WHEN YOU SAY THE WORD "sociopath"
most people think of serial killers. But although many serial
killers are sociopaths, there are far more sociopaths leading
ordinary lives. Chances are you know a sociopath. I say "ordinary
lives," but what they do is far from ordinary. Sociopaths
are people without a conscience. They don't have the normal empathy
the rest of us take for granted. They don't feel affection. They
don't care about others. But most of them are good observers,
and they have learned how to mimic feelings of affection and
empathy remarkably well.
Most people with a conscience find it very
difficult to even imagine what it would be like to be without
one. Combine this with a sociopath's efforts to blend in, and
the result is that most sociopaths go undetected.
Because they go undetected, they wreak
havoc on their family, on people they work with, and on anyone
who tries to be their friend. A sociopath deceives, takes what
he (or she) wants, and hurts people without any remorse. Sociopaths
don't feel guilty. They don't feel sorry for what they've done.
They go through life taking what they want and giving nothing
back. They manipulate and deceive and convincingly lie without
the slightest second thought. They leave a path of confusion
and upset in their wake.
Who are these people? Why are they the
way they are? Apparently it has little to do with upbringing.
Many studies have been done trying to find out what kind of childhood
leads to sociopathy. So far, nothing looks likely. They could
be from any kind of family. It is partly genetic, and partly
But researchers have found that the brains
of sociopaths function differently than normal brains. And their
brains function in a way that makes their emotional life unredeemably
shallow. And yet they are capable of mimicking emotions like
Sociopaths and psychopaths are the same
thing. The original name for this disorder was "psychopath"
but the general public and media confused it with "psycho"
and "psychotic" so in the 1930s the name was changed
to sociopath. Recently the media again caused a misperception
that sociopaths were always serial killers, so now many call
the condition "antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)."
But some experts think ASPD includes many
things like narcissism, paranoia, etc., including sociopathy.
And others think ASPD is the same thing as sociopathy, but the
diagnostic criteria used to describe and diagnose ASPD is different
than sociopathy, so for the purposes of this article, we'll stay
with the term "sociopathy."
Sociopaths don't have normal affection
with other people. They don't feel attached to others. They don't
feel love. And that is why they don't have a conscience. If you
harmed someone, even someone you didn't know, you would feel
guilt and remorse. Why? Because you have a natural affinity for
other human beings. You know how it feels to suffer, to fear,
to feel anguish. You naturally care about others.
If you hurt someone you love, the
guilt and remorse would be even worse because of your affection
for him or her. Take that attachment and affection away and you
take away remorse, guilt, and any kind of normal feelings of
fairness. That's a sociopath.
SO HOW COMMON ARE THEY?
Some researchers say about one percent
of the general population are sociopaths. Others put the figure
at three or four percent. The reason the estimates vary is first
of all, not everyone has been tested, of course, but also because
sociopathy is a sliding scale. A person can be very sociopathic
or only slightly, and anywhere in between. It's a continuum.
So how sociopathic does someone have to be before you call him
a sociopath? That's a tough question and it's why the estimates
But clearly sociopaths are fairly common
and not easy to detect. Even when the evidence is staring you
in the face, you may have difficulty admitting that someone you
know, someone you trusted, even someone you love, is a
sociopath. But the sooner you admit it, the faster your life
can return to normal. Face the facts and you may save yourself
a lot of suffering.
Most of the information in this article
(and more) can be found in two excellent books I strongly recommend:
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the
Psychopaths Among Us, and The Sociopath Next Door.
The first book is by Robert Hare, who has
made his career out of studying sociopaths. He's one of the leading,
if not the leading expert on the subject. His insights
and examples are compelling. But because Hare has done most of
his research in prisons, sometimes his book seems a little removed
from everyday reality. We don't very often run into rapists and
The second book, by Martha Stout, brings
it to the everyday level, describing the kinds of people we are
likely to meet in ordinary life.
