Thursday, July 7, 2016

It is not Sociopathy: why Sameen Shaw is not a sociopath

So it has been a while since I have gone in depth in a post on here so I thought that it was about time again. I recently began (and finished) Person of Interest (POI) after having it recommended to me by several people (mostly strangers). I began watching it about 2 weeks before the final episode aired on June 21 (about 2 weeks ago) and just finished the last episode today. So in 4 weeks I managed to watch (and rewatch occasionally) all five seasons. I wish I could say that this was he first time I have done something like this (but that would be a lie).

So after breathing, eating, and dreaming about POI for the last month, I feel I need to complete my obsession by writing about something that bothered me throughout the series: Sameen Shaw being referred to as a sociopath.



I am not a psychologist. I have no doctorate (or even master's) in the study of psychology and so I cannot absolutely say for certain what ails Sameen is not sociopathy.

To begin, Shaw does claim to have an Axis II personality disorder (self diagnosed). The disorder she would fit most perfectly in this instance would be Schizoid Personality disorder (although it isn't a perfect match).
This is the part of the criteria that Sameen matches (using the WHO criteria):

  • emotional coldness, detachment, or a flat affect
  • limited capacity to express emotions
  • indifference to praise or criticism
  • Consistent preference for solitary activities (debatable if it is a preference but alright)
This is a part that she partially or potentially matches (WHO criteria):
  • Very few close friends/relationships AND a lack of desire for such
  • Indifference to social norms/conventions 
And this is where it is completely wrong (WHO criteria):
  • Preoccupation with fantasy and introspection
  • Taking pleasures in few, if any, activities (debatable but I stand by it)
  • Little interest in sexual experiences
Now, because Shaw has those first 4 she fits the bill for the disorder, my trepidation in agreeing with this, however, is the fact that she is missing those last three completely and those two in limbo. Shaw is completely technical and very much aware of herself and her place in the world. There is no preoccupation with fantasy at all. Shaw does enjoy things, just more violent things, more physical, external stimulation as opposed to internal. Shaw enjoys having sex, she doesn't enjoy the emotional baggage it comes with but pure sex she very much enjoys (although the emotional part is with Root). Now for the two in limbo: Shaw does have few friends or people she cares about (Root, Bear, Reese, Finch, Carter, Fusco, Gen, Cole, and her parents) and most of the ones she did are dead, but that does not mean that she doesn't WANT to be close to people. She is also undeniably loyal to those she cares about and deems important. The sheer fact that she sought Root in all of her simulations shows that there is a desire to be with people (or at least Root). Finally the qualm with social norms. Shaw is prone to violence, has no issues torturing people, and sees nothing wrong with eating an energy bar whilst telling someone their father is dead. However, she does not go out and torture innocent people or kill the innocent.


Now onto the claims that Sameen is a sociopath (most often said by her as a self label). Sociopathy is not recognized by psychologists as an actual disorder but there is a relatively consistent definition of its criteria that I will be using. It is described as a "pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years" with additional criteria of which a person must have at least 3. These criteria are as follows:
  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another."
Now, at a simple glance Shaw would appear to fit at least three of these criteria but looking more closely she doesn't. 1)Sure she does now have trouble living a normal life as a make-up consultant in a mall. But we must remember that she made it through medical school and the military and into special training without having discipline problems of any kind (other than her emotional detachment). If she were unable to conform to social norms (at least the norms of those jobs) she never would have managed that. 2) Shaw is not intentionally deceitful, she is actually extremely blunt and honest (as much as her job as a secret undercover operative allows her to be, anyway). 3) Shaw is not overly impulsive, a little rash maybe but she does plan ahead quite well (look at her intricate escape from Samaritan for example) or she never would have made a very good operative for the ISA or done well in the Marine Corps. 4) Yes, at this point in her life Shaw has plenty of irritability and aggression. 5) Shaw does care about other's safety, at least those she is trying to protect or she deems important. She also values her own safety (mostly). This one is a maybe in my book. 6) Shaw is not irresponsible in any aspect of her work or life. She is calculated and exact. 7) Yes, Shaw has a lack of remorse.

By this she is potentially a sociopath but most likely not. Also, she describes her personal traits as being pretty consistent throughout her life. As a 10-year-old girl she had the same lack of full emotional understanding as she does as an adult. This implies that she is not a sociopath but simply has an underlying condition which presents as sociopathy (yes the personality disorder could do that).

The main problem with all of these disorders and classifications is that they are so broad they include many different people who could look completely different in behaviors. Sameen's main problem is with her ability to understand and express emotion, she even describes as much herself ("I don't get [scared]. Or sad. Or happy or lonely. I do... angry, okay, but... that's about it."). Her problems lie in the expression and understanding of emotions more than they do with a persistent disorder. She does feel emotions but just not as strongly as someone else might. 


Honestly, Primary Alexithymia is a better diagnosis, in my opinion, as it accounts entirely for Shaw's emotional condition. Alexithymia is defined by:
  1. difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
  2. difficulty describing feelings to other people
  3. constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
  4. a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.
Shaw appears to fit these markers perfectly and they even help describe why she would choose the lifestyle that she did. She obviously has a hard time with emotions, she also often becomes hungry after an emotional event, showing that she reacts to some types of arousal (stress, joy, sorrow, etc.) by mistaking the emotions as hunger. She has trouble describing emotions because she has trouble identifying and processing them. I cannot speak for number 3, although some of her comments to Root while in the simulation might suggest that this is true (describing the anti-torture technique as "bull" when she was in the ISA and military). Shaw enjoys physicality and is extremely analytical (even willing to work for the people who tried to murder her because she believed in the cause).

Alexithymia is also key in that it is not a complete lack of emotions but simply a lack of understanding of them and a lessened ability to describe them. Once again, not a perfect analogy to Sameen's character but closer than sociopathy and (in my opinion) schizoid personality disorder.

Shaw does have emotions and connections to people. She does care deeply about others (or she would never have chosen the various careers she did in: medicine, the military, and anti-terrorist task forces). She doesn't always have the strictest moral arrow but she is always true to herself, her beliefs and convictions, and always upholds her version of justice ("You're right, about all of it. I did work for the government and I do want revenge. But if that work taught me anything it's that how you do matters as much as what you do, and by that metric you're all just terrorists. And I kill terrorists."). Root (well, the Machine by way of Root) describes her as being a straight line, an arrow and I feel that that description is perfect for her. 

Basically, maybe Sameen Shaw has an Axis II Personality Disorder, maybe she has Primary Alexithymia, or maybe she just is overly analytical and has low emotional awareness. But she isn't a sociopath.

1 comment:

  1. You left me thinking a lot about this topic. And thanks to such detailed tests, I think you bought me. Thanks for this blog!

    ReplyDelete