- Therapists are increasingly involved in divorce and custody battles, criminal cases, and workplace disputes.
- Sociopaths (or antisocial personalities) can be very aggressive, charming, and deceptive (lying and conning).
- Therapists have a lot of empathy and want to help their clients, making them susceptible to con artists.
- Sociopaths often deceive therapists by playing the victim and getting angry when challenged.
Therapists are increasingly involved in legal cases to help decision-makers figure out whether the defendant is dangerous in criminal cases, who is the better parent in divorce custody disputes, and whether an employee has a mental illness that interferes with their ability to work. This is generally a good thing. However, there are many cases in which mental health professionals are aggressively deceived without any realization this is occurring. Why? And what can be done?
Sociopaths Can Be Con Artists
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which it states may include sociopathy. The criteria for ASPD include the statement: “Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.”1When someone with ASPD repeats a false statement over and over again, it can start to appear true. Since they are invested in convincing others of their false stories, they put a lot of effort into making them sound true. They will figure out reasons for believing their stories based on their assessment of the therapist’s weaknesses or favorite theories.
For example, if a therapist works a lot with victims of domestic violence, sometimes a sociopath (man or woman) may falsely claim that they are a victim of such abuse when they are not. If a therapist works a lot with parental alienation cases in family court, a sociopath may claim that they are a victim of the other parent’s alienating behaviors when, in fact, they may have engaged in domestic violence against the other parent. I have seen such cases several times in legal disputes. Playing the victim and getting angry when they are challenged are two common manipulations they employ.
Therapists Have a Lot of Empathy
While sociopaths are frequently invested in deceiving all helping professionals, therapists are particularly vulnerable to their manipulations. As they form a therapeutic alliance with their clients, they tend to believe their stories of being victimized by someone else because so many such stories they have heard are true. Because of human empathy, our hearts go out to those who have been taken advantage of and need our help.
It is almost automatic to respond to a heart-wrenching story with empathy and concern rather than wanting to challenge the client about whether it is true. No one wants to question someone in tears with a long history of abuse. Yet sociopaths know this and can be skilled at totally fabricating stories to fit into the therapist’s usual framework.
For example, a substance abuse treatment team may be asked to treat and write a report about the serious addiction of a client who was arrested for dealing drugs. While the client may truly have an addiction, being a “victim” of their addiction is not a good reason to escape legal consequences for drug dealing. I have seen such cases. Fortunately, many substance abuse treatment teams know about this manipulation and won’t assist in such an effort to con the courts.
What Can Be Done?
Therapists need to learn about and remember that sociopaths see them as sitting targets in many legal disputes. They need to know that there is a percentage of people in legal cases who are sociopaths. Studies have shown that antisocial personality disorder is present in nearly 4 percent of the adult population.2 However, in legal disputes, the percentage is significantly higher because they tend to violate social rules and laws. Another one of the criteria is “Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.”3
Therefore, therapists need to have a healthy skepticism and consider at least three possibilities in every case in which a client claims to be a victim of someone else: It is true, it is an exaggeration, or it may be a total fabrication. Therapists need to avoid “confirmation bias” based on their own favorite theories and clients. They should keep an open mind and gently ask challenging questions before writing reports or testifying in court on behalf of a client who claims to be a victim.
The majority of victims in legal disputes are true victims and should not be doubted out of hand. Unfortunately, this happens sometimes. Therefore, it helps to be empathetic and keep an open mind. You’ll never know for sure when the sad client in front of you is for real and when they are a con artist. In legal cases, ask questions and maintain a healthy skepticism.
1. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 748. (Hereafter DSM-5-TR).
2. Grant, B. F., D. S. Hasin, F. S. Stinson, D. A. Dawson, S. P. Chou, W. J. Ruan, and R. P. Pickering. 2004. Prevalence, correlates, and disability of personality disorders in the United States: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 65 (7):948–58.
3. DSM-5-TR, 748,