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Recently, a friend told me a story that wouldn’t leave her mind. An administrator at the school she worked at had embezzled thousands of dollars of school funds. No one had suspected her; she had been a pillar of the school, liked by all, including the students, to whom she had seemed warm, even maternal. “I knew her,” my friend said. “Well, I thought I knew her. Everyone did.” She shook her head, still bewildered by this betrayal.
Many people will have their own story of someone who, without compunction or guilt, has created turmoil around them. Quickly, I recalled several other troubling incidents I knew of. The upstanding boss who publically espoused workers’ rights while privately bullying and even sexually harassing subordinates. Or the person whose marriage was destroyed when a trusted friend targeted and ‘stole’ a weak-willed partner, leaving a family in tatters and children distraught. Or another who, without apology or remorse, appropriated an idea from a colleague and friend and presented it as their own.
Such stories are unsettling precisely because they strike at the heart of the unspoken social contract that we all live by: to exist alongside one another harmoniously, with a level of mutual trust and goodwill. After all, if those things happen to people we know, they could happen to us.
People who behave in these or related ways are likely to possess traits from one or more of what psychologists call the “Dark Triad” of personality disorders: psychopathy (often used synonymously with sociopathy), narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Many of us will have used these terms when discussing the mental state of public figures such as politicians, sports stars, and actors, or the fictional characters in books, TV, and movies. But what do we really mean?
Although these traits are theoretically distinct, they overlap with each other in various ways in individuals, and are linked with what academics Daniel Jones and Del Paulhus term a “callous-manipulative interpersonal style”. A failure to empathise, selfishness, and a lack of remorse are at the heart of it all. But there are differences too. Sociopaths will typically and repeatedly violate others’ rights and safety, are aggressive, impulsive, lie, and exhibit criminal behaviour.
People with a narcissistic personality disorder have a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for constant admiration, and are egocentric, charming, superficial, and lacking in sincerity. Finally, there are the Machiavellian traits, which include a disregard for morality, a focus on self-interest and deception, and a desire to manipulate and exploit.
Of course we all behave self-interestedly at times. Hoping to get a job or the keys to a hotly contested property or to win an award goes hand in hand with the unspoken (perhaps even unthought) hope that another person will not. Most, if asked, would feel sorry for those who lost out, would even feel fortunate, but a person with one of the dark triad personality disorders would feel no empathy at all. Studies suggest that between 15 and 30 per cent of domestic violence perpetrators are psychopaths, and 20 per cent of people in the corporate world and prisons have elevated levels of psychopathy. This compares with a rate of just four per cent in the general community.
Human predators appear throughout history. The most dangerous are dictators such as Romania’s Vladimir III (the ‘Impaler’), Hitler, and Pol Pot. Turkey’s President Erdogan also has a great drive for power. In fact, power and winning are among the few things sociopaths truly love.
Idioms such as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, which is of biblical origin, traditional folk tales like Little Red Ridinghood (in which a wolf ingratiates himself with a girl to deceive her), and thematically related millennia-old stories of Europe, Asia, and Africa reveal an ancient awareness of sociopathic behaviours – and the need to warn people of them – long before psychologists codified them. ‘Wolfish’ or predatory traits seem more or less universal.
Shouldn’t we know how to avoid such people? After all, we can spot sociopaths on TV and in books. But these are media that direct their audiences to notice that something is ‘off’ about characters. It’s not so easy in real life. This is because sociopathy and narcissism vary in their severity. At the low end of the spectrum a person might be self-centred, a little callous, and occasionally difficult to deal with. Sound familiar? At the more extreme end a person will never admit fault or compromise and will be actively vengeful. While narcissists are less likely than sociopaths to be physically aggressive or to commit a crime, victims of both can end up being hurt, betrayed, cheated, or exploited.
The problem is that sociopaths are very good at “impression management”, says psychologist Traci Stein. They are able to mimic ‘normal’ behaviour, and might be a neighbour, a family member, a colleague, boss, or teacher; they appear normal – or, if they’re narcissists, a well-groomed normal. They might have a façade of charm, thoughtfulness and competence, and their attention can be very seductive, encouraging people to let down their guard. Unfortunately, they also have a sixth sense for spotting the right people to manipulate: “those who are trusting, vulnerable, and inclined to see the good in others,” says Stein.
Because people generally subscribe to accepted moral codes such as honesty and the need not to harm others, they find it hard to believe that others don’t. ‘Cognitive dissonance’, in which the victim reinterprets facts so they fit with what they need to believe about someone, can follow, especially if they love the person. Discovering that a person you know and respect, like, or love has lied repeatedly should be a warning sign.
But is there anything we can do for them, to instil empathy or make them understand and feel remorse? A person with a few sociopathic traits might be able to modify their behaviour when these traits are pointed out, though they might first punish you with silence, criticism, or aggression. A true sociopath in your life is another problem entirely.
The first thing to realise, experts suggest, is that there’s no changing them. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, gives thirteen uncompromising rules for dealing with sociopaths. They’re really all about self-protection. First, accept that people entirely without empathy, love, or conscience exist, and if you identify such a person in your life stay away from them and don’t try to redeem, assist, or defend them.
Sociopaths, says Jon Ronson in his book The Psychopath Test, are “the rocks thrown into the still pond”. The trouble is that it can take a while for the ripples to be felt. By the time their actions are discovered, you might have grown attached to them.
It’s enough to make you suspicious of everyone, but who wants to live like that? Victims of psychopaths might like to keep in mind that for many of them there will be some sort of reckoning. Psychopaths might experience short-term success, but according to psychologist Scott Lilienfeld this “may be purchased at expense of long-term failure”.
Perhaps, in the end, the best advice is Dr Martha Stout’s. “Humanity is not a failure,” she says. “Being kind and loving and caring is the best way to live. Living well is the best revenge.”