human behavior

The sociopaths among us

Posted in Anti-Americanism, Health & Medicine by humanb on October 15, 2009


When you’re in medical school in Australia, you expect to learn about pathophysiology, not American politics. But my Australian professors cannot resist making ungenerous comments about American culture, uninformed comments about US health care, and unrelated comments about US politics.

Today’s tutorial on personality disorders was a case in point.

I asked the lecturer – a distinguished and highly competent Australian psychiatrist – a question about personality disorders in my very obvious American accent. He answered my question by way of this statement:

All the U.S. Presidents in the last 40 years were sociopaths, with the exception of Obama and Carter.

He proceeded to spend half of the tutorial providing evidence of this, highlighting the pathological misdeeds of Clinton, Nixon and JFK in particular (though JFK was a bit more than 40 years ago, and he didn’t need to convince me that Nixon was a sociopath).

Whether or not there is any truth to that statement, it is an inherently obnoxious one. I highly doubt that any of the 22-year-old medical students in that room knew or cared about the psychopathology of Richard Nixon. Were he interested in educating that student group he might have used more culturally appropriate examples; but he was very well read on the biographies of U.S. presidents, he assured me, and could speak on the subject of their psychopathologies with confidence. He was clearly enjoying his little monologue on the subject – particularly given my reticence to entertain the subject – and was not the least bit concerned about discomfiting me, though other students were frequently glancing my way to gauge my feelings. His behavior was a tad, dare I suggest, antisocial.

People with Antisocial Personality Disorder are also known as sociopaths or psychopaths:

The essential feature of Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.

Sociopaths frequently lack empathy and tend to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others. They may have an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal (e.g., feel that ordinary work is beneath them or lack a realistic concern about their current problems or their future) and may be excessively opinionated, self-assured, or cocky. They may display a glib, superficial charm and can be quite voluble and verbally facile (e.g., using technical terms or jargon that might impress someone who is unfamiliar with the topic)…. These individuals may also be irresponsible and exploitative in their sexual relationships. They may have a history of many sexual partners and may never have sustained a monogamous relationship…

The sociopath can be deceitful and manipulative in order to gain personal profit or pleasure…. repeatedly lie, use an alias, con others…. make decisions on the spur of the moment without consideration for the consequences to self or others…. be irritable and aggressive…. display a reckless disregard for the safety of themselves or others…. may be indifferent to having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from someone (e.g., “life’s unfair”, “losers deserve to lose”, or “he had it coming anyway”)… and may blame the victims for being foolish, helpless, or deserving their fate (DSM-IV-TR).

U.S. politics aside, the tutorial was actually an interesting one, and I learned a good deal. I was especially fascinated by the concept of the successful sociopath. The psychiatrist – let’s call him Dr. Snark – said that the textbooks commonly describe the failed sociopath, whose personality disorder is so severe as to impair social and occupational function. The successful sociopath, on the other hand, has found the occupational niche in which his pathological behavior and antisocial attitudes contribute greatly to his own benefit. He may be a bouncer if he delights in violence, a financial CEO if he delights in risk-taking and defrauding suckers, or a politician if he delights in lies. There is no treatment for Antisocial Personality Disorder. According to Dr. Snark, all the psychiatrist can do is avoid getting manipulated and encourage the sociopath to find his niche in civilized society.

Dr. Snark kept returning to the subject of U.S. figures he considered sociopaths – adding Bernie Madoff (duh) and Ted Kennedy to the list – until I had to interrupt his rant to ask:

humanb: Excuse me sir, but is this is a political opinion or a psychiatric opinion you’re expressing?

Dr. Snark: A bit of both.

Well at least he doesn’t delight in lies.

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