Sociopathy and social conflict, or the empathy trap


by Deborah Talbot


The savagery of the political discourse emerging since the EU Referendum vote, in the election of Donald Trump and the explosion of nouveau fascism across Europe has led to a preoccupation that there might be something amiss in our societies on a psychosocial level, something that might be summarized as an absence of empathy.  This article explores the social problem posed by sociopaths, why our society struggles with empathy, and what we can do about it.

We think of social conflict as a clash of class, social group or political ideology, rarely as that which occurs between personality or psychological types, embodied in the terms psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists. It is easy to understand why. We feel discomfort at applying impermeable labels to people, a feeling deeply embedded by anti-psychiatry writers such as Ronald D. Laing and Michael Foucault and sociologists such as Howard Becker and Erving Goffman, whether this was their intention or not.

These writers were part of a broader countercultural movement in the 1960s and 1970s that questioned our tendency to assign character traits to statuses such as gender and race and in doing do, create ‘outsiders.’ Further, they saw mental illness as no good reason for lifelong incarceration. Across many spheres of society, no one was to be judged irredeemable. The problem of applying labels to personality types has been underpinned by the bewildering array of diagnostic criteria in the ever-growing Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Yet phenomena such as workplace bullying and domestic violence, far from rare, point to the need to develop awareness of the kinds of havoc those with particular kinds of personalities cause. Let’s look at the statistics.

The extent of workplace bullying is hidden, given that people leave or come to a settlement before anything is recorded and shame does the rest of the work. Research estimates of the number of victims show the prevalence of workplace bullying ranges from 1 in 10 people experiencing bullying over the previous six months (with half having witnessed bullying over a period of five years), to 1 in 3 in a survey of city workers. Bullying is reported to be higher in the public sector than the private sector (though there may be a ‘dark’ private sector figure). The extent of domestic abuse is also subject to a high dark figure, though Refuge estimated that one in four women are affected by it in their lifetime.

Routinely, bullying and domestic violence are discussed as a by-product of a possible personality disorder on the part of the perpetrator, though this does not account for all cases. It is perhaps telling that controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate relationships or families, the hallmark of personality disordered behaviour, has been criminalised in the Serious Crime Act 2015 (though there is no law criminalising workplace bullying).

Meanwhile, books, articles and blogs are written casually mentioning terms such as psychopathy, sociopathy and narcissism as being implicated in these kinds of abuse. Films and other popular media have made the sociopath the stuff of legends and folklore. We have a morbid fascination about these creatures with no conscience.

But in our everyday interactions, we have been slow to catch on. It is almost as if, in our rush to disavow our instincts, feelings and judgments when we encounter others, lest we label them unwittingly, we have left ourselves defenseless when we meet these ‘charming monsters’. Potentially understanding our problem as being caused by a sociopath is almost a whispered secret and a source of silent shame. We blink and go back to the socially acceptable route of self-blame.

But are sociopaths possible to identify, and can we understand their social impact or see them as part of a structure of broader social conflict (as something those interested in social and cultural change should be interested)?

I’m going to argue for a not-so-tentative yes…next I’ll explain why.

Sociopaths and the ‘empathy trap’

One of the best accounts of sociopathy I have come across is in a book by Jane and Tim McGregor called, The empathy trap: understanding antisocial personalities, because it focuses on their ‘relationality’ to the two other key personality groups in society – empaths and what they call apaths. I’m going to spend a bit of time outlining these terms because it points to what I would call a major social problem and a possible cultural solution.

It is not clear how many sociopaths walk among us, but the writers suggest it is anything between 1 in a 100 of the population to 1 in 25. They argue that while there is a variety of diagnostic criteria listing their so-called traits, they believe (or hope) that these will be abandoned and redefined as ‘conditions of low or zero empathy’. There are of course a list of traits associated with sociopathy: superficial charm or superciliousness, dishonesty, thrill-seeking or a need for stimulation (because there are no emotions to preoccupy them), egocentricity, absence of guilt, impulsive risk-taking, a lack of emotions, tendency to ‘gaslight,’ cool under pressure, and an inability to respond to punishment (but they do respond behaviourally to rewards).

Some traits can be culturally specific, meaning that different countries or social groups may express low empathy in distinct ways. As a consequence, sociopaths, as McGregor and McGregor note, can be very hard to spot, and the cod checklists you find on the Internet may not be helpful. They can also be hard to spot because sociopaths have an uncanny ability to make others carry their affects, so that, when you meet a person displaying some of the above traits, they may simply be close to a sociopath (but not be one).

Empaths, on the other hand, account for a surprising 40% of the population, they say. They are not people with extraordinary powers, but merely:

“…ordinary people who are highly perceptive and insightful and belong to the 40% of human beings who sense when something’s not right (those who respond to their ‘gut instinct’)…A particular attribute of empaths is that they are sensitive to the emotional distress of others. Conversely they have trouble comprehending a closed mind and lack of compassion in others.”

Empaths are people who are able to grasp what another person is feeling and ‘walk a mile in their shoes’. They are much more likely to act on their conscience, which makes them a potential obstacle for the sociopath. Sociopaths also derive pleasure from tormenting and thwarting empaths – it is good sport for the sociopath. Sociopaths also want to take from the empath, take everything that is lacking within them.

Empaths are makers of social change, opening up spaces for experimentation and freedom. But, as the writers note, while our culture superficially celebrates those who do so, the reality is quite different:

“It was interesting to discover, when doing the research for this book, how often people referred to empathetic types as fearful, too sensitive and vulnerable. In other words, many people see empaths in problematical terms.”

