Interview with a Sociopath

venkat stands tall, wondering over an oblique earth

Venkatesh Rao writes at Ribbonfarm, and is the author of the book Tempo. He recently went on tour, and did me the honor of visiting me and my friends for an evening. He has a brilliant analysis of the hit TV show The Office, and despite classifying himself as a "sociopath", he's an excellent guest and conversationalist.

You call yourself a sociopath. What do you mean by that?

I've defined it a couple of different ways in my posts, but personally, I simply think of the idea as having a personal sense of morality. I take responsibility for the consequences of acting according to that morality, and don't attempt to justify it to others. There's a broader philosophy behind it that's basically Nietzschean in spirit.

So being a sociopath is like having an enhanced sense of personal responsibility. But when I think "sociopath", I think someone who's manipulative or conniving. Even in this "good sociopathy", is there an enhanced awareness of the effect you have on others? Is there a contemplation and calculation of things that are usually not polite to talk about?

It's a natural effect. When you make up your own morality, you often run up against the morality of others. To do what you think is right without getting into useless morality debates, you often need to behave in ways that may appear conniving and manipulative to others. As I said in one of the issues of my "Be Slightly Evil" list, taking what you consider to be the "straight" path often requires twisting and turning in the real world. Taking the straight-and-narrow path in the real world often means putting your mind through intellectual contortions to rationalize things with respect to your own beliefs.

And yes, there is a lot of contemplation and calculation of things that are not usually considered polite to talk about. Unless you are Genghis Khan and able to impose your morality on the world with a sword, navigating by a personal morality from an average-commoner position of power requires that you think carefully about how to use your limited leverage. Persuasion has no hope of winning against conventional, social moralities unless you want to be some sort of prophet and start a new religion.

You kind of handed that one to me. I wanted to ask you what you thought about Jesus as a sociopath. Obviously, Jesus practiced extreme altruism, but his recommendation about which seat to take in a public setting (take the lower one, so that someone will see how humble you are, and publicly bump you up to a nicer seat) really reminds me of some of the stuff I've been reading from you. Not in its selfishness, but in its incisive awareness of social games.

Do you think this characterizes all great people, good or bad?

Absolutely. I don't know the details of the Jesus story (and it is so long ago that I am guessing the details of his personality are mostly forgotten/poorly remembered), but I've read very similar descriptions of much more recent figures like Gandhi, about whom we have a lot more data. Such people often have the reputation of having done a great deal of good, and extraordinary kindness in their personal actions, but when it comes to pursuing their bigger agendas, they basically practice exactly the same Machiavellian behaviors as effective sociopaths.

That thing about kindness is hugely important though. I do not believe in the notion of being good. But I do believe in the notion of being kind. "Good" is an abstract idea within a moral framework. Some moral frameworks like my personal one lack a good/evil distinction entirely, since the knowledge/ignorance distinction takes its place. "Kind" though, is merely a visible characteristic of default behavior towards others when there are no larger considerations. Some people try very hard to be good, but are not kind at all. I detest such people. On the other hand, people who don't bother worrying at all about good and evil can still be very kind.

It is how you behave when there is no reason to adopt any behavior in particular, that marks you as a kind or unkind person. It can be hard to understand kindness in complicated situations. You may be forced to contemplate ethical conundrums like whether you should torture one person to save millions. But kindness is much simpler, and many people fail the basic kindness test. Their default mode of behavior is cruel.

I like the distinction between "good" as an abstraction (which might be used to label any kind of behavior), and kindness as a concrete thing. We need as much concrete reality as we can get.

But if you see morality as a completely relative thing (individual codes of conduct adopted by specific people), what is the purpose of having a moral code? Why not just do whatever you feel like at the moment? Why not just make decisions as you go?

Absolutely no purpose, and "take it as you go" is exactly the morality many people navigate by. Works for some people. It tends to be short-sighted thought, and if they are unlucky, they can do their one-step-at-a-time groping straight into a moral cul-de-sac where they have no way out.

