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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Red flags for sociopathy

Here is the list of traits defining "antisocial personality," as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders refers to sociopathy:

-There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following: having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another. 
-Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
-Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
-Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
-Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
-Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
-Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
-Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing.

These categories encompass a wide variety of misbehavior. But they're so broad and vague that they could describe the way nonsociopaths behave at times, too. (Failing to plan ahead is something we all do from time to time.) And it's a somewhat dry, academic-sounding list. How do these traits express themselves in real life?

There are certain specific behaviors which have a peculiarly sociopathic flavor, which sociopaths seem to display, time after time. The following is by no means comprehensive, but it includes some characteristic tics that may ring a bell if you've ever known a sociopath well:

Sociopaths often display a certain uninhibited viciousness when it comes to lashing out at those who anger them. The people around them sense this, and make an effort not to displease them, simply to avoid a big scene or even worse. This is partly how sociopaths manipulate others.

Sociopaths often seem to have an incredible, almost supernatural confidence, which can manifest itself as incredible nerve  -- or gall, depending on your point of view. You may find yourself thinking, "I can't believe he said that," and thinking that you are a timid mouse by comparison.

Sociopaths never seem to get nervous, or flustered. They are good in debates (even on a national stage.)

Sociopaths tend to be fearless as well. Some of our greatest war heroes may have been sociopaths. (Thank goodness they were on our side.)

Of course, saying you were a Navy SEAL when you weren't, or saying you worked for the CIA when you didn't, is a dead giveaway of sociopathy. Stolen valor is a sociopathic specialty.

The second surest sign of sociopathy, after serial killing, is pathological lying. I've never known anyone who constantly lied, who wasn't a sociopath. We all lie from time to time; but lying to burnish one's resume is generally the province of sociopaths.

Another form of lying is "sport lying," the purpose of which is simply to fool people for the joy of it. That joy comes partially from making the other person look foolish for believing you, and convincing yourself you're smarter than the other person because you fooled him.

Anybody who is said to create a "reality distortion field" around them is usually a sociopath. They typically do this using a combination of dishonesty and intimidation. Think Steve Jobs.

Cult leaders are almost always sociopaths.

Sociopaths often think they are fooling people when they are not. If someone tells you an obvious lie, and acts as if he expects you to believe him, beware.

Another way sociopaths give themselves away is by claiming that they are turning over a new leaf, and thinking people will believe that they are somehow actually changing their character. 

Sociopaths may pay lip service to loyalty, and expect it of others, but rarely display it themselves. If they do act loyal, they do so in a showy (and temporary) manner and point out their "loyalty" to whomever they expect gratitude from.

If you can't imagine a certain person hanging his head in shame, or even feeling embarrassed, you may be dealing with a sociopath.

Sociopaths have no sense of discretion. They will freely tell people the criticisms others have made about them behind their backs; most people assume a certain confidentiality applies to such comments. But a sociopath feels no such compunctions, and likes to create discord by reporting such. If there have been no such criticisms, a sociopath may just make some up.

One peculiarly sociopathic tic I've noticed is that they overenunciate, as if really savoring their own words.

Some sociopaths have the ability to appear extraordinarily warm and friendly at the drop of a hat, an ability which only the completely cold can summon on demand. A sociopath's ability to make everyone feel special simply means that to him, no one is special. He is good at manipulation, that's all. (Think Bill Clinton.)

Along the lines of simulating affection they do not feel, another sociopathic tell is to claim they feel  great fondness for you way too quickly, long before any such genuine emotion could have had time to take root.

Sociopaths often feel a compulsion to appear noble. It is not enough for them to appear the moral equal of others, they want to be thought downright saintly. (Think Lance Armstrong, with his Livestrong foundation.)

If you ever see someone wiping away nonexistent ("crocodile") tears, put your guard up. Less adept sociopaths do this from up close, where it's apparent that their eyes are not watering. More skillful sociopaths will do this from onstage, or on camera, when viewers can't tell the difference. (Think Karen Sypher, or look at this series of pictures of Bill Clinton.)

Some sociopaths can actually produce real tears on demand. (Tonya Harding and Marion Jones were both reportedly able to do this.)

Someone who claims to be an "adrenaline junkie" is in fact just admitting that they have a high threshold of excitement, i.e., get bored quickly. A sociopath's need for stimulation may express itself through high stakes gambling and fast driving.

If you hear of someone becoming "addicted" to something others don't find addictive, like gambling or sex, think sociopathy. Sociopaths have so few inhibitions that they are "unable" to resist things others can.

Sociopaths feel no qualms about picking on people who work for them. (Think of Hillary Clinton, picking on the Arkansas State Troopers and the Secret Service agents who had pledged to give their lives to protect hers.) Being a bully means punching down at people unable to hit back.

I've never heard of anyone acting as his own criminal defense lawyer who wasn't a sociopath. (Think James Traficant, Ted Bundy, Colin Ferguson, Dylann Roof, Robert Camarano, and Steven Dean Gordon.)

Sociopaths usually leave people feeling used. A long trail of bitter ex-spouses, ex-friends, ex-lovers, and ex-colleagues usually spells sociopathy.

A long trail of lawsuits, both as defendant and plaintiff, is another sociopathic hallmark.

Conning others out of their money is a sociopathic hallmark. Cheating your own family makes that diagnosis even more certain.

One weird sociopathic trait is the ability to party and enjoy oneself even when you know your house of cards is about to come tumbling down. Think of all the Ponzi schemers who seem to savor the trappings of wealth right up until the moment until they go to jail. Most people would be worried sick under such circumstances.

Sociopaths often have a surprising demeanor in criminal court, given the gruesome nature of the crimes they are being tried for. While most would hang their heads in shame -- and that's an understatement -- sociopaths comport themselves like rock stars. This post and this one as well show photographs of serial killers who look strangely proud while on trial.

