Suzanne Coleman, MD
Since we’re on the topic of sociopaths and psychopaths lately (being that this is the biggest issue in governments, big banks, wall street, wars, ect.), let’s talk Bernie Madoff.
Over the last two days ABC has aired a mini-series about his massive Ponzi scheme which they say defrauded investors out of fifty billion dollars. Yes, you read that right, fifty billion dollars. Wow.
He was arrested for his scam and is now in jail for the rest of his life. Apparently there have been 61 additional Ponzi schemes discovered since this occurred in 2008.
As a human behavioral analyst who has been studying people with personality disorders (psychopaths) over the last ten years or more, I find it important to discuss how things like this happen, so that we as a society can try and avoid having them happen over and over again. Or at least, some of us can learn to identify psychopaths before they take all of our money, or harm us in any way.
The TV mini-series revealed several behaviors of Madoff that led me to think that he has several personality disorders or strong traits. The obsessive attention to his watches and the order of his table-top possessions is seen in obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). But what isn’t as easily seen, but is also a part of the same mental illness, is the obsessions over things in one’s mind. For example, the show discusses his need to continue to raise the number in his fake account. This is a type of obsession. He also appeared to have obsessions over gaining people’s trust and having them believe in his manipulations and lies as he smiled to their faces. The lies and manipulations, especially accompanied by what I have coined as “the sociopath’s smile” or “the psychopath’s smile” are all signs of a sociopath or other type of psychopath and I have never observed them in anyone else.
Madoff’s situation as portrayed in the movie was almost like a high-stress balancing act, him standing on top of a triangular rock, trying not to fall off. This represents his obsession with increasing his accounts at all costs. I wonder if he even enjoyed any of the money he stole, probably. The show did not reveal much of that side of his life. It did show however, that his obsessions caused him to lose one of his son’s love early on, and the rest of his family appeared to follow after his crimes were revealed.
The other sociopathic behaviors that were shown were seen in how he tried to bully and control others around him. This control issue can also arise from the OCPD.
He also treated the people around him like pawns, buying them off, buttering them up. All to continue the scheme. He was shown receiving a nice present from his top worker, and then turning around and giving it away to someone else. He viewed his employees as pawns, not friends, which after decades, is a bit odd. Or, you could say psychopathic.
He seemed to have no emotions regarding other people and their lives, including his own sons, though this was a movie and I can’t say if any of what they showed is or is not true. But this lack of empathy towards others is a classic sign of a sociopath.
The other personality disorder (PD) or trait that they mention is narcissistic PD. He is very abusive towards others at times when they don’t comply with his every whim and demand. This can be due to narcissistic PD where a person’s mental illness precludes them from understanding that they are not the center of the universe and that other people have feelings and priorities of their own that have nothing to do with the self-centered psychopath. This overlaps with the sociopath as they have no feelings so they cannot understand how their behaviors harm others.
How did this man’s mental illness impact society? It harmed his family extensively, as would happen in any family with a sociopath. One in 75 men, and one in three hundred women is a sociopath. One in seven people or less has a personality disorder of any type. Identifying and treating anyone and everyone with mental illness will only help everyone around them and I strongly recommend seeking help from a qualified therapist to start.
In addition, the show said that over 20,000 people were scammed by Madoff, and that more than 30,000 additional claims were still waiting review to see if they were also valid.
A whistleblower of sorts reported the scam to the SEC several times over the years, starting in 2000 or 2001. According to the show, the SEC employees did not do their jobs and the scam continued and harmed more and more people. Since much of the lost money has still not been recovered, those people impacted should consider hiring an attorney to ask them if the SEC can be held negligent in their losses. If so, they may be able to require them to repay any monies lost since the initial whistleblower report was filed with them.
So many people have a personality disorder, or more than one like you see in this movie about Bernie Madoff. It can be people you work with, people you live with or near, people who run your banks, your religious groups, your non-profits, your hospitals, and your government. Isn’t it worth reading up on how to identify them? I think personality disorders may be the biggest social issue of our time.