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Written by: William D. Anton, Ph. D., Founder of CEO Effectiveness

The recent escape of two convicted killers from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, the killing of Richard Matt, and re-capture of David Sweat, bring to focus segments of our population that wear the “mask of sanity.” Originally individuals exhibiting these most destructive forms of errant behaviors were referred to as constitutional psychopaths. Later, they were referred to simply as psychopaths and more recently as sociopaths as the original assumptions that they were “born that way” yielded to research demonstrating that early family experiences had a profound influence.

Their value system is immature, childlike, and self-centered, and no delay of gratification is tolerated. They believe that everyone is a sociopath. They cause great suffering for others, conform only in the presence of external threat, and the majority never pay for their crimes.

A greatly oversimplified picture can be drawn to illustrate how these emotional patterns and behaviors develop. Life is very stressful for the unwanted child. A child’s psychological assets (e.g., intelligence) and other factors (e.g., family, culture) tend to influence their options for coping with intensely painful feelings evoked by perceived rejection and invisibility from important people in their life. Choosing “not to feel” is the option chosen by future sociopaths whether they end up in jail, as corporate raiders or in politics! (See Psychopaths in the C-Suite: Fred Kiel at TEDxBGI.)

Once the early decision to turn the “volume” down on feelings to inaudible levels is made, everything changes. The pain stops, stimulation substitutes for feeling, conflicts are acted out rather than experienced, and inner deadness is substituted for inner pain. The absence of feeling becomes the new default. Aliveness is now experienced in response to increasingly high levels of external stimulation. This state is known to psychologists as chronic under-arousal, and it is accompanied by a sense of inner deadness that is intolerable.

Only engagement in high risk “adrenalin rush seeking behaviors” offers a temporary but fleeting reprieve. So when the bank robber points a gun at an innocent teller’s face he is likely to be experiencing what a person with normal arousal levels might feel on a calm relaxing morning at the beach. Imagine what they must experience in maximum security. Think of a tiger in a small cage pacing back and forth ready to pounce on something the second an opportunity presents itself. No wonder they are willing to risk death so easily. They already feel dead. Risky behaviors temporarily stimulate adrenalin levels and offer a temporary but fleeting experience of aliveness.

Here are a few points of agreement on sociopaths

  1. Highly intelligent
  2. Lacking in guilt
  3. Do not learn from experience
  4. Extremely self-centered
  5. Exceedingly resistant to change if at all
  6. Hopeless
  7. Often in trouble with the law.
  8. Delight in letting you know you’ve been had.

Sociopaths know the rules first and choose to break them. They are experts in the letter of the law but clueless about the spirit of the law. Most treatments are a waste of time