Sociopaths always seem to have some naive sucker around who believes in him no matter how high the evidence stacked against him. (Think Lenny Dykstra and Dan Herman. Or think of all the serial killers who've attracted groupies.)

Anybody who advertises his integrity and honesty usually has neither. 

To most people, a "conscience" is a nebulous, ethereal entity they're not really aware of. In fact, it's basically metaphorical shorthand for their character: their inhibitions, qualms, mixed emotions, and ability to feel guilt and shame as well as love. But they rarely talk about it. A sociopath, who lacks such character, may actually talk about his conscience, as if it's a distinct, palpable entity which guides his every move. (Think Barack Obama.)

Nonsociopaths get plastic surgery. But a sociopath is more likely to get it -- and lie about it.  Likewise, nonsociopaths take steroids; but a sociopath is more likely to -- and also to lie about it. In fact, a giveaway of sociopathy is the self-righteousness with which a juiced athlete denies taking performance-enhancing drugs. (Think Marion Jones, or Lance Armstrong.)

A sociopath's emotional repertoire goes from hatred to bitterness to jealousy to envy to spite to glee (at his own victories, or others' misfortunes). Some sociopaths always seem to be brimming over with bitterness and resentment. If you know someone who always seems able to find a reason to hate people, you're probably dealing with a sociopath.

Sociopaths never have peace of mind. They are rarely content to settle down with a good book, or with a crossword puzzle, or any form of peaceful solitude. They don't enjoy their own company; they prefer to be out and about, actively stirring up trouble.

Sociopaths always seem to be able to glibly justify their own sociopathy. Here are a few of the ways in which they do. 

The only people I've ever heard excuse their own lying by saying that they were only telling people what they wanted to hear, as if they had no choice but to do this, were sociopaths.

At moments of tragedy, when most people would be completely shaken up, and distraught beyond words, sociopaths, if they're not feigning sadness, may express weirdly mundane concerns. After Justin Ross Harris killed his 22-month-old son by locking him in an overheated car (after taking out life insurance on him), he complained to police, "I can't believe this is happening to me," and worried that it would reflect badly on him at the office. Such behavior is a dead giveaway.

Another way sociopaths demonstrate their character is by not losing their appetite on occasions in which food would be the last thing on a normal person's mind. (Think Joran van der Sloot.)

One way sociopaths reveal their own character is by constantly suspecting others of sociopathic traits. I once knew a sociopath who would frequently say about others, "I don't trust that guy. He lied to me once." The only one he was really giving away was himself.

One minor sociopathic tic is wearing a large cross, prominently, as a way of advertising one's piousness and inner decency.

Cheating on endurance races, a la Rosie Ruiz, or Kendall Schler, or Julie Miller, is a distinctly sociopathic trait.

Anyone who "suffers from" Munchausen's Syndrome or Munchausen's-by-proxy is a sociopath. And anybody who falsely claims to have been the victim of a hate crime is acting out a variant of Munchausen's Syndrome, and not much of a variant at that. Bear in mind that hate crime hoaxes, while usually viewed through a political lens, are in fact a form of Munchausen's.

Likewise, a woman who files a false rape report is likely a sociopath. Think of Jackie Oakley, the UVA fraternity rape "victim."

There are other syndromes which are often viewed in isolation, but are also subsets of sociopathy. People are sometimes said to have an "anger management issue," as if this exists as a separate part of the personality; but it is inevitably part of a larger syndrome.

Similarly, "road rage" is often spoken of as an inexplicable mental state which descends on random drivers. But anyone who acts out of "road rage" is apt to be wantonly violent in other areas of his life as well.

Creating havoc so that one can appear the hero (as in, firemen who set fires they can then extinguish) is the behavior of sociopaths.

Posing as someone, or something, one is not almost always means sociopathy. Think of Christian Gerhartsreiter pretending to be Clark Rockefeller. Or Catch Me If You Can protagonist Frank Abagnale posing as an airline pilot or doctor.

Pretty much anyone who makes his living as a con man is a sociopath. (I've never known of one who wasn't.) And having multiple aliases almost always means one is a con man.

Taking advantage of people who are actually doing you a favor is a particularly loathsome, peculiarly sociopathic method of exploitation.

Attributing one's own bad behavior to noble causes is another sociopathic specialty. Think of Newt Gingrich explaining his multiple infidelities by saying, "There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

Or think of Jack Kevorkian, indulging his fascination with killing and death while masquerading as a man wanting to help ease the suffering of terminally ill people.

A stylistic quirk sociopaths exhibit is overuse of adverbs and adjectives attributing nobility, or sincerity, or warmheartedness, to themselves. This post analyzes how David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) does it, and this post analyzes the  language used by Franklin Lynch (The Day Stalker).

You often hear convicts characterizing some horrific crime they've committed, like murder, as "a mistake" or "a bad decision." This too is distinctly sociopathic phraseology.

Lastly, while this is not a behavioral characteristic of sociopaths themselves, whenever I've heard about someone that "he's the type of guy you either love or hate," it's often a sociopath who's being described, and if not a sociopath, then at least an extreme narcissist. (Usually, what happens is that people love that person until they get to know him better, at which point they despise him.)

This is by no means a comprehensive list. But all of these behaviors give off a distinctly sociopathic scent. Also, bear in mind that they describe different styles of sociopathy. No sociopath will do all of these things; but most will do some. This list should help you recognize the sociopaths in your life. 


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a fantastic list! Undoubtedly the best I've ever seen on sociopathy. I will probably refer others on to this as it's so much simpler to understand than the dry, academic stuff usually published. Published on Christmas Day too - such dedication! Kudos to you!

