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.