Empathy and the Con

Empathy is an essential part of the human experience, but there are people with little or no ability to imagine —let alone consider— the feelings of others. My cousins were in town and a family cocktail hour turned into a “sociopaths I’ve known” comparison of stories. It was enlightening.

We didn’t focus on the obvious antisocial criminals, but on the subtle, high-functioning sociopaths we’ve all encountered either at work or in our social lives. These are pathological liars, charming con artists and accomplished individuals focused solely on their own needs and desires.

One story was about a man who always has a story. He lied and cheated for years and when caught, he simply lied some more. His confidence when telling obvious lies is extraordinary. It is as if he never considers the possibility that he’ll be found out and when his deception is revealed, he simply spins another tale. He has survived on charm, smoke and mirrors for 60-something years and it will likely take his new wife 10 or 15 years to discover what his former wife realized after almost 20 years of marriage —the only living creature he cares for is himself.

Professional frauds are another interesting category. As it is very easy to check the academic and job history provided by a candidate for any kind of position, embellishing your credentials with a doctoral degree from prestigious university and impressive past job titles is a huge risk. Still, people “make this mistake” all the time. Entire careers have imploded and yet some people manage to get away with fake information on their resumés for decades!

When confronted by an obvious fraud —no doctorate and an MA in an entirely different subject—one very successful professional fundraiser tried to bribe a colleague with a substantial grant and when that didn’t work, he quickly switched his strategy to threats and harassment. It never occurred to this sociopathic man who’d fooled a series of impressive institutions, that he should cry uncle and slink away.

Sociopaths don’t do that.

This conversation resonated with the development of one of the principle characters in my novel-in-progress. The more I work on this particular character, the more his behavior and history reflects the extreme narcissism and lack of empathy of a con artist/sociopath. I think he’s become a more interesting character and his impact on the story is growing.

In fiction people without empathy are a whole lot more productive than they are in real life.


  1. I’ve been fascinated with sociopaths for a long time now. In many ways they are the most alien creatures I can think of, and yet there are probably more of them than the rest of us think. Do you have to be a sociopath in order to become successful [especially in corporate]? Probably not, but I’ll bet it helps them climb that ladder faster. And that very success is probably what ensures their genes continue to float around in the gene pool. -shrug- Perhaps they are a necessary evil.

    • Candy Korman

      Interesting perspective. Is a lack of empathy required for success? Um… I think it is in some fields where other professions rely on insights into people that only the truly empathetic have. At least I hope so!

  2. Can one be a compulsive liar and not be a sociopath?

    On another mental topic, the WSJ reviewed a book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and discussed seven “psychopathic” traits that can actually be used for good: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action. I’ve used those as key character traits for one of my fictional heroes! If you want to read the review, it’s here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203846804578100812431855282

    • Candy Korman

      I’ve read a couple of reviews — and excerpts — from that book. Of course being ruthless, charming, tough, fearless, focused, mindful and willing to act are all great traits for leaders (and killers). They are best when paired with compassion, imagination, passion, playfulness and — most of all — empathy. In my humble opinion, it’s the lack of balance, the missing pieces, that make the sociopath a problematic personality.

      In answer to your first question… um… that’s a good one. I think you can be a compulsive liar without being a sociopath. The lies can come from another place — a place of need and twisted love. Many years ago I had a friend who turned out to be a liar on a grand scale. He wanted us all to love him and his need to be liked (loved) was so overwhelming that he lied about just about everything — his job, the rent money, how he snagged great tickets for events, etc. He was weak and we didn’t realize how much he was drinking until it was too late. He’d created a false persona on top of the real one and he lied and lied and lied until he’d dug himself so deep into a hole, there was no way out. And even then, when we confronted him, when one of my roommates who had met his family called them to say he needed help, he continued to lie. The created persona was so much more important to him than his real self. It was very sad.