When you think about sociopaths, your thoughts probably leap to pop culture—TV or film villains who indulge in the worst of human behavior with no regard for their victims.
But sociopathic behavior isn’t confined to fiction: It can impact us personally. You may be interacting with one on a regular basis, possibly in the workplace or the home, from our friends to our partner. Given an estimated 7.6 million Americans exhibit sociopathic behavior, odds are likely that you’ve encountered one or more in your life.
How do you sleep at night knowing you're a sociopath who likes to use/manipulate people? Probably with the fan on.
— KyBear (@KyleePate101) June 23, 2018
The Mayo Clinic defines sociopathic behavior (also known as antisocial personality disorder) as “a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others,” and by their very nature, they can be a disruptive element to our society.
It’s worth learning how to spot sociopaths because they can appear charming and attractive on the surface, catering to our egos and need to connect. This allows them to pose great risks and cause distress in our lives—sometimes on an emotional level, at other times physically. Because of these risks, it’s vital that we educate ourselves.
So let’s look at the biggest red flags indicative of sociopathic behavior and how it can cause undue stress in your relationships, whether it’s a family member, work associate, or even yourself. Once we can deduce if someone we know is a sociopath, we can learn how to protect ourselves (and potentially get them the help they need).
Matt Pinsker, professor of criminal justice at the Wilder School of Virginia Commonwealth University, former prosecutor, and practicing criminal defense attorney, says sociopaths commonly display narcissistic traits and “tend to have a very high opinion of themselves and tell stories which make themselves sound impressive.”
This will often result in a need to express their ego.
“It could be about finances, people they know, accomplishments, et cetera,” Pinsker says. “Whether or not the stories are true or false is completely irrelevant to the sociopath. They have a need to feel superior.”
That being said, it’s important not to confuse antisocial personality disorder with narcissistic personality disorder, even though they can share similar behavioral traits. But where a narcissist is often ignorant of how their actions affect others, sociopaths realize their behavior is harmful, but still use it to manipulate others to achieve their desires.
Laurie Endicott Thomas, academic editor and author of the book Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health, says, “Sociopathy is one of the three personality traits that make up the dark triad. The other two are narcissism and Machiavellianism.”
“People who have these three traits are likely to cause serious problems for the families, for the companies they work for, and for the societies in which they live.”
“These traits are not always obvious to a casual observer,” she adds. “That is why people with personality disorders are often said to wear a ‘mask of sanity.’”
Lying is another hallmark of sociopathic behavior.
“Sociopaths lack a moral compass, so will lie about everything and anything, no matter how important or unimportant it might be,” Pinsker says. “In addition, when you call them out on it, they often become verbally [or] emotionally aggressive to slam the person calling them out while portraying themselves as victims.”
sorry but if ur a compulsive liar we cant b friends
— krista nicole (@krissstax) June 22, 2018
Pinsker witnessed this firsthand: “[I once had] a client who altered his military records to falsely claim he’d been in special ops. When the story started to come apart, his story changed. …I dug further and saw he hadn’t met the requirements. I confronted him about this, and he became aggressive and in my face, lying that the records were done incorrectly by others who didn’t like him and accusing me of not properly representing him.”
Why do sociopaths lie? In a 2009 interview with Interview Magazine, Harvard Medical School instructor Martha Stout, PhD, author of The Sociopath Next Door, said it can simply be “[lying] for the sake of lying. Lying just to see whether you can trick people.”
Eventually, these lies can come back to haunt sociopaths, however: According to self-confessed sociopath M.E. Thomas, author of Confessions of a Sociopath, spinning an endless web of deceit can result in “life destruction,” where one sabotages a relationship or career.
Another way one can spot a sociopath is by their recklessness, which endangers them and those around them. Those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, according to Thomas, “often engage in risk-taking behaviors, just because it takes something really shocking for them to feel any sort of thrill at all.”
In the aforementioned Interview article, Stout said, “Another thing that’s fun is speed, literal speed, going very fast in your car. Not that everybody who goes fast in their car is a sociopath, by any means, but anything that gives you a rush will lessen your sense of boredom.”
This risky behavior can also extend to finances—from ignoring paying bills to racking up debt and compulsive gambling.
There is a common misconception that the majority of sociopaths are criminals, but in truth, they only make up (a still sizable) 20 percent of the entire prison population. The takeaway: Most of them live among us. But perhaps one reason they’re so associated with criminal behavior is that they’re often viewed as interchangeable with psychopaths.
Laura Baxter, performance coach and author of Dealing with Divas and Other Difficult Personalities: A Mindful Approach to Improving Relationships in Your Business or Organization, says, “Some argue that a psychopath is a more extreme version of the sociopath. In the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), both of these disorders are referred to as an antisocial personality disorder.”