There's a couple of points I would add (not criticisms at all - just observations):

This relates to the 'no sense of discretion' point: sociopaths bring up people in conversation they knew from a long time ago, people who aren't currently relevant to their lives, so they can bitch about them to anyone who will listen. A sociopath did this to me: brought up his "violent, crazy ex-girlfriend" up on the day I first met him. I can't remember how the conversation started but I thought at the time that it was oddly abrupt. I've had people in my past who wronged me but I seldom talk about them, especially not to people I've only just met. After I sussed that the guy was a sociopath, I immediately cut ties with him and approached an enemy of his (whom I know is trustworthy) and he told me this "violent, crazy ex-girlfriend" was really a meek girl who'd been badly beaten up by the said sociopath. The ex-CIA officer Jason Hanson (who now teaches lie detection) said that strangers telling unsolicited sob stories (particularly about violent crime), set a long time ago, is a sign of attempted manipulation.

Although I can't reference it, I read somewhere that police officers, bankers and politicians are much more likely to be sociopaths. Out of all the careers, nurses and teachers are the least likely. Doctors were in the middle of the list. Sociopaths gravitate towards careers where they have power over others, particularly those they can get into through charm alone. If medicine wasn't such a hard university subject requiring intense dedication, there would probably be way more sociopath doctors.

Regarding the lying: they're also remarkably honest at times. The sociopaths I've known have openly admitted to being badly behaved, especially when talking about their childhoods. One told me he was a "little shit" at school. Another volunteered that he'd been to prison, even though I hadn't asked (he then said tall tales of things he got up to in prison, seeming to enjoy this). If it were me, I would have been ashamed of being an ex-prisoner and would probably go to lengths to conceal the fact.

Anonymous said...

Character assassination is a sociopathic forte. Sociopaths love twisting stories (as do borderlines and narcissists) to make it sound like the perpetrator of an incident did something much worse, or had evil intentions when it was really just a blunder. They relish going around and trying to turn an army of people against a certain person by telling the most appalling stories about him. Unfortunately, people often believe him because they're unaware of what's actually going on. Genuine victims often don't want to talk about what happened; they usually don't repeatedly tell anyone who will listen.

What you describe in § 22 is described on the website Lovefraud as "lovebombing". Endless romantic gifts, endless sweet phone calls and "I love you" messages, lots of amazing sex, etc early in a relationship, followed a swift marriage proposal, is a huge red flag for sociopathy because most people want to take time before committing to marriage. The sociopath knows he can't consistently keep up his act for long so wants to lock his partner into a marriage before she can figure him out.

The ability to enjoy themselves just before they know something bad will happen appears to be due to a sociopath's abnormal neurology. An experiment was done on sociopaths and a control group where they, wearing biofeedback sensors, would receive mild electric shocks after a countdown on a timer. As they watched the timer getting closer to zero, the control group would begin exhibiting increasing signs of stress (sweating, faster heartbeat, etc) whereas the sociopath group showed no such signs. I wish I could reference this but I can't remember the source.

I know a few harmless eccentrics who use multiple aliases in real life (for example, for booking a table at a restaurant) purely for fun. People with privacy concerns - domestic violence victims, (ex-)spies, etc - also do this.

Borderlines are also known for making false accusations. Then again, I've read somewhere that many "borderline" women are actually misdiagnosed sociopaths. Psychiatrists are reluctant to diagnose women with sociopathy and use the less-stigmatising Borderline Personality Disorder. The difference is that BPD is usually curable whereas sociopathy is (currently) not.

I'd like to thank you again - yours is a fantastic post.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you very much.

Great point about how sociopaths bring up stories, apropos of nothing, about how they were wronged. The first sociopath I got to know well (the woman who educated me about them when I was 25) was full of stories about people who had treated her poorly; it was only later that I realized it had undoubtedly been the other way around.

Wall Streeters and politicians are undoubtedly more likely to be sociopaths. Police departments, because they've attracted so many sociopaths in the past, are very much aware of that, and therefore try to weed out sociopathic applicants these days. I wrote about that here:

That said, though, I'm sure some slip through.

If sociopaths are honest, it's either in the service of doing a scathing critique of someone else, or of burnishing their own resumes. The fact that that sociopath you knew seemed so proud of his prison escapades is a giveaway of his ego bing invested in being a badass.

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Sure, thank you for suggesting it; a compilation of these red flags is a good idea for a post. (Were you the one who wrote the previous comment as well? I would assume it was you but there was only two minutes in between the time they were written, which doesn't seem like enough time for the second one.)

Yes, serial character assassination is a sociopathic forte. (They're ALL serial killers, one way or another.)

"Lovebombing," that's a great word for it. And yes, a too quick proposal of marriage has to arouse suspicions.

What you're describing as "multiple aliases" is a little different than what I was referring to. Using a false name for a restaurant reservation isn't quite the same as creating a new identity to be used for an extended period, likewise using a new name (usually just one) to escape an abuser is different too.

Interesting about Borderline Personality Disorder/sociopathy. I can see how the two would be confused. (I've never had a good handle on what constitutes BPD, I seem to have heard too many conflicting definitions.) If psychiatrists are purposely handing out diagnoses of BPD when in fact they know they're dealing with a sociopath, though, they're doing a disservice to all those who come in contact with the woman.

Anonymous said...

A sociopath that I'm familiar with is an affect hungry sociopath. His m.o. is to be your new best friend, being extremely helpful in your life, going above and beyond what the average person does (or will do). That's how he gradually ensnares his victims.

- birdie

John Craig said...

Birdie --
That fits with the "they claim they feel great fondness for you way too quickly, long before any such genuine emotion could have had time to take root" characteristic. And "ensnare" is the right word.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that was me - Google wouldn't let me post the whole lot in one because I was over the character limit. I see what you mean about creating new IDs - sociopaths have lots of enemies so I guess it's necessary for them to move on, especially in the era of Google.

