Roughly one in 25 Americans is a sociopath, according to Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door. I highly recommend all of you order it right now if you suspect someone you know of being a sociopath. This book answered many questions for me about sociopaths I have known. I only wish I had read it before I met them so it could have saved me a lot of grief. Of course, not all sociopaths are dangerous criminals. But they certainly can make life difficult, given that the defining characteristic of sociopathy is antisocial behavior. You may have heard the names of famous sociopaths like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahlmer, Danny Rolling, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson and others, but how many of you realized you probably have a sociopath in your life right now? Chances are pretty high you know at least one.
All serial killers are sociopaths but not all sociopaths are serial killers. Most sociopaths cause destruction in people’s lives in far more subtler ways, and these are the ones I want to discuss in this article. Having had the unfortunate experience of knowing several in my life, I thought I would write an article to help others recognize the signs. Psychopathy is on a spectrum: some people are less empathetic and prosocial than others, regardless of whether they’re diagnosably psychopaths. So at least to a degree we are all “touched” to use an old Southern euphemism, but some are much further on the spectrum than others.
The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis — antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-5 defines antisocial personality as someone have 3 or more of the following traits:
- Regularly breaks or flouts the law
- Constantly lies and deceives others
- Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
- Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
- Has little regard for the safety of others
- Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
- Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt
In both cases, some signs or symptoms are nearly always present before age 15. By the time a person is an adult, they are well on their way to becoming a psychopath or sociopath. Both psychopaths and sociopaths present risks to society, because they will often try and live a normal life while coping with their disorder. But psychopathy is likely the more dangerous disorder, because they experience a lot less guilt connected to their actions.
Just because one has ASPD (Antisocial personality disorder) does not mean he or she is a sociopath. A sociopath is even more extreme than someone with APD. It also doesn’t mean they will be physically violent or a murderer, but all sociopaths are at least emotionally violent. Are sociopaths growing among Americans or are we simply renaming many people as sociopaths? It’s a tough question to answer definitively and perhaps the actual numbers haven’t changed all that much and we are simply getting better at recognizing them.
Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is the name of the disorder as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). ASPD is characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others. That is not to say because you had a bad romance or a friend that has consistently made your life hell they are a sociopath, but it behooves us all to become more familiar with the telltale signs.
Do you know someone who left you feeling confused, devastated, and still loved or needed all at the same time? Sociopaths are extremely hard to identify because they are like chameleons. Some traits many tend to share is charm, very spontaneous, skillful liars, thrill seeking, dangerous behavior, are great manipulators and take joy only through schadenfreude (enjoyment obtained from the problems from others). In fact they actively try and create pain for others so they can them swoop in and comfort you while secretly enjoying your suffering. They will always do their best to make you doubt yourself and weaken your self-esteem. They like to win, to dominate, and to be the center of everyone’s universe. They have no shame, no guilt, and like the Borg from Star Trek have a mission to assimilate you as one of their drones they want to control like some queen in a hive. They often rely on illegal drugs and alcohol to numb the deadness inside.
Understanding a Sociopath
Sociopaths lack the ability to feel empathy for other human beings and are extremely selfish. But they are also experts at pretending and possess an extraordinary amount of charm. They tend to be popular and have many friends and crave new contacts. They use social media platforms like Facebook to gain sympathy or admiration. When someone they know dies they feel no sadness and will party on the very same day and simply look to replace them. They obsess about getting likes to their Facebook posts and adding their victims/friends to their online trophy case. They will hide their list of Facebook friends however as well as their relationship status. They feel absolutely no remorse when they do anything wrong but are also expert at crocodile tears as a defense mechanism when they get caught.
They are talented and very skilled pathological liars and can often pass lie detector tests. They are also extremely committed to their lie even when presented with overwhelming evidence. When finally made aware that the lie is exposed and they have no other choice they will resort to extreme anger and try to bring up any possible mistakes you may have made in the past to deflect blame and give an excuse why they were “forced” to lie. If they are caught cheating on you they will convince you that you drove them to it. It is never their fault but yours for forcing their bad behavior. They will lie about a parent being dead when they are alive or family members having cancer to gain sympathy.
Sociopaths lack the ability to truly love another human and this is what you need to truly need to understand. They are extremely egocentric and feel they deserve to be the center of attention. Sociopaths thrive on chaos. They feed on drama and anger. They aren’t concerned with making the larger world or even their immediate world a better place. They steal, use drugs, and have no respect for any law or any morality code. The Golden Rule or doing the right thing is an incomprehensible concept to a sociopath. They will often pretend to do acts of kindness, but it is always an ends to a mean with a hidden agenda.
