“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words.”
– Phillip Dick
Words are more real than reality. Of course they’re not really more real, but it sure seems that way sometimes. Manipulators know this; it’s how they’re able to do what they do.
When involved with a psychopath, we all experienced situations where words took precedence over what we saw and experienced, probably too many times to count. Their words made us doubt our own perceptions. In one glaring example, the psychopath I knew said “The problem isn’t that I don’t love you — it’s that you don’t believe I do.” No, actually the problem was that he didn’t act like he loved me because he didn’t love me. There had been a drastic change in his behavior (actions), but he was able to keep me hanging on with only his words.
At that time and all the others, I never thought I might be dealing with someone who was fundamentally and astoundingly different than I was, even though he often acted like it. He was able to talk me out of what I saw right in front of me, because of the way my mind worked.
How can psychopaths be skilled manipulators when they aren’t like us at all and have no firsthand experience seeing life through our eyes? They don’t share our emotions, our thoughts, our motivations, our needs, or our minds.
Are they good manipulators? Yes. But to be successful, it takes our inherently vulnerable brain. They are nothing without that. Manipulation depends squarely on the way our minds work. The best thing they can do is pretend, and hope we fill in the blanks. And we do fill in those blanks! Our brains do it for us, automatically.
“Emotions are so annoying to me. Being around emotional people is like being an outsider in a club everyone else is a part of. No one will tell me the secret password. I can talk my way around many emotions, but I don’t really understand where they come from… My point is, sociopaths aren’t half as good as people think we are. The advantage we have is people assume everyone is like them. If an Empath was analyzing my emotional response with the knowledge that I may be full of shit, I might have a harder time being convincing. Why? Because you can’t write a thesis on a topic you didn’t study. If you’ve never heard Spanish you sure as hell couldn’t speak the language.” ~ ZKM
When she says “the advantage we have is people assume everyone is like them,” it’s true. It refers to the automatic shortcuts our brains take, called cognitive bias. These biases leave us vulnerable, because they often lead us to make faulty assumptions and come to incorrect conclusions.
“Although cognitive biases can sometimes be helpful in familiar situations or in dealing with predictable threats, they can lead to catastrophic failures in assessment of unfamiliar and unpredictable adversaries,” says Laurie Feldman from the Department of Psychology at the University at Albany.
The psychopath was an unfamiliar and unpredictable adversary, and the faulty assumption that they were like us made it impossible to see the reality of what was going on.
Here are a few of the cognitive biases involved:
Projection Bias or Assumed Similarity Bias: This mental shortcut leads us to the unconscious assumption that others share the same or similar values, thoughts and beliefs. In other words, we believe that others are just like us — if we are an honest, loving person with a conscience, we believe most everyone else is the same way. We don’t even consider that some people may have drastically different values and motivations.
When we try to make sense of someone else’s behavior using our own frame of reference, it doesn’t make sense if their frame of reference is completely different (like a psychopath’s is).
Confirmation Bias: This is the tendency we all have to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms our preconceptions. This makes it hard to change your mind about something — or someone — once you’ve already developed a belief about what or who they are. If someone has already won you over and gained your trust, it is very hard to change that perception, even when things start to go very wrong. First impressions often remain even after the evidence on which they are based has been totally discredited.
When someone creates an image of being a trustworthy person, we get stuck on that image. Later, when they lie to us and then deny it, we believe them because of that image we have, instead of seeing that this formerly trustworthy person isn’t to be trusted any longer.
Every con artist (confidence artist) relies on it. Their success depends on gaining your confidence. They know that once have it, they can get away with just about anything.
Do you believe you’re a good judge of character? Open-minded? Attentive to reason? Skilled at evaluating an argument? A good judge of the facts? Well, that’s “pretty much science fiction” due to the confirmation bias, according to Peg Streep in the article, Four Reasons You Can’t Trust Yourself.
Observer’s Illusion Of Transparency: This bias causes us to overestimate how well we understand another person’s personal mental states. We assume we know what someone else is thinking and feeling, when in fact we don’t.
When we’re in a conversation with someone, we make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of what they say. We automatically make things mean what they would mean if we said them. How many times have you said, “I know what you mean!” Ask people to explain what they mean — you might be surprised!
One reader here asked her psychopathic ‘partner’ what it meant to him when he said he loved her. After giving it some thought he said,
“If you and I were stranded alone on another planet, I probably wouldn’t want to kill you.”
It’s not easy to remember to do this, because we don’t see our own assumptions; they happen below our awareness. Therapists are trained to do it, and even they need a lot of practice before it becomes a habit.
Here’s another example. We would normally assume that someone would feel a certain way in a particular situation, or would understand what someone else would feel. For example, if someone tells us they were almost in an accident on the way over to meet us, we’d assume it scared them. Even if we asked them if they were scared and they agreed, we’d assume we understood what they meant. But look at what can be revealed with a little prodding:
In his book Without Conscience, Dr. Robert Hare describes an interview with a psychopathic offender who can’t seem to understand the fundamental nature of fear. “When I rob a bank,” he said, “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue-tied. One barfed all over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t know why. If someone pointed a gun at me, I guess I’d be afraid but I wouldn’t throw up.” When asked to describe how he would feel in such a situation, his reply contained no references to bodily sensations. He said things such as, “I’d give you the money”; “I’d think of ways to get the drop on you”; “I’d try and get my ass out of there.” When asked again how he would feel, not what he would think or do, he seemed perplexed. Asked if he ever felt his heart pound or his stomach churn, he replied, “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight.”
It became obvious that he didn’t feel fear and he didn’t understand it. He also didn’t understand how someone else would feel.
So how can we stop filling in the blanks? How can we stop making assumptions, or at least become aware that we’re doing it? How can we stop letting words take precedence over reality? How can we overcome the cognitive biases that make it all possible?
It’s not as easy, but having an intention to do so and making a real effort can make a difference. To learn more about biases and how to overcome them, start by exploring some of these resources:
If you only do one thing, remember this: