Sociopath or A-hole?
How to Tell the Difference
When you think of a sociopath, you probably picture someone like Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, or Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery. But like most mental health conditions, sociopathy- otherwise known as antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD for short- exists on a spectrum. And clearly, kidnapping and hobbling your favorite author or enjoying a cannibalistic dinner with a nice chianti would be pretty out there on that spectrum.
Before I get started on the details of recognizing sociopathy, I want to quickly remind you about last week’s blog topic, the differences between sociopathy and psychopathy. Both disorders are considered ASPD’s, but people tend to use the terms sociopath and psychopath interchangeably, though they mean different things. Typically, sociopaths are a product of their childhood environment or upbringing. Disturbed and unhinged, they’re not always big planners, so they’re more prone to impulsive behavior. They’re very likely to break rules and/ or laws without thinking twice, but as for going on a murderous rampage? Not so much. On the other hand, psychopaths are essentially born, and have an innate disdain for others coupled with a compulsive need for violence. They are cold and calculating, and can even be charming when it suits their purposes, a la Ted Bundy. Psychopaths are at the most extreme end of the antisocial personality disorder spectrum, and while all psychopaths are antisocial, not all antisocials are psychopaths.
There are many people with difficult personalities out there, all of which can impact your life to varying degrees. These are your garden variety a-holes, and they’re usually pretty simple-minded and relatively harmless if you don’t pay them much attention. But sociopaths have one of the most hidden personality disorders, as well as one of the most dangerous. They often slip under the radar because they put so much energy into deceiving people. In my vast experience with sociopaths, most people don’t know what to watch out for, and they’re generally shocked at how easily they can be manipulated. In truth, anyone can be a target. The point of this week’s blog is to explain sociopathic behavior, help you identify potential sociopaths in your life, and share how to deal with them once you do.
Sociopathy occurs in nearly 4 percent of the U.S. population, which works out to about one in 20-ish people. There is a clear link between ASPD and sex. You are 3 to 5 times more likely to be a sociopath if you own a Y chromosome; and only 25% of sociopaths are female. Obvi not all men are sociopaths, but being male can be one clue in identifying them.
Whether someone has intentionally deceived you for their own perverse pleasure, or you’ve had a college roommate eat the last of your mom’s famous homemade lasagna without asking before or apologizing after, you’ve experienced sociopathic behavior. Fortunately, your selfish roommate’s sociopathic behavior probably doesn’t make him an actual sociopath… it just makes him rude AF.
So that begs the question: how can you differentiate between an a-hole and a sociopath? It’s not always as easy as it seems, because sociopaths can be masters of deception, and some traits might be hidden by their frequent lies. Remember too that they can be intelligent and good at manipulating people into doing what they want, so they may come across as friendly and outgoing when it’s really all a ruse.
That said, here are some of the general themes to be on the lookout for:
Sociopaths can be highly effective at getting you to overlook any warning signs you see or sense. That’s why they’re called con artists: they take you into their confidence, and you trust them. You will doubt yourself before you doubt them. They are narcissistic, believing they are better, smarter, cuter, funnier, and more interesting than anyone else.
In a dating relationship, a sociopath may be the most loving, charming, affectionate, and giving person you have ever met. But, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. They are likely to be secretly dating several other people. They can be very promiscuous and are loyal to no one. They’re also very quick to anger. If you dare to question them, their anger response is totally outside the scope of what would be considered ‘normal’.
They can be fast talkers and bull$#&t artists. They’ll say anything to cover up their secret activities, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. I have a patient that was actually living with 3 different women in 3 different houses, at the same time- and the women were happy and had no clue about his deception. I actually had him bring each of them (in separate appointments, of course) for a couple’s session, because I had to see it for myself. Get this…he would tell them that he did contract work for the CIA, so he couldn’t give them any details about it. When he would leave a woman to be with one of the others, he’d just say that he’d be gone all the next week on a secret mission. And then he would lament about how much he wished he could tell them all about it, but he just couldn’t, so they must never askhim about it. And they bought it, hook, line, and sinker!
They quickly lose interest in a girl-/ boy- friend, but they’ll keep them hanging on with a few words of love, so that they can still have sex with them, borrow money from them (which is never returned) and maintain access to their house or car. They have no empathy, so they’ll use them until they’re not useful anymore, and then leave, feeling no remorse for any damage they’ve left in their wake.