I don't think psychiatrists are deliberately misdiagnosising sociopaths:

Borderlines & sociopaths share the impulsive behaviours, recklessness and extreme anger. Borderlines are likely to drive carelessly, have promiscuous sex, abuse drugs, and make snap decisions. Where they differ from sociopaths is the span of emotions: borderlines are capable of occasionally feeling empathy, love, fear, remorse, embarrassment, gratitude, etc. Borderlines have Jekyll & Hyde personalities: one day, they're screaming profanities at loved ones and the next, they're crying and begging for forgiveness. They're aware after the event that what they did was wrong, but weren't able to control themselves at the time of the incident - a bit like someone having an acute psychotic episode.

Borderlines will sometimes do good deeds for reasons other than bragging about them. They have low self-esteem so doing charity makes them feel less worthless. The term "borderline" comes from a theory that they're on the borderline between psychosis & neurosis. Borderlines usually have comorbid conditions: anxiety, bulimia, etc and have a high risk of carrying out suicide threats, as opposed to sociopaths who just make empty threats to manipulate. In short, borderlines do hurt others but they're not intrinsically evil, just crazy. It's considered a serious mental illness, albeit a cureable one. BPD often responds to medication & psychotherapy.

I think psychiatrists are simply unaware of sociopathy because sociopaths are unlikely to come into contact with psychiatric services (because, like narcissists, they don't think there's anything wrong), except for ones in prison - and even then, it's only because of comorbid psychosis. I once asked a psychiatrist (who works in a hospital with mostly psychotic & suicidal patients) about the incident with the sociopath and the "violent ex-girlfriend". She immediately dismissed my suggestion without hearing me out, saying "nah, he's probably borderline - not a sociopath". This is despite the fact that he had no indicators of BPD - no anxiety, no low self-esteem, no suicide attempts, etc. She's read the usual dry, academic texts about sociopaths, which are virtually useless in the absence of the 'a posteriori' knowledge we possess. Psychiatrists know that BPD looks similar to sociopathy in some respects, but fail to differentiate because they - like almost everyone - think sociopaths are necessarily serial killers.

- Gethin

Justin said...

Another red flag worth mentioning is heavy use of flattery, especially upon first meeting someone. This is the start of their idealization, which later of course turns to sour hatred and ends with them discarding you. It can be quite over-the-top, as I'm sure you've noticed.

John Craig said...

Gethin --
I think I know one person who is borderline, and I would never have guessed that if my brother hadn't pointed it out to me. But between his pointing it out, and your explanation of the syndrome above, I can see it.

From your explanation, which by the way was great, I get the sense that it is primarily a female disease. It sounds as if there's a strong histrionic, hysterical element to the syndrome, which just sounds more female somehow.

Couldn't agree with you more about psychiatrists, most are almost willfully blind when it comes to sociopathy. They, like most laymen, see only the everyday "ordinariness" of the person in front of them, and can't see the monster underneath. It's as if they expect all sociopaths to look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and act like Hannibal Lecter, and otherwise, no, it couldn't be.

John Craig said...

Justin --
Yes, that is a preferred tactic of theirs, though I'd call it more of a yellow flag than a red flag. I've seen nonsociopaths who are very flattering too, and in some cases, it seems to be due simply to excessive diplomacy rather than someone looking for a mark. When you do run across a flatterer, you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt (tempting as it is to do otherwise).

Anonymous said...

John, truly one of your best pieces, and that says a lot. Boy, this piece just screamed Hillary on many levels. Manufacturing the story of sniper fire when she was in I think Bosnia to look heroic is a sign of a sociopath.

This piece made me think of my friend we'll call "Jim". Jim is married to a beautiful lady, but is a sex addict. He cheats on her left and right. He cruises around the ghetto and picks up young girls. He's not a drug user, but he'll carry drugs to pick them up. He used to be a gambling addict, but gave that up when he lost a lot of money, so now he turned to the sex vice. Every time I see him, he tells me stories on how he got into a fist fight. This guy is 56 years old. On my dad's funeral, Jim sat in the back pew trying to show my other friend naked pictures of his 20 year old whores. My friend told him to knock it off. When this was brought to my attention, I distanced myself from him.


John Craig said...

Spartan --
Thank you very much. Yeah, Hillary exhibits a lot of these behaviors, including stolen valor.

You've got Jim pegged right. Normal people don't become addicted to things that aren't physically addictive, but sociopaths have such a low level of inhibition that they do. And showing nudie photos at your father's funeral shows a level of disrespect that most people would have a hard time getting their heads around.

GT said...


Here is one I would like your feedback on.

"Bob" was a close work acquaintance. I would call him a friend; someone I invited to my wedding. Bob treated everyone fair and helped people without question. He treated any women he considered a friend with respect. The issue was with his treatment of any women he dated or married. Bob seemed to always follow the same pattern. Met a women charm her and break up the unhappy marriage or relationship she was in. Have them move in with him and live together. The relationship would always start of well but would slowly deteriorate into Bob treating them with disrespect. I would say is was verbal abuse with the desire to break down their self-esteem. Comments of how fat they have gotten. how they are not very good in bed, how their tits were to small How they are starting to look old. Of course Bob would cheat on them at the same time he was providing this verbal abuse. Bob once told me that his mother did not treat him in the same manner as his other brother. Bob felt that he was treated as second class while his brother got the attention. I always chalked Bob's relationship issues up to some deep seeded mother complex but now I am not sure..

