Over the past decade, I’ve built a career analyzing sociopaths on television, and Investigation Discovery provides me with a great laboratory in which to study them — there’s at least one in just about every episode of every ID show, and the show I cohost, Fatal Vows, is no exception!
All sociopaths essentially are narcissists who feel entitled to behave irresponsibly — even to harm innocent others — in order to attain whatever money, possessions, pleasure, leisure, etc. they feel they’re owed. But, not all sociopaths are created equal.
Sociopaths typically aren’t developed in infancy; they tend to take one of two developmental paths, each of which begins in early childhood, winds through increasing elevations of narcissism, and ends in sociopathy by late adolescence.
The other path is less intuitive because it’s marked by parental neglect and/or disapproval, but it leads essentially to the same end — a person hyper-focused on his or her own needs and wants and determined to get those needs and wants met, again, even at others’ expense. Recurring features along this second path are rationalizations — again, spoken or unspoken — such as, “I’ve been hurt, so I’m entitled to even things out,” or, “Nobody’s going to take advantage of me again, because I’m now entitled to take advantage of them first.”
I often heard — and tried to correct — such flawed rationalizations when I taught undergraduate students who, for example, would miss deadlines, give me excuses that were “beyond their control,” then get livid when I didn’t give them extensions which their peers hadn’t gotten.
Consciously or unconsciously, they’d brought to college rationalizations from childhood. So, I had to explain repeatedly that life isn’t fair, that we aren’t owed hardship-free lives, and that we can’t expect others to rescue us from every pitfall (sure, it’s kind when others do rescue us, but what makes it kind is that it’s voluntary, and it should be appreciated as such).
Now, those students’ irresponsibility may not have risen to Fatal Vows levels, but the entitlement underlying it still alarmed me — enough that I eventually wrote a book about it — because I knew that unchecked entitlement tends to escalate.
Rationalizations for entitlement and irresponsibility are dangerous because they can be used to justify increasingly sociopathic behaviors, as seen frequently on Fatal Vows: cheating, fraud, substance abuse — all the way up to and including murder!
One famous example of this is the Menendez brothers. It’s interesting to me that their sociopathic behavior — murdering their parents — appears to stem from the first developmental path that I mentioned, the overindulgence/spoilage/aggrandizement path (i.e., from having it so good as kids that they didn’t want to wait until their parents died to get their wealth). But then, they argued in court that their behavior actually stemmed from the second developmental path — the abuse/neglect path.
In this week’s all-new Fatal Vows (Saturday, 10pm Eastern on ID), see if you can spot a sociopath — if so, see if you can determine which of the two developmental paths he or she took and how he or she rationalizes sociopathic behavior.
Watch Investigation Discovery’s Fatal Vows on ID GO now!
Dr. Brian Russell is a psychologist, lawyer, and cohost of Fatal Vows on Investigation Discovery. He’s also the author of the book Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It.
Main photo: Lyle and Erik Menendez from 2003, 2002, and 2000 respectively [Beverly Hills Police Department]