Psychologists analyze the minds of individuals. Sociologists study people’s relationships. This leaves a middle area not well developed, that of the social expression of individual personality and personality pathology. This paper is part of this latter area, and is specifically about individuals who apply social intelligence to the task of being aggressive, and how this aggression is expressed.
Most aggression is social as typically more than one person is involved. The term social aggression used in this paper is not used in this sense, but rather indicates aggression through the manipulation of relationships. Aggression usually exists in scenarios known in the colloquial as fights. This report does not discuss fighting scenarios, but is limited to the single acts where a person hurts another, whether that act is in defense or not. I call the person who does the hurting the aggressor and the person who is hurt the victim. This is not intended to imply that the victim will not also be an aggressor within some wider scenario. Nor does it not imply legal or moral guilt on the part of either party.
Social aggression as a term in the context of this report is not a moniker for the aggression that may be perpetrated by gangs or other authority hierarchies. Rather this report discusses how an individual can express non-physical aggression through relationships – whether the individual is part of a gang is irrelevant.
Aggression is often a normal part of resolving human conflict. We, as citizens of society, desire to evolve refined methods of resolving conflict, such as open debate and voting. We see that primitive forms of aggression often do not lead to resolution but propagate a pathological scenario. However, in this study we explore the expression of the psychopathic personality which is aggressive through social relationships for personal satisfaction, not out of any desire to improve society or even to improve the local situation. Avoiding the physical fight is not altruistic but rather camouflage for the social attack. The psychopath is simply not able to be physically aggressive or does not want to be caught. We co-opt an older term that has fallen to disuse to describe this personality that turns to social aggression; sociopath.
Seminal work on social aggression was done by Rachel Simmons and is summarized in her book, Odd Girl Out. In this book Ms. Simmons follows a group of girls as they mature. She shows how the girls hone their skills of social manipulation into socially aggressive acts, and she describes a flocking phenomenon. Among the descriptive examples given in the book was that of a young girl who waited years to ‘get even’ then did so by stealing another girl’s boyfriend even though she didn’t like the boy. The aggressor took pleasure from the aggression by telling the other girl what she had done.
Simmons’ thesis appears to be that girls are just as aggressive as boys, though the girls tend to be socially aggressive while the boys tend to be physically aggressive. Accordingly, an angry boy hits his target immediately, while an angry girl designs situations where her target is denied emotional support, denied opportunities, or becomes disliked or even physically assaulted by others after a period of time. Simmons points out that the most socially aggressive girls are typically well liked by teachers. This attribute of being liked by those who have the authority to put a stop to aggression facilitates attacks.
Awareness of Simmons work has made it into counseling programs in lower schools around the U.S. It is largely being called bullying, but that is a mischaracterization. Firstly it is not about a group beating up an individual. If anything it would be social bullying. However Simmons also describes a number of scenarios that are not even social bullying, such as the case of the girl who stole a boyfriend, ‘to get even’.
Carol Gilligan in the book “In a Different Voice” made the argument that women are more aware of relationships than men, and as a result have a different set of ethics. She wrote this thesis to explain why women as a population group scored lower on Kohlberg’s morality test. Her explanation is that the test was gender biased for not taking into account solutions to moral problems that involve knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of the individuals involved in the scenarios presented.
For children and in domestic relationships this concept of gender bias may fit the data at this time, but Pierre Bourdieu points out that in a wider context social aggression exists for both genders. There are many examples of social engineering of aggression by people in general including in office politics, state politics, diplomacy, business, in vying for grants, and in the practice of law. Also, culture is changing and as physical aggression is being suppressed both due to it not being accepted and due to the virtualization of relationships, aggressive personalities are finding other means for winning in competitions of will. The social aggression is now more readily accessible, and typically not even illegal.
As another example, passive aggression is already recognized as aggression that is non-physical. Passive aggression manifests in relationships. It is reasonable to suppose there are additional non-physical methods of aggression.
I am often surprised to find out how familiar non-professionals are with the subject of social aggression. Many people refer to sociopaths in the colloquial as “manipulators” or “witches”.
