By | March 27, 2017 1 Comments

Game theory and the sociopath

Man Behind Bars

Shock. Total disbelief. Utter incomprehension. That’s what we feel upon finally realizing that when the sociopath cheated on us, blew through our money, twisted our emotions and messed with our minds, to him or her it was all just a sick, depraved game.

Sociopaths do not form emotional connections with other human beings. They do not experience love. They do not feel honor, altruism or concern for others. The words they speak and the actions they take have only one objective: getting what they want. To them, life is a game, and they want to win.

Game theory is a field of study that, according to Wikipedia, “attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others.”

Sociopaths are often very good at games in this sense. They look at social situations, perform a quick cost-benefit analysis, and then act based on what will serve their interests. For example, a sociopath may evaluate a situation like this: “If I tell her that I love her, and promise to marry her, she’ll let me move in and give me money to pay off my back child support so the court will get off my back.” Notice there is no love, no concern for children. It’s all about a means to an end.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

According to game theory, many variables can affect outcomes in contested situations. For example, people are generally, although not always, assumed to be rational and making choices that benefit their own self-interest. It’s also important for participants to know whether another player in the game can be trusted, or is likely to be deceptive.

A famous game in this field of study is called the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Here, according to Wikipedia, is the classic scenario:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The choice, therefore, is between cooperation and defection. In studies, players have participated in a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which they earned points based on their choices. The possible outcomes were:

  • If both players cooperated, they each earned 3 points.
  • If both players defected, they each earned 1 point.
  • If one player cooperated and the other player defected, the cooperating player got 0 points—the sucker punch—and the defecting player got 5 points.

Therefore, when one person cooperated and the other defected, the defector came out way ahead.


Psychology researcher Linda Mealey published a paper in 1995 called The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Evolutionary Model. In it, she discussed another dimension of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game as it applies to real life. If the most rational strategy is to be selfish and betray, why would anyone cooperate?

The answer lies in reputation. If a player is known among members of a group to always defect, then no rational person will “play” with him or her. When a person has a reputation as a defector, that person will not have an opportunity for any kind of gain, cooperative or exploitative.

This is where game theory becomes useful in dealing with sociopaths. Mealey writes:

Sociopaths’ immediate decisions are based partly on their ability to ”¦ use those expectations of others’ behavior in a cost-benefit analysis to assess what actions are likely to be in their own self-interest. ”¦ The outcome of such analyses is therefore partially dependent on the sociopath’s expectations of the behavior of other players in the game. I would argue that an entire society can be seen as a player, and that the past behavior of that society will be used by the sociopath ”¦ to predict the future behavior of that society.

Like an individual player, a society will have a certain probability of detecting deception, a more-or-less accurate memory of who has cheated in the past, and a certain proclivity to retaliate or not, based upon a cheater’s past reputation and current behavior. Since the sociopath is using a rational and actuarial approach to assess the costs and benefits of different behaviors, it is the actual past behavior of the society which will go into his calculations, rather than risk assessments inflated from the exaggerated fears or anxieties that most people feel in anticipation of being caught or punished. Thus, to reduce antisocial behavior, a society must establish and enforce a reputation for high rates of detection of deception and identification of cheaters, and a willingness to retaliate. In other words, it must establish a successful strategy of deterrence.

According to Mealey, a society “must establish a reputation for willingness to retaliate.” This means increasing the probability of criminal detection, identification and punishment. And the retaliation must be swift. If there’s a long lag time between antisocial behavior and consequences—well, the antisocial behavior will continue.


Mealey’s comments related to reputation square with what I have seen. Since our society hasn’t established a reputation for willingness to retaliate—the justice system is a joke—the only effective action to take against sociopaths is exposure.

The case histories section of Lovefraud, called True Lovefraud Stories, exposes the behavior of 23 different sociopaths. It works. I’ve heard from many people who came in contact with the predators, Googled them, found the Lovefraud stories, and dumped the sociopath. One woman, discovering what Bill Strunk was really all about, actually told him that he had a “bad reputation.”

Lovefraud’s goal for the future is to publish many more bad reputations. Hopefully, then, people won’t play with the sociopaths.

Lovefraud originally published this story on January 25, 2010.

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I always suspect game theorists.

Linda Mealey’s death was tragic on both a personal/family and professional level. She would have tremendously advanced the scientific understanding of psychopathy.

If interested, I have a few excerpts from her here:

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