Sociopath traits
Always targeted women in unhappy relationships
Charming (Knew what she wanted to hear and displayed an alpha personality)
Willing to break up a marriage to get the prize
Verbally abusive after they moved in with him
Cheated on everyone he dated or married
Relationship always ended with her moving out

Non Sociopath traits
I did not see Bob display any other sociopathic traits

John Craig said...

GT --
Honestly, judging from what you've told me, Bob doesn't sound like a sociopath. No sociopath would treat everyone fair and help people without question. Yes, he does have issues with romantic relationships, but his personality issues seem confined to that; and it sounds as if he's not abusive to women who are just friends.

A sociopath would do far worse. He would abuse everyone, either to their faces or behind their backs, you wouldn't think to call him "fair," and he'd try to get money from his acquaintances, in one way or another.

It's quite possible, in fact I think it's likely, that Bob is a narcissistic personality. The fact that you described him as having an "alpha personality" makes that fairly likely. And he's quite selfish if he uncaringly broke up marriages. But none of this quite reaches the level of sociopathy. I wouldn't rule the possibility of that out entirely, I'm just saying I haven't heard enough to make me think anything other than, hmm, more-piggish-than-usual guy.

Anonymous said...

Just this past weekend I happened to have read a book called the Psychopath Whisperer, written by a leading researcher of psychopathy and protege of Robert Hare. You obviously know a good deal about the subject so I wouldn't be surprised if you have already come across it but it's a pretty good read. I don't typically finish books in one or two sittings, but this one I finished over two short flights. One of the things he talks about is the difference between psychopaths and those with anti-social personality disorder. He also comments on the idea that many politicians are psychopaths by saying there is a difference between exhibiting psychopathic behavior and actually scoring high enough on the various "checklists" which can actually qualify you as one. The most interesting aspect of the book, however, is the various explanations of the actual neurological deficiencies that seem to explain psychopathy. His focus is mainly on psychopaths and not sociopaths but what I am wondering the most after reading it is two things: 1) why are certain people with psychopathic tendencies still able to function well within society? (i.e. politicians) and 2) why is it the case that the vast majority of psychopaths are male? (or, perhaps, do female sociopaths and psychopaths fly under the radar?) One difference seems to be that not all psychopaths seem to express themselves violently, and that alone can be enough to prevent them from immediately winding up in jail. Beyond that, it seems just to be a spectrum, where some can contain their behavior to some extent, and others completely lack any control over themselves.


John Craig said...

Taylor --
Sociopaths, like everyone else, come in a full range of IQ's. The smarter ones become politicians or Wall Streeters or lawyers or anything else they choose. Generally, it's the dumber ones who commit violent crimes and end up in jail. The smarter ones generally figure out ways to obey the letter but not the spirit of the law, or to break the law and not get caught. Or they confine themselves to being verbally abusive or hurt people in other ways that aren't illegal.

The conventional wisdom has always been that 3% of the male population and 1% of the female population are sociopathic, and the difference was thought to be that men's different, more aggressive temperaments made them harder to socialize. I don't buy that, I don't think that there's that much of a difference in the percentages. I think you just put your finger on it, female sociopaths just tend to fly beneath the radar. Women are also less violent by nature, so are less likely to commit those types of crimes. Female sociopaths are more likely to become gold diggers, do things like that. There have been a few serial killers who were female, the most prolific among them were nurses, but there was also Aileen Wuornos, and a few who killed men for their money, either black widow-types of women who ran boarding houses and killed the men so they could collect their social security checks, that type of thing. I've known, or known family members of several female sociopaths, and while none of them became famous, they all certainly had a destructive effect on those around them.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that sociopaths have leadership abilities which makes their sociopathy really dangerous.

Most of the nutcases I meet in daily life are borderline. That's a somewhat trendy newfangled diagnosis, but I think it has merit.


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that IQ is probably the most distinguishing factor, but I also get the sense it has something to do with impulse control and forward thinking. The worst of psychopaths are practically incapable of planning ahead - they are perpetually living in the now. On the other hand it seems hardly likely that someone would succeed in graduate school, or in a political career, without having the ability to plan for the future and carry out those plans. I don't see IQ alone as being able to supplement these deficiencies. I wonder about this in particular because impulsiveness and poor forward planning are attributes of ADHD, which I have, and generally speaking those deficits cannot be made up for with IQ.

As for the female / male psychopathy ratio, I was wondering if you had ever come across a good explanation, since (as you said) it sounds like professional psychologists and academics have just attributed it to aggressiveness in men, and left it at that. I don't buy it, and if it is the case that female sociopaths and psychopaths just fly under the radar, that makes me think that they are actually more dangerous since the "red flags" are less obvious. As you said, female sociopaths can have a very destructive effect on those around them. I am willing to bet that often manifests in the type of behavior that women too often get away with, such as manipulating the divorce courts, false accusations of rape / sexual assault, and a generally parasitic lifestyle. When it comes to red flags for sociopathy, I have to say that I feel much more likely to be taken advantage of by a female sociopath than by a male sociopath, and I think the one poses a much bigger danger than the other.


John Craig said...

Puzzled --
There are as many different definitions of "leadership" as there are people who think of themselves as leaders, but one trait that a lot of people who get to the top share is manipulativeness, and sociopaths have that in droves. So, yes, they are dangerous.

Gethin gave a great description of borderline personality disorder above, you probably read it. It does seem to describe a few women I've known, most of whom weren't quite sociopaths, but whose combination of willful blindness, selfishness, hysteria, and insecurity don't quite fit standard narcissism or sociopathy.

John Craig said...

Taylor --
You're right, there does seem to be variation in the amount of impulse control sociopaths have.