The Nature of Social Aggression
In physical aggression the aggressor attacks the victim’s body. In the extreme, and the psychopath is likely to go for the extreme, the victim’s body is so badly damaged the victim dies. In intermediate forms the psychopath may enslave the victim and allow the victim to heal between attacks, and thus take repeated enjoyment out of hurting the victim over a period of time. In order to succeed the aggressor must cut off all accesses of escape for the victim.
In social aggression the aggressor attacks the victim’s ego. In the extreme, and the sociopath is likely to go for the extreme, the victim’s ego is so badly damaged that the victim suicides. In intermediate forms the sociopath may enslave the victim and allow the victim to recover some sense of worth between attacks, and thus take repeated enjoyment out of hurting the victim over a period of time. In order to succeed the aggressor must prevent the victim from finding support from others.
As an example of a social aggression killing consider the Megan Meier story. Megan was a sensitive teenage girl. A middle aged neighbor woman who ‘wanted to get’ Megan created a MySpace account as a young boy. After gaining Megan’s trust and becoming her ‘boyfriend’, the neighbor garnered the help of others and they started attacking Megan’s self-identity. Megan committed suicide.
The only reason we know what really happened is the MySpace records. Though the internet facilitated the violence against Megan, there are plenty of other cases of socially aggressive people using the technique of ‘false friendship’ to cast a victim into an emotional tailspin where the internet played no role whatsoever. The Internet did not invent social aggression; rather it is playing the role of documenting it.
The news media often calls this a case of ‘cyber bullying’ – but the primary means, false friendship, is not a type of bullying. In this case the role of the others included was probably in preventing Megan from finding an escape.
It is important to note that the aggressor was not successfully prosecuted because the judge ruled that social aggression is not illegal.
It is not uncommon for social aggression to lead to suicide. Many such cases are documented as a result of social aggression in the context of family law, see http://www.fallenones.org.
Techniques of Social Aggression
Of primary importance to the sociopath is to not get caught. Hence a number of these techniques are mix between aggression and obfuscation.
Denying the Victim an Ego
The sociopath removes all support for the victim’s ego. If the victim does well at a task, the sociopath belittles it or diffuses the subject. As examples, saying that he or she should have been doing something else, or pointing out something the victim “needs to work on”. If the victim likes something, then that something is made out to be unimportant or undesirable. Flaws the victim has are dwelled upon. As examples, if the victim has acne, is overweight, clumsy, then that is tied into the root cause why he or she can’t do other things or is not liked by others.
Making Public Embarrassing Personal Information, ‘Talking behind Ones Back’, Vicious Rumors
The sociopath learns about his or her victim, what the victim’s sensitivities are and then says something or provides something that embarrasses the victim among the victim’s peers. The victim may use a ‘rumor’ so that the source of the information will not be clear. It is all the more effective if it appears to the victim to come from ‘everywhere’. It is not necessary that the rumor be true, and often times as the aggression become more intense, the rumors become exaggerated or outright false. This heightens the effect as the victim comes to feel powerless. The sociopath will typically want to be present when the rumor is first told to the victim so as to enjoy the victim’s pain. The next best to being there is to receive a detailed account from someone who was there.
Leveraging False Friendship
An example from the Megan Meier story was given in the prior section. In this case the aggressor pretends to be a friend. This facilitates the aggressor in learning intimate information that can be fed into the rumor mill. The false friend will out themselves in a coup de grâce, yanking the victim’s support network at a crucial moment in order to intensify the effect of one of other methods.
Recruiting Others to the Cause
The sociopath weaves a tale to others to get them to also avoid the victim or even strike out against the victim. The sociopath may even make it fun or a game. Often the people recruited are from the victim’s peer group, all the more effective if it is the complete peer group leading to ostracism of the victim. This is where the title of Rachel Simmon’s book came from, “Odd Girl Out”. In the extreme the sociopath will be able to identify sycophants who are willing to carry out the smallest of commands for the sociopath.
Sociopaths are astute to relationships, and they recognize each other easily and can naturally work together. Most all the techniques above work out better when done by a group.
Covering Achievement, Plagiarism, Rigging Competition
The sociopath will not want the victim to get credit for an achievement, and will if possible arrange for others to receive credit for work done by the victim or actively recruit others to the team, company or school who further excel at the same activity. For example, if the sociopath is a teacher, the teacher may arrange for an award to be given to another student who did lesser work on the same subject. The actual victim may be a loved one of the student, or another teacher who has the student in his or her class. The sociopath lacks empathy and will use other people to achieve their goals independent of the effect on those used.
