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 mystery.
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 professional actors.
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 vary.
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 cold-blooded killers.
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:
- Do you often feel used by the person?
- Have you often felt that he (or she, because women can be sociopaths too) doesn't care about you?
- Does he lie and deceive you?
- Does he tend to make contradictory statements?
- Does he tend to take from you and not give back much?
- Does he often appeal to pity? Does he seem to try to make you feel sorry for him?
- Does he try to make you feel guilty?
- Do you sometimes feel he is taking advantage of your good nature?
- Does he seem easily bored and need constant stimulation?
- 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?
- Does he make you feel worried? Does he do it obviously or more cleverly and sneakily?
- Does he give you the impression you owe him?
- Does he chronically fail to take responsibility for harming others? Does he blame everyone and everything but himself?
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 than boredom.
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 your responsibility.
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:
They make you feel sorry for them.
They make you feel worried or afraid.
They give you the impression you owe them.
They make you feel used.
Sometimes you suspect they don't care about you.
They lie to you and deceive you.
They take a lot from you and give back very little.
They make you feel guilty (and use that to manipulate you).
They take advantage of your kindness.
They are easily bored and need constant stimulation.
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 more generous.
"Interestingly," 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.You can also make comments below.
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. Thank you.