Sociopaths also tend to be extremely sexually promiscuous and cheat on their partners without hesitation. They will likely have dozens of partners they have sex with each week and rarely will use condoms or safe sex because they don’t fear HIV or other STD’s. They use sex as just another tool to draw their victims closer. In fact they will often have multiple partners at a time with an entire harem of other less frequent lovers as well on the side as backups. They will prostitute themselves for money but also sleep with people just because they can. They have no real standards and the people they have sex with can be older, obese, and considered undesirable by most because these tend to be the easiest victims to manipulate.
Often several of these lovers will have no idea their sociopath is not a faithful partner. You may have several men or women convinced their sociopath is a loving faithful partner while they are dating four or more people simultaneously. You will see them all liking a post on Facebook thinking it was meant just for them. They have absolutely no guilt at cheating due to their lack of empathy or guilt. They have enormous magnetism. They make you feel more loved and special than anyone has before, at least while they are reeling you in. Once you are hooked they feel more free to start cheating and lying more openly. They inspire a feeling of familiarity like you have known them forever.
They establish intimacy quickly and will even attempt to move in with you almost immediately. They will do their best to make you dependent or addicted to them. They will bombard you with loving texts while you are unaware they are also texting dozens of others at the same time. They try and cut you off from your friends and family. They will even lie about having jobs while they simply move between their harem of victims sponging off of them for food and shelter. They always want to have multiple victims in case some wise up to their deceit. They do their best to keep the victims unaware of other victims to avoid comparing notes. If the victims already know each other, the sociopath will create discord or hostility among them often ending friendships based on lies told by the sociopath.
They are extremely talented manipulators. They are skilled at getting people to do whatever they want and they employ multiple strategies to pull their strings. They are like wolves among unsuspecting sheep. They especially enjoy pitting people against each other. Often friends who have known each other years before they met a sociopath will become enemies solely through the machinations and maneuverings from a sociopath who enters their lives. Sociopaths will also want to know everything about you, a list of all your friends, even your likes, your dislikes. They want this information not because they are genuinely interested in you but as intel for future schemes to use it against you.
In a workplace type setting, a typical strategy might be to undermine or lie about coworkers to make themselves look good. In a friend situation a sociopath will create drama usually by using sex or a lie which forces friends to take sides while the sociopath created and controls the entire situation and remains friendly to all sides. They do their best to be the go-between between feuding friends so they can ensure you don’t stop fighting. In a very short time a sociopath can end friendships among people who have been friends for decades.
Sociopaths do not care about your feelings at all. If they force you to break previous plans with your friends on your birthday because they want to spend time with you, don’t be surprised if they instead choose to spend that evening with one of their other lovers and ride by you on the street where you are waiting on them. Sociopaths have no conscience or scruples against taking gross advantage of your kindness and goodwill. They view kindness as a weakness that can be exploited again and again. If you bail them out of jail, loan them money, help them out of crisis after crisis, they won’t ever repay you. They even resent if you bring up the money they owe you.
No matter how much you attempt to talk it through or whatever deals or promises they make, you can be certain they will not be kept. The most important thing to understand is you will never be able to change them or give them empathy or a conscious. If you try and handle or change a sociopath you will always get burned again. If you decide or are forced to interact with a sociopath, resist the urge to give them advice to change. Remember that they are not motivated by love because it is an alien concept to them, only things like money, power, being popular are their only incentives. You will not ever change them so learn to accept them for who they are.
How to Deal With A Sociopath
The best advice if possible is to avoid the person entirely. This is often easier said than done however since they view anyone they have exploited as property or even as a pet. They will continue to pursue or contact you long after you made it clear it was over. They will swear up and down they have changed and this time will be different. Don’t believe them! They will lie about having a new job or tell you anything they think you want to hear to get back into your life.
Sociopaths prey on people who tend to be trusting or kind. If the sociopath is your boss, your parent or even child you may not be able to break things off and instead need to learn how to cope with them. You must learn to always have your guard up. If you show any real emotions that is like chum in the water to a shark. Always show that you are in control even when you are not. Don’t ever ask them for advice or help. They will only use that for an elaborate scheme to sabotage you or as a new opportunity to manipulate you in some way. They will demand any debt be paid so don’t ever owe them any money or favors. Try not to share any true feelings or details about your other relationships as they will try and befriend those people and then break you apart usually through lies or sex. They want to be the center of your universe and the most important person in your life and cannot allow anyone else to be close to you.
