Sometimes people say, “Oh, he’s really psycho (a psychopath),” when they are describing a friend’s slightly wild behavior. Or, “He has a real anti-social personality,” to explain why someone doesn’t want to go out with his friends on Friday night.
These two terms, psychopath and anti-social personality, are more than slang words to describe a friend’s unusual behavior. In professional language, they are used interchangeably with another term, sociopath, to describe someone whose problems are a lot more serious than acting up in class or showing an occasional fit of bad temper. A sociopath is someone who stands apart from a typical life filled with other people.
Using and Abusing Others
Socipaths often seem just like everyone else. In fact, they frequently impress people with their charm. But their gift of saying what others want to hear is more manipulation than sincerity. Sociopaths don’t feel close to anyone. Sociopaths do not love, like, or even care about others.
This lack of feeling is combined with a lack of conscience. Since sociopaths don’t feel attached to people, they don’t feel guilty if they cheat them. They act as if a special set of rules, or no rules at all, should apply to them alone.
A sociopath’s cheating and manipulation can be seen in a whole range of behaviors. A person with just some sociopathic tendencies may be the boss who presents an employee’s idea as his own, or a slick, dishonest saleswoman. Some sociopaths fall into a life of crime against other people, becoming bad-check passers or the type of con artist who cheats pensioners out of their life savings. These sociopaths don’t feel guilty about hurting other human beings. The most extreme sociopaths don’t feel a moment’s remorse even about killing.
One of the most famous and dangerous sociopaths of our time was the recently executed serial killer, Ted Bundy. To his neighbors and casual acquaintances, Bundy seemed like a normal person. In fact, he seemed better than average: handsome, clean-cut, a bright law student destined for success. Ted Bundy was sentenced to death for having raped, mutilated, and murdered three Florida women. And he is thought to have killed perhaps a hundred young women across the country.
Yet, Bundy managed to fool people to the end. Even his Florida jailers, used to prisoners’ manipulation, said Bundy seemed to be such a nice guy. After his arrest, Bundy began writing letters to a woman from his jail cell. She eventually became Bundy’s wife, convinced her husband was wrongly accused.
Problems Begin Early
Where does this psychopathic behavior come from? Richard Gelles, Ph.D., co-author of Intimate Violence, believes that about 10 percent of sociopaths have a physical problem. He says some are born with a chemical imbalance that keeps them from learning right from wrong. Other sociopaths turn out to have brain tumors. Or they suffered serious head injuries that perhaps damaged their thinking and emotional systems.
Experts believe, however, that most sociopaths are the product of problems at home. Some psychologists say sociopaths’ parents tend to be cold and unloving to their child, teaching them only how to have distant relationships. Others point to parents who frequently punish and rarely reward their children.
According to Carole McKelvey, co-author of High Risk: Children Without a Conscience, there is one important condition underlying all these situations. She says almost all sociopaths suffered from a break in their attachment to others in childhoold. For some reason, these children don’t experience a bond of love and trust with an adult, usually a mother. The child’s and the mother’s personalities may be incompatible. Other factors– bad day-care or foster care, medical problems, child abuse, frequent shifts of parent figures–could also create this lack of attachment. The earlier these traumas occur the more likely the child will have a damaged personality.
Accordidng to this theory, unattached children, who never learned trust in their first relationship, can never trust in future relationships. They are not truly social, because they don’t really understand the give and take of a healthy friendship. Here’s how Ted Bundy described his boyhood feelings about others:
“I didn’t know what made things tick. I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made peopl attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.”
Charm Hides the Anger
Feeling like outsiders to the rest of the human race, sociopaths study other people so they can learn to “fit in.” In fact, this careful observation is one reason why they are so good at manipulating others. Then they often create their diguise: a likable, charming character who seems to make friends easily. Underneath, however, is a mistrustful person with a core of rage that comes from unfulfilled needs.
Anger, mistrust, a sense of being owed, no guilt about manipulating or hurting others–all of these explain why some people with sociopathic tendencies end up having a lot of “people” problems. They may start off acting charming but can’t maintain the falsehood. They don’t get along with a boss or co-workers. Their marriages are plagued with fighting and divorce. They also have a higher incidence of alcohol and drug abuse.
But don’t go looking for a Ted Bundy behind every smiling face. Few children with a distant parent become unattached. Few unattached children become sociopaths. Furthermore, few sociopaths become killers. But this is a very serious condition that reminds us that the importance of love starts with a single child and then blossoms to the world around him or her.