HOW TO SPOT A SOCIOPATH
The big question is, of course, how can
you know whether someone is a sociopath or not? It's a difficult
question and even experts on the subject can be fooled. If you
suspect that someone close to you is a sociopath, I suggest you
read both of the books I mentioned, and also read the comments
on the comments page, and think hard about it.
Compare that person to the other people in your life, and ask
yourself these questions:
1. Do you often feel used by the person?
2. Have you often felt that he (or she,
because women can be sociopaths too) doesn't care about you?
3. Does he lie and deceive you?
4. Does he tend to make contradictory statements?
5. Does he tend to take from you
and not give back much?
6. Does he often appeal to pity? Does he
seem to try to make you feel sorry for him?
7. Does he try to make you feel guilty?
8. Do you sometimes feel he is taking advantage
of your good nature?
9. Does he seem easily bored and need constant
10. Does he use a lot of flattery? Does
he interact with you in a way that makes you feel flattered even
if he says nothing overtly complimentary?
11. Does he make you feel worried? Does
he do it obviously or more cleverly and sneakily?
12. Does he give you the impression you
13. Does he chronically fail to take responsibility
for harming others? Does he blame everyone and everything but
And does he do these things far more than
the other people in your life? If you answered "yes"
to many of these, you may be dealing with a sociopath. For sure
you're dealing with someone who isn't good for you, whatever
you want to call him.
I like Martha Stout's way of detecting
sociopaths. She wrote: "If ... you find yourself often pitying
someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively
campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to one hundred
percent that you are dealing with a sociopath."
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
This is an interesting question. Of course
most of our purposes are strongly influenced by our connections
and affections with others. Our relationships with others, and
our love for them, give us most of the meaning and purpose
in our lives. So if a sociopath doesn't have these things, what
is left? What kind of purposes do they have?
The answer is chilling: They want to
win. Take away love and relationships and all you have left
is winning the game, whatever the game is. If they are in business,
it's becoming rich and defeating competitors. If it's sibling
rivalry, it's defeating the sibling. If it's a contest, the goal
is to dominate. If a sociopath is the envious sort, winning could
be simply making the other lose or fail or be frustrated or embarrassed.
A sociopath's goal is to win. And he (or
she) is willing to do anything at all to win.
Sociopaths don't have as much to think
about as normal people, so they can be very clever and conniving.
Sociopaths aren't busy being concerned with relationships or
moral dilemmas or conflicting feelings, so they have much more
time to think about clever ways to gain your trust and stab you
in the back, and how do it without anyone knowing what's happening.
One of the questions in the list above
was about boredom. This is a real problem for sociopaths
and they seem fanatically driven to prevent boredom. The reason
it looms so large for them (and seems so strange to us) is that
our relationships with people occupy a good amount of
our time and attention and interest us intensely. Take that away
and all you have is "playing to win" which is rather
shallow and empty in comparison. So boredom is a constant problem
for sociopaths and they have an incessant urge to keep up a high
level of stimulation. Even negative stimulation
drama, worry, upset, etc. is more tolerable to a sociopath
And here I might mention that the research
shows sociopaths don't feel emotions the same way normal people
do. For example, they don't experience fear as unpleasant.
This goes a long way to making their inexplicable behavior comprehensible.
Some feelings that you and I might find intolerable might not
bother a sociopath at all.
HOW TO DEAL WITH A SOCIOPATH
There is no known cure or therapy for sociopathy.
In fact, some evidence suggests that therapy makes them worse
because they use the therapeutic interactions to learn more about
human vulnerabilities they can then exploit. They learn how to
manipulate better and they learn better excuses that others will
believe. They don't usually seek therapy, unless there is something to gain from it.
Given all that, there's only one solution
for dealing with a sociopath: Get him or her completely out of
your life for good. This seems radical, and of course, you want
to be fairly sure your diagnosis is correct, but you need to
protect yourself from the drain on your time, attention, money,
and good attitude. Healing or helping a sociopath is a pointless
waste of your life. That's not your mission. It's not your responsibility.