They are secretive. They may pretend they are going to work at the office everyday, when they’re actually going out to deal drugs. Or gambling away their paycheck, then saying they were robbed. They’re often impulsive and irresponsible, and unable to maintain a job, so they don’t have money and need to find a reason to cover that up. They like to see how far they can control a situation, what they can get away with. Everything is done for their personal gain, and they have a greatly exaggerated sense of self-worth.
Sociopaths love to play the victim. They’ll tell you a story about how someone else took advantage of them, or how life circumstances treated them very badly. This is a calculated tactic to get you to feel sorry for them, so that you’ll want to help them. This ploy works, because normal, healthy people naturally care about others, even strangers. Ted Bundy tore a page out of the sociopath’s play book and used to put a fake cast on his arm or leg, then drop a bunch of books near an isolated young woman on a college campus. Then he would ask her to help him carry his books back to his car, and when they leaned into his car to put the books in the back seat, he would shove them inside. And the rest was history.
I’ve seen firsthand how all of these kinds of activities have gone on under the radar for so many people in relationships with sociopaths. The targets are always shocked, because the sociopath was so good at living a lie. But as I tell the victims, that’s what they do.
Officially diagnosing someone as a sociopath using the DSM-IV isn’t always as simple as you might think. But, if someone has three or more of the tendencies listed below, as Jeff Foxworthy would say, they might be a sociopath:
-Failure to conform to social norms (i.e, they break the law)
-Repeatedly lie or con others for profit or pleasure
-Fail to plan ahead or exhibit impulsive behavior
-Repeated irritability or aggression (i.e, they always get into fights)
-Reckless disregard for the safety of themselves or others
-Consistent irresponsibility (i.e, they can’t hold down a job or meet financial obligations)
-Lack remorse (i.e., they rationalize their actions or are indifferent to other people’s feelings)
Following is more information on some of the red flag symptoms of sociopaths to watch out for, based on criteria listed in the DSM-IV.
Symptom: Lack of empathy
Perhaps one of the most well-known signs of a sociopath is a lack of empathy, particularly an inability to feel remorse for their actions. When you don’t experience remorse, you’re basically free to do any horrible thing that comes to your sick mind. That’s a problem.
Symptom: Difficult relationships
Sociopaths find it hard to form emotional bonds, so their relationships are often unstable and chaotic. Rather than forge connections with the people in their lives, they might try to exploit them for their own benefit through deceit, coercion, and intimidation.
Sociopaths tend to try to seduce people and ingratiate themselves with the people around them for their own gain, or just for sheer entertainment. While some are charming, this doesn’t mean they’re all exceptionally charismatic. I’ve seen plenty that I would not call charming in any way, shape, or form. But they think they are of course; this can be an important distinction.
Sociopaths have a reputation for being dishonest and deceitful. They often feel comfortable lying to get their own way, or to get themselves out of trouble, whatever motivation they may come up with. They also have a tendency to embellish the truth when it suits them.
Some sociopaths can be openly violent and aggressive. Others will cut people down verbally. Either way, they tend to show a cruel disregard for other people’s feelings.
Sociopaths are not only hostile themselves, but they’re more likely to interpret others’ behavior as hostile, which drives them to seek revenge. Revenge is a primary goal when a sociopath feels wronged.
Sociopaths often have a deep disregard for financial and social obligations. Ignoring responsibilities is extremely common, which can include not paying child support when it’s due, allowing bills to pile up, and regularly taking time off work. Their needs and wants supersede everyone else’s, no matter who they are, even including their children.
We all have our impulsive moments: a last minute road trip, a drastic new hairstyle, or a new pair of shoes you just have to have. But for sociopaths, making spur of the moment decisions with no thought for the consequences is part of everyday life. They find it extremely difficult to even make a plan, much less stick to it.
Symptom: Risky behavior
Combine irresponsibility, impulsivity, and a need for instant gratification, and you get risky behavior. It’s not surprising that sociopaths get involved in risky behavior, because they tend to have little concern for themselves, let alone the safety of others. This means that excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, unsafe sex, dangerous hobbies, and criminal activities are all on the sociopath’s to-do list.
Can sociopathy be cured or treated?