Attacking the Victims Support
This includes taking the victim’s money, attacking his or her job, or position, as well as preventing the victim from having or making friends. The sociopath does not want to see the victim have the love of parents or rewards for his or her accomplishments.
Taking Friends and Loved Ones Away
Rachel Simmons reported on the case of the high school girl who stole another girl’s boyfriend just to get the other girl. In the Megan Meier story, Megan lost a boyfriend in conjunction with other things. In what is being called parental alienation syndrome, PAS, the sociopath denies children access to their other parent in order to punish their ex-spouse. The sociopath may find a number of ways to drive a wedge into a relationship. If the victim is becoming close to someone as a friend, then the sociopath attempts to drive in a wedge, to take over, or to alienate the pair.
The aggressor may report to an interested party a love affair, report a crime to an enforcement agency, or blame the person for something gone wrong to others. The sociopath may enjoy this all the more if the report is false. If the sociopath knows that the victim will find out he or she may set up others to make the report, or beg for physical protection.
Piled High and Deep
This technique is often seen in political campaigns. In order to avoid a false rumor or accusation from being discovered, the aggressor makes a new false rumor or accusation. The rumors or accusations end up stacking up so deep that the victim cannot say enough to reply to all of them. This is facilitated by the fact that nasty rumors and accusations are more entertaining to the general public than mundane explanations.
Plain ole blackmail. The sociopath denies the child or other family member of something he or she needs or wants, such as parental love, in exchange for the family member doing something. The threat of distributing embarrassing material, etc. can also be used.
Disrupting the Party
Literally and figuratively, the sociopath cannot let his or her victim to have a party or analogous event such as a holiday with the child of a marriage. The sociopath may schedule another event to coincide or fall shortly before the victim’s event and compete for attendees. The sociopath may arrange to ruin the party by taking over on a key guest, spoiling reservations, or may co-opt the event to expose embarrassing information.
Conspiracy as a Weapon used against a Victim
Sociopaths tend to recruit others and to flock. Hence the victim may attempt to garner help while saying that a number of people are out to get him or her. Those involved will point out that the victim is ‘imagining a conspiracy’ or even has paranoid tendencies, is paranoid, or even psychotic. The sociopath(s) will appeal to Occam’s Razor principal and ask the question such as “Which is more likely, that everyone in the school doesn’t like Ann, or that Ann has low self-esteem and is imaging things?” Unfortunately it is often a rule of thumb for judges in a court room that truth is determined by majority opinion, and this works in the sociopaths favor.
Stopping the Victim Short
When the victim attempts a defense, the aggressor picks on small points quickly and makes a big deal out of them so that the general discussion is lost. Any sort of physical evidence will be quickly brushed aside.
Pushing a Rope, Held at a Distance, The Interpreter in the Middle
In pushing the rope, the aggressor promises something the victim wants or needs, and then draws it out as long as possible while always being positive and promising lots of action. It is a common technique used by passive aggressive attorneys and can be part of a larger social aggression. In related techniques the sociopath sets the victim up to require contact with someone whom the victim can never reach, or the aggressor plays interpreter for information from a person the victim cannot talk to directly. The unreachable person may not exist or may not be at all what the sociopath says he or she is.
When the weapons of the sociopath are known to work on a person, then that person is a marked target for other sociopaths. Sociopaths, like all predators, prefer easy targets as they are less risky. Some victims will come to see the sociopath as a familiar role in their lives and may tolerate them or may even seek them out. The person may not realize that a sociopath in the past was actually a false friend rather than a real friend, and misunderstand the cues the sociopath presents, especially if the victim was manipulated in such a manner by the sociopath that the sociopath was an only friend. Perhaps the most extreme case is that of the child of a sociopathic parent who cues on the sociopath to provide motherly love or fatherly guidance that was perhaps never provided before.
Characteristics of the Sociopath
A sociopath will be socially intelligent and astute to other’s internal emotional constructs and motivations, yet lack empathy and thus be willing to use his or her gifts for personal gain at other people’s expense.
