Thursday, November 10, 2011

How I Envy Those Confidence Men

Among certain quarters of academia and the IT world - and even the arts, it seems - it has become almost fashionable to covet a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Who wouldn't want to have all those geeky gifts, after all? The perfect memory, the lightning math skills, the ease of mastery over an infinite number of subjects. It would make you the center of attention, wouldn't it? And yet to be Aspergery is not the same as full-blown autism. You are still able to function, more or less. You may be a little shakey in the social arena - what with your inability to empathize or your cluelessness about knowing when to shut up - but in the end your gifts will exonerate you and make your flaws seem endearing. You will be able to remain the center of attention without having to take responsibility for your social behavior. Like a narcissist, almost. My Dad was a bit like that. So is my sister.

Sadly for me, I empathize all too well - and I am so good at picking up non-verbal cues from people who want me to shut up that it can render me mute, almost as though as I have been bullied telepathically. Things would be so much simpler if I could project my wants and needs and self-interest onto the world without any self-consciousness. But I can't.

The people I envy most are not the Aspies, but the sociopaths. They not only lack the embarrassing geekiness of the Aspies (or, at least, what would be embarrassing to the Aspies if they could see themselves as others do) - but they are actually smoother, more charming and more seemingly clued in than the rest of us. And yet they get a free pass on empathy and self-consciousness, too. They don't let any consideration or even a sense of shame get between them and what they want. They just don't care! They have the best of both worlds, if total self-centeredness is your thing.

The smoothest of all the creatures in the slithering menagerie of the sociopathic is The Confidence Man. Here is the guy whose face never loses its winning smile, who is never at a loss for words. Whether it's a job interview or a girl he sets his sights on, he never fails to nail it - or her. He's the one I want to be like.

In pursuit of this ideal, I have deliberately faked my answers to Psychopath Tests and snorted gleefully when I scored on the high side. But never high enough, unfortunately, not even with all my attempts as psyching out the testers. I work hard to cultivate ruthless thoughts, so much so that I might one day vote Republican. I have taught myself to lie convincingly - without hemming or hawing, without either shifting my eyes or staring too fixedly. I have grown proud of my ability to lie. I treasure the occasions in my life on which I have cheated in some way - academically, sexually or just playing cards. To remember them makes me feel as comfortably worldly as mulling a glass of single malt whiskey before the fireplace.

And yet the true supreme confidence of the sociopath eludes me still. It surely must be because I am trying too hard. A real sociopath does not get up in the morning and say to himself, "Today I will behave without scruples or empathy". He just does it! Therein lies his secret. To become less self-conscious, I have let the fire of my own violent thoughts and fantasies blaze unchecked. I daydream of murderous payback and gratuitous malice. In my head, I plan out how to obtain a fake ID from China, how to purchase weapons with cash in red state pawn shops, even where to park my car as I scamper up to the house of my high school nemesis in my ninja suit, my Uzi in hand, and knock on his door... The vividness of my fantasies excites me, but do I act on them? No. Worse yet, those fantasies only inflame my anger, which steals away my smile and makes me charmless once again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

You Can Tell A Psychopath By How He Talks

According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Cornell and the University of British Columbia, you may be able to identify a psychopath by how he talks. When I first heard this, it sure made sense. Aren't psychopaths supposed to be these silver-tongued characters, like con men - or politicians? In that case, the better a person spoke, the more suspect he became. But, no - that's not it.

Here are the five top tip-offs (along with my annotations):

1) They use words to suggest that their actions "had a logical cause and effect" that justified their goals. Words like "because" and "so that". Authority figures talk like that, especially politicians and business leaders, and it always sounds like they are excusing their actions simply by aggrandizing their own intellectual acumen. But then again narcissism is a trait of psychopaths, too.

2) They enjoy talking about the simple pleasures of life - the tangible things, especially food, as in what they had for dinner last night. I never thought a psychopath might talk like a foodie, but there you have it. The articles suggest that the discussion of food reflects their predatory nature. They talk about drinking and money, too - and also, presumably, sex. Folks like that could come across like any down-to-earth and unpretentious regular guy - or even just your garden variety suburban materialist. I bet they also like to talk about cars, iPhone apps, and mutual funds.

3) They tend to hem and haw, apparently in their attempts to disguise the truth about themselves. This one sounds like a sure give-away for a liar all right, but aren't psychopaths supposed to be smoother than that? Identifying people notorious for their powers of verbal manipulation by their inarticulateness seems counterintuitive. Convicted murderers may talk like that more because of their lack of education than for any other reason. Higher end psychopaths might hem and haw a little less, or a little better.

4) They don't like to talk about touchy-feely stuff like religion and family and moral values - anything that might trigger shame or guilt. I can see that. But isn't one of the rules of polite conversation that one should never talk about "religion or politics"? If so, how could one tell the difference between a psychopath and that suave fellow at the dinner party you attended last week who talked charmingly (if only) about horses, Jaguars and fine wine? And isn't the expulsion of anything resembling empathy from one's conversation the hallmark of a hard-headed pragmatist? Again we swing back to the businessman, the rationalist, the unsentimental alpha male.

5) They talk in the past tense a lot, explaining what they did (or what they want you to think they did) in a fait accompli kind of way. Certain former bosses of mine used to talk like that - emphasizing what was done, rather than was being done or what could be done, as though they wanted to assure you that you couldn't change any of it - and that you couldn't make them change it either. The article said this effect suggested "detachment", but I'd like to think it represents the desire of the speaker to strip control from the person they're talking to.

How to Spot a Psychopath: Look For Speech Patterns, Scientists Say (Fox News)
Speech patterns: 5 ways to spot a psychopath (The Week Magazine)