The only explanation I've seen for the perceived (and I emphasize, "perceived") difference in the incidence of sociopathy between the sexes is the one I listed above, that the testosterone makes males harder to socialize. But when you think about it, that rally doesn't speak to the underlying character of men and women, only to the extent to which they are capable of -- or willing to -- hide their true natures. I seem to have known just as many females as males with poisonous natures. Although, now that I think of it, the fact that evolution has selected females to have a stronger maternal (nurturing) instinct could contribute to the difference.

Runner Katy said...

Thank you, John, for one of the most excellent summaries I've seen on this subject! You always have such great work on these, but this one is so comprehensive! It screams every sociopath we all have in our minds.

On that subject, GT's comment regarding "Bob" is eerily similar to the relationship I would describe I had with a sociopath. The problem is, if "friends" are only close enough to see so much on the surface, it may appear that this is the only sociopathic trait, but the verbal abuse and breaking up relationships (and were they truly unhappy, or was Bob able to make everyone think that they were unhappy, such as the case with the marriages broken up by the socio in my life)? I would ask GT to dig a bit deeper and see if he/she can uncover more lies to Bob's stories, maybe some fake past grandeur or college profile that didn't really exist, even a fake resume or degree that never was achieved. That would absolutely be the case with the guy I knew. (for GT's sake, hopefully not the same guy!)

Thank you again!

John Craig said...

Runner Katy --
Thank you very much.

I told GT I wouldn't rule out sociopathy, but that I hadn't heard enough to make me think it. And it could be that the "treating everybody fairly and helping without question" is done purely for show. I just don't know.

Anonymous said...

Do you distinguish between types of psychopathy?
Back in the 50s, the term was far more broad referring to any condition leading to what they define as "anti social behaviour", this was used to even justify homosexuality being a disorder. Alcoholism or any negative behaviour was lumped also with it. Even further back in the 40s, many (or what they believed was) mental deviances were consider "psychopathic" or a pathology of one's psyche.
Interesting how terminology changes over time. Like how "gay" used to mean happy but now means "gay"

There is the modern distinction of three:
Primary (born that way, no anxiety or fear, charming)
Secondary (acts psychopathic not because they were born that way but due to inner emotional turmoil or neuroticism/trauma, can display guilt and emotion but is often buried)
Dissocial (Learned behavior due to an ideology or following orders from higher up)

But this is disappearing. It is now more common to lump anyone who acts anti-social as just being a psychopath.

More subtypes exist like schizoid psychopathy, schizophrenic psychopathy, sexual psychopathy.

What is your opinion of making more distinctions?

John Craig said...

Anon --
No, I don't make distinctions like that. I understand what some of those people are saying: alcoholism or drug addiction can effectively render one LIKE a sociopath, i.e., they'll do anything to get their next fix, and generally th only other type of people who will do *anything* are sociopaths.

And yes, some people distinguish between psychopaths, whom they identify as being primary, with organic rots to their behavior, and sociopaths, who became that way because of a lack of bonding with another human being int he first few years of life. but to me, sociopath and psychopath are just two different words for the same thing.

as far as those other types, like schizoid psychopathy and schizophrenic sociopathy, I'm not familiar with them, but don't they just mean that the sociopath coexists with another condition? Sociopathy in itself certainly does not cause psychosis.

Anonymous said...

Psychosis can cause a person to engage in anti-social behaviour. The broad terminology refers to anyone who does anti social behaviour. The primary/secondary distinction is also heavily based on the existence of anxiety and fear. A primary psychopath has abnormally if nonexistant levels of anxiety and neuroticism (Ted Bundy smiled even when caught) while a secondary displays higher levels than normal and is often driven into anti social behaviour by negative emotions and/or mental imbalance (a perfect example is Darth Vader, who also likely has borderline personality disorder, or Colonel Kurtz with severe PTSD). A good contrast was Herman Goerring who was diagnosed at the nuremburg trial as being a classic psychopath (he was unafraid when caught) while the OSS report on Hitler classifed him as a "neurotic psychopath" or a type of secondary psychopath:

"[H]e is not insane in the commonly accepted sense of the term, but a neurotic who lacks adequate inhibitions. He has not lost complete contact with the world about him and is striving to make some kind of psychological adjustment that will give him a feeling of security in his social group. It also means that there is a definite moral component in his character no matter how deeply it may be buried or how seriously it has been disturbed."
"he was not insane but was emotionally sick and lacked normal inhibitions against antisocial behavior"

The report was made when "psychopath" just meant mentally ill in general with "neurotic" being a key descriptor.

It is interesting that up until the modern age, the term was so broad or there wasn't even a term for the modern sense of the word "psychopath". We have to remember decades ago there was no specific word for what we know as "psychopath". The word "psychopath" up until the 50s-60s meant anyone with a mental deviance of any sort. If you were a overly promiscuous gay guy, you were a type of "psycopath". If you were neurotic, "psycopath". If you were deluded and violent because of it "psycopath".
Maybe life in general was harsher a century ago, so they didn't think to create a diagnosis for a specific character defect.

John Craig said...

Anon --
True, psychosis can lead to anti-social behavior. But sociopaths are not psychotic, they don't suffer from delusions the same way. I also don't think that as a rule they feel fear as much as others. (To me, neurotics are the opposite of sociopaths in many ways.) And I think it's telling that the two very good examples of fearless sociopaths you use in your first paragraph are real people, whereas the two examples of more anxious and neurotic "secondary" sociopaths are both fictional.

BTW, it's striking how many sociopaths don't even seem to feel fear or shame after being caught. I did a couple of posts about that (mostly photo montages) here:

and here:

And yes, agreed, psychology has come a long way since the middle part of the last century. It was Hervey Cleckley who, in "The Mask of Sanity" back in the 1940's, first defined sociopathy. Until then, the closest anyone had come was to call them "morally insane." (Which isn't a bad way to describe the syndrome.)

Anonymous said...

