Sociopathy and Success: The (Criminal) Mastermind

It begins with two minutes:

Dexter, the show that follows a blood spatter analyst at Miami PD who moonlights as a serial killer vigilante, is in its 8th 

I am probably not a psychopath. So then why is it that all my favorite iconic shows run on revenge and murder plots? Why are some of my favorite heroes, anti-heroes?

 Why are some of my favorite heroes, anti-heroes?

season on Showtime, and has spawned a cult following on the Internet. And while I might not subscribe to All Things Dexter, I’ll admit the show has a killer opening scene. I love every second of that intro -- the music, the slow motion slice and crush of the grapefruit, the visceral sizzle of the ham steak (it made me stop being a vegetarian), the splatter of hot sauce, the juxtaposition of the cleanliness and subtle monstrosity, the notion that what appears to be is not.

I am probably not a psychopath. That being said, all my favorite icons in pop-culture run on revenge and murder plots. Dexter, Patrick Bateman, Lisbeth Salander, The Joker, Batman, Frank Underwood … This list goes on. It’s really not all that fair to compare Dexter to some real psychopaths on television and film. After all, he is the lovable serial killer with a “strong moral compass” guiding his knife-wielding hands. What murder did he ever commit that was on the same plane of evil as the Joker’s bomb-detonating test between the civilians and the prisoners (who by his own admission has no code of right or wrong)? Or Jigsaw’s fucked up game? Or Lecter’s? Or Bateman’s?

It’s not just psychopaths that play an integral role in entertainment; ironically, some of the most popular characters on television are comedic sociopaths. Psychological schadenfreude (where characters momentarily lose empathy, act irresponsibly and lack guilt to put other characters down) has become the staple of our humor; it gives shows like Family Guy, the Simpsons and SouthPark entertainment value.

Pop culture’s fascination with charming, highly intelligent, cold-blooded murderers is, on the one hand, both ridiculous and entertaining. But I suppose, dramatically, they’re also pretty useful. At their worst, psychopaths serve as constructs, either for satire or for drama. In one of my favorite lines from American Psycho, Bateman reflects:

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.”

On the other hand, psychopaths like the Joker and Frank Underwood provide the deus ex machina, the unstable element, that forces us to ask ourselves important philosophical questions: if I were on those boats that the Joker pitted against each other (re: The Dark Knight), would I have subjected an entire boat of people to explosive annihilation to save myself? Would I systematically destroy the U.S. Government from the inside out because I wasn’t picked for Secretary of State? TL;DR, do I have the capacity to be evil?


Just Kidding.

But why do we watch shows about these characters? Why does there even exist such an impulse to fetishize psychopathy and/or sociopathy? If you were looking for answers, I don’t have them. I lasted one psychology class at this school. However, since I can, I will shamelessly pull quotes from Freud’s piece titled “Psychopaths on the Stage.” On the relationship between the hero and the audience in a drama, Freud muses that the audience’s enjoyment (read: male, because he’s sexist):

“Presupposes an illusion; it presupposes an attenuation of his suffering through the certainty that in the first place it is another than himself who acts and suffers upon the stage, and that in the second place it is only a play, whence no threat to his personal security can ever arise. It is under such circumstances that he may indulge in the luxury of being a hero; he may give way unashamedly to suppressed impulses such as the need for freedom in religious, political, social or sexual respects, and may let himself go in all directions in each and every grand scene of the life enacted upon the stage.”[1]

The stage doesn’t exist without an audience. Freud’s analysis brings us to conclude that on some level we are living vicariously through the hero, and that the show was written precisely for us to connect on that level. (Maybe writers are manipulative psychopaths too? Meta.) But what about the anti-hero? Freud has an answer for that too. He notes that neurotic tendencies on screen resonate with people who have them, provided that they witness the course of action that brings about psychopathy/sociopathy. He qualifies this by noting, “in real life [when confronted with full-blown psychopathy] we call the physician and deem the person in question unsuitable as a stage figure.” To be fair, he really wasn’t living in an age where films like “American Psycho” would be considered popular entertainment.

But really. Wouldn’t it be thrilling to believe that we fetishize psychopathy/sociopathy to rationalize our own psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies? Wouldn’t it be absolutely bizarre and strangely alluring to think that we are all a little psychopathic? After all, if psychopaths can imitate humanity to perfection for their own malicious purposes, why can’t we, conventionally humane/sane people, imitate psychopathy? Hold that thought.

It’s believed that 4% of CEOs are psychopaths.[2] So Bret Easton Ellis wasn’t completely whacked when he sat down to write American Psycho. I don’t often envision conversations between Forbes top CEOs, but I can see this shindig (, the subtle tear of sweat rolling down his temple, the tremor in the voice-over, happening 90% of the time.

Ironically, it makes perfect sense. In our world, especially in business, success selects for certain characteristics, outlined in Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath’s Test. Among those cunning, manipulation, superficial charm, shallow emotional range, and need for stimulation (which really translates to capacity for innovation) provide the perfect milieu for ambition and success.

However, a full-blown psychopath is also impulsive and fails to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. They also like killing, maiming and eating people. I’ll be the first to say, I most likely would not want a psychopath managing my finances, but (if I was angling for money and power), the ability to be wholly removed and manipulative would come in handy.

Not to mention, adopting sociopathic behaviors as a defense mechanism protects people from pain and suffering. Take the girl with the dragon tattoo: Lisbeth Salander. In one scene, she viciously retaliates against a sexual abuser by tattooing “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST" on his abdomen. She rarely expresses remorse or guilt, she is manipulative, highly intelligent and impulsive. But Lisbeth Salander strikes me as a special case; a heroic sociopath. Would we be besties? No. But I can understand her. Her narrative provides the audience with reasons to empathize with her. It suggests that her atrocious past diced her naiveté and its reconstruction exhibited sociopathic tendencies. And because American culture romanticizes the narrative of the underdog, in spite of her blatantly sociopathic behavior, I find myself rooting for her just as I root for Dexter.

If Freud’s understanding of showbiz is accurate, the reason these characters are humanized is because these shows wouldn’t be compelling unless there was some point at which the audience could identify with the character. But keeping in mind that success (in modern day America) encourages psychopathic and/or sociopathic tendencies, we might also be tempted to believe that we, as successful people, are compelled by these characters because of the moments in which they lack humanity. It is at that point that we are living vicariously through the illusion on the screen. It is at that intersection of humanity and inhumanity that we drop our inhibitions. Momentarily, we recall all of the moments we have felt the unspeakable anger, cold calculation, cunning and our own superficiality that we see manifested in the monstrosity on the screen. We are one step removed from this monstrosity but for that moment our sociopathic behavior is brought to the surface of our consciousness. And then we switch off the television (projector, computer or iPad – technology is hard to simplify now), close the book, effectively cutting off the portal between our world and the other. And then we breathe, reassuring ourselves that we are infinitely better than them.

Does this mean that we fetishize psychopathy to rationalize certain psychopathic or sociopathic behaviors? It’s possible. It might be too grand of an assumption. But the thought captivates me. After all, what’s a good thriller without a psychopathic villain?

P.S. Sorry for all the spoilers. If you haven’t seen any of the shows/films that I have quoted to increase my word count, do yourself a solid: relax, and get some culture.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go return some videotapes.

[1] Sigmund Freud and Henry Alden Bunker. “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage.” The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Mar, 1960), pp. 144-148.