M.E. Thomas, author, "Confessions of a Sociopath"
Related Story: Local Sociopath Writes A Memoir
CAVANAUGH: Sociopaths are more common than you think. You may have heard about sociopaths last time someone analyzed the mind of a killer or a career criminal but it's estimated about 1 to 4% of the population could be diagnosed as sociopathic. So many live relatively peaceful lives and society mental health experts claim sociopaths have personality disorders that make them inflate their own abilities and render them inability relatively incapable of emotion and empathy my next guess is a diagnose noncriminal sociopathic. ME Thomas is the author of the book confessions of a sociopath a life spent hiding in plain sight and M.E. Thomas, welcome to the show.
THOMAS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: M.E. Thomas is a pen name. If you didn't want to write in plain sight why did you write the book in the first place?
THOMAS: I think the hiding in plain sight was referencing how I live my life so far. I talk in the book about how I don't want to hide anymore. I want to be able to be open with people, not just close friends and families who've always known who I was even before he knew the term sociopath, but was anybody. And I think that is something that is going to benefit all society if it's possible for sociopath for me to come out and be honest and open that is going to hell because right now I think the problem people have with sociopath is they do not know that much about them they don't think they know anybody who's a sociopath although statistically everyone has made a sociopath so it is the scary unknowns I guess I'm trying to just shed light on what it means to be a sociopath so people can stop fearing it and sort of fear mongering. You know sociopath, there is a very pejorative connotation to sociopath and I think it's (inaudible).
CAVANAUGH: That's even more pejorative association with psychopath what's the difference between sociopath and psychopath?
THOMAS: So a lot of people there some dispute about how the terms are used as a lot of people think there's not a distinction between the extent that people use the terms and distinguish between the two they focus, psychopath focuses on the genetic aspect of it and sociopath social, sort of emphasizes the environmental aspects of sociopathy. So psychopaths, if they make a distinction, are born, and sociopaths are sort of made.
CAVANAUGH: I see what are the primary characteristics of sociopathy?
THOMAS: Probably there are little characteristics that are surprisingly very common among sociopaths. They can be very charming, their fearless, they are risk-taking and all of these traits for the most part are shared with sociopaths probably the biggest establishing factors between somebody who happens to be an adrenaline junkie and a sociopath is that sociopaths don't really feel empathy. Or they don't feel empathy in the same way that other people do and they don't have the same sorts of feelings of guilt that most people do and so they don't really have a conscience that most people have in terms of a conscience being you feel guilty after you feel like you've done something wrong.
CAVANAUGH: Now, M.E. Thomas, when did you discover that you might be a sociopath?
THOMAS: I heard that term sociopath being batted about but I never considered what it could be about until law school I had been doing a summer job and one of my coworkers and I had these long conversation she was very interested in ethics and I was interested in ethics as well so we talked about these things and after weeks of talking about this she said you may want to be considering the possibility that you are a sociopath so I looked it up, Googled it, looked up the criteria and I thought yeah, this really does seem to fit.
CAVANAUGH: Again you are an attorney by trade, so do you think that there are certain career sociopath sort of gravitate to?
THOMAS: Yeah, definitely there are careers that sociopaths gravitate to and I think there are careers that sociopaths tend to be very good at. There was actually a list a researcher Kevin Dunn did a list of 10 top professions and not shockingly. As you know, policeman, risk-taking and interested in power, there are surgeons, surgeons are easily able to sort of detach from the fact that you are putting into an actual person, lawyers, sociopaths make very good lawyers I think because they are able to emotionally detach themselves they don't feel the need to judge their client if you have a bad guy who is going to be a client you let that interfere with you successfully and adequately representing him. Also journalism. May not surprise you to hear the journalism is a very popular career for sociopaths because journalists are nationally manipulative, you are trying to construct a headline or a page that's going to make people interested in the topic that they otherwise would be interested in.
CAVANAUGH: There's kind of a contradiction here that I don't quite understand sociopaths don't have empathy but they are also supposed to be very manipulative. Don't you need some empathy to be able to manipulate people you have to find out what people want in order to charm them, right?
THOMAS: It kind of gets to the question of what is empathy and I don't think we exactly know. The term empathy has only been in use essentially for the past 100 years we know that there is something going on from our own personal experiences you know you see somebody cry and you start to cry and we think I'm feeling what they are feeling, right? But the nature and the extent of how that happens, we are not really clear on, we know that there are mirror neurons are firing in the brain sometimes when we do these sorts of things the interesting thing about empathy a lot of people distinguish between cognitive and empathy which is the ability to intellectually understand somebody else's point of view and effective empathy which is the ability to feel that the other person is feeling at that moment and sociopaths for sure feel cognitive empathy, or they have cognitive empathy it's easy for them to imagine themselves in the shoes there's actually been recent research that suggests that sociopaths do feel effective empathy answer any situations in other words for instance they watch a video of somebody a sociopath of somebody watching the and him and when they watched it normally they didn't have the mirror neurons firing in the brain but when they were asked to put themselves in the shoes of the person they were watching and watch the guy getting his hand smashed with a hammer again then the mirror neurons did fire so there's some suggestions sociopaths even do feel effective empathy.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So most of the time is it not so much that you don't know what people are feeling is that you don't care?
THOMAS: It's not that you don't care, it's that you don't automatically feel that they are feeling. If somebody is crying, you don't have these automatic pangs of sadness your own self. It is something that if you tap into it has to be pretty much your decision. It is not this simultaneous sort of automatic thing.
CAVANAUGH: Now, when something is listed as a personality disorder, or a mental health problem in one way or another sometimes there are treatments available. Is there any treatment available for sociopaths?
THOMAS: There really hasn't been hardly any research. Popular wisdom is that there is not any treatment available for sociopaths and it is true that particularly in the prison setting that sociopaths to rebut respond well to talk therapy. In fact some therapists refuse to treat sociopaths. They think that if anything it just makes a sociopath worst because they are able to figure out new ways to manipulate people. They lack what emotions are expected of them so they get better at manipulation but there's only been one study that has been done about sociopath treatment and it just seems to me that we really don't know. And it sort of shocking that for a population as large as sociopaths are one to 4% of the population that we have not really considered at all how to treat people are tactic so far as a society has been to imprison people and I don't think that is working.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with M.E. Thomas she's the author of the book confessions of a sociopath, a light life spent hiding in plain sight. I want to talk about the past that he's been referred to where you've been hiding in plain sight so to speak. You said you pretended to feel real emotions for many years. A lot of your past life has involved pretense. Tell us about that.
THOMAS: Right, I don't think that it is something that is so foreign to most people a lot of things we do in polite society is based on even if you had a huge fight with your spouse that morning and you feel terrible you feel, you say find because there are certain social expectations about how we respond to things. So take that and brought the spoke. You are essentially doing that doing that not just for the typical social interactions but a lot of but a lot of interactions because you are being expected to react in particular ways and if you don't react in those ways you are punished for it social you are called a freak, you are called other names, people don't want to associate with you because there is something offputting about you not having those emotional reactions, so you just learn to give them what they are expecting and I don't think there's anything that's particularly, there's definitely not anything malicious about it. It is that if anything it is sort of a tyranny of the majority. The majority expects you to have the emotions that they have and if you don't expect your difference in different in a way that they might be prejudiced against you.
CAVANAUGH: There are some people who question whether the Harris psychopathy checklist the one that's used to diagnose sociopathy and psychopathy or any sort of sociopath diagnosis, the question whether it's valid or whether it gives people a license not to change some very bad behavior. What is your response to that?
THOMAS: Right, yeah. So let's start first with the license to be bad. Because I think that this is something that most people sort of feel like is this going to lead to a bunch of people saying that they are sociopaths and there's nothing they can do to change themselves so we should all just give them a free pass? That's not what has been happening so far at all it's been completely opposite. Sociopathy is not a mitigating factor in criminal sentencing. If you are a sociopath you'll probably get a longer sentence print if you are a sociopath you'll probably be denied parole. You will stay in prison much longer if you are considered a sociopath as compared for instance to if you are deemed legally insane. Then you could get off. So sociopathy is not considered legal insanity because you know right and wrong you just choose not to do it. Where legal insanity you cannot make these distinctions. So I don't think I mean there is no benefit to labeling yourself a sociopath. Will almost definitely ruin your life in various ways. Right, so the suggestion that sociopathy is going to be used manipulative lead to get ahead by saying you are a sociopath, but to get to your other point about the PCLR checklist whether this is an appropriate set of diagnostic criterion, it is reliable in the sense that is, people viewing over and over again will get similar results but there's a question about whether it is sort of circular. The way that the checklist was constructed was taking a bunch of psychopaths and comparing traits that seem similar amongst them. So how do you identify this okay sociopath in the first place?
CAVANAUGH: Exactly and that's we mean about the circular aspect to it is sort of like one defines the other because we are all psychopaths here, right?
CAVANAUGH: One of the things that I picked up in your book, and I think this sort of goes to the heart of what a lot of people might have questions about, you say in your book that people like you are different from average people often in dangerous or very scary ways so therefore the question comes up why should people shy away from someone who is or has been diagnosed as a sociopath.
THOMAS: Right. I think a lot of the danger, is not to say that there is no danger in scariness, there definitely is but a lot of the danger and scariness is kind of inherent in the way that we've been treating sociopaths or the fact that people are not aware that sociopaths exist. Some people have expected danger, you fly in a plane and you drive a car and these are actually pretty dangerous activities. We do dangerous things every day but we sort of knowingly and willingly choose to engage in these activities. I think the scary thing about sociopaths is that you cannot identify who is a sociopath. So it is an unknown danger and I don't think it's a crazy danger. I don't think it's actually any more dangerous than driving a car, for instance. But you know it's a serious enough danger and I think the unknown factor is what makes it sort of scary. I think that if as I said before sociopaths were allowed to be more open and explicit and honest about these sorts of things that it would be less dangerous for everybody. Part of the reason why sociopaths are the way they are is because it is dangerous for them to live in a society where most of everybody else hates them. Right? People hate sociopaths. Half the population just it's sociopaths. That is dangerous. They're going to behave in certain ways to avoid those dangers.
CAVANAUGH: Quickly if I can, the last question to you, how has your effort to become more open about this, how has it been going, well?
THOMAS: I mean, personally I think that it's been going well I appreciate the ability to be more honest and open. I've gotten a lot of good feedback but it's also been interesting as I mentioned earlier I sort of thought that a lot of the hatred toward sociopaths was maybe just a misinformation and I don't know if that is true anymore because I feel like I'm trying to give them information, but there's something very visceral about that.
CAVANAUGH: Okay I have to end it there. I want to thank you so much M.E. Thomas is the author of the book Confessions of a Sociopath A Lifetime Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. Thanks so much.
THOMAS: Thank you.