Why Sociopaths Win By Losing

In The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout raises the following excellent question: “If sociopaths are so focused on their goals and so driven to win, then why do they not win all the time?” She goes on to explain that, basically, sociopaths are losers: “For they do not [win or succeed in life]. Instead, most of them are obscure people, and limited to dominating their young children, or a depressed spouse, or perhaps a few employees or coworkers… Having never made much of a mark on the world, the majority are on a downward life course, and by late middle age will be burned out completely. They can rob and torment us temporarily, yes, but they are, in effect, failed lives.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 188)

I think that Martha Stout, Robert Hare, Steve Becker and many other experts on sociopathy are right to say that sociopaths play games in life and aim to win.  They’re also right to observe that sociopaths generally don’t win because they tend to sabotage every relationship and endeavor by cheating, lying and engaging in other destructive behavior. But all this assumes that psychopaths have the same conception of “winning” that normal people have. It’s true that psychopaths lose in life by normal standards. But, as we well know, psychopaths lack normal standards and perspectives in pretty much all areas of life. They don’t view “winning” in the positive sense of achieving success–be it successful long-term relationships or professional endeavors–but rather as causing others to lose.

To offer one noteworthy example, from a normal perspective, Hitler and Stalin are the Big Losers of history. They’re evil dictators who trampled over countless human lives in their march to absolute power. But keep in mind that their goal was not governing strong nations in general, as was arguably Napoleon’s goal. These two totalitarian rulers wanted to achieve total control over several nations: and the entire world, if possible. Total control can’t be achieved without the subjugation, and even the annihilation, of any dissenting voice; without the inculcation of fear; without violence.

Sociopaths would rather win by becoming notorious for their crimes rather than famous for their achievements. How else can one describe the motivations of serial killers like Ted Bundy and so many others, who take pride in violent crimes and the ability to get away with them (at least for awhile)? Fortunately for the rest of humanity, most sociopaths aren’t world dictators or serial killers. However, looking at these prominent examples helps us understand better the distorted logic of sociopathy. It’s an “I win if you lose” mentality. In their own warped perspectives, sociopaths win by destroying other human beings and their social institutions, regardless if that enables them to achieve anything in life or lands them straight in prison.

Perhaps a sociopath’s only fear is being unmasked as evil, because that exposes the nature of his game. As Harrison Koehli eloquently puts it, “[Psychopaths] hang on to their masks with such conviction because they are predators, and without them, they cannot survive… To let down that facade would reveal that they are little more than unfeeling intraspecies predators that feed off the pain and suffering of others and thus destroy their chances of feeding. Even a psychopath is aware of the consequences of such a revelation. His ‘dreams’ of a boot forever stomping on the face of humanity are crushed.” Unfortunately, for as long as there will be people protecting, colluding with, and covering for sociopaths, these parasites will continue to feed on us, even if it means the destruction of both predator and prey. Sociopaths play a very dangerous game, whereby they win by losing. 

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

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The Death of a Deadly Psychopath: Osama bin Laden’s Personality Profile

Now that Osama bin Laden has finally been killed, there’s a momentary celebration around the world that one of the most dangerous and reviled men in recent history can no longer harm the innocent. Of course, there’s no shortage of people like him, nor of his followers, ready to avenge his death. In the article below, Aubrey Immelman paints a psychological profile of Osama Bin Laden. This profile is one of a psychopath, with paranoid tendencies, similar to another notorious psychopath who attained great influence and power, Joseph Stalin.

The Hunt for Bin Laden: America’s “Second Intelligence Failure”?

Aubrey Immelman

Reprinted from the March 2002 issue 
of Clio’s Psyche (Journal of the Psychohistory Forum)

From the first moment I paid serious attention to Osama bin Laden—September 11, 2001—the man did not strike me as someone likely to martyr himself. Six days after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I posted my initial impressions on the website of the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics: that the mastermind likely fit Otto Kernberg syndrome of malignant narcissism, with its core elements of pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and unconstrainedaggression (see http://www.csbsju.edu/uspp/Research/MalignantLeadership.html).

More systematic analysis of biographical source materials in the ensuing months, using my standard psychodiagnostic procedure, produced a more nuanced portrait, compatible but more fine-grained than Kernberg’s syndrome. In the nomenclature of my Millonian approach (cf. Theodore Millon, Disorders of Personality: DSM‑IV and Beyond, 1996), Bin Laden emerged as a primarily Ambitious/exploitative (narcissistic), Dauntless/dissenting (antisocial) personality, with secondary Distrusting/suspicious (paranoid), Dominant/controlling (sadistic), and some Conscientious/dutiful (obsessive-compulsive) features.

Ambitious individuals are bold, competitive, and self-assured; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and often act as though entitled. Dauntless individuals are bold, courageous, and tough; minimally constrained by the norms of society; routinely engage in high-risk activities; not overly concerned about the welfare of others; skilled in the art of social influence; and adept at surviving on the strength of their particular talents, ingenuity, and wits.

Bin Laden’s blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of Millon’s unprincipled narcissist (or narcissistic psychopath) syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist’s arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality’s self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others (see Millon, cited above, pp. 409–410).

From the perspective of the so-called “hunt for Bin Laden,” the major implication of these findings is that, unlike hijack linchpin Mohamed Atta, Bin Laden does not fit the profile of the highly conscientious, closed-minded religious fundamentalist, nor that of the religious martyr who combines these qualities with devout, self-sacrificing features. Rather, Bin Laden’s profile suggests that he is cunningly artful in exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory.

Theodore Millon and Roger Davis (“Ten Subtypes of Psychopathy” in Millon et al., Eds., Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, pp. 161–170) explain that this psychopathic subtype—effectively devoid of a superego—is prevalent among society’s con artists. Akin to these charlatans and swindlers, Bin Laden likely harbors an arrogant, vengeful vindictiveness and contempt for his victims.

Far from directing operations and taking a last stand with his most loyal acolytes at Tora Bora, relationships for narcissistic psychopaths survive only as long as they have something to gain—and for these grandiose, self-enhancing personalities there is naught to be gained from martyrdom. What does, however, command their full measure of devotion is humiliating their adversaries in a high-stakes game of wit, and relishing their frustration, anger, and dismay.

In short, the extent to which U.S. intelligence and military operations against Bin Laden were framed as a hunt for a devout, dedicated religious fundamentalist might serve as a rough measure of the extent to which the failure thus far to kill or capture Bin Laden could be considered an intelligence failure.

•••

Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Minnesota’s St. John’s University. He authored the chapter “Personality in Political Psychology” in the forthcoming Handbook of Psychology (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003).

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