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Please Explain How It Is That Psychopaths Can Manipulate People If They Have No Empathy


I have no trouble relating to the notion psychopaths lack empathy based on my own personal experiences with someone I believe is one. But I guess I just don’t have a firm enough grasp on how their brains differ from the ‘normal’ or how they think and perceive the world. An example of my confusion is how are psychopaths able to be such masters in manipulation without empathy? Empathy means having the ability to relate to how another is feeling. Wouldn’t you need to be able to anticipate someone’s feelings or reaction to be able to even begin to put it into motion let alone pull it off with any success? I also have a hard time understanding which emotions psychopaths are actually able to experience and to what depths and which ones they completely don’t. I just have a hard time understanding how they are able to pretend so convincingly to be experiencing something they completely have no real awareness of such as love. It’s been of my personal experiences with John that I’ve noticed anger and happiness to be the only emotions he seems to be able to easily and genuinely express. All the others in between are either not at all present or didn’t seem sincere. Whether he is incapable or unwilling to demonstrate compassion, empathy, or consideration for others still remains a mystery for me.

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Good questions all. Let’s start by defining the terms first. Psychopathy (otherwise known as sociopathy) is a personality syndrome or condition that is used to describe people who are extremely selfish, callous, socially manipulative, and narcissistic. They have little regard for social norms or rules or ethical codes, and instead are rather hedonistically motivated; more or less doing whatever it is that feels good to them. Their interpersonal relationships are accordingly quite shallow and lacking in any real intimacy as a rule, not that the average sociopath cares all that much that this is the case. They have little regard for other people’s welfare, instead regarding other people as either a means to an end, or as an obstacle. Such people can be quite predatory by nature. Due to their disregard for others, they can be quite willing to use violence against others if it suits their purpose. Outwardly, however, they may be perceived as socially skillful and charming, these being qualities based on a capacity to manipulate others, rather than a desire to join with them. Accordingly, sociopaths can make for effective salesmen, politicians and con-artists if they are bright enough to pull off the manipulations required. When they come to the attention of psychologists or psychiatrists, they will generally be diagnosed with Antisocial or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The classical understanding of sociopathy is that they behave the way they do in part because they have an empathy deficit; an inability to put themselves into another’s shoes and feel the feelings that that other person might feel if they were to be abused or mistreated. This is not the same thing as saying that a sociopath cannot put themselves into another person’s shoes. On the contrary, sociopaths can be quite skillful observers of other people’s experience. They can represent how another is feeling even though they don’t relate to that emotional experience in particular. Sociopaths are thought to have a leg up on other people with regard to being skillful observers and predictors of what others are thinking and feeling precisely because they aren’t distracted by concerns about their own self-worth, or the reasonableness of such manipulative behavior. They freely observe how their behavior influences other people and then use this knowledge to manipulate other people into giving them what they want, whether that is money, sexual favors, or some other desirable thing. It doesn’t typically trouble them that in the process of conning someone into sleeping with them, or making a sale that they might be very consciously lying to that other person. If it does trouble them, they manage to compartmentalize their discomfort so that it doesn’t interfere with their instrumental and manipulative behavior.

That your John is only sincere in expressing happiness and anger is quite consistent with the above description. Anger occurs when frustration occurs, which happens when someone or something gets in his way. Happiness occurs when he gets to have the reward he is seeking at any given moment in time. Anger and happiness are emotions consistent with hedonism, is another way of saying this. You don’t need to be socially invested in the lives of others to experience them. This is not the case with an emotion such as compassion, which requires a more developed and mature sense of self capable of not only representing another’s experience but also investing in and relating to that experience.

It’s hard to describe what it is about compassion that makes it a more advanced emotion than pure solipsist anger or happiness. I think the concepts developed by psychologist Robert Kegan are most useful for explaining what has gone wrong in social-developmental and maturity terms in the case of sociopathy. In essence, normal people start out rather narcissistic in orientation and then over time grow out of this initial perspective into a larger world in which they understand themselves to be connected to other people who experience the world in ways similar to themselves. For whatever reason, sociopaths do not progress in the normal way, but instead become developmentally delayed in terms of their social-emotional maturity. Their intelligence develops normally, however, so they appear to be normal adults, and learn to mimic a normal adult’s behavior. Inside, however, their social-emotional motivation remains at about the level of development of a naturally selfish young child.