But what do you think Hitler was then? The OSS report diagnosed him as a secondary psychopath and he wasn't fictional?

John Craig said...

Anon --
Honestly, I just don't know. The easy answer was that he was a sociopath, he'd have to be to have done what he did. But there are two views of Hitler. One is that he was evil, cunning, manipulative, and power-hungry. The other is that he thought that he was doing right by the German people.

A number of people have asked me this question, and they're usually unsatisfied by my answer, but here goes: before WWII, or at least before he came to power, Hitler just didn't show that many signs of sociopathy. He had been adored by his mother, and he in turn seemed to love her. This is rare among sociopaths. He had been a soldier in WWI, and also had been an unsuccessful artist. (Sociopaths rarely are drawn to representational art.) I've seen some of Hitler's drawings, and whatever you think of his art, it's easy to see why he thought he could be an artist. He was a vegetarian, loved animals, and had a long term relationship with Eva Braun.

It's far easier to say that a guy like Josef Mengele was a sociopath. He fit the profile perfectly. His mother was a monster, whom he hated. And he was into hands on, personal sadism, which he practiced to his heart's content in those concentration camps. Hitler simply wasn't into the same sorts of things that Mengele was. You can say that Hitler was responsible for millions of deaths, and he was; and you can say that he was good at manipulating the masses, and he was. But he just doesn't fit the rest of the sociopathic profile perfectly enough for me to say with complete assurance that he was a sociopath.

I don't know what he was. And I'm not even saying he WASN'T a sociopath; I'm just saying I'm not sure. It's possible he had borderline personality disorder. He certainly saw everything in black and white terms. But once again, I'm sorry, I can't answer your question.

Anonymous said...

I had an encounter with a sociopath yesterday which made me think of adding to this post. Duping delight, couldn't keep it off her face no matter how hard she tried, kept me off balance by asking inappropriate questions and if I tried to deflect her line of questioning, she would contradict me under her breath, obviously not all sociopaths are that overt I realise but it surprised me how grossly entitled she'd have to be to supply her own commentary.

She also complimented me inappropriately not long after meeting which had me on red alert since the timing and everything was off, usually when people notice my good qualities they would never bring it to my attention, but she was bombarding me with compliments within 15 mins of meeting, equally she turned it around and was calling me schizophrenic 15 mins later. Compliments followed by criticisms is a sociopath favourite as well as advertising their punches, at one point saying that she wasn't sadistic, which given everything she was doing, conning me out of large sums of money, was in fact what she was.

Her calling me schizophrenic also had me on guard since sociopaths love labelling people as crazy, mad or schizo - partly as projective identification but also because it gives them duping delight to talk about themselves so openly without anyone knowing it's really themselves that they are referring to. So they get to advertise their punches and project at the same time. There was the constant communication misunderstandings that she would fall back on, as if she had misheard or misunderstood what I had said when she was being inappropriate or made me uncomfortable, despite understanding all the subtle nuances when I would try to deflect her line of questioning. The psycho stare of course which is a favourite and the watching of micro movements on your face and the paying attention to the smallest nuance in body language, all signs of a social predator at work.

However the one thing that made it certain for me that she was a sociopath was her asking about my abuse history, in the context of the massage therapy session it was highly inappropriate, but the feeding frenzy look that literally appeared in her eyes when I mentioned that I had cut away from my parents. I didn't say anything about sociopathy but she assumed that I was a good victim and when I was unclothed, she asked about further abuses that had occurred. I know the particular fascination sociopaths have with abuse histories and that alerted me wholesale to the fact that she was a sociopath but I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had read the inappropriate questioning and compliments faster. The completely over the top compliment at the start was the only thing that had me concerned since it was to lower my guard and it made me wonder why she wanted to lower my guard.

What we tend to do is minimise all their eccentricities because we don't want to judge, but even we get over that hurdle there is still the social contract that makes it so hard to behave out of context once we realise we've walked into a trap. There is also the tendency to suspect one's own suspicions, partly because the statistics on sociopaths are not accurate. They seem to be much more common then is officially touted and partly because I also don't want to think that they are everywhere, so when I first encounter them I tend to dismiss the red flags but I have done that to my detriment on too many occasions, after all 5 mins of discomfort is better than 4 hours in their company. It seems breaking the social contract goes against our nature and is probably the most difficult part to master given that people are social creatures and are bound by empathy, even if the person you're dealing with doesn't have empathy, you tend to act out of that place and not let them know you know their motivations.

John Craig said...

Isabelle --
Thank you for that great story. You educated me on a couple things I hadn't known before. The way too early flattery I'm familiar with, but I hadn't realized that they would pair that with insults right after as a way of keeping you off balance. That makes perfect sense though, it means they get to play offense while you're occupied playing defense.

And yes, volunteering that she wasn't sadistic is a sure sign: no one ever volunteers a denial of something which isn't true. That's a lot like the guy who tells you, without being asked, that he has a lot of integrity and honesty. (Put your hand on your wallet.)

I don't see the accusing you of being psycho or schizoid as projection; sociopaths aren't schizoid themselves, they're simply evil. I think what she was doing was a continuation of keeping you on the defensive, along with gaslighting -- making you doubt yourself. That "softens you up," so to speak, and makes you more vulnerable to their next line of attack.

"Feeding frenzy look that literally appeared in her eyes" -- what a perfect description of what happens when they get to vicariously enjoy the abuse that someone else inflicted on you. Their eyes just light up as they literally savor your pain. And yes, they are great readers of people.

When you started your story I hadn't been aware that she was your masseuse, so that must have made you feel doubly vulnerable, lying their naked while she passed judgment on you (even if her first judgment was a compliment on your figure).

I agree: most textbooks will tell you that sociopaths are 1% of the female population and 3% of the male population, and that's definitely low. I'd say it's more like 3% of women and 4% of men. Women probably tend to be underdiagnosed simply because they are less likely to be violent; but that doesn't mean they're any the less predatory by nature.

You make another good point at the end there: people tend to assume other people are like them. So decent people will automatically make the baseline assumption that others are decent, and sociopaths will always suspect the worst of everybody.

Anyway, thanks. (I may make a post out of your comment, if you don't mind.)

Anonymous said...

Do you think it's possible for sociopaths to experience depression? I know it's possible for them to have anger issues, and for them to be sad about things, but I've never seen evidence that they can experience the same sort of disabling clinical depression that normal people can. In Hervey Cleckley's 1940s book, he says that suicide threats from sociopaths are rarely carried out. Many years ago I suffered from depression so bad I had psychomotor retardation, where I could sit in a stupor for hours. I somehow can't picture sociopaths having that disease.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
That's a good question, and now that you mention it, it IS hard to imagine a sociopath having the sort of disabling, clinical depression of the sort you describe. I've seen sociopaths get discouraged, and be frustrated, but I can't recall ever seeing one in the throes of a clinical depression.

I wonder if that has something to do with their narcissistic natures, and their resulting ability to lie to themselves and convince themselves that they are better than everyone else, and will triumph in the end. The basic thought going through the mind of a depressive is, "I suck and this is hopeless and there's no good solution to my problems." But a sociopath's mind doesn't work that way.

I've heard it said -- and this expression was undoubtedly coined by a depressive -- that depressed people are simply people who see the world the way it is. Well, sociopaths tend to see the world they want to see, and they tend to see unidealized version of themselves. So does that render them immune to depression? Maybe.

Thanks for bringing this up, I may do a post about it (giving you credit for the thought).

Anonymous said...

If you have time, please listen to this short phone call and tell me what you think:

It's creepy, the type of phone call I reckon only a sociopath could make. He doesn't sound remotely upset about the boy he's just murdered. If anything, he sounds bored and annoyed that he had to go through the process of calling 999 in the first place - presumably because he couldn't dispose of the body, so thought calling 999 and telling them a BS story about the death would work because the police would believe him.

Am I right that that's a classic sociopath phone call?

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Just listened to it, and yes, his calmness does give away his sociopathy. You're right, he sounds neither upset nor guilty, just annoyed by the operator.

I was unfamiliar with this case and looked it up, read a little more just to make sure. Sure enough, even at 18, he was grooming younger boys for sexual purposes and was the leader of that online group. And the fact that he taunted his victim's mother from prison was of course also telling. Even the one photograph which seems to be available of him shows him to be quite poker-faced, in a boyish sort of way. I couldn't find anything about this own family background, that would have been interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think his Asperger's diagnosis is probably wrong; I doubt an aspie would be able to be so cunning and manipulative.

RE his family background, I found this on the Guardian:

"In mitigation, Daynes’s counsel Simon Mayo QC said the 19-year-old had experienced “deep-rooted feelings of rejection and isolation in his life” and that he was taken into local authority care at a young age after his mother moved abroad. “He felt more at home in the game world than the real world,” Mayo said."

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
I agree, an Aspie wouldn't be ale to be so successfully manipulative.

Given his predilections, his background would have to have been something like that. A mother who couldn't even be bothered to bring her baby when she went abroad fits the bill perfectly. Thank you for that tidbit.

GT said...

Michael Avenatti - sociopath alert?

John Craig said...

GT --
Coincidentally, I read his Wiki bio the other day with that thought in mind. But there wasn't enough there to say for sure. I can see why you think that, I probably had some of the same thoughts. He's a publicity hound, was behind the Swetnick accusations about Kavanaugh, some of which were absurd on their face. He's a daredevil (race car driver), publicly challenging Donald Trump Jr. to a fight, etc. But I just don't know, and don't like to say that unless there's enough evidence that there's no doubt.

Anonymous said...

"A long trail of lawsuits, both as defendant and plaintiff, is another sociopathic hallmark."

I used to understand why sociopaths would be defendants, but not plaintiffs - until now. I'm in a position where I'm thinking of suing my employer for discriminating against me for having a medical condition (that doesn't affect my ability to do the job. Even if it did, the employer has a legal obligation to make "reasonable adjustments"). Under European equality law, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show they *didn't* discriminate against the plaintiff. After consultation with two lawyers, I'd almost definitely win if I took the employer to court because the discrimination is clear.

But I'm hesitant to go ahead with it because my mind keeps racking over possible consequences. A court case - whatever the outcome - would place strain on the relationship between me and the employer. Eventually, I want to leave this job with a good reference. I'm scared a court case would cause my employer to seek (lawful) ways of revenge. Even though suing the employer for discrimination would be downright heroic (since it would cause them to think twice about doing it to anyone else), I'm not sure I have the guts to do that, and am trying to find ways to solve the problem out of court.

Now that I'm in this situation, I understand why being a plaintiff would be a sociopathic speciality. They'd lack the reservations that I do. Threatening legal action would likely fill them with glee at the power they wield over the defendant. In my case, the thought racks me with anxiety.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
That's a good (introspective) analysis of why sociopaths are more likely to be plaintiffs -- they have no inhibitions, no mixed feelings, no guilt, no worry, no reservations, as you put it -- about bringing suit.

Plus, you're talking about what sounds like a justifiable case. Sociopaths will bring all sorts of frivolous, nuisance, or even downright fraudulent lawsuits, and won't even feel any qualms about that.

They'll sue if they feel there's any chance that a deep-pocketed defendant will settle, not because the suit is justified, but because it's a headache they just don't want to deal with.

I've seen this recently with a local sociopath who lives in my community. And I've certainly read about such cases in the news on plenty of occasions.