Lovefraud received the following question from a reader who was trying to understand sociopathic behavior:
HOW do sociopaths KNOW what to do or how to act or what tactics to use to get what they want?
They use tactics such as intermittent reinforcement or hijack our human bonding system, but they do not have degrees in psychology, nor do they consciously understand (I assume) that this is what they are doing – so HOW do they know to use those tactics to begin with?? It’s as if they are reading from the same ‘manual’ and that makes me wonder: Is it subconscious, intuitive behavior on their part??
Yes, sociopaths all seem to be operating out of the same playbook. Let’s take a look at it:
How sociopaths set us up
When we run into sociopaths, and they decide that we have something they want, they begin to set us up for manipulation and exploitation.
First, sociopaths make us feel special, admired and trusted. They present themselves as having so much in common with us, and truly understanding us, so that we feel like we can reveal our vulnerabilities, hopes and dreams.
Then, knowing what is important to us, sociopaths promise to take away our pain and make our dreams come true. We gradually become bonded to them. This happens whether it is a romantic relationship or some other type of relationship.
Finally, sociopaths employ a multitude of strategies so that we stay bonded to them and give them what they want. They are so smooth that we don’t even know we are being manipulated.
Sociopathic manipulation strategies
What, exactly, do they do? Here are a few typical strategies.
Appealing to our empathy. It is natural for us to feel a desire to help others. In fact, researchers have identified caregiving as a natural social motivation in humans and a crucial component of romantic love. Sociopaths don’t feel it, but they certainly take advantage of it.
Intermittent reinforcement. Sometimes sociopaths reward us for our actions, sometimes they don’t, and we never know how they will respond. This is classic intermittent reinforcement, which researchers have shown drives animals — and people — to keep repeating a behavior, hoping the reward will come. It keeps us bonded to the sociopath.
Cognitive dissonance. We can’t hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Sociopaths cause cognitive dissonance, which keeps us off balance. We can’t believe both “My partner loves me” and “My partner threatened to kill me.” So what happens? We believe what we want to believe, even ignoring a mountain of evidence so we don’t have to change our mind.
For more examples of psychological phenomena keeping us trapped, read a terrific article by the Lovefraud author Amber Ault, Ph.D.:
How do sociopaths know?
Back to our reader’s question: How do sociopaths know what to do? The short answer is that they learn. No, there is no manual for sociopathic behavior, and no finishing school for sociopaths (thank goodness). So how do they learn? Through trial and error.
The key to understanding this is to realize that sociopathic personality disorders are highly genetic. That means people who become sociopaths were born with a genetic predisposition to the disorder. They’ve been testing manipulation strategies all their lives.
Some parents of sociopath have reported that they saw manipulative behavior, particularly lying, when their children were very young — perhaps three or four years old. Imagine these kids during their Terrible Twos. They may have learned that if they scream long enough, Mom gives them what they want. Or if they smile and hug grandma, she gives them what they want. By three or four, they know that if they break something but say the dog did it, they don’t get in trouble, the dog does.
Why do they keep manipulating?
Perhaps most of us had these experiences when we were very young. So why don’t we all grow up to be sociopaths?
The answer, again, goes back to genetics. Most children are born with a capacity to love, a natural desire to feel connected to their mothers and other family members. Children with a genetic predisposition to disorder are not. So what happens?
As human beings, we experience four social motivations, meaning motivations in relation to other people. Three of them — attachment, sex and caregiving — are components of romantic love. The fourth social motivation — power — has to do with our status within the group. The power motivation isn’t necessarily bad; it’s the motivation that makes us want to work hard and succeed.
For most of us, the love motivation keeps the power motivation in check: We pursue our goals, but we’re concerned about how what we do affects others. Because sociopaths have a weak or nonexistent love motivation, their power motivation runs rampant and takes over their personality. They want what they want, and don’t care whom they hurt in the process.
Professional manipulators and exploiters
So sociopaths spend their entire lives figuring out how to get what they want. By the time we run into them as adults, they’ve spent years trying different strategies, observing what works and what doesn’t, and using the information to refine their tactics.
- They learn that the best time to approach us is when we are vulnerable.
- They learn that honey works better than vinegar, so they pour on the sweet stuff, at least in the beginning.
- They learn that if they can get us into bed, we are more likely to give them what they want.
This is how sociopaths know the buttons to push — they’ve been pushing them all their lives and taken note of the results. They’ve become professional manipulators and exploiters. And we, unaware of the predators in our midst, never see them coming.