Don’t trust anything they tell you. They will often even lie about things of no consequence such as what they had for lunch. They tell very animated and detailed stories with often superfluous details to try and sound more credible. They are also extremely good at pushing people’s buttons which is why they want to know everything about you. A sociopath might come up to you and tell you that your mutual circle of friends really hate you and if the sociopath doesn’t cut you off that they will stop hanging out with him/her. They then will then tell you they won’t break things off with you because they love you and they are a good person as if they are doing you a huge favor. Of course this lie was completely invented by the sociopath but it serves several purposes. It attempts to make you feel like crap and lower your self-esteem, it tries to make you feel like the sociopath is the hero rescuing you, and it tries to socially isolate you further from friends who could help you. They are parasites and need you to be as weak and isolated as possible to continue to drain your money and sanity.
Keep all your conversations neutral or casual. In other words you can talk about music, weather, movies, politics, things in the news but don’t let them try and get you to discuss personal information they plan to exploit later. Let them talk about themselves which usually means listening to long elaborate lies about how they are making changes and learning from past mistakes or their latest exploits that didn’t happen. Frequently change the topics and don’t allow moments of silence. Don’t tell them about new friends, goals, or anything at all they can use against you later. Try not to allow them into your home or car but if that is unavoidable hide your jewelry, bank statement, wallet, guns, and anything else of value because since they won’t think twice about stealing from a victim and their victims are almost always the ones who have been the kindest to them. Stealing something of great value means nothing to them and they will often be the first one to try and comfort you when they do something bad to you and blame it on someone else.
Try to avoid talking about things they can later use to push your buttons which may include things that make you happy, sad, upset, jealous or anything else. Think of sociopaths as spies that are constantly gathering intelligence on you that they will later exploit. Everything they learn is ammo they will use against you later. Don’t tell a sociopath about your trips, plans or goals because they will attempt to derail you. They always have an emergency only you can solve on the date of something important to you.
Let the sociopath know you are onto them. They won’t realize or acknowledge they are a sociopath because they don’t think they are. Once you refuse to believe their lies, or just stop responding to them they will reluctantly move on to easier prey. Don’t ever accept any form of help from a sociopath because they will use that as leverage or a debt to pull you back in.
If you try and break things off they will often resort to two tactics. One will be to make unsolicited promises like “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” which usually means the chosen victim will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt their chosen victim. If they feel like you have wronged them in any way you can expect some form of retaliation very disproportionate sooner or later. For example if you insist on eating a sandwich at home when they wanted to eat Chinese food they might decide to vandalize your car as revenge.
One of the most difficult things about dealing with a sociopath is when you see it….but others around you don’t. If the sociopath refuses to leave you alone and instead begins trying to harass you, make sure and document it as much as you can. Sociopaths are also extremely destructive and can cause a lot of emotional damage so in some case you may need to speak to a therapist or someone else to help you recover from all damage they are able to inflict.
Because sociopaths are also quite popular and well-liked you may have a hard time convincing others. It’s possible no one will believe you because sociopaths have different personalities depending on who they are interacting with. Only people who spend a great deal of time with them over an extended period of time will be able to understand their sociopathy and see the signs.
Most sociopaths live their lives undetected – except, perhaps, by those closest to them… and then only very rarely to those who have learned to identify a sociopath. Because so few people are able to identify them, they are often just written off as assholes, liars, sluts, or good-for-nothings. Hopefully this article will let more of you recognize the signs and deal with the sociopath in your life.
Some Important Tips to Follow
Don’t try and argue with them or tell them they are wrong, or call them out on a lie. It will only result in anger and a plan to retaliate against you.
Don’t let sociopaths isolate you. Don’t take their word that your friend of ten years all of a sudden hates you or tried to seduce your sociopathic partner. Instead ask your friend directly. Once you start comparing notes a sociopath’s house of cards will collapse.
Don’t show any emotion around a sociopath. Don’t raise your voice, no tears, no hugs, no “I love you”, no anything. Do your best to imitate the Vulcans from Star Trek. Once you logically accept a sociopath lacks a conscience it will be easier to understand why this important.
Sociopaths aren’t necessarily dangerous though some are. Many CEO’s in fact are sociopaths. Though they lack remorse, guilt, or empathy that doesn’t mean they are always violent. Many other sociopaths are parasites that rely on a circle of victims for all their financial support and cannot hold a job.
Sociopaths lie about everything so never ever believe them about anything of substance without double-checking.
If at all possible cut them out of your life. If that is not possible, develop good defense mechanisms and strategies to deal with them.
Accept that some people have no conscience.
Listen to your gut. Humans have survival instincts for a reason.
Don’t try and redeem or help a person that can’t be redeemed or saved!
Robert Hare Psychopathy Checklist
The Robert Hare Psychopathy Checklist is considered by clinicians and researchers worldwide to be the ‘gold standard’ in assessing psychopathy. It is a complex clinical tool that is only used by experts in the field but this should at least help you look for the signs. You can also take some online quizzes for yourself or a person you may think is a sociopath but I make no promises on the reliability of these tests.
The 20 items of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised are
1. GLIB and SUPERFICIAL CHARM – smooth talking, verbally agile, a psychopath is rarely stuck for something to say. They are not in the least bit shy. In fact, they are not afraid to say anything!
2. GRANDIOSE SELF-WORTH – they have an opinion on everything, they boast and brag about the things they have done, their skills and abilities. They have enormous egos, plenty of confidence and arrogance and consider themselves superior. One psychopath said that he preferred to hear himself talk, because what he said was more interesting than what other people had to say.
3. SEEK STIMULATION or PRONE TO BOREDOM – they like to be doing new and different things, always looking for excitement and entertainment. They take risks in what they do as well as what they say. For example, cult leaders, in a subtle way, may explain to their victims how exactly they are manipulating them. They rarely engage in activities that they find boring, or they don’t finish the job.
4. PATHOLOGICAL LYING – their ability to lie is stunning, even when they know there is a high probability of being caught. Lies can be cunning and sly or unscrupulously manipulative.
5. CONNING AND MANIPULATIVENESS – they deceive, cheat, con, bilk, trick or defraud others for personal gain. This is separated from no. 4 to the extent that the subject shows ‘callous ruthlessness’, that is, a lack of concern or pity for the suffering and feelings of their victims.
6. LACK OF REMORSE OR GUILT – despite their words they experience little emotion or concern for the pain and suffering of their victims. They are unfazed, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. There is often a disdain for the victims, and they may even say the victims deserved it.
7. SHALLOW AFFECT – emotional poverty or very shallow feelings, coldness towards others despite seeming very friendly.
8. CALLOUSNESS and LACK OF EMPATHY – a general lack of feelings towards other people. They tend to be heartless, contemptuous, indifferent and tactless.
9. PARASITIC LIFESTYLE – they will intentionally manipulate and exploit others for financial gain. This goes along with poor motivation and little self-discipline and no sense of responsibility in terms of earning their own living.
10. POOR BEHAVIORAL CONTROLS – there may be sudden expressions of annoyance, irritability, aggression and verbal abuse. There may be sudden outbursts of anger and temper and they may act hastily.
11. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR – they may have many brief encounters, many affairs while married, and may be indiscriminate in selecting partners (heterosexual and homosexual relationships) and even maintain several relationships at the same time. There is often a history of attempting to coerce many people into sexual relationships and they may take great pride in discussing their sexual conquests.
12. EARLY BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS – there is often a history of antisocial behavior before age 13, including lying, stealing, cheating, vandalism, bullying, truancy, sexual activity, fire-setting, substance abuse, and running away from home. Cruelty to animals or siblings is particularly ominous.
13. LACK OF REALISTIC, LONG-TERM GOALS – while they talk about big plans, they show an inability or persistent failure to execute long-term goals; then may drift from one place to another lacking any real direction in life.
14. IMPULSIVITY – many of their behaviors are not premeditated and seem to be unplanned. They seem unable to resist temptation and urges or to delay gratification. They may not consider the consequences and so they appear reckless, foolhardy and unpredictable.
15. IRRESPONSIBILITY – they will repeatedly fail to honor commitments or obligations, in school, work, family or social situations. The fail to turn up, don’t pay bills, fail to honor contracts etc.
16. FAILURE TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR OWN ACTIONS – it seems like it’s never their fault or their responsibility. They have little or no sense of duty or conscientiousness and often deny their responsibility. And in denying, they will even try and manipulate others!
17. MANY SHORT-TERM MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS – inability to maintain a long-term relationship because they are inconsistent and unreliable.
18. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY – behavioral difficulties between the ages of 13-18. Typically behaviors that are crimes or are clearly manipulative, aggressive and callous.
19. REVOCATION OF CONDITION RELEASE – they may have had their probation revoked for technical reasons such as failing to appear, carelessness and so on.
20. CRIMINAL VERSATILITY – unlike other criminals who may specialize in one area they are often involved in diverse activities, taking great pride at getting away with crimes.