Morality is actually just another kind of intelligence. As with other kinds, there are short-sighted and long-sighted ways to be moral. The latter tend to be harder to compute with, but pay off over time. Thinking a few moral steps ahead is of the same value as thinking a few moves ahead in chess.

With this kind of an individualized moral code, would there be a purpose for spreading your morals to others? Are you, for example, motivated to persuade other people to adopt your particular moral stance?

No. I merely operate by that morality. If people choose to try and reverse engineer the morality from visibly unique aspects of my behaviors and copy it, that's up to them. Chances are, the very process of reverse-engineering the morality of somebody who interests you will turn you into a personal moralist.

Of course, if your personal morality does not lead to any observable unique behaviors, then it's all angels on pinheads. It doesn't matter.

What is truth?

You don't ask for much, do you? I guess I have a pretty conservative atheist-scientific sensibility on this one and don't operate by any notion of "truth" that humanists or spiritual people would accept. I like John von Neumann's characterization of this the best, in the following quote, "The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construction which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work."

All my writing is basically model-building. Though in my blog and book I don't use mathematics, my approach is basically the same one I adopt for my mathematical modeling work.

To some, this is a very unsatisfying substitute for "truth" because humans seek "meaning" and obsess about the content of their subjective experiences, including mystical ones, which convince them that they've achieved direct experience of The Truth, capitaliized. But they don't ever stop to think hard about what "meaning" and "truth" mean, or take a skeptical look at their own subjective experiences. Such people typically view positions like von Neumann's as very narrowly procedural/bureaucratic/soulless and their own sense of capital T Truth as somehow beyond the purview of such model/falsifiability views of reality.That's a deep mistake because such critics typically haven't ever actually tried operating with a scientific sensibility or gotten around to understanding the deeper metaphysical foundations of this view. To give you a sense of the credibility of this viewpoint, von Neumann, among many other seminal contributions, was the guy who basically explained biological life, including self-reproduction, in mathematical terms. I'll leave your readers to ponder this link:

Anything else you'd like to add, or things you'd like people to know about?

I think I've said more than enough :)


Good interview. I'm thinking that in view of Venkat's personal morality stance, which is about as morally relativistic as one can get, he should rename his "Slightly Evil" list to "Angels on Pinheads" ;)

Venkatesh crossed my path when his "Gervais Principle I" got mention on Slashdot and, ironically enough, that's one of the greatest things for which I thank /. I've enjoyed his writing ever since and he is one of the most interesting - and I think good - persons whom I've never met. The world could use a few more sociopaths like Mr. Rao.

Interesting interview. Certainly some new ideas that I have never heard expressed before.

Hello. I'm so happy I found this. I am a sociopath and it's hard to explain, but, I used to not understand why I didn't get worked up at all when bad things happened to my friends. When one of my relatives died. Why I am completely incapable of empathy or even sympathy. Then I realized I was a sociopath. But, the thing is, I don't have guilt or a conscience but I still try to have relationships with people. I'm really only manipulative to people I hate. But, I try to be kind to others and have friends and everything like that,but, what makes me upset is that if they all died, I wouldn't care. I would be apathetic, no matter how much I wanted to care. But, I believe in God and I believe that if I am kind to people and live my life on the "right side of the road" that I can still go to Heaven. I could die right now but if I went to heaven, it would be ok. I hate that people have such negative horrible views on sociopaths. I hope people can see that we aren't all the same.

Beware the self-diagnosis, Kassandra. Or the non-professional diagnosis, e. g., "Sounds to me like you have Asperger Syndrome."

Kassandra, thanks for commenting. I hope we can discuss this more in depth. We're tossing around the term "sociopath" pretty recklessly here, but you are dealing with this as a limitation you struggle with, not as something that defines who you want to be. That, if nothing else, is admirable.

Excellent interview, love the "Jesus was a sociopath" angle, even if I do not subscribe to it. Science and morality does not mix well, IMHO.

