Thursday, February 6, 2014

What a Sociopath Looks Like!

By Heidi Hiatt

Mr. Baffleberg? My cousin’s longtime piano teacher?!

Yellow teeth bared, he raised the knife in a jerky automaton-like flourish as putrid sweat dripped from his stringy reddish black hair…

Is this what you think of when you picture a sociopath? If so, you’re not alone. This is how pop culture often portrays dangerous and dishonest people– in hockey masks, dragging one leg heavily behind them, brandishing weapons, unkempt, socially inept loners who drive noisy ’70s vehicles with human bones dangling from the rear view mirror– and the list goes on.

Unfortunately these stereotypes have numbed our senses and narrowed our vision. Oftentimes, when we hear that someone has been arrested for embezzlement, murder, or other crimes, we see a particular phrase pop up on the evening news: “he always seemed like such a nice guy.” A clean-shaven athletic man in a citrus-hued polo shirt and neat slacks doesn’t really fit the image of a sociopath that we’ve been conditioned to accept.

There are many arguments about how to distinguish between psychopaths, sociopaths, and those with antisocial personality disorder. Sometimes this is explained on a continuum of violence or in the context of just how far someone is willing to go to cover their wrongdoings.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the term sociopath loosely to describe self-serving human beings who can use and harm others without much, if any, conscience flickering behind their greedy eyes. These are people in serious need of the grace of God.

Only someone who looks like me would dare mislead you, dear.

Readers of my blog–some of whom have stood with me in my struggles against sociopaths– know that in my personal experience, a particular type of sociopath stands out. Whether male or female, these people are usually in positions of power and have a habit of ingratiating themselves to their organizations and endearing themselves to the upper echelons.

When someone finally finds the courage to report their wrongdoing, they are so embedded in the organization that the complainant is rebuffed as if they have a personal beef or are overreacting. It is often the whistleblower scrambling to find a new job or legal representation rather than the suspect.

That kind of thinking is exactly what I want American society to overcome. Sociopaths are often not the obvious suspects. They instinctively know how to bury their misdeeds and burn the people who stand up to them. They have a justification for every accusation. There is a rationalization for every questionable circumstance. They are quick to shift the blame and make any victims or witnesses appear needy, crazy, vindictive, or unbalanced.

These behaviors are disgustingly obvious to those trained to see them, or to those who’ve dealt with criminal behavior in their personal lives. It doesn’t take magical powers to realize when one of these people is operating within your family, church, or profession, but it does require an open mind. We must acknowledge that sociopaths don’t live in a colony of caves they all return to at sunrise, but they are among us each and every day.

Even the police have various stereotypes that they employ while analyzing suspects, like, “if they’re not making eye contact, they’re lying to me,” or “they’re not telling me the truth because they’re nervous.” There can be various legitimate reasons for that behavior and that kind of old school boilerplate thinking can lead to extremely wrong conclusions. Many sociopaths are smooth talkers and some can remain cool as cucumbers when questioned about their actions.

Remember this scene from Men in Black?

To my horror I’ve seen some of these people ingratiate themselves to the police and it’s the police who stand up for them when their sins begin to leak out. We do the same thing in our families– “oh, he wouldn’t do that,” or “there’s no way one of our own could do such a thing.”

How do you know? Did you investigate? Did you involve an objective third party who could offer their take on the situation? Did you ask an expert on the suspected behavior? Why would the alleged victim risk so much or pay so heavy a price for turning them in?

Sociopath, to some, is synonymous with serial killer. We need to get over that. Yes, serial killers usually display some degree of psychopathy, but their profiles and motivations can be very different. The same is true of the people I’m speaking of. While sociopaths share common traits, they don’t all work in one field or eat at the same restaurant or look alike. One reason these men and women are so successful at their game of using others for their own pleasure is because they blend in.

