Dr. Jane McGregor on the Sociopathic Transaction

Dr. Jane McGregor on the Sociopathic Transaction

Dr. Jane McGregor is an author, researcher and trustee of the UK based charity, the Society for Research into Empathy, Cruelty and Sociopathy (SoRECS). She has been a great help to our spiritual abuse research, particularly in understanding the dynamics of sociopathic transaction. Dr. McGregor wrote this post for In Shaykh’s Clothing to help us better understand how bystanders are used to harm empaths.  These concepts are crucial in understanding the covert bullying tactics used by some religious figures in the context of spiritual abuse. 

By Dr. Jane McGregor

Some people have little or no conscience or ability to empathise with other people’s feelings. There are people who operate as seeming ‘model citizens’, but behind the façade they have interpersonal deficits such as grandiosity, arrogance and deceitfulness, lack of guilt and empathy, and impulsive and occasionally criminal behaviours. In this article I will refer to this sort of person by the catch-all term ‘sociopath’. I use it not as a medical tag but as a social tag to describe someone with no apparent remorse or conscience for hurting and abusing other people. The sociopath is commonly aided and abetted by other people who, for one reason or another, turn a blind eye to the abuse.

In a book I co-wrote. ‘The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities’, we introduced a theory about abuse in society and the role of different actors who become involved in it. This interaction we termed the sociopathic transaction and the players involved we called the Sociopath-Empath-Apath Triad (SEAT). To take effect sociopathic abuse requires the following threesome: The Sociopath (the person who perpetuates abuse); the Empath (the individual or individuals who stands up for themselves or other people); and the Apath or Apaths (those who are blind or indifferent to the abuse). The usual set-up in the Sociopathic transaction and it goes like this: the empath is forced to make a stand because the sociopath says or does something underhand. The sociopath throws others off the scent and shifts the blame on to the empath. The empath becomes an object of abuse, a situation made worse when the apath/apaths corroborate the sociopath’s perspective and wittingly or unwittingly collude in the abuse. We adopt these roles at certain times and in certain situations. Most of us can develop and improve our empathic abilities, however some individuals have zero empathy (sociopaths) and their traits seem fixed.

There are numerous factors influencing those who engage in passive bystanding or active collusion in abuse. Whether we will help another person out or not can be reduced to something like how comfortable we are about feeling certain feelings in ourselves. Some people are fantastically empathetic and helpful when it comes to showing care and compassion for other people, but have very little empathy when it comes to dealing with someone else’s outrage. Some close down in the face of violence and abuse, and some cut off completely from emotions they are frightened of in themselves.

Whilst passivity can be simply the first reaction to perceived danger and an avoidance strategy engaged in the hope that the problem will go away, it can also be something more sinister; say when someone passively or actively connives in hostilities they witness. The reasons people join forces with aggressors are manifold – they may fear punishment if they don’t go along with the scheme; they themselves may bear a grudge towards the targeted person or persons, or just feel no real connection with them and shut off from feeling concern for them because of this. Or sadder still, they may go along with the situation to revel in a sense of schadenfreude! In such cases apathy becomes not just a lack of empathy but a betrayal of it.

Apathy as a social phenomenon

From infancy we are trained to conform to society’s standards and rules and conditioned to keep quiet, which often means turning a blind eye or putting up with abuses. In the tale by Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, two weavers promise the Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are stupid and unfit for their positions. When the Emperor parades before his subjects all the adults, not wishing to be seen in a negative light, pretend they see the Emperor’s elegant new clothes. The only truthful person in the crowd is a child, who cries out, ‘But he isn’t wearing any clothes!’ All the adults in the tale represent the collective denial and double standards that are often a feature of social life. These are the apaths who are not willing to see and say what is going on before their eyes.

In this context apathy represents fear, collective denial, and social hypocrisy, and at its worst takes the form of collusion. Apathy can be learned helplessness; where an individual has learned over time to behave helplessly and fails to respond to help themselves and other people too. Learned helplessness is not unique to humans. Take the extreme case of ants, which communicate information by leaving pheromone tracks, so that an individual ant encountering a trail made by other ants will follow it. On the rare occasion that a group of army ants are separated from the main foraging party after losing the pheromone track, they begin to follow one another, forming a continuously rotating circle and eventually die of exhaustion. This behaviour is called the ‘ant circle of death’. In some circumstances an apath may show ample empathy and concern for others, just not in a particular case or situation. How apaths, who may otherwise be fair-minded people, ignore another person’s distress or suffering or become involved in or collude in abuses enacted upon other people isn’t difficult to understand, though it can be hard to accept.

The main qualifying attribute of the apath that renders them a willing accomplice is poor judgement resulting from lack of insight. This may be linked to reduced empathy for the targeted person or group. The apathetic person might bear a grudge, be jealous or angry, or have a sense of being let down by the individual or group concerned, and in consequence may be as keen as the aggressor to see the target defeated. Hence, the apath may be willing to join forces with the perpetrator because they too have something to gain from the evolving situation. At other times the apath doesn’t want to see ‘bad’ in others, so chooses not to see it. On still other occasions, they might choose not to see because they have enough on their plate and don’t possess the wherewithal or the moral courage to help the targeted person at that time. Usually, and whatever the reasons for their active or passive involvement, what happens during the course of interaction with a perpetrator of abuse is that the apathetic person’s conscience appears to fall asleep. Apaths walk in and out of situations in a trance-like state. It is this scenario that causes people blindly to follow leaders motivated only by self-interest. We excuse bullying, outrages, even murder, on the grounds that the leader knows best, regarding the injured and maimed targets not as fellow humans, but as objects deserving of abuse.


2 Replies to “Dr. Jane McGregor on the Sociopathic Transaction”

  1. Are there any studies on the health of apaths?or indeed sociopaths?my experience is that both generally have very poor and worsening physical health,yet no studies into this at all.

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