In this mode a sociopath designs his or her communications for effect rather than to convey information. When analyzing such communication one must often look for the intended end affects rather the logic or factual content. If one analyzes the logic or content one may find it to be ‘piled high and deep’ and boring rather than dangerous.
Simmons noted that socially aggressive girls were almost always well-liked by their teachers. Sociopaths use their social intelligence and ability to quickly pick up on the emotional constructs of others to raise their social standings. They are almost always well-liked by people in positions of authority.
For the same reasons sociopaths are often the alpha player in a group hierarchy. They naturally fall into positions of authority that can be gotten through social manipulation. Unfortunately, this means they are over represented in such population groups as attorneys, politicians, psychologists, social workers and academics.
Sociopaths flock. They quickly recognize each other, and if their interests are in alignment or they are part of a network of trading favors. They will work together.
A sociopath’s circle of close friends will often include sycophants or people who are dense and ‘believe in’ him or her. The reason for this is that those who do not like to be manipulated create more distance from the center. They prefer to be observers, possibly for the entertainment sake.
The sociopathy underscoring socially aggressive behavior can also lead to directly aggressive behavior when the socially aggressive person perceives he or she can get away with it. A component of the pathology is that the aggressor enjoys the fact that others who could help the victim think the aggressor is a nice person. Hence, such a person is careful not to be found out. When being directly aggressive the sociopath uses less obvious means that are likely to go undetected.
Sociopathy and Divorce
Apart from sycophants, those who are easily manipulated, and convenient arrangements, sociopaths make for bad spouses. Sociopaths are accustomed to getting what they want and punish those who cross them, so it follows that they are over represented in the population of spouses involved in contentious divorce.
Our current family law system hands socially aggressive people a number of weapons while offering them sanctuary. A divorcing spouse or family practice specialist may effectively use the child or children, may make false allegations, invoke protection orders to falsely create the appearance of danger, and/or garner like minds, naive ideologues and sycophants to the task of attacking the target. All the while making friends and gathering allies who are profiting.
Family laws and attitudes are designed to protect against physical aggression, but ignore the existence of socially aggressive people, so such people are left free to pervert the system to their own ends. When one person is physically violent against another via force the police are often engaged immediately and investigation ensues. In contrast no one will be taken seriously if calling the police department to report being a victim of ‘social aggression’. Such a victim will find no support.
In the context of family law socially aggressive people might be found among divorcing spouses, attorneys, social workers, psychologists, and those not directly in the system who take advantage of the divorcing spouses lack of attention to other matters. It is the nature of the pathology that socially aggressive people flock, as a result it is not uncommon that a vulnerable child or adult becomes the center of a shark feed. An example of this phenomena is well documented in the book “ITIO a Child”.
Our laws are written almost exclusively to punish pathological physical aggressors. In contrast sociopaths are not punished. For example, in the Megan Meier story the judge explicitly said what was done was not illegal.
The system can even facilitate sociopaths. This is because our laws are written from the same point of view and philosophy as Kohlberg’s morality test. Gilligan is correct, this bias needs to be removed; removed not only from ethics tests, but from our laws as well. This ‘stuff’ needs to be illegal.
Laws in general, and especially divorce needs to be designed to work even in the presence sociopaths both as parties and in the system. It is a common error on the part of legislators to believe that the laws they pass will be prosecuted by angels.
There can be no perfect solution for divorce, but social weapons can be placed further out of reach of those who would use them to do harm. Divorce is a civil matter for canceling a marriage license. The whole ‘scene’ could be avoided by extending no-fault property divorce to no-fault custody (shared parenting on calendar rotations) and getting divorce proceedings over with quickly. There are already criminal laws in place for those who commit fraud or who hurt children. We do not need redundant divorce courts for this.
At least part of the population of people who deny children access to the other parent are socially aggressive sociopaths. The base syndrome is psychopathy in the presence of a gift for being socially astute. One should expect that when one parent denies the child access to the other parent that other sociopaths in the system will be involved or even dominant players in accomplishing this (flocking).
Despite representations and appearances sociopaths are not concerned for the children, but rather they see personal satisfaction in participating. Personal satisfaction may be in ‘getting the victim’ as a surrogate, as a trade of favors, for entertainment, or for profit. Divorce laws need to recognize and take into account the social aspect of sociopathy.