Apropos of current events, I offer for contemplation a passage from the book The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout. Ironically, after I introduced this book on my blog in 2010, some of its most fervent subsequent promoters turned out to be described to a tee within it. The answer to that paradox is in the book, even within the following passage.
From chapter 6 – how to recognize the remorseless
After listening for almost twenty-five years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives, when I am asked, “How can I tell whom not to trust?” the answer I give usually surprises people. The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister-sounding detail of behavior or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle give-away. Instead, I take people aback by assuring them that the tip-off is none of these things, for none of these things are reliably present. Rather, the best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.
I first learned this when I was still a graduate student in psychology and had the opportunity to interview a court-referred patient the system had already identified as a “psychopath.” He was not violent, preferring instead to swindle people out of their money with elaborate investment scams. Intrigued by this individual and what could possibly motivate him – I was young enough to think he was a rare sort of person – I asked, “What is important to you in your life? What do you want more than anything else?” I thought he might say “getting money”, or “staying out of jail”, which were the activities to which he devoted most of his time. Instead, without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “Oh, that’s easy. What I like better than anything else is when people feel sorry for me. The thing I really want more than anything else out of life is people’s pity.”
I was astonished, and more than a little put off. I think I would have liked him better if he had said “staying out of jail”, or even “getting money.” Also, I was mystified. Why would this man – why would anyone – wish to be pitied, let alone wish to be pitied above all other ambitions? I could not imagine. But now, after twenty-five years of listening to victims, I realize there is an excellent reason for the sociopathic fondness for pity. As obvious as the nose on one’s face, and just as difficult to see without the help of a mirror, the explanation is that good people will let pathetic individuals get by with murder, so to speak, and therefore any sociopath wishing to continue with his game, whatever it happens to be, should play repeatedly for none other than pity.
More than admiration – more even than fear – pity from good people is carte blanche. When we pity, we are, at least for the moment, defenseless, and like so many of the other essentially positive human characteristics that bind us together in groups – social and professional roles, sexual bonds, regard for the compassionate and the creative, respect for our leaders – our emotional vulnerability when we pity is used against us by those who have no conscience. Most of us would agree that giving special dispensation to someone who is incapable of feeling guilt is a bad idea, but often, when an individual presents himself as pathetic, we do so nonetheless…
…When deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person’s forehead as you will ever be given. A person whose behavior includes both of these features is not necessarily a mass murder, or even violent at all, but is still probably not someone you should closely befriend, take on as your business partner, ask to take care of your children, or marry.