In my review of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, I noted that Armstrong seemed to fit the classic profile of a sociopath.
To my eye, he appeared to be a pathological liar who lacks remorse, is manipulative and superficially charming, and who fails to take responsibility for his actions. But he showed emotion on the second night of the interview, which made me wonder whether my original analysis was correct.
Reader Mary Fletcher Jones, owner of the Virginia-based public relations firm Fletcher Prince, says that I was.
“You hit the nail on the head, Brad. Sociopath. Classic case. The only reason why I know that for sure after watching the interview is because of the books and articles I have read about sociopathy, and the surprisingly consistent way they express themselves and handle challenges like this. It helps them get to the top, but they also have spectacular falls, when there is this collective “oh my god” realization of people realizing the extent of their…illness? Deviance? I have yet to figure out if this is a character defect, a mental imbalance, or a combination of both. At least, it is possible to say: yup, that’s it! That’s helpful to all of us, because we’re bound to encounter a Lance Armstrong in our own lives one day, and at least this interview will help us recognize him or her.
He has a functional inability or significant impairment to experience guilt in the way most of us understand it. Anyone can appear cool and reserved on television but there is a difference. Sociopaths lie, and lie well, and they do not feel shame about it. They do not have the same physiological responses to lying as other people. They have an impaired ability to feel as other people might, empathy. They fail to take responsibility or recognize the consequences of their actions. They don’t show anguish over what they have done. You can see this in taped murder confessions — there is the same detachment.
I think Oprah did us all a service by recording this interview that goes WAY beyond any interest we might have in the integrity of professional bike racing.
Sociopaths can have feelings for their family members and other people. I know that caused you some doubt when Lance talked about his family in the interview. They can express pride and affection, for example. But it’s a different kind of relationship and there are other troubling aspects to it. For example, they typically aren’t good caregivers when family members are ill, becoming distant, detached, seemingly uncaring, or even angry.
One scenario of how a sociopathic father relates to his wife and daughter is explained in The Sociopath Next Door. Anyone who listened or observed this man (I believe he was a university administrator) would feel he loved his family and was just like anyone else, and it wasn’t until an event happened that the daughter realized how sociopathic her father really was.
Sociopaths snow virtually everyone, even family members, because we are wired to think of people thinking and reacting as we do.”
I don’t profess to have the expertise to diagnose a sociopath, but everything I’ve read confirms that Mary’s conclusion is correct. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Mary!
Finally, I try to stay away from “question mark journalism,” in which I throw out a question (“Is Lance Armstrong a sociopath?”) without having the evidence to answer it conclusively. But in this case, Armstrong was confronted directly with that term by Oprah Winfrey during the interview. He didn’t deny the charge.
Click here to see my full review of the Lance Armstrong – Oprah Winfrey interview, including video of one key exchange.