There are human beings among us, a sort of a dangerous subspecies, who – whether through nature or nurture – have become sociopaths. Some call them psychopaths, but they are nothing like the paranoid recluse Mr. Bates in Psycho. They are charming, personable, seemingly just like you or me, sometimes very successful, captivating, often very smart… and they pass for sane, moral human beings. They are neither.
The sociopaths are quite numerous in many societies. This “disorder” is estimated at 4% in the United States. About as frequent as color blindness. Both genders are represented, but women less. They are not recognizable by any quirks or special marks. They can, however, be known through their behaviors. These are the kind of people who leave a path of destruction and pain behind them without a pang of conscience, and cause far more harm to individuals and to society than their prevalence would suggest. They are overrepresented among the criminal subset, but most criminals are not sociopaths, and most sociopaths are not criminals. That means that most of the sociopaths live among us as neighbors, friends, coworkers and family members.
Their moral disorder is at present incurable, and most of them are not interested in being cured. They typically hold the rest of us in contempt: we are the suckers with feelings and a conscience. They prey on us without remorse. They study us carefully so they can mimic our ways. Isn’t it about time to study them back, and learn to recognize them so we can protect ourselves and our loved ones?
What they are like:
- hollow, dead inside; they have a frozen core that human warmth cannot reach
- they are unable to feel normal human feelings; what they show is practiced imitation
- most remarkable by their inability to empathize (if a person does feel empathy, even if they fit some of these other points, they are not a sociopath)
- they resent being stigmatized by moral people, and enjoy getting back at us
- they harm people they profess to love
- they often harm without reason, except for the thrill of domination, winning and watching people hurt
- they suffer from a sense of profound loneliness & boredom, and may self-medicate with TV, alcohol and drugs
- they generally recognize themselves for what they are before the age of 10, and can recognize others of their kind readily
- their charm is superficial, their emotions shallow
- they do not suffer from delusion or irrational thinking
- but will sometimes attack via crazy-making or “gaslighting”, using nonsensical ideas just to confuse us and make us question our own sanity [The word comes from the film Gaslight (1944) where a predatory husband manipulates his wife into near insanity]
- may show concern about getting found out; often, they are control freaks and guilt trippers
- they are unreliable and feel no compulsion to keep promises or rules; they love chaos
- they are glib and insincere: these smooth, superb, habitual and inveterate liars and manipulators never fess up unless you stick their face in the evidence, and sometimes not even then
- their ongoing deceptions impose on others a false reality made of distortions and fabrications
- they lack, along with conscience, any sense of shame, guilt or remorse
- they have poor memory and do not learn from experience; even though they profess to have occasional insights, they lose them, forcing their partners into a dreary vicious circle of revisiting the same issues over and over
- they are pathologically egocentric and unable to love, and notably unresponsive in intimate relationships
- chronically crabby and irritable
- they do not accept responsibility for the harm they do
- boastful, huge egos, grandiose sense of self-worth
- typically they do not have a life plan or a direction
A caveat: a list like this can only point in a direction, and cannot diagnose. It is also important to keep in mind that most sociopaths lead relatively normal lives, and often have much to offer; they tend to be smart and entertaining and talented in a variety of ways. They are dangerous but not “all bad.” Societies that recognize the signs and subtly disadvantage anti-social behaviors have fewer antisocial people.
How to recognize the charming predator:
1) Listen carefully for details of their stories; if you hear deception, check it out, don’t ignore it. Check their life stories and references.
2) Listen to your deep sense: do you want to trust this individual with intimacy or secrets? Or is there a little voice of caution and warning deep inside?
3) Watch out for the pity play (or getting taken advantage of on account of your compassion and sympathy). These folks love it when we feel sorry for them and try to help, and so often present themselves as hurt by forces over their head. Do not fall for it.
4) Look for genuine signs of empathy for other people’s pain.
If this is a family member, have them tested. Psychiatrists have useful questionnaires, and brain scans can identify abnormal processing of emotion. The official labels for these people fluctuate, and descriptions of narcissistic, borderline, or anti-social personality disorders have significant overlap with sociopaths.
How to protect yourself and your loved ones:
(adapted from The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, 2005)
- Accept that some people just do not have conscience. Not all people are basically good.
- Go with your instincts rather than deferring to the role this person is playing (animal lover, doctor, knows all the right people, etc.)
- In a new relationship, practice the “rule of three”: one lie or broken promise can be a misunderstanding, two can be a serious mistake. But three says you are dealing with a liar. Cut your losses and get out.
- People in authority can be sociopaths. If given instructions that go against your moral code, refuse to follow. Get help and outside support.
- Suspect flattery. It’s a good sign of a manipulator.
- Don’t confuse the fear of a menacing individual with respect.
- Do not join the game: trying to outsmart him, to analyze him, to banter with him. Or her. It never works.
- The best way to protect yourself is avoidance and refusal of contact. Focus on standing up for your own life, not pushing against the psychopath. They are better at hitting back than you are.
- Reserve your pity for the deserving unfortunate. Do not waste your help, money and resources on a sociopath. Giving another chance is for people who possess a conscience.
- Never agree to cover for a sociopath, or to help them conceal their true character.
- Defend your soul. We are not a failure. We have a conscience, and we do love.
- Heal hurt and damage through learning to recognize them, warning other people, and exchanging support with others who have been hurt. Doing the right thing is balm for the soul.
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare (2007)
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare (1999)