The authors note that highly empathic people can develop problems, and the reality is that empathic ability is a gift of thorns and a walk of pain. They can be overcome by emotional stimuli and have difficulties in maintaining boundaries between themselves and others. It makes them particularly susceptible to the psychological violence of sociopaths.

Which brings us to apaths, who could help, but must be willing to move…

We all remember (don’t we?) those highly controversial experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo, showing us how easy it is to persuade people to collaborate in violence and abuse. Those highly suggestible people are the apaths. Apaths are just normal and perfectly decent people, who nevertheless lack the insight or highly developed conscience to stand up for what is right (though they may do so in particular circumstances). They may simply be so fearful that they collude with practices they know to be wrong, or refuse to believe what they are seeing. The apath, according to the authors, can be persuaded to be the sociopaths ally in destroying the empath, particularly if they have a reason to dislike them (because of envy, for example).

So how are all of these relational? The authors say this:

“For a sociopathic transaction to be effective it requires the following threesome: a sociopath, an empathy, and an apath…The usual set up goes something like this: the empath is forced to make a stand on seeing the sociopath say or do something underhand. The empath challenges the sociopath, who straightaway throws others off the scent and shifts the blame on to the empath. The empath becomes an object of abuse when the apath [who has been thoroughly worked over by flattery, lies and inducements – my words] corroborates the sociopath’s perspective. Ultimately the situation usually ends badly for the empath, and sometimes for the apath (if his conscience comes back to haunt him, or subsequently he becomes an object of abuse himself). Frustratingly, however, the sociopath often gets off scot free.”

Anyone who has been embroiled in a familial or workplace dispute may find this pattern all too familiar. If so, it is worth reading McGregor and McGregor’s book to confirm that you are not going crazy – the dynamic is real. But are there any implications in all of this for society?

Sociopaths in social context

Robert Hare’s book, Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work, illustrates the interactions between corporate culture and psychopathy. He graphically describes the havoc they cause through their low-conscience and zero-empathy behaviours, such as lying, manipulation and ruthlessly dealing with perceived competitors or obstacles to their power-grab. Will Black, author of the book Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires, points out that groups and institutions – such as families, paedophile rings and political organisations – can incorporate and perpetrate psychopathic behaviours, such that those behaviours can become permanent, even if there are no psychopaths in the organisation anymore.

Both of these authors illustrate that sociopathy can be supported by prevailing culture and serve to reinforce that culture. Hare shows that there is a strong correlation between sociopathy and the values of corporate culture, so that sociopaths may be able to slide through the door or even celebrated. Black demonstrates that sociopathic values can be transmitted to others through social, political and organisational structures. Indeed, it might be useful to observe that the first task of political and religious cults is to lower the empathy of its members through various means.

So sociopathy is a social and cultural problem. What’s the answer? Lock everyone up who displays sociopathic tendencies? Probably not. Nor is it a good idea to start doing sociopath spotting, because that could have destructive social consequences alongside making the amateur sociopath spotter quite paranoid. It is no surprise that Jon Ronson started questioning his own premise half way through his book The Psychopath Test. It is undeniably useful though to become familiar with some of their key traits, so you have an awareness of who or what you may be dealing with, whether it’s personal or institutional. It’s just that you can’t do anything with that, except run.

There is another way of looking at the problem though; one that doesn’t involve examining everything through the lens of the sociopath. McGregor and McGregor argue that the problem is not so much with sociopaths, who are after all in the minority and unlikely to change (except if you catch them early in their life). The problem is that our society is not supportive enough of empaths, and is too supportive of sociopaths and apaths. Society is supportive of sociopathy because the values of aggressive competitiveness and ruthlessness are mainstream, and those with sociopathic tendencies are sometimes knowingly employed by companies and institutions to shake ‘dead wood’ out. It is supportive of apaths, because fear, capitulation and the denial of reality are viewed as acceptable and normal pathways through life.

Think about how empathic people are treated. Through our schools and workplaces, we train people to buckle down and toughen up. Our favourite phrase is ‘suck it up,’ which must have been invented by a sociopath, because it serves them perfectly. We tease children for being too sensitive or crying when they are hurt, physically or emotionally. We slap down resistance and celebrate ‘going with the flow.’ We turn away when children and adults are bullied, feeling that somehow they deserve it. We don’t teach emotional complexity in schools, colleges or universities. We teach people to value competition rather than cooperation and understanding of ‘the other.’ Intuition is ridiculed and dismissed, which is crazy because we don’t just learn through our intellect and great innovation is born from intuition. In short, we bruise people until they are emotionally numb. We don’t protect empathy, we resent it, and in rejecting the empath, we allow ourselves to become fodder for sociopathic ways of being.

It is possible that creating new alignments where the empath is supported and the apaths move to support them is intimately connected to social structures. Existing in a society that is segregated along class, gender, ethnic and ideological lines does not create the culture of openness, fluidity, and engagement with creative differences in which the empath is likely to thrive.

Also, social change is not just a matter of rational politics, as the counterculture realised. The war between sociopathic and empathetic values speaks to a symbolism of wider social conflicts, and illustrates that social change is an emotional and psychological (in other words, psychosocial) problem. So what would it take to swing the balance, I wonder, and let the empath roam free?

Deborah Talbot is a freelance qualitative researcher and journalist, writing about society, culture and all things urban. She has recently set up a new blog Interurban Lines



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  1. Thank you so much for this. Coming late in life to emotional intelligence and involvement, I’d been starting to feel like a crazy person seeing how much the denial of emotional awareness is woven into everything from patriarchal standards of “strength” to the insistence that consumer capitalism is a meritocracy.

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