the way of her fun, and plots ways to “ruin people” in her spare time. She straddles a fine line between success and failure, with the traits that have gotten her ahead simultaneously contributing to her periodic downfalls.
M.E. Thomas is a sociopath. And you might be one, too.
In her new book, Confessions of a Sociopath, Thomas, writing under a pseudonym that pokes fun at her narcissism, removes her mask of carefully crafted personality traits in an attempt to prove that sociopathy is not simply a disorder of serial killers but one that exists on a spectrum, plaguing to varying degrees a large portion of successful, apparently well-adjusted people.
Thomas is not the first to make this point, but hers is certainly the most personal argument yet. In her 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door, psychologist Martha Stout warned that sociopaths make up four percent of the U.S. population; last spring, journalist Jon Ronson detailed his search for psychopathy from prisons to boardrooms in The Psychopath Test. (Psychopathy, more or less, is the clinical term for sociopathy, and the two are often used interchangeably.) A September 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ranked U.S. presidents in order of their possession of a psychopathic trait called “fearless dominance,” with Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy topping the list.
Sociopathy is a personality disorder that manifests itself in such traits as dishonesty, charm, manipulation, narcissism, and a lack of both remorse and impulse control. In 1980, criminal psychologist Robert Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), the universally heralded method for diagnosing psychopathy—used most often to determine whether a criminal is suitable for parole or poses such a danger to society that he deserves the death penalty. But Hare doesn’t believe psychopathy is confined to the prison system. In fact, quite the opposite: two years ago, Ronson quoted Hare’s assessment that “you’re four times more likely to find a psychopath at the top of the corporate ladder than you are walking around the janitor’s office.”
Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy is typically thought of as the psychopathic poster child, but experts point to Bernie Madoff as a better real-life example of someone on the spectrum. In a February 2011 interview with New York magazine, Madoff recalled asking his prison therapist whether she thought he was a sociopath. “You’re absolutely not a sociopath,” she reportedly told him. “You have morals. You have remorse.” True, Madoff may indeed have regretted losing $65 billion for thousands of investors, hedge funds, and charities across the world, disgracing and betraying his family so severely that one of his sons committed suicide. But to be able to manipulate all those people for a financial reward takes a certain degree of callousness, dishonesty, and lack of impulse control that are intrinsic to psychopathy.
In her book, Thomas writes that she loathed her father, never cried when he beat her with his belt, and that “the first recurring dream I can remember was about killing him with my bare hands.” He’s not the only person she’s fantasized about murdering. Thomas describes becoming consumed by a desire to stalk down and strangle a D.C. Metro worker who scolded her for using a closed elevator, as well as a teenage attempt to drown a baby opossum when she could have rescued it from the pool it had fallen into.
But Thomas isn’t an actual killer—and she and other researchers emphasize that most sociopaths aren’t killers either. Instead, Thomas says her favorite preferred sociopathic pastime is “ruining people.” Her book details the time she has spent going out of her way to toy with other people’s emotions. “I know my heart is blacker and colder than most people’s; maybe that’s why it’s tempting to break theirs,” she writes.
Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt, an assistant psychology professor at Oklahoma State University, has done research on so-called successful sociopaths—i.e., those who aren’t imprisoned. “If someone is on the extreme end of the spectrum, that’s bad, we want to limit their damage to society,” Sweatt says. “But I wouldn’t necessarily say that if someone is an extreme psychopath they are going to kill someone.”
John Edens, a psychology professor at Texas A&M, evaluated Thomas when her literary agent suggested she get diagnosed before turning her blog, SociopathWorld.com, into a book. It’s extremely rare for a sociopath to seek a clinical evaluation without a court order, and women are especially subject to misdiagnosis because of the lack of research on the disorder outside the prison system. So Edens had to use a variety of tests—including a screening version of the Hare PCL-R—before coming to the conclusion that she is, in fact, a sociopath. And while he’s confident in his diagnosis, he argues that “saying someone is a psychopath or not is drawing a bit of an arbitrary line in the sand,” suggesting that all people likely possess a certain amount of sociopathic traits, some just more pronounced than others.
