When reflecting on the sociopath’s style, I often find myself thinking metaphorically. For instance, in an early LoveFraud article (Sociopaths’ Cat and Mouse Game) I explored the mind of the sociopath via the metaphor of the cat toying with the mouse.
In this article, I probe a different metaphor: the small child abusing the captured insect.
But a caveat’s in order: Just as I wasn’t impugning cats as literally sociopathic in my earlier piece, I’m not suggesting here that all children, including bug torturers, are developing sociopaths (anymore than in my last LoveFraud article I was suggesting that all practical jokers are sociopaths).
On the other hand, I am suggesting that there are states of mind—normal states of mind—that approximate (more closely than we might think, or want to think) how sociopaths perceive and relate.
And so I invite you to join me as, together, we watch a small child, who sits on a curb in front of his house, a daddy-long-legged spider in his clutches.
Let us not mince words: the child has intentionally trapped the spider; and he fully intends, and fully expects, to have his way with it. Moreover, he confidently feels that he has power over the spider to do with it, to toy with it, to experiment on it, as he wishes.
Does any of this, already, sound familiar?
But let us proceed: The child may (or may not yet) have formed an agenda for the spider—that is, he may already know what he plans to do with it, and how he plans to entertain himself with it; or, he may not yet know these things, but rather may be operating more impulsively, or perhaps taking things a step at a time.
In either case, as he stares down at the bug, the child does so with a feeling of omnipotence—that is, he has, and relishes, a sense of omnipotent control over the spider’s near and long-term destiny: he will be deciding its short and long-term fate. He knows that he can dominate the spider any way he likes, and, as we’ve established, he intends to exploit his dominance: the spider, he is well aware, will be helpless to defend itself against his designs.
And so, one by one, the child begins pulling the legs off the spider. He finds this interesting, amusing, and even thinks it’s a little funny. He wonders, fleetingly, in pulling the spider’s legs off, if this hurts the spider?
His curiosity, however, is detached and superficial, lacking compassion and empathy. For, although it strikes him that if someone were to pull his legs off it would surely cause unspeakable pain, yet his intellectual awareness does not translate into empathy for the predicament to which he’s subjected the spider.
(The child, in a word, fails to apply the principle do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Sociopaths, of course, notoriously forsake this principle.)
And so the spider might look a little funny with no legs. And it could be amusing to see the spider, as its legs are systematically ripped off, reduced to the size of a small nipple. And it could also be amusing to watch the spider try to walk with its legs missing.
All of these (and other) prospects for entertainment intrigue the child, and support his abuse of the insect. We can say this with certainty: in his relationship to the spider, the child is solely interested in how the spider can entertain him—that is, he is curious about, and interested in, only the gratification he can derive from the spider (and from, in this case, the spider’s predicament).
The child regards and values the spider purely as an “object” which, if properly manipulated, can yield him some worthwhile satisfaction.
And so the spider, now legless, doesn’t move. The child notices that its legs, however, which lie beside it on the concrete curb, twitch all by themselves, as if they’re separately alive and as though being animated by a mysterious force. This intrigues and amuses the child who, incidentally, has momentarily lost all interest in the spider.
That is, the child presently is no longer interested in the spider, but only with the spider’s legs (which of course he tore off), finding their twitchy, independent movements curiously entertaining.
I think we can safely add that the child doesn’t hate, or feel malice towards, the spider. That’s to say, none of this is “personal.” When he sat down on the curb, the idea of targeting a spider to exploit may, or may not, have been on his mind.
The child may have been actively targeting a vulnerable insect, or maybe not; maybe the spider just happened to enter his attentional orbit at the wrong time (for the spider), and in so doing primed the child’s exploitive inclinations.
In either case, it’s easy to describe what the child feels for the spider; he feels towards the spider precisely what he feels towards any object—appreciative of it only for the satisfaction it supplies him.
Short of this, the spider rapidly loses its value for him.
This is occurring presently: As the spider’s novelty is fading, the child’s investment in it wanes. He valued the spider purely, remember, for its gratifying properties; now, as the spider grows less novel by the second, the child grows increasingly bored with it. The spider’s value, its use to the child, is steadily, rapidly depreciating.
This could be good news, or more bad news, for the spider. As his interest in the spider expends itself, the child may decide to move on. He may be finished with the spider, and so he may, finally, leave it alone. The spider may have a chance to escape with its life. That could be the good news.
But it’s also possible that the child, seeking a last satisfaction of his thirst for stimulation, may decide, perhaps impulsively, to squash the spider, to crush it, like the bud of a leaf. And if he does this, it still won’t be personal. The child doesn’t have it in for this particular spider.
This particular spider merely happened to conveniently enough meet the child’s criteria as an exploitable object.
And so it’s 50-50 whether, in his boredom, the child will move on, leaving the legless spider to regroup after its traumatization; or whether, also in his boredom, he’ll decide to mash the spider between his fingers so he can feel what it’s like to mash an insect into a paste. That could be a curious sensation, which he’s never had (or hasn’t had it in a while).
He might find that sensation interesting, or maybe not.
And so comes the abrupt, anticlimactic end of our story, which was simply about the intersection of our neighborhood child with the unsuspecting spider.
Postscript: The child spared the spider, not from compassion, but because a cramp in his leg prompted him to rise, and stretch. But in walking away, the child inadvertently stepped on the spider, flattening and killing it. But even had he known this (and he didn’t), it’s not likely that the irony would have impressed him.
(This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors discussed.)