There’s no cure for sociopathy, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that it can be successfully treated. Typically, the main issue in treating it is that it’s unusual for a sociopath to seek professional help. One of the curious things about this disorder is a general lack of insight on the sociopath’s part. They may recognize that they have problems, might notice that they get into trouble on the job, and may recognize that their spouses are not happy with them. But they tend to blame other people, and other circumstances, for the trouble; this is part and parcel of the diagnosis. The good news is that symptoms of sociopathy and other ASPD’s seem to recede with age, especially among milder cases and in people that don’t do drugs or drink to excess. Cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t very helpful for treating the disorder itself, but it can help people to stop certain devious behaviors. Sociopaths might not really develop actual empathy or learn to feel badly about their actions, but they could possibly learn to stop eating their roommate’s lasagna.
So now you know the symptoms of sociopathy to look for and you’re better prepared to recognize a sociopath. But if you suspect that you’re dealing with a sociopath, what should you do?
The best and simplest answer is to get far away from them, to permanently extricate them from your life. If you don’t, they will seriously complicate that life. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible. If it’s your boss or a relative, you might not be able to just cut ties and bolt, but you can learn how to deal with their sociopathic behavior and still remain true to yourself and your own mental health.
First, trust your instincts. A person doesn’t need a DSM diagnosis to be a manipulative a-hole who’s causing you harm. If they don’t care about your feelings, repeatedly lie to you, and manipulate your emotions for their pleasure, they aren’t someone you should be around, sociopath or not.
Secondly, remember that you cannot change this person. They may not realize that what they’re doing is abnormal, and they definitely don’t give a flip if it hurts you. You must let go of any illusions that you can fix them or get them to be a better person.
As you distance yourself from them, the sociopath might try to make deals with you. Do not go along with it! They don’t care about your feelings and they don’t obey any rules, so they will never honor any deal they offer. And even worse, when it fails (because it will) they will say that you were the one that ruined the deal; they’ll try anything to put any and all blame on you. So your best bet is to just avoid that crap all together.
If you’re not sure how to distance yourself from this person, or you need other tools to deal with them, talk to a therapist. They’re far better able to spot the true tendencies of a sociopath, and they can help you learn how to set boundaries or remove yourself from the situation. They can also help you cope with the harm the sociopath inflicted and the damage they left in their wake.
If the person seems like they’ll cause extreme harm to themselves or others, you can call an emergency mental health line. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 1-800-662-4357) is a good one. And If you are, or anyone else is, ever in any physical danger, call 911 immediately.
Now you know all the hallmark behaviors of a sociopath and what to do when you realize there’s one squirming around in your life. There are a bunch of sociopaths out there, so by all means, share the knowledge with your friends and family.
For more information and patient stories on sociopathy and other personality disorders, you can read my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. And you can also check out my lectures and subscribe to my YouTube channel by searching under Mark Agresti.Learn More
That dude in the little blue speedster flying down I-95 and using all three lanes to cut everyone off and pass them… what a total psycho! The captain of the high school cheerleading squad who’s demanding that her boyfriend work extra hours to pay for her hair and nails to get done every week… that chick is such a self-centered sociopath! We pin these labels on people easily, and often jokingly, but psychopathy and sociopathy are pretty serious states of being, sometimes far from a joking matter.
Do you know someone who seems to have no understanding of what it means to show empathy or concern for others, someone who has no regard for right or wrong, or someone who actually seems to derive pleasure from hurting others? To you, this behavior and personality seem calloused and unreal, maybe even impossible to believe; but believe it…if the above characteristics sound familiar to you, you’ve probably crossed paths with a psychopath or sociopath.
A lot of people use the labels psychopath and sociopath interchangeably when referring to a person who exhibits a wide array of creepy, odd, or dangerous behaviors. But while the two do share some common traits, there are other points that separate them as well. Both sociopaths and psychopaths have a patent disregard for the safety and rights of others, and manipulation and deceit are central features to both personalities. Contrary to popular belief and what you see in the movies, psychopaths and sociopaths are not necessarily bloodthirsty or violent. Surprised? Violence is actually not a necessary requirement for a diagnosis of psychopathy— but it is often present. In this blog, I’ll shed some light on sociopathic and psychopathic traits, go over why they’re grouped together, and also what sets them apart from one another.