Venkat's position reminds me of the Stephen Crane poem:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

I'd like to read Venkat put Micah in the hot chair someday.

@Kassandra: I'll second your angle. My experience is similar, in a world where social skills seem to be increasingly important and a network isn't something that's just there by default, finding that you question everyday moral "truisms" can be rather intimidating identitywise, perhaps even more so as a female.

Being greedy is not the same as being saciopothic, and it doesn't lead to being saciopothic, either. What concerns me is your apparent belief that capitalism favors sociopaths, but govt power doesn't. I assume that's because in your world-view, govt is a check on the evils of capitalism. But have you ever considered that capitalism itself, is a check on evil? Who is able to accrue much in their own lifetime, without being a good steward of the resources they employ? If someone is good at something, do they not typically enjoy greater economic success than those who are less good at the same thing? So, free trade allows individual consumers to choose to trade only with those whose work they value. By contrast, govt intervention forces everyone to contribute, even to policies they abhor, like aggressive wars against other nations.War is a VERY expensive venture, one which greedy capitalists are likely to avoid if at all possible, since their voluntarily-acquired income is based on maintaining a positive public image. Govts, however, do NOT acquire their income voluntarily, and so do not have to worry nearly as much about their public opinion. As long as the right ppl are paid off, the govt will keep working the way they expect. In the market, the truth will always be found out eventually, and the perps will suffer. Example the CEO of BP lost his job long ago, but the President of the US who unilaterally limited BP's liability for damages due to the Gulf oil spill is still in office.Based on such evidence, I can only conclude that those who trust govt more than free' market actors may have saciopothic tendencies, themselves. They only pretend to care, by supporting legislation with flowery names that actually do horrible things. They only see the crimes of their enemies, but not their own. A wise man recognizes his own flaws, and tempers them. A wise man works to change the individual he has the most influence over. A (sociopathic?) fool attempts to remake the world to his own liking.Milton Friedman was a Keynesian apologist for fascism, not a capitalist. His views have some educational merit, but only socialists and apologists for omnipotent govt either revere him or consider him an example of a Capitalist, because their definition of capitalism is a bit off, imho.

Actually, this is a moot point really, as the point of the arictle has nothing to do with terminology, but I thought I'd just mention this. I think there are different views on the sociopath vs. psychopath terminology. From what I've read in psychology sociopath is the new label being used for psychopath. In other words, a sociopath and a psychopath are the same thing, different terms used to describe the same condition. At least this is true in the US. (Sometimes the British use different terms to describe things.) But from what I've read psychologists have just decided to use the term sociopath instead of psychopath as they think it better defines the condition.Also antisocial personality disorder is a different thing. It is a personality disorder, so it reflects one's personality (not necessarily their ability to have a conscience or sense of right and wrong) and can result from one's upbringing. (While sociopaths may have been born that way or not. I don't think psychologists completely understand what creates them.) Those with antisocial personality disorder might commit crimes or cause trouble because they are antisocial but they are not necessarily cruel, calculating, lacking in empathy creatures as are the sociopaths.Personally, I think our society is creating sociopaths as we are taught to worship people for making money no matter how or what they do to make it. We don't value people for their integrity or moral character but for their material wealth. People (I'm not mentioning any names) who engage in cruel, cutthroat, destructive business tactics, who hire children from third world countries to work as slaves for 12 or more hours per day for only a few dollars per day are lauded as heroes in our society. Seems that one can be an entirely despicable human being responsible for the suicides of thousands or millions of people but be worshiped in American society because he/she has a lot of money. Meanwhile, some people might be poor but have contributed by helping those around them in many ways (there are lots of ways to help other people that are not monetary or material) and yet are thought of as non-contributers just because they have acquired very little money or material possessions. Americans are suffering from a collective character flaw, in my humble opinion. I wish someone would do a study comparing how many sociopaths/psychopaths exist in the US as opposed to other countries.