Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Dark Triad Speaks Out

Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, has a compelling chapter on the so-called "Dark Triad," consisting of clinical narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths.  These are people so constructed that, although they may have "cognitive empathy" -- a great sense of how somebody else ticks -- lack the sort of emotional empathy that results in compassion.   They can be dangerous and destructive people, but they can also be brilliant debaters and even inspiring leaders.

Attorney, professor and author M.E. Thomas is, by her own confession, "a diagnosed sociopath."*  Indeed, she has begun carving out a little niche as the nation's public sociopath, creating a blog devoted to the subject, writing a book and most recently an article in Psychology Today (May/June 2013; not online yet).

Thomas is all about mythbusting.  As she says, often, she's not a criminal.  Not because she is restrained from crime by any feelings of guilt or compassion, but because she understands that a safe, well-ordered world is one in which she can prosper.  The same is true of most sociopaths, who may constitute up to 4% of the population.  (On the other hand, they make of 20% of the prison population, and "are probably responsible for about half of all serious crimes," according to her PT article.)

She says, several times, that loves her family.  This seems natural enough, although it is difficult to imagine what "love" means to somebody whose life is lived without empathy, as a constant exercise in manipulation.  (Indeed, she tells a repulsive, Mean Girls-esque story of a man who was romantically interested in her, and how she used his interest to create havoc for another woman who was interested in him -- not for any particular reason, but because it amused her.  It is unnerving to think that somebody like that might be married, or have children.)

Most interesting to us, though, are Thomas's reflections upon her work and, yes, her faith.

Under the heading "Why Trial Law is a Sociopath's Fantasy," she writes:
My sociopathic traits make me a particularly excellent trial lawyer.  I'm cool under pressure. I feel no guilt or compunction, which is handy in such a dirty business.  Misdemeanour prosecutors almost always have to walk into a trial with cases they've never worked on before.  All you can do is bluff and hope that you'll be able to scramble through it.  The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear.  Besides, the nature of the crime is of no moral concern to me; I am interested only in winning the legal game.
It it hardly surprising that some successful lawyers are dirty and amoral.  What does fascinate us is not only that Thomas has religious commitments, but that she is a Sunday School teacher:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a sociopath's dream.  Mormons believe that everyone has the potential to be godlike -- I believe this includes me.  Every being is capable of salvation; my actions are what matters, not my ruthless thoughts, not my nefarious motivations.  Everyone is a sinner, and I never felt that I was outside ths norm.
She then goes on to describe scamming and stealing from her classmates at Brigham Young University ( who were "even more trusting than the average Mormon"), and concludes:
But I am functionally a good person -- I bought a house for my closest friend, I gave my brother $10,000, and I am considered a helpful professor.  I love my family and friends.  Yet I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are.
Her story raises any number of theological questions, not least about differences between Mormonism and Christianity, the nature of "goodness," and the existence of natural law.  Beyond that, it is fascinating for its sheer strangeness.  Here we have the rare chance to glimpse into the mind of a person whose mind works very, very differently from most of ours -- and to be shaken by the sheer funhouse-mirror vision of an alternative humanity.  We wonder whether a sociopath could enjoy such an experience.

*"Sociopath" is no longer a clinical diagnosis; it has disappeared into the category of "antisocial personality disorder."

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