In a 2014 article from Psychology Today, Scott A. Bonn, PhD, wrote that there are subtle variations between the two classifications. While both personality types lack empathy, guilt, and respect for authority, sociopaths can form emotional attachments, where psychopaths cannot.
While sociopaths can be physically threatening, that’s usually more representative of psychopathic behavior. And given sociopaths are easily agitated, they’re easier to catch than psychopaths, who are more controlled and methodic.
Can’t Sustain Relationships
Given their volatility, one would think it’s impossible for sociopaths to have romantic relationships, but Pinsker says they’re naturally charming, making them initially attractive. “They can be exceptionally charming and skilled with flattery and compliments. They know the buzzwords to use to make themselves look good and put you at ease.”
“I’ve heard this more often than I can count: ‘He was the most charming man I ever met,’ or, ‘She was the sexiest woman I ever met,’” Stout told Interview. “A sociopath, a smart one, will study the way we emote and will learn how to do that quite effectively.”
Despite their charm, however, sociopaths are incapable of sustaining relationships. Endicott Thomas notes: “[They] do not feel the normal range of human emotions. They tend to think that ordinary people are foolish and weak for having such feelings. …A relationship with a sociopath or a narcissist can be unrewarding. Good relationships are based on mutual respect and a certain amount of give and take. Sociopaths and narcissists don’t respect you, and they will take without giving.”
This coupled with their volatile temper, lack of empathy, and disrespect towards others means they will either eventually be rejected or locked in a relationship with someone with poor self-esteem, taking a toll on their partner’s sense of self-worth.
Men are most likely to be sociopathic spouses or partners, as they are diagnosed more frequently than women. M. E. Thomas (who is female) said, “One possible explanation is that very little research data exists regarding sociopathy in women.”
How To Deal With Sociopaths
So, now that we know how to spot them, how does one effectively deal with a sociopath? According to Stout’s book, it’s first important to simply accept that there are people who have no conscience or compulsion to care for others, and you shouldn’t fall for flattery that seems insincere.
Another crucial thing Stout said to avoid is pity, another sociopathic tactic for attention: “If you see somebody really pulling for your sympathy while at the same time hurting you intermittently … that’s not normal.”
She also said she employs a simple three-strike rule: If someone lies or exhibits a lack of concern for you repeatedly, it’s clear that nothing will change. At this point, she told Interview, “…the very best thing you can do is to get away.”
“If you notice that you are giving more information about yourself to someone, stop,” Baxter says. “Especially if that person rarely shares information about him or herself. A sociopath tries to find out as much about you as possible and uses that information to manipulate and control you and your emotions. The less information you give out, the better.”
Another tactic for self-preservation, Baxter says, is to “practice mindfulness through mediation or some other mindful activity. This will help you to be able to remain centered, focused, and emotionally neutral when dealing with the sociopath. …The more you practice being centered and focused, the less they will be able to manipulate you.”
Is There A Cure For Antisocial Personality Disorder?
For those who find cutting off contact difficult (or who suffer from sociopathy themselves), you might question if there’s any hope for treating (or even curing) antisocial personality disorder. While sociopathic criminals are treated with cognitive behavioral therapy to learn how to avoid returning to prison, there is no known cure for sociopathic behavior.
This is partly because medical experts are still debating whether sociopathic behavior is genetic or learned. Stout said, “The physical basis for sociopathy is approximately 50 percent inheritable.” But others suggest it may be brought about by a dysfunctional childhood and is often linked to child abuse.
Childhood detection may be key: If parents have the proper information regarding the diagnosis of a sociopathic child, they can employ therapy to instill impulse control and emotional regulation skills. This may help mitigate future damage as an adult if they can recognize destructive patterns before they spin out of control.
Even still, Baxter says treatment is a challenge. “Sociopaths see everything as a game, and they do not want to change. They like the power that they have through their behavior. As a result, they are rarely motivated to seek treatment in any form, and if they are forced to go to therapy, they see it as a challenge—a new game—to manipulate and gain power.”
Taking A Look in the Mirror
It can be tempting after focusing on sociopathic traits to question if everyone around you exhibits sociopathic behavior. No one is perfect, of course, and we’re all guilty of the occasional bout of insensitivity and moments of unreliability.
But if you feel that you, or someone close to you, exhibit the majority of antisocial personality disorder characteristics, it may help bring peace of mind (and a plan of action) to be diagnosed, even if there’s no cure for the condition. It may be impossible to avoid all contact with a sociopath, but with these tips, you can limit the damage they can inflict upon you and others.
Given we live in a culture that often favors the superficial, with world leaders and celebrities more concerned with attaining power than helping others, we may also want to examine how we may contribute, however unwittingly, to rewarding sociopathic (and psychopathic) behavior, and strive for a healthier and more supportive environment for us all.