So how do you solve a problem like a sociopath? While hardened inmates are required to undergo cognitive behavioral therapy to learn how not to end up back in jail, there’s virtually no known treatment for ruthless, manipulative, law-abiding citizens who lack empathy. And, really, should there be? These are traits that are often attributed to success, from the soldier who can come back from the frontlines without PTSD to the top surgeon who may lack in bedside manner but will save a life no matter the cost and the Wall Street investor willing to make a major gamble for a momentous reward. Thomas says she advises any potential sociopath who contacts her through her website against getting diagnosed, warning that, with no treatment available outside of prison therapy, the only real benefit of knowing is peace of mind—if that.
In lieu of therapy, Thomas has discovered some alternatives to treatment. For one, she credits Mormonism, specifically its doctrine that anyone can change and its required social engagements, with keeping her on track. Her blog is also therapeutic. By posting and responding daily to articles on sociopathy, she’s essentially forced to analyze her own behavior and decisions on a regular basis.
“I think one of the things that’s been my downfall in the past is when I start thinking that I’m normal and fine and that when something happens it’s someone else’s fault,” she said. “I have to remind myself that I am this way. I am naturally manipulative. I have a tendency to indulge in self-deception.”
And by engaging with her potentially sociopathic readers, Thomas has found a subculture of similarly antisocial people with whom she can play her favorite manipulative games without destroying friendships. After all, as Sweatt put it, sociopaths are mostly “problematic in terms of the stress they cause other people.”
Lauren, who asked not to use her real name to protect Thomas’s identity, was the first person to suggest Thomas might be a sociopath. While interning together one summer during law school, Thomas admitted to studying other people’s behavior for clues on how to act and expressed frustration over a friend whose close family member had died. Thomas wasn’t distraught or upset that she couldn’t do anything to make the situation better—she was annoyed that her friend had become less fun and entertaining to be around. When she read the book, Lauren was shocked to learn of the cruel games Thomas had played with other people and relieved that she had never been the target of her friend’s manipulation. Living in different cities and maintaining a mostly intellectual relationship has allowed the two to stay friends. But if Thomas ever tried to “ruin” Lauren like she has others, Lauren says she’d have to cut her out of her life.
“She certainly isn’t someone I’d call crying after a breakup ... but I grew up gay in a conservative place and I know what it’s like to be rejected for who you are,” said Lauren. “Her ultimate goal is to be out as a sociopath, accepted by society and not vilified. I can relate to that.”
But being “out” doesn’t seem to have proved as liberating as Thomas had hoped. A law professor at the time of publication, Thomas now describes her employment situation as “up in the air,” indicating that her bosses are weighing whether they want a sociopath working for them. Because Thomas would not reveal her real identity or the name of her school, The Daily Beast could not confirm this with her employer. But with regard to whether Thomas could legally be fired for coming clean, employment attorney Jessica Kastin explained that Thomas would probably have a very hard time making the case that she was being discriminated against because of her disorder.
“For a disability to be covered under the Americans With Disability Act, it has to substantially limit one or more major life activities,” Kastin explained. “I’m not a doctor, but I think it would be hard to show that being a sociopath would affect a major life activity. My understanding is that sociopaths could function fine.”
Thomas says that every two to three years she experiences what she calls a “life destruction,” the periodic dissolution of a job and or relationships caused by one too many lies or manipulations. It was after one of these episodes in 2008 that Thomas started the blog, deciding for the first time to look inward for the source of her problems. Now, the reaction to her book is making her wonder if she may be going through yet another life destruction right now.
“I thought about the fact that this could happen before writing the book, but I hoped it wouldn’t,” she said. “I thought the book might open up other avenues, so if this did happen I would have greater success. It was a calculated risk and right now it looks bad, like I miscalculated.” But, true to sociopathic form, Thomas displayed a disregard for consequences. “Unlike before, I’m fine if this is a period of self-destruction because I don’t think I did anything wrong this time.”