Sociopath is another word for antisocial personality disorder according to the diagnostic manual of mental health professionals, currently the DSM-5-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2022). One of the criteria for this personality is: “Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.” (748) While research shows that this personality disorder is present in nearly four percent of adults (one out of every 25 people), few people consider that they are being lied to when a person says they are a victim of someone else’s bad behavior. Yet sociopaths constantly want to dominate others and conning is one of the easiest ways to do this—and get others to assist them.
Sadly, this is especially true for legal professionals (lawyers, judges, mediators, therapists, law enforcement, and others), because they are trained and eager to protect victims from abusive people. Unfortunately, such false statements to legal professionals can land an innocent person in jail, a true victim of abuse accused of harming a perpetrator, an innocent person ordered to pay a scammer, or a child put in danger’s way. This article explains how such conning works and a simple way to avoid getting conned.
How Conning Works
A con is more than a lie. A con is designed to get you to do something you wouldn’t do if you knew the truth. This is why sociopaths are often known as “con artists.” There are several ways that they accomplish this: distraction, negative stereotyping, identifying your weaknesses, fabricating a crisis, and playing the victim.
A simple example is the thief who gets you to look up at the sky (“look at that strange bird”) while picking your pocket. You certainly wouldn’t have given him your wallet on purpose and you wouldn’t have looked up at the sky if you knew you were being conned.
When conning legal professionals, such con artists intensely point the finger at another person and claim that that person is acting badly. Most legal professionals then focus on how badly the other person is acting and analyze what actions should be taken against them. Most of the time, they don’t stop to consider that it is the accuser who may be acting badly. This allows the first person who claims abuse to be automatically believed and action taken against the “bad” other.
Negative Stereotyping (Creating a Target of Blame)
When one person makes enough emotional claims that another person is acting badly, the listener will often form a negative stereotype of that person. Once this has occurred, the listener will easily believe more complaints about that person and may even fabricate some of their own that seem to fit what such a bad actor would do. Psychological research on this subject was described years ago as “stereotype induction” in the book Jeopardy in the Courtroom (American Psychological Association, 1996). Another term I like to use is that the accuser focuses on someone they choose to be their target of blame, who usually has done nothing wrong. A more common term for all of this is a villain—the whole person is evil. Whatever the term, sociopaths attack the person in their efforts to create a distraction for their schemes.
Take an example I have seen several times: A mother has been doing just fine as the primary custodial parent after a divorce. The father with sociopathic traits has a set-back in business or relationships and decides to look somewhere else for someone to dominate. He decides to take the child away from the mother and show the world that he is the primary custodial parent. This will put him in the position of dominating both the mother in court and the child in his home, and also helps him look good for getting dates. He files a motion in family court claiming that the mother is abusive, regularly interferes with him picking up the child, doesn’t put his name as a parent on the list at school, and doesn’t tell him about doctor’s appointments. This list of bad behavior creates a negative stereotype of the mother which grabs the attention of his lawyer, who argues successfully at court that the mother is a bad actor.
The mother is flabbergasted at court and says none of this is true and that he is lying, but she is caught off-guard and isn’t organized to provide much evidence. The negative stereotype of the mother has already set in from the intensity of the father’s allegations. The court accepts the extensive list of bad behaviors as true and rules in favor of the father, while harshly telling the mother to stop blaming the father and take responsibility for her own behavior. That the mother was telling the truth was never considered. With short court hearings, this happens more than most people realize.
Identifying Your Weaknesses
Sociopaths are brilliant at figuring out your vulnerabilities. Many legal professionals have their favorite problems they like to solve, which sociopaths are eager to manipulate. Some professionals focus on a class of victims.
For example, I knew a lawyer several years ago who represented clients with AIDS who had been discriminated against. One client she had worked with for over a year finally had a trial date coming up. Before the trial, she told him she needed the paperwork showing that he had AIDS. It turned out he never had it and had conned her into working hard on his case because he seemed like such a victim.
In family law, some lawyers and therapists specialize in domestic violence and primarily take those cases. Some lawyers and therapists specialize in parental alienation and primarily take those cases. When determining parenting plans in and out of court in divorce cases, such a history can make a big difference. I have seen true domestic violence cases in which an abusive parent falsely alleged parental alienation to distract from the domestic violence concerns—and succeeded in court because an alienation professional aggressively handled the case. I have seen true parental alienation cases in which false claims of abuse against the rejected parent took over the court case and that parent’s relationship with the child was effectively ended, because an abuse professional aggressively handled the case.
