A few years ago, I happened across an article that kind of blew my mind.  The author, M.E. Thomas (a pseudonym) claims to be a sociopath, and she proceeds to convince the reader by giving a series of unsettling anecdotes from her life.  As the article’s preamble says:

She’s a successful law professor and a Sunday school teacher, with a host of family and friends. But her interpersonal calculus centers on how to manipulate and outmaneuver the many people in her life. Welcome to a world of ruthless cost-benefit analysis, charm, and grandiosity.

Her first line of the article itself?  “I have never killed anyone, but…”  How’s that for click bait?  The voice of the sociopath!  I was fascinated by the whole article, but the thing that really got me was later in the article when I discovered that this sociopathic Sunday school teacher was… a Mormon!

Sociopaths had always been “the other”, in my mind.  They were the serial rapists and murderers of TV crime shows, and even though I hadn’t really thought about it consciously, they represented evil incarnate.Psychopath-Norman-Bates-631  They certainly weren’t Mormons.  Sociopaths were the diabolical schemers, the master manipulators with no sense of guilt who would do anything to get what they wanted, including commit atrocious crimes.  What better description of evil can you think of?  And the funny thing is, reading her article didn’t entirely disabuse me of that notion.  She was a master manipulator, and she didn’t have a sense of guilt as she deliberately messed with people and watched them suffer.  But she also managed to humanize herself somehow, at least to me, even though the way she wrote made it clear I shouldn’t lower my guard.  When she said “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a sociopath’s dream”, I immediately pictured a bunch of sheep being surveyed by a wolf, but she continued by saying

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 this norm.

And suddenly, I felt a sense of kinship.  That’s what we Mormons do, try to choose good in spite of our natures, and trust that we can be saved, right?  But then in the next sentence, she talked about how trusting BYU students were and the myriad opportunities to scam, and it makes me think that allowing that sense of kinship is dangerous.

So what exactly is a sociopath?

The terms psychopathy, sociopathy, and anti-social behavioral disorder seem to be used interchangeably these days, though the term psychopath is usually associated with violence.  high-functioning-sociopathI learned from Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry that that the earlier versions of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)  used by mental health care professionals didn’t have psychopathy listed as a mental disorder.  Ronson said something about how that was because psychopathy wasn’t an illness and couldn’t be treated.  It was thought to be a basic personality type.  The latest version, though, has Anti-social Personality Disorder listed, but it’s apparently under dispute whether that’s really the same thing.

A centerpiece of Ronson’s book is his attempt to identify psychopaths using the Robert Hare Psychopath checklist.  I can’t link to it because it’s copyright protected — you have to pay for that.bexe-square-1536  In fact, the word is that Hare sued to prevent publication of a peer-reviewed article evaluating it (he has outspoken critics among mental health experts).  However, Ronson did share several items on the checklist:  a sense of grandiosity, strong tendency toward manipulation, a lack of empathy, a lack of remorse, a history of trouble as a youth (you know, like torturing animals or getting in fights), sexual promiscuity, lack of long term relationships, etc..  Every item on the checklist could point to any number of mental/emotional disorders, but each item is scored, and if the total score exceeds a certain limit, that indicates that the person is likely a psychopath.

In a Radio Interview with Rob Krall, M.E. Thomas described sociopaths thus:

They tend to be superficially charming, they tend to be kind of glib, they tend to not really have strong emotions, you know, except maybe primitive emotions. They tend to be manipulative, they’re, they lack empathy is probably the biggest one. They don’t respond in the same sorts of emotional ways, to emotional stimulus as most people do. And they also, their own emotional world seems to be stunted to the extent that they don’t feel guilt, and because they don’t feel guilt, then they don’t really have a conscience either. The same way most people have a conscience that is largely informed by their feelings of guilt.

Ronson eventually arrived at a single question to determine if someone was a sociopath:  if you came upon a car accident, say with an overturned vehicle and dead body hanging out the broken windshield, how would you react?  Normal people would flinch with horror, feel ill, freak out, etc..  The sociopath?  She would just be fascinated.

Sociopath’s do have some advantages, though.  They lack a certain kind of fear.  They have no problem looking people in the eye, they’re charming, and they perform particularly well under pressure.  They make fantastic trial attorneys.  Their self-esteem is usually off the charts, and they’re very resistant to depression.  They’re good at dispassionately evaluating facts.  All these things put together can make them effective leaders, and Bob Hare speculates that a good number of our politicians and CEOs would score high on his psychopath checklist.

One big question to ask is why did M.E. Thomas out herself like that?  Doesn’t it seem like a self-defeating thing to do?  Well, it turns out that it wasn’t just an article — she’s trying to sell her book.  But again why, considering she had no problem making money, would she write such a self-defeating book? [1]   The obvious answer is narcissism, which is a part of sociopathy.  She was just so remarkable that she had to be written about.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I get the impression that she’s trying to figure herself out.  I think she’s recognized a void in her life that she wants to fill, and that there’s still somehow a deeper longing for human connection and a desire to be… well, good.  Of course, Robert Hare would say that’s the Mormon empath in me talking, projecting myself onto her, and that sociopaths don’t feel such things. [2]  M.E. Thomas just says that she likes feeling authentic, not having to hide who she is. [3]

The thing that stood out to me the most though, from a Mormon perspective, was the lack of a sense of empathy or guilt.  We’re taught that the Spirit of Christ is given to every man to know good from evil, and I’d always figured that was our conscience, or at least, a major component of it.  What is our conscience, if not a sense of empathy and guilt?  Sociopaths apparently don’t have a conscience, at least not like I’m used to thinking of one.  If Moroni meant his statement all-inclusively rather than simply expansively, then they’re either people or monsters, and if they’re people, shouldn’t they still have the Spirit of Christ somehow?

M.E. Thomas points out that although she doesn’t have emotional empathy, she has cognitive empathy:

I’m 90% understanding, day-to-day success rate, with cognitive empathy. I’m able to recognize people’s facial expressions and emotions. It’s what makes me so good at manipulating, probably.

Sociopaths definitely don’t have emotional empathy. They do have the cognitive empathy. They are able to do a thought experiment, a hypothetical. What would the typical person feel like in this situation, or what would I feel like in this situation, or what is the likely result emotionally of doing this particular action? And they say people with Asperger syndrome are the opposite. They have emotional empathy—they’ll cry when someone else cries—but they are not able to cognitively understand the worlds of others. Normal people have both types of empathy.  (Interview with the Rumpus)

But cognitive empathy doesn’t seem to cut it.  It doesn’t seem adequate to enable one to “mourn with those that mourn”, for example.  In fact, cognitive empathy without emotional empathy seems a recipe for evil — the tool to create a master manipulator, which is what M.E. Thomas claims to be.

But I can’t help it.  I think M.E. Thomas does have the Spirit of Christ, even with her disorder, and I think there’s a part of her that longs for God and deeper human connection.  She let on as much, even using the word “feel” to describe her progress with her therapist:

I feel better than I have, but it is still true that I don’t really have the same sort of moral reasoning that others do. I still don’t feel guilt. I still don’t feel empathy. But I am more aware of my own emotional reactions that I have. Before I used to be like, Who cares? Emotions…

And largely, he’s Mormon, so he uses church, gospel principles from Mormonism. “You were a person before you came here” is a fundamental doctrine. Reincarnation people believe that we existed before, but I think most Christians believe our soul was created when we were conceived. Mormons, no. You were a spirit in the spirit world before you came here. He keeps saying, “You just got put in this body with this brain and in this environment, this childhood environment, and they have distorted who you truly are.”

His whole thing is if you find your sense of identity, and you do have one, and there actually is one, if you find your identity, all of your other problems will be solved. And it is kind of true, and it is a little bit counterintuitive. He’ll say things like, “In order to not manipulate, you need to be aware of what your true preference in that moment is and then act as if nobody else exists. Just act on your true preference because if you do that, you will not manipulate.”

I think it’s funny because most people would say that is not what good people do. Good people take into consideration everyone else’s preferences and make sure everybody else is happy, but I can’t do stuff that way because if I do then it’s manipulative, and I’ll start seeing them as objects, just chess pieces in my game of trying to make sure everybody’s happy and gets whatever else they need in order to ultimately satisfy me, but not being aware of my true preferences.

It’s influenced the way I think a lot, and in a lot of ways it has really colored the way my disorder manifests. I try to be honest about that, that I don’t think I’m at all the prototypical sociopath even though I do have the essential traits.  (Interview with the Rumpus)

So maybe the Spirit of Christ isn’t manifest in conscience, or just in conscience, but in some sense of eternal identity that her therapist is using to help her.  And, as she continues, this sense of identity has clearly worked in her:

Maybe I’m not a sociopath because there’s this very specific type of very evil person who really does deserve to die. I’m open to the possibility, but I just have never encountered that, and I have strong suspicions that that’s not true, that there is not a 100% evil person out there who manifests all these traits to the extreme. Maybe they exist, but probably not. Somebody who can’t benefit at all from any type of treatment, somebody who is just the way they are. That’s the way they are hardwired. That’s the way they’re going to be. There’s no behavioral therapy for them. There’s no anything. I just can’t really believe that. That doesn’t make any sense to me.

It’s weird that other people just believe it, like, Oh, these people are just evil. We should lock them up or kill them because there’s nothing else we can do, and they’re just going to kill us if we don’t do it to them. That’s a weird thing.  (Interview with the Rumpus)

From what I know now, my feelings are conflicted.  On the one hand, I don’t think I’d want to have anything to do with a sociopath.  Too risky.  My empathic self could be easily manipulated and hurt.  Yet, on the other, that same empathetic self wants to cry out that maybe sociopaths are people too, we just need to find appropriate ways to interact with them (as with people with other disorders), and that they can still be taught and choose to be functionally good.

I’ve never identified someone as a sociopath, but M.E. Thomas claims that about 4% of the population are sociopaths [4].   If that’s true, that’s 1 out of 25, which would mean I must have bumped into several, thoughn_cycle_5socio_130725.video_770x443  I’ve certainly never been aware of it.  But considering they’re generally charming and blend in with society so well, maybe one of my Sunday school teachers was a sociopath.  In fact, couldn’t they theoretically serve in any calling?  Could it actually be an advantage in a calling?  Say your ward’s compassionate service leader was a sociopath — would it help to only have cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy, so that she can identify and react to needs without bringing the emotional burden back to her own family?  What about a sociopathic bishop?  Should a lack of empathy immediately disqualify him?  Anybody out there have experience with a sociopath, especially at church?



[1]  The word on the web is that she was found out in the process of changing jobs, and that she lost a promised faculty position at the BYU Law School because of it.

[2]  In her interview with Dr. Phil (scroll to the bottom; she’s the woman in the blond wig), she claimed a “period of self-exploration” and he called her on it — sociopaths don’t “self-reflect”, he said.  “That’s inconsistent with sociopathy”, he said, basically implying she’s a fraud.  He seems to think she’s not truly a sociopath because “they’re just users and abusers”.

[3]  Except she’s still trying to hide her identity and may even have changed names in order to protect herself and her family.  (which is why I’m not linking to any of that)

[4]  According to an article in Slate, Robert Hare claims 1%, and they’re almost all male: “Psychopaths, according to Hare, make up an estimated 1 percent of the male population; among women, they are almost nonexistent (though still present)”