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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Why Do Americans Like Sociopaths?

Noble rebels, or criminals?

Americans don’t just like sociopaths. We admire them. What is it about a “free people” that makes us appreciate those who lie to us, cheat and steal from us? Is it the psychological attraction of power unbounded by accountability? Yet there are added underlying ideological reasons we find sociopaths so alluring. Many are based on our founding myths and colonial history, our vision of an American nation created by noble rebels. From Robin Hood to Bonnie and Clyde, from Gordon Gekko to the bank robber-killers of Oscar nominee “Hell or High Water,” sociopathy has a powerful place in American life.

The Psychological Allure Of Sociopathy

Lots of people fantasize, "could I be someone else?" Sociopaths tap into deep seated psychological desires for:

1. Unfettered freedom. Once you are amoral, there are no rules. Nothing stops you. No shame, no guilt. The demands of parents and siblings, friend and colleagues, teachers, police and courts mean nothing—except as you shape them to your desires.

2. Fearless power. Finally you can do whatever you want. Anything. Wrong or right, it does not matter. You sense the beginning of actual, ultimate power. And best of all, because others are bound by rules and laws, you use those rules and laws against them.

Their actions are tethered and bounded, predictable. Yours are not. They play according to the rules. You play only your game, lying about your ultimate goals. Honesty, integrity, empathy and compassion, all can be used to manipulate people to achieve your ends.

3. Dominance and excitement. Sociopaths enjoy taking power and acting without accountability, because it’s so exciting. Any impulse can be indulged—sex, money, power. There’s nothing like it. You can break the rules. The responsibilities of others cannot apply to you.

And when you break the rules and get away with it, you acquire more power. The excitement that creates, that power, proves so intoxicating, you can’t wait to lie and manipulate your way to more. When you’re really successful you believe you can go into the middle of the street and shoot people, and no one will say a word.

The Ideology of the Outlaw

The appeal of individual license felt by the sociopath can cross paths with cherished Americans ideals of liberty and freedom. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca is a gunrunner, an outlaw, owner of an illegal gambling joint. But he’s “our outlaw.” We know Bogey will protect the damsel in distress. When the chips are down he’ll fight for liberty and justice. That’s what happens in the movies.

Yet when people in real life are starving, they steal to survive. Lots of such thieves and cutthroats, knaves and prostitutes, constituted founding members of colonial America. Rebellion against authority—naturally, an oppressive authority—became an emblem of American national myths. Starving refugees came to this “new land” and built “ a new continent, conceived in freedom.” Kicking out the natives usually gets left out of these founding myths, except to note their perfidy and backwardness. America became the exceptional nation, built by penniless, often stateless refugees from every downtrodden part of the earth into the “shining city on the hill,” the boundless “New World.”

So some cheered ruthless murderers like Bonnie and Clyde, who robbed banks many saw as having robbed them. They hated the banks and financial institutions that foreclosed and bankrupted millions of ordinary Americans during the Depression.

Sociopaths frequently like take on the appearance of noble outlaws who work against a “corrupt system.” These “mavericks” who are willing to “break the rules” then wrap themselves in the colors of the farmer-soldiers of the American Revolution, fighting “for the little guy.” Bernie Madoff was a genius at portraying himself as a noble outsider. He worked against the “big banks and institutions” to help people who were not “insiders,” folks who had “made it on their own.” A son of a plumber who began his working life as a lifeguard and sprinkler installer, he “fought against the system” to become a feted billionaire. Madoff looted 65 billion dollars in the process.

Despite working for “the little guy”, most sociopaths turn out to be anything but noble.

What Sociopaths Really Do

Ideologies are malleable. Some are effortlessly spinnable.

Take the war in Syria. President Assad and his ally, Vladimir Putin, portray their cause as the “noble” war against the depraved savagery of ISIS and “radical Islamic terrorists.” Part of their strategy has been to barrel bomb schools and hospitals. Most of the children in these schools and hospitals have parents who fight or do not support ISIS. Many of these kids come from groups backed or formerly backed by the United States.

A barrel bomb is cheap. You can make it with nuts and bolt, fertilizer and diesel fuel. You can drop it from a cargo plane onto a schoolyard.

Barrel bombs will kill some of the targeted children. Yet they are often made to maim. You have to pick the ball bearings out of the children’s eyes and hands. You need to amputate mutilated limbs. You must open the multiple wounds, clean them, bind them. And then you have to treat and protect the injured children.

Parents will do anything for their children. Maimed kids require endless care. They need food. They need shelter. They need doctors and hospitals that don’t exist anymore. It’s hard to be a rebel when your children are crippled. Assad and Putin’s strategy has worked.

On January 27th, the president signed an order banning all these maimed children from the U.S.

The Madoff Prize

Sociopaths are now such an important part of our society that they deserve greater recognition (see “The World Sociopath Olympics.”) So I invite you to write in your nominees for this year’s Madoff Prize, which will recognize the Sociopath of the Year. The winner will receive a truly Madoffian prize—a complete packet of Chocolate Swiss Miss. Bernie Madoff has previously cornered his prison’s market in the popular Swiss Miss, buying all the prison commissary’s supply and selling it out at a profit. Some of his clients revere his pluck. One of his fellow inmates declared, “he’s the biggest thief in history.”

It’s not just sociopaths who admire sociopaths.