Fabricating a Crisis
One of the quickest ways to gain total control of a child and of a case is to allege child sexual abuse where it doesn’t exist. Of course, true child sexual abuse is a terrible thing and children need to be protected. Unfortunately, many true cases are never identified and children suffer for years, often into adulthood. But sociopaths lack a conscience and therefore are willing to make false allegations of anything, including child sexual abuse and know that they often can get away with this.
In one example, a mother falsely claimed a father sexually abused his four-year-old daughter during his weekend parenting time. After several months of investigation during which the father had no contact with his daughter, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and given back his parenting time by the court. The mother was excused for her allegations as probably honestly believed. Yet information came out afterward that confirmed the father’s suspicions that she knew all along that she was making false allegations. This was never addressed or even considered, and she went on to block his relationship with her for the rest of her childhood.
In another example, a father falsely claimed that the mother had sexually abused their teenage son. His emergency hearing paperwork left no time for the mother to respond. The court accepted the father’s allegations at face value for several weeks, but finally after hearing the full evidence reluctantly conceded that no child sexual abuse had ever occurred. Yet during the remainder of the case, the mother was treated harshly as though she had done something wrong. The negative stereotype had stuck and the court consistently favored the father in her rulings without ever considering that he was a chronic liar.
In another case, a father had primary physical custody of the 8-year-old daughter because the mother had been violent against him several years earlier, which created a presumption against her having primary custody for five years under that state’s laws. However, when the five years were up the mother made false allegations that the father was sexually abusing the daughter and was immediately given sole custody while a several-month investigation could take place. Finally, the mother was found to have made knowingly false allegations of child sexual abuse and the court sanctioned her $10,000 for the father’s costs of defending himself (which were significantly higher). However, both she and her new partner (who was in on the scheme) appeared to have sociopathic traits and they had made themselves “judgement proof” – i.e. they owned no property in their own names and the mother kept herself unemployed so that she never paid the sanction.
Playing the Victim
This is the biggest con of all—and an important part of the prior examples—because playing the victim enables sociopaths to get legal professionals to fight hard on their behalf against their true victims. This is possible because of the emotional persuasion that sociopaths use to emotionally hook their target professionals. By emotionally presenting a long list of fabricated bad behavior against their “villain,” a legal professional with sympathies for the victims of certain behaviors will quickly feel that the case is true. Who would lie about such a thing?
For example, I am aware of two cases against universities in which con artists claimed they were victimized. In one case, a male employee claimed that a female faculty member created a hostile work environment and convinced a jury that he had been victimized, when information I was aware of made it clear no such thing had occurred and that he was a chronic liar. He won a substantial judgment.
In the other case, an academic from another country came to the United States and claimed that she had been wrongly enticed to work for a department that did not have a paying position for her. She emotionally claimed that she was promised a paying position and had been significantly financially disadvantaged by making the move to the U.S. Information that I was aware of from another case indicated that she was a prolific liar and no such position had ever been offered. But she was a skilled victim and the university had to pay a substantial judgment.
In each of the examples described in the above cases, legal professionals became “negative advocates.” I coined this term in 2003 in my first book, High Conflict People in Legal Disputes. It explains the enabling behavior of family members, co-workers, many others, and especially legal professionals who became emotionally hooked and uninformed advocates for high conflict people. Since this concept is now twenty years old, I have been encouraged at the value that many people have found in it. But at the same time I am disappointed that many more people don’t even realize when they are becoming a negative advocate.
The key to avoiding becoming a negative advocate is to maintain a healthy skepticism and to equally consider the possibility that the opposite of what you are being told is true. This is especially important when you feel emotionally hooked that you must fight hard for this victim. Make sure you are helping a true victim and not enabling a sociopath to harm an innocent person who may actually be their victim. Remember, sociopaths are driven to dominate others, and this is just one tool in their toolbox. In the near future we will see that they are the first to use playing the victim with AI (artificial intelligence). We need to keep our eyes wide open in the years ahead!
Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. is an attorney, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute. He is the author of several books, including High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, 2nd Edition and It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything.