Do we secretly admire sociopaths?

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May 18, 2013 by Tamara Piety

In my last post I discussed a new book, Firm Commitment, from the former dean of the Said Business School at Oxford, Colin Mayer. In a blog related to the book he argues that our structure of corporate governance systematically rewarded anti-social behavior so that  “you are as good as your last deal, as farsighted as the next deal, admired for what you can get away with, and condemned for what you confess.”

This sounds an awful lot like the behavior describes in an article in Psychology Today describing a new book called “Confessions of a Sociopath” by someone going under the name M.E. Thomas and who purports to be a lawyer and a law professor. (I am not going to link to it because I don’t want to promote any more than I already am by discussing it). This author apparently relishes her (the author claims to be female) ability to manipulate others for her own ends and also apparently claims that in many cases this is indeed better for her “victims,” that she improves their lives. Sounds a lot like economy theory and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” taken to the micro-level.

If this sounds absurd, I think it is. I am not surprised that Psychology Today is peddling this sort of breathless, sensationalist drivel. It is what I have come to associate with the magazine.

What really interests me is the way the coverage of this book takes at face value all sorts of claims made by the author. Do a Google search and see how many reviews take it on faith that the author is who she says she is, that she is a Mormon, that she is a lawyer and law professor, that she has a diagnosis, that she is even a she. This book seems almost laughably transparent in its fabrications and the author’s attempt to capitalize on the desire to have confirmation for various things that we would perhaps like to think are true – that successful people are sociopaths, (especially lawyers, and most especially, law professors!), that successful people have no feelings and got to where they were by exploiting others, that seemingly random, romantic disappointments could be explained as the machination of a sociopath, etc. All the stories are outsized and seem to be intended to shock (and sell books). Yet, as one reviewer put it, this author, on her own terms, is “an unreliable narrator.” (My favorite review though said that the book gave her some “empathy for sociopaths”!)

It seems to me that people’s willingness to take this story at face value is because the culture created by the system Colin Mayer describes does validate “coolness” over empathy. It makes having no feelings sound like the enviable path to success.  It suggests that self-interest, narrowly defined, is “smart” while other-centered concerns are mushy or make you an easy target of the sociopaths amongst us like M.E. Thomas.  But some of the blurbs and the coverage almost seem to involve some sort of wish-fulfillment or fantasy as if readers are invited to admire the author’s lack of feeling for others because the author claims that her lack of connection makes it easier for her to succeed.

“That’s right! If only you could ditch your feelings you too could be a rich, successful, charismatic sociopath like Thomas!”

Weird.

However, apart from the unreliable narrator problem, there is a good deal of reason to be skeptical about whether any such category as “sociopath” is a real thing. These diagnostic labels have all sorts of problems, some of which are being explored now with the so-to-be-released DSM-V and the controversy surrounding its drafting. See, e.g. this link on Pharmalot. Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test covers some of this ground too.

But it seems like even if it isn’t a real thing, psychopathy or sociopathy is a condition that describes the ideal economic “rational actor.”  And Joel Bakan in his book and film The Corporation, likewise suggested that if the corporation is a person it is, pursuant to the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV, a psychopath.

Maybe this explains why we (or at least some of us) appear to admire corporations so much!

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