There probably is not one mechanism that creates sociopaths. Some may be born with some as yet unidentified brain defect that makes them incapable of giving a crap about how others feel. If this is the case, it is not the same time as the recently discovered mirror neurons that are thought to underlie the communication deficits characteristic of Autism and Asperger’s Disorder. Sociopaths can communicate quite well, thank you. It is just that they don’t learn to care that other people have feelings. A more likely candidate for a genetic basis, to my mind, is the way that children and animals differ in terms of how easy they are to punish and reward. Some kids are born easy to punish. You look at them funny and they start crying. Others are the opposite; they are hard to punish. It takes a lot of pressure and aversive circumstance to get them to comply. There is a brain basis for these sorts of differences. If a child is born with an innate tendency to be undeterred from pursuing whatever it is he or she cares about, they are going to be harder for parents to socialize properly, and less likely to be humbled enough during maturation to grasp that other people matter.

It’s not all genetic, certainly. Severe abuse and violence exposure as a child is probably quite capable of arresting development on the social-emotional continuum.  It’s probably not the case that sociopaths are biologically incapable of feeling empathy, and more the case that due to the circumstances of their coming-up and their tendency towards hardheadedness, they don’t learn to develop this capacity, but rather remain stuck in an early developmental stage. See my essay about Robert Kegan’s book "The Evolving Self" for a good picture of what developmental stages these people fail to engage.

Putting this all together, I can now offer you my version of an answer for your question "how does a psychopath view the world?" More or less as a two year old would if that two year old lived in the body of an adult man or woman. Everything emotional is present but in primitive, undeveloped form. Socially advanced emotions like compassion fly over the head of a toddler and a sociopath because they require the development of a sense of self which has grown out of seeing itself as the center of the universe. Where a toddler has no intellect so to speak, an adult sociopath may have a very keen intellect. He or she uses that intellect in the service of his or her primitive, Second Order/Imperial consciousness (in Kegan’s terms) which has not yet made the leap into understanding the logic of the Golden Rule: that the way I feel is highly similar to the way that others feel, and therefore I should treat others as I would like to be treated.

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  • Megan Elizabeth

    You have articulated this excellently! This has been my experience to the letter when dealing with Psychopaths/Narcissists and makes perfect sense. Thank you for helping me realize the problem was never me, it was them!

  • Anonymous-1

    For years I've tried to understand why no matter what I did or what I tried to "show" him was the right way, he never could or never would even attempt it. I thought for the longest time that maybe it was me, or soemthing I did, or maybe I was a "toy" to him that could be manipulated and shaped into what he happen to want that day. He would say things like, "You are too deep and real people don't care like you do," anytime I tried to explain how I felt about something he did, or didn't do or something he said or didn't say to me. He was amazing in his ability to convince himself that somehow it was my fault and I deserved what he did to me and truly believe it himself. I honestly thought he was just be a selfish jerk but as the years went by, I started to realize and believe he was literally incapable of feeling or loving or caring. Thank you for explaining this to me.

  • Gwyn

    Some years ago I had the misfortune in a work environment of encountering a diagnosed sociopath. I always thought of myself being a pretty savy individual but when his true personality and behaviour was finally exposed I was completely shocked. I would have NEVER imagined this person to be sociopathic, the depth of his criminal behaviour and manipulative damage to others in the company was mind boggling. 5 years later the company and especially those he used/abused are still feeling the effects of his 8 month stay at our organisation.

    He was a diagnosed sociopath on parole and his background was only known to senior management. He was the the nicest person you had ever met and was bristling with social skills and good looks. He was returned to jail and on eventual release became the top salesman of a large computer firm in the area and is now its VP for Sales . Uggh.

  • Anonymous-2

    Discovering that the smart, beautiful young woman that you just married is a Sociopath sheds a lot of light. When the path to that light was tremendously intense fights that escalated simply out of the fact that my wife does not feel any empathy at all. Period. We had a brief courtship and then right away, on the honeymoon, in the clearest of terms her lack of empathy was incredible. We had fights on several occasions after we were engaged (but not before because my wife is a master of manipulation) and each time it involved me being in pain and telling this to my fiance and her response being...blank. I have never seen anything like it. It made me madder so I had to say it stronger, communicate it more clearly, raise my voice and she would...walk away. There were a series of escalations and in the process of this woman ruining my calm and peaceful home, and ruining my nice life, it just did not add up. Something was terribly wrong. She knows how to laugh, smile, cry, etc. to..gain what she wants. But, as this article clearly communicates, her level of sympathy or compassion is simply non-existent. She is a master manipulator. So, she learned to show compassion not from compassion, but simply as a tool. But, she did not always apply the tool correctly when a new situation arose requiring compassion.

    It's like her never learning to add by knowing 5 + 5 = 10, 4 + 6 = 10. So what happens when 3 + 7 comes up? Another major fight because she can't show compassion from her heart, but only from her head.

    It's aweful, it's terrible. My really nice life has been made a living hell and I am right now calling divorce attornies so that I can as soon as possible get this damaged woman out of my life. She's smart, she's beautiful, she's young, she's so dangerous because like the article said, she has the emotional growth of a two year old. And, when she does not get what she wants, she explodes with rage and violence.

    The sooner that God helps get this woman out of my life forever the better.

  • Anonymous-3

    Because most people are eager to tell you exactly what they are needing or wanting to hear.

    I am a psychopath. And I read your question with great interest. I don't pretend to understand people. I can only relate it to like going to a zoo and seeing all the animals and their different behavior. You don't have to be a monkey to understand when one is hungry and is willing to take a piece of popcorn from you. You don't have to be a lion to understand that a roar means stay away and don't try and pet it. For me, that's a lot like how the world is. I can tell people, I know what they are like just seeing them across a room. Some you know you can approach and be friendly and others, stay away.

    So empathy. You don't have to have it to manipulate. You train your pet to be obedient, but in doing so, do you try and relate to it? No. But why do you think that in order to manipulate you have to be a psychopath? A parent promises a child a treat when they get home if they behave. Is that parent a psychopath? Yet, they are manipulating the child to do what they want and yet they don't try and empathize to understand why that child is acting out to begin with. It's the same concept.

  • Cathy

    I have been wondering about this of my husband of 27 years. I am extremely active in the support community which I owe tons of gratitude for the help and support that it has given me. My best advice if you have a partner like this is run and don't stop to look back and if you want to see what your future might look like, stop and check out the forum where I am "GingerSnap". I still think these people have no soul and there is no convincing me otherwise.

  • brandon

    I have found the easiest way to spot evil is to find someone who will tell you something messed up with glee and pride. My friend of many years remarked once, "Dude, I once hung out with this assassin on the couch" !! She was totally stoaked for being able to share this with me. I replied, "What? Why did you stay? Why were you around this? Why are you telling this to me with glee and pride?". She was baffled by my responses.

    This girl I found out was a pathological liar, cheater, and theif. I called her out, finally, after researching sociopathy. I faced her and said, "F U, F U liar, F U sociopath". I never looked back. The best move I've ever made.

    They are scum and should all be hung. They won't learn. They are incapable. They are without a soul. I don't consider them human beings, people yes, but not part of humanity. Put them all together, drench with gasoline, and light IT all up. So many people suffer from them. They are the power elite as well. They opress humanity in many, many ways. Millions die yearly because of this scum.

  • Kerry

    I'm so sorry Brandon that you have been so hurt.

    I have too and ended up saying to the guy. "You just don't get it do you."

    I remember having the "how would you feel if?" conversations with my children.

    I never expected to have these conversations with a 51 year old man who was an Engineer. Very intelligent but not a clue how to empathize or love.

    A master at finding someones Achilles heal and exploiting it. Not an oportunity wasted to get what he wanted.

    I finally told him that I just couldn't see him anymore.

    Funny enough...I still want to believe he is inherently good but he just isn't. He's a sociopath.

    The only thing I worry about is his Karma debt.

    I don't want to have to deal with him

  • JAN

    OMG! I so know now, that I was married to a psychopath for seventeen years. I'm happily divorced for five years from him and never knew the definition of his disorder.

    My feelings,thoughts or desires were never important after we married. I was totally manipulated and became an obsession for him.I think because he knew I would totally give of myself to help achieve his happiness and in the process lost my own identity.

    He still calls me to talk about his present relationships with women wanting advice from me. I have to tell him do not call me .I'm not interested in your life.

    We have an 18 yr old daughter together that he could care less about her needs. Yet he tells me he is quote ( a wonderful father)I've never understood him but NOW I do!!!!!

  • Knight in Broken Armor

    My wife feels nothing, is absolutely incapable of feeling any emotion at all. I don't fully understand it due to the fact that she's so emotional about everything, but that's probably just because she's so unstable. I am personally the most loving and devoted husband and father I have ever known throughout the history of the world, in any story ever told, fact or fiction.....for 7 years now I have wondered how someone like me who treated my wife like a queen, worshiping the ground she walked on, and giving her the world could be lied to and manipulated so badly by a woman who turned out to be the most unethical and unloving person I have ever personally known or heard of....She left me 3 years ago when she could no longer successfully lie to me, and still to this day lies about everything she does in her life. If she had her way, she would still have me believe that she hasn't slept with any men sinse me, when in fact every single moment of her free or spare time sinse she left me has been spent revolving around other men. I meant my vows, and to this day she still comes around as much as possible to take advantage of that love, refusing to see how much she neglects and hurts her children. I have sinse imprisoned myself in my mothers house, completely socially isolated and wrought with suicidal depression. I still cannot take full custody of my children. I have no way out and there is no possible end in soul is forever dead.

  • Anonymous-4

    To the self-described psychopath who commented ...

    No, psychopathic manipulation is *not* the same as when a parent attempts to influence the behavior of a child. For one thing, the motive there is not simply the convenience or comfort of the parent, it is to actually teach appropriate behavior - it is for the good of the *child*, not just the parent, even if the child does not see it at the time.

    You've actually unintentionally demonstrated another aspect of psychopathology - the belief that everyone is the way they are.

    Are you diagnosed? Receiving therapy for your condition?

  • Anonymous-5

    Why do all non-psychopath's assume we are bad people? Just because someone is unable to feel normal emotions doesn't mean that they will hurt other people. I have only very rarely manipulated people, and this is dispite feeling NOTHING in the way of compassion/empathy/love. So why wouldn't I abuse other people for my own gain? Simple, I have been raised to believe its wrong. I might not care about people (as individuals or as a generic group) but my mother taught me to treat people kindly etc.

    Just because you are unable to feel normal emotion doesn't mean you can't tell right from wrong. It doesn't mean you will go through life hurting other people along the way. If psychopath's end up in jail (or in top management positions) is entirely up to them. Don't blame it on a lack of empathy, blame it on whoever didn't teach them right from wrong.

  • Anonymous-6

    wow!! this is my brother to the letter!! also, it's alot like my lifelong friend(but she's on drugs so maybe that's it) and sadly, my husband of 20 yrs, although not totally(he is not socially charming) he is very sincere and extremely religous and so self rightous. he has no sympathy except for our little daughter, and is very cold and harsh with our son and me. I am sweet and very loving and kind. our son is one of the sweetest and wanting to please people I've ever known. Many adults throughout his life have said he is one of the finest people they've ever known! yet his father doesn't see it at all! our girl is rather a pill, mean alot and selfish. she lies often even though she's grown up always going to church. she is hard to raise, of course I love her but my husband sees no wrong in her at all!! we've had yrs of counseling but my husband has not changed at all!! my son and I now live elsewhere, and I see my girl as much as possle my husband doesn't get it at all! is this a sociopath? he had a horrible childhood and he lit fires and killed the family cat.

  • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

    This is a matter of opinion but my tendency is to believe that if you believe you are a psychopath (sociopath) you are NOT. A psychopath is unaware that they are and do not care, anyway. They most certainly hurt people by manipulating them to their own gain and with no care about the consequences for the other or for themselves.

    Dr. Schwartz

  • Leah

    My eight year relationship ended this past Feruaury ,I did some researched on the subject of sociaopaths and discovered that infact he is one, I sit here emotionally,spiritually and financialy bankrupt!! He made up rules that I was to follow and he made up his own to suit his needs when the situation called for it example of this was I could not talk to other men not even if it was a male cashier ,he said he didn't believe in talking to other females ,(He can't tell the truth on a consistent basis )but I found out that not only did he talk to other women he flirted with them as well ,even worse than that was I could never understand why he didn't care that he hurt me when I would cry he sat there unmoved or if I wanted to talk about what he did to hurt me he would argue with me instead of doing what was normal and care about how he made me feel ,but then later on he would apolpogize to me make promises of change and repeat his actions to hurt me all over again , I never in all my life had to explain to an adult the meaning of the word sorry or what empathy is ,I was always famous for saying to him put yourself in my shoes "how would you feel" I always found myself putting my feelings aside because he never offered any solutions to any of the problems we had ,I would talk to him and find myself saying you know what never mind and he would ask me why when you talk to me you always end up saying that at the end and i would reply because I have said these same things to you for years with out any positive results ,He knows all my personal history and knows I was in counseling for a long time on and off because of childhood sexual abuse and because I have alot of insight to how things connect he would say ,going to counseling was not such a good thing because you know to much and that's not healthy for me and would say no one shares the same beliefs as me ,He was really good for a long time keeping me of balance because he played the affectionate part so well and acting so loving ,our relationship never had a deeper meaning ,He always avoided his part in anything which would tick me off to say the least ,I was in an accident three yearrs ago and he made me so dependant on him ,He enjoyed the admiration he would get from my family and strangers because everyone knew the lies and I knew the truth they would only see how generous he was and what a good caretaker he was as well . Another thing he would do is start arguments with me when I was sick and one time I had kidney stones real bad and He started and arguement with me and when I asked him to please stop and if he could take me to the hospital he did neither I had to drive myself to the emergency room now if that isn't all examples of having no empathy i don't know what is ! I have one daughter she is 19 now she is also a sociopath and both of them put me through hell !!! Now I live alone I'm 40 years old I just wanted someone to love me because I have alot of love to give and no one to give it to I'm back in counseling to learn how to love myself again but some people want money ,material gain all I ever wanted was to meet someone that has real feelings ,I am proud of myself for walking away finally !!!

  • Anthea

    20 years being manipulated and nearly losing my husband to this evil manipulator. Now I have nothing to do with her and am at peace with myself.
    The manipulation continues but by pulling myself out of the situation, i have managed to salvage some sanity


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