"The Destructive Behavior of Sociopaths" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

The Destructive Behavior of Sociopaths

April 1st, 2013 - Sociopaths constitute no more than 4% of our population. But their behavior can make the rest of us uncomfortable, and they can be downright destructive.

Uncomfortable, too, is even thinking about their behavior—but it can be therapeutic as we learn how to recognize and avoid these noxious people.

In the book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout, a clinical instructor in Psychology at Harvard, outlines sociopaths’ personalities, behaviors and most importantly—how to deal with them (or, in reality, how to avoid them because there is no productive dealing).

The classic definition of a sociopath: A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior, and a lack of conscience.

Sadly, sociopaths look just like us. They are not ax murderers or otherwise overtly “creepy.” Consider famous athletes who convincingly swear they are not now taking and never have taken illegal drugs or engaged in drug doping. Subsequently, when caught up in a scandal, the truth comes out. How can they be so convincing? One theory is they lack a feedback loop or conscience and have an overwhelming desire to win at all costs.

Or, consider investment advisors who perpetuate a Ponzi scheme for decades, culminating in financial ruin for investors and a long jail sentence for the creator. Most likely, this financial debacle also was a scheme caused by a sociopath who lacked a feedback loop or a conscience. The most recent famous scandal also caught the family members of the “mastermind.”

Sinclair Lewis’ fictional character Elmer Gantry had all the characteristics of a sociopath. Most everyone around him got tangled up in a hopelessly destructive vertex. He had no genuine emotions, but only played the part as he took advantage of others.

These wolves in sheep’s clothing can also be very successful business people, as they prey on the weak and venerable. Sociopathic businesses masquerade as being empathetic and compassionate, and they may indeed be competent. But really their focus is excessively mercenary.

A genuine professional places the interest of the person being served ahead of his own. For example, a teacher places his or her student’s interest first. A religious leader looks after his or her congregation. A physician or any healthcare person places the patient first. Students, parishioners, and patients share a common characteristic—they are vulnerable and trusting. Sadly, this trust can be misplaced and taken advantage of when self-centered behavior takes over control. Usually the sociopaths are charming, have explanations for their behavior, and are very credible until investigated.

Fortunately, most sociopaths are obscure people and limited to dominating their young children, depressed spouses, and perhaps a few employees or coworkers, according to Dr. Stout. Sociopaths cannot love, do not have higher values, are amoral, remain chronically bored, and are never comfortable.

Recognizing a sociopath is not easy. There are no foolproof tests. When questioned, sociopaths state they desire others to feel sorry for them. This most salient characteristic of creating the wish to be pitied gives the sociopath “carte blanche” to make those around themselves defenseless. Being admired or feared are also effective behaviors and characteristics of sociopaths, particularly when combined with pity.

Think back to our earlier examples.
  • The famous drug-doping athlete was admired and now pitied when caught;
  • The Ponzi scheme operator was famous for his generosity and now pitied as he serves the rest of his life in prison;
  • Elmer Gantry was a pied piper for his congregants until his world fell apart.
Most importantly, how can we deal with the 4% of people around us who would take advantage of us, make us miserable, and never have a second thought or moment of remorse?

Dr. Stout, the author and psychologist, shares 13 rules:

  1. Accept the bitter pill that 4% of the population has no conscience and on the outside they look just like you and me.

  2. Don’t be fooled by the role the sociopath has taken on as a trustworthy professional—be that a healthcare professional, educator, leader in business, or whatever. Go with your “gut” instincts as all your life you have been an observer of human behavior. If it doesn’t feel right, recognize that feeling and hold back.

  3. When considering a new relationship, go with the rule of threes. One lie, one broken promise, one misunderstanding can just be a mistake. A second occurrence becomes serious. The third means you should exit fast. Nothing good will come of staying around.

  4. Questioning authority is important particularly when the demands are concerning and the authorities are unknown. Sixty percent of people blindly follow orders.

  5. Be suspicious of excess flattery. Compliments are welcome up to a point but can easily become manipulative.

  6. Redefine the concept of respect, which translates to not being over-awed by titles, power positions, “bullies” and others who assume a dominant role. Of course, there are leaders who have the right motivations and should be respected. But follow your gut as in Rule #2 and don’t go blindly forward when it doesn’t feel right.

  7. Don’t get pulled into the game with a sociopath thinking you can outwit or outsmart him or her. They are not playing fairly—they don’t have a conscience holding them up to a reasonable standard. You will lose. Which brings us to the next and perhaps the most important rule.

  8. Avoidance is the best course of action. Refuse contact and communication and exclude these people from your life. Sociopaths are typically very charismatic which makes avoidance even harder. But you won’t win with a sociopath so the best course is not to lose. You can do this by avoidance.

  9. Catch yourself if you find you pity someone excessively. Are you being caught up in the web of a sociopath, or is there a real reason to help someone who genuinely needs help? Asking the question will make you aware, and should help avoid the trap. If you pity someone who constantly hurts you or other people, you know you are being used.

  10. Don’t even think about trying to redeem the unredeemable. It is a lost cause. If you have a modern ethical and traditional religious background, that is not what we like to admit. But you won’t change the sociopath and you will squander precious resources.

  11. Don’t aid or abet a sociopath who might ask you to “Please don’t tell.” This trademark of thieves, child and spouse abusers, and others is characteristic of the manipulative behavior of sociopaths. Sadly, the sociopaths are successful enough at covering their tracks so that they can continue to be destructive in society.

  12. Remember that the overwhelming majority of us (96%) are fine and have a conscience. We want to see those around us succeed and we want to have comfort and success. Stay optimistic.

  13. Stay well and live you own life. Don’t be manipulated by others who are sinister sociopaths.

We have a wonderful society but not a perfect one. Understanding and avoiding our flaws will help us cope with the evil in society.

Conversely, growing our positives—which is much more fun and productive—will be good for the quality of life we all desire. Even as we discuss a negative, stay positive.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.