In actuality, neither psychopathy and sociopathy are official diagnoses on their own, but The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness puts them under the heading of antisocial personality disorders, meaning that people with psychopathy and sociopathy have a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, hereafter ASPD.
ASPD is a mental health diagnosis characterized by a lack of empathy, ie an inability to care about the needs or feelings of others. Approximately 3 percent of the US population qualifies for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. It is more common among males and more often seen in people with an alcohol or substance abuse problem, or in forensic settings such as prisons. People with antisocial personality disorder are usually master manipulators and absent of moral conscience. The exact cause of ASPD is not currently known, but environmental factors, genetics, and possible changes in the function and structure of the brain are believed to be factors that contribute to its development. Other contributing factors may include having a family history of mental health disorders or a history of living in an unstable or violent family in an abusive or neglectful environment. In both cases, some signs or symptoms are nearly always present in a person before the age of 15, so that by the time that person is an adult, they are well on their way to becoming a full fledged psychopath or sociopath.
The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis and key characteristics of ASPD:
Lack of empathy toward others
Constant deceitful or manipulative behavior
Little regard for the safety of others
Difficulty with all relationship types
Aggression or irritability
Lack of remorse or guilt for actions
Reckless and/or dangerous behavior
Laws/ Rules don’t apply to them
Regularly breaks or flouts the law
Impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
Prone to fighting and aggression
Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
As with many things in life, there are different levels of both psychopaths and sociopaths.
Some might be thieves or cheaters, while others could be actual killers. The most concerning difference between psychopaths and sociopaths is that when someone is a psychopath, you’ll probably never know it, never have the faintest idea… which is what makes them even more dangerous.
You’re probably familiar with some famous fictional psychopaths and sociopaths. How about psychopath Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, or the psychopathic detective Dexter from the primetime crime drama of the same name. Or sociopathic pop culture hero, King Joffrey from Game of Thrones, and the sociopathic Joker in The Dark Knight. These characters all had ASPD and lacked empathy, broke laws and disregarded rules, ignored others’ rights, exhibited violent tendencies, and never felt an iota of guilt for their behavior, if they even knew they behaved badly and hurt people in the first place. Which they probably didn’t.
Traits of a Psychopath
Psychology researchers generally believe that people are born psychopaths, as it’s likely associated with genetic predisposition. The flip side is that sociopaths tend to be a product of their environment, perhaps as a result of abuse. But that’s not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhood trauma.
Research has shown that psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences, as psychopaths often have underdeveloped areas of the brain in regions that are responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
Generally speaking, psychopaths are superficial, egocentric, and emotionally shallow. They’re practiced and smooth operators, and they will compliment you, make you feel good, and say all of the right things, until you find out later they’ve been playing you for their own purposes, using you, stealing money from you, or plotting some kind of crime…like your murder.
They’re extremely manipulative and pros at gaining others’ trust. They have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others, so they intentionally form shallow, artificial relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits them. They see people as pawns to be used to forward their own goals and agendas, and rarely, if ever, feel any guilt regarding how they treat others or how much they hurt them.
Psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, as they hold steady, normal jobs. They tend to be very successful and well liked, much like master con artists. They may even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner. And while they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own, living in and experiencing the real world. They are the princes most charming of all…until they aren’t anymore. Legendary psychopath Ted Bundy comes to mind here. Women found him smart and attractive, and they took him at face value; and that was their undoing.
When a psychopath engages in criminal behavior, they tend to do so in a way that minimizes risk to themselves. If that means they must implicate an innocent party in the behavior, so be it. They will carefully, and even obsessively, plan criminal activity to ensure they don’t get caught, having contingency plans in place for any and every possibility.
While psychopaths are like chameleons, seamlessly blending into their environment, sociopaths are easier to spot. The cool, calm psycho attitude is replaced by the hot-headed sociopathic one. They are rage-prone, and if things don’t go their way, they’ll get angry and aggressive, with emotional outbursts.
Traits of a Sociopath
Researchers tend to believe that sociopathy is the result of environmental factors, such as a child or teen’s upbringing in a very negative household; or in any situation that resulted in physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma.
In general, sociopaths tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While they also have difficulties forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may find it easier to form an attachment to a like-minded group. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths have a difficult time holding down a long-term job, fitting in properly with some social