Sociopaths can have families. They can be parents. They might be great parents. They can be attractive. They can be popular. They might be highly intelligent or they might be of average intelligence or below and just know how to talk the talk. Some like to keep their names in lights and their good deeds in people’s hearts; they’re the ones who are always volunteering or putting supposed sacrificial kindnesses on display for others to see.

These folks might practice a false modesty but they are careful to cultivate a public persona that just “can’t be the sweet old lady who embezzled $30,000 from the nonprofit’s operating fund.” Yet every day in the news, there’s someone else… and someone else… and someone else whose family or coworkers or organization finally dared to investigate those curious little question marks that started to gather, resulting in an arrest.

He has your best interests in mind. He really does.

Earlier this year, I saw a list that claimed to identify the top ten professions in which psychopaths work,

1. CEO

2. Lawyer

3. Media (Television/Radio)

4. Salesperson

5. Surgeon

6. Journalist

7. Police Officer

8. Clergy person

9. Chef

10. Civil Servant

The list, evidently, comes from a book by Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. I’ve seen similar lists published from time to time. While I see the truth in them, I usually wonder how they came to these conclusions. This list looks pretty logical to me, though, so I’m going to run with it.

What do sociopathic people usually want? Power and control. Money. Influence. Access to victims. Easy pickings. Notice how some of those positions can make great money and some have a profound influence over our culture. Some of these job titles command automatic respect and admiration. Many people can be fearful of questioning the integrity of a journalist, civil servant, or police officer.

But also note that people in these positions can hide behind their job titles and therefore appear as someone they’re not. Priests are expected to be sacrificial and saintly, are they not? Their office in the church allows them to reach many people and do countless good deeds for the sake of Christ. It’s the perfect cover. What a great deal for a dark soul.

The same can be true of police officers. Becoming a cop makes you an automatic hero to some because you’re risking your life for public safety. Many cops are involved in charitable activities and known for their outreach to the community. Some of the same cops might abuse their spouses or sleep with underage girls and boys. Accuse them of wrongdoing, though, and there are those who are quick to hide behind their badges.

How many of us have dated this guy?

Do you see what I’m driving at? Sociopaths frequently place themselves in jobs where they have so much power, such strong union protection, or are so difficult to fire that it’s very hard to successfully prosecute them. They can gravitate towards professions that receive automatic respect. The very job, title, or circumstances that make them seem so admirable can also be the job, title, or circumstances that provide the ideal camouflage for their deviant behaviors. We can and should be willing to look beyond someone’s veneer to find out what they’re really about.

We don’t need to be running about paranoid or quick to label others as sociopaths. But what I want you to take away from this article is that a sociopath might not look or act like what you think they do. We want sociopaths to be obvious and openly devious, but we need to be more in tune with good and evil than that. Christians need to be sensitive to promptings from the Holy Spirit even when they don’t, at the time, seem logical.

Again and again on this blog I hammer on the verse from the Manufacturer’s Handbook that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. I want readers to be TIRED of me saying that. The best sociopaths can be the ones who have you feeling guilty for questioning their motives or behavior at all. They’re the ones people in their circles rush to defend or are afraid to take on. Their crimes might even be blatant but they know that others are unlikely to stop them because of their position of authority, the cost of an investigation, or others’ fear.

The bottom line is that we need to stop stereotyping, stop assuming, stop blindly defending those “great guys,” stop protecting people just because we live with them, work with them, or pay the huge bills they send us, and start acknowledging that well-disguised evil can be very close to us.

There is no island of evil and continent of good. There is evil at our elbows and unless we are willing to call it out for what it is, we are enabling it, lazily letting it thrive and breed.

The wacky thing about those bad guys is that you can’t count on them to be obvious. They forget to wax their mustaches and goatees, leave their horns at home, send their black hats to the dry cleaners. They’re funny like that. -Jim Butcher

Drat! Foiled again!

Heidi Hiatt, MA recently graduated as a Forensic Psychologist.  You can read more of her posts at her personal blog, Truth, Justice, and All-American Allergen-Free Apple Pie Straight Talk in a Crooked World

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