You have your own goals and your own life, and those are
If there are children involved, that complicates
the issue, of course. You can read more on that here.
In Hare's book (Without Conscience), he says before you diagnose
someone as a sociopath, he recommends you get a full clinical
diagnostic, including an extensive interview with the sociopath
by a qualified psychotherapist, plus interviews with the sociopath's
bosses, co-workers, friends, and family. Uh, yeah, right. Good
luck with that one. I agree, that would be ideal, but if you
can get a sociopath to submit to an interview, I would be astonished.
So you'll have to do the best you can with whatever information
you can get.
I don't recommend you tell anyone you've
diagnosed him (or her) as a sociopath. In fact, I strongly urge
you not to. I don't even know if it's a good idea to tell
anyone about your conclusion. Just get the sociopath out
of your life with as little fanfare as possible. The only exception
I would make to this rule is if the sociopath is making someone
else's life a living hell, it seems wrong to leave her
to the wolves while you slink off. I don't recommend you try
to convince your friend she's dealing with a sociopath.
I recommend that you simply say you got a lot of insight from
this or that book or whatever, and let your friend draw her own
conclusions. Maybe even buy your friend a book. But it's not
your mission to save your friend, either. Tell her what you know
and if she ignores your warning, that's her problem, not yours.
Because you said something, she may figure it out eventually.
If this all sounds cold or heartless, maybe
you're not dealing with a sociopath, or maybe she or he hasn't
driven you to the point of madness (yet). But remember what the
solution is; you may need it some day.
And besides, the point of all this dismal
information is so you no longer need to think about such negative
things and so you can turn your attention to positive, life-affirming,
uplifting goals of your own.
You may also want to check out a support
group for people who are in a relationship with a sociopath:
Abuse Recovery: For Survivors
of a Relationship with a Narcissist or Psychopath
If you have a sociopath in your life, you
should take it seriously. For more resources, look in the sidebar
of the comments page (click here). Learn what you need to learn,
and if you're pretty sure you have correctly identified one,
do what needs to be done to protect yourself and your non-sociopathic
loved ones. Then get back to your own life. Accomplish your goals.
Nurture your relationships. Learn and grow and enjoy yourself.
Here's a summary of
Common Everyday Sociopaths:
1. They make you feel sorry
2. They make you feel worried
3. They give you the impression
you owe them.
4. They make you feel used.
5. Sometimes you suspect
they don't care about you.
6. They lie to you and
7. They take a lot from
you and give back very little.
8. They make you feel guilty
(and use that to manipulate you).
9. They take advantage
of your kindness.
10. They are easily bored
and need constant stimulation.
11. They don't take responsibility,
but place blame elsewhere.
I've been reading and writing
about oxytocin lately (see the article, Peace, Love, and Oxytocin) and came across an interesting experiment. Paul
Zak, one of the primary researchers in the field, found that
when you give someone a dose of oxytocin, they tend to become
wrote Joyce Gramza, "Zak found that oxytocin had no effect
on two percent of the participants and that these students fit
the personality profile of sociopaths."
Oxytocin is a naturally-produced
hormone that creates feelings of closeness, comfort, relaxation,
empathy for others, and trust.
As I said before, the estimates
given in the research on sociopaths are that one to four percent
of the population is sociopathic. Now with this study, coming
from an entirely different field, maybe we can be more specific
and narrow it down to two percent. One in fifty. If you know
more than fifty people, chances are you know a sociopath.
I've gotten so many comments
on this article, I've created a blog just to handle them all.
Read the comments and make your own comments here: Sociopath Article Comments.
I had received quite a
few comments before I started the comments blog. Here
are the original comments: Original Comments Page.
As I find new resources,
I've been posting them in the left sidebar of the comments page. If you know of other support groups for people
who are dealing with (or have dealt with) sociopaths, please
post them on the comments page, and I will add the resources to the sidebar.
here for a printable version.