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Fact: One in every 25 people is a sociopath.
That’s not many in absolute terms, but that means sociopathy is super prevalent and incredibly hard to spot. What’s more, sociopaths are expert manipulators. Couple this with the well-documented propensity for the average person to be manipulated into doing horrible things without even realizing what’s happening, and you’ve got real reasons to worry.
Around the time I turned 40, I realized that I had wasted far too much of my life on psychopaths, sociopaths, and idiots. Even 10 minutes wasted is ten minutes too much. And psychopaths, sociopaths, and idiots are like a virus: You pick them up easily, they grow inside you, and they’re incredibly hard to get rid of. In a worst-case scenario, I’ve watched people’s entire lives be consumed by them. So I firmly resolved to help other guys avoid these personality disorders at all costs. Your life is both literally and figuratively at stake here.
But before we jump into that, though, we have to answer a question closer to home.
How do you know that you’re not a psychopath, a sociopath or an idiot?
They’re all equally dangerous, for reasons that will soon become clear. In fact, a lot of times an idiot is little more than the puppet of a psychopath or a sociopath. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the science. We’ll explore the symptoms of a sociopath, and the signs that you may, in fact, be an idiot.
The Milgram Experiment
The Milgram Experiment is one of those apocryphal stories that comes up a lot in dorm room bull sessions and bar talk. But it’s 100 percent true.
In 1963, researchers at Yale were curious to know just how willing the average person is to obey authority that conflicts with their personal sense of right and wrong. So they set up an experiment. The experiment involved three people: a researcher, a test subject, and an actor pretending to be a volunteer. The researcher urged the test subject to deliver electric shocks to the volunteer every time the volunteer got the answer to a question wrong. No actual shocks were administered, but the test subjects, with the help of pre-recorded screams, believed they were actually giving increasingly powerful electric shocks to the volunteer.
To make matters worse, sometimes the test subject was told that the person on the other side had a heart condition. All subjects were given an electric shock comparable to what they were supposedly giving the actor before the experiment began. The experiment ended in one of two ways: either the subject gave a lethal 450-volt shock three times, or refused four verbal commands to continue.
The commands from the researcher were not generally harsh. They were, in order:
So how many gave lethal shocks?
65 percent, all of whom expressed reservations with their participation at some point during the experiment.
So what does this mean for you? At the most basic level, it means people are easily manipulated into bad and sometimes even lethal decisions. While “only” 1 in 25 people out there are sociopaths, they’ve got a small army (65 percent of the population, according to this experiment) who will follow their directives even when they feel that those directives are wrong.
The conclusions of the Milgram Experiment — that people have a natural tendency to conform to the group, and that they often view themselves as instruments for carrying out another person’s wishes — translate directly into the real world and into your life.
So even if you don’t exhibit the symptoms of a sociopath, you’re not necessarily out of the woods. Not only do you have to watch out for the machinations of sociopaths, you also have to avoid becoming a henchman yourself.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Another shocking example of how people (usually against their better judgment) are easily manipulated into doing awful things is the Stanford Prison Experiment.
This time, researchers selected the 24 most psychologically stable males out of a group of 75 volunteers. Of these 24, 12 were assigned as “guards” and 12 were assigned as “inmates.” Guards were given symbols of authority such as batons and uniforms. Prisoners were given numbers in place of names as a new identity. Mirrored sunglasses were used to prevent eye contact.
The first day was entirely uneventful. On the second day, the prisoners revolted. Guards went so far as to volunteer for extra shifts to put the rebellion down, attacking prisoners with fire extinguishers. Guards used roll call time to torment inmates with intense physical exercise. Mattresses and bedding were removed as punishment. One inmate was locked in a closet while guards forced other inmates to bang on the door and shout at him. Various prisoners began acting “crazy” and irrational. The list goes on and on — the simulation produced some horrific results.
The experiment ended six days later when the girlfriend of one of the researchers objected to the ethics of the experiment. Of the roughly 50 people who observed the experiment, she was the only one who voiced moral objections.
A third of the guards were shown to have exhibited sadistic tendencies. Five inmates were removed from the experiment because of psychological trauma.
In this case, what we discover is that “normal” people — and not just normal people, but the most psychologically well-adjusted people a college could find — needed nothing more than a uniform and sunglasses to devolve into sociopathy. In this experiment, most of the trouble came from a single test subject, a guard nicknamed “John Wayne.” Most attempts to discredit the study focus on his role in leading other guards.
But it doesn’t really matter whether it was he or the conditions that caused all the trouble. There will always be “John Waynes” — sociopaths and psychopaths — to lead idiots around. Indeed, the idiot provides the psychopath and the sociopath with much needed cover. Once again, while the 1 in 25 statistic is pretty low, you realize just how easily that group can manipulate 65 percent of the population into doing their bidding. That 65 percent plays the role of idiot, which is all the more disturbing when you remember that they are just ordinary people responding to authority.
How Do I Know I’m Not a Psychopath or a Sociopath?
This is a bit of an oversimplification, but your ability to ask yourself this question is a pretty strong indicator that you do not exhibit these tendencies.
But more to the point: Do you feel bad when you hurt someone? Do you have serious regrets about how you’ve treated people in your past? Is there an ex-girlfriend you were particularly bad to that still wakes you up in the middle of the night? Did you have a falling out with a friend that left you ashamed to ask for forgiveness? Do you ever remember things you’ve done in the past, even things you’ve apologized and been forgiven for, that fill you with a deep remorse — not for getting caught, but for committing the act itself?
If so, congratulations. These are all signs that you’re capable of empathy. You’re a normal, probably well-adjusted human being, and likely not a psychopath or a sociopath.
But Are You an Idiot?
Knowing if you’re a psychopath or a sociopath is the easy part. It’s knowing if you’re an idiot that can be harder, since the signs are subtler and often deliberately hidden. No one thinks they’re an idiot, and yet we live in a world that’s apparently full of them. So how do you know if you’re one of the 65 percent? Better yet, how do you stop being part of the crowd that the psychopaths and sociopaths use as both swords and shields?
So how about it? Are you, or have you ever been, an idiot? If you’re afraid that you might be, it probably means that you’re just smart enough to start kicking yourself in the rear and closing down the doors where idiocy is creeping into your life.
And it’s a constant process. No one is perfect, not even by their own standards. The important thing is that we use our lives as a means to grow and become more than what we currently are. The trick to digging yourself out of the idiot hole that we all fall into sometimes is to act in the way that smart guys act, to take on new levels of self-awareness.
Like the famous phrase goes, “Idiot is as idiot does.”
But even if you’re not an idiot in any way, you still need to know how to identify the symptoms of a sociopath, psychopath and idiot. If you have none of these people in your life, you’re incredibly fortunate — but there’s a damn good chance that you have at least one, and will come across more in your future.
My next article in this series will help you to figure out who these people are. The third will teach you how to deal with them once you know who they are.
Before I go, one last thing: I think people are more or less inherently good. I also think they’re inherently lazy. More to the point, a lazy person generally lacks the capacity for self-reflection. This underscores the need for you to be the reflective person in every situation in order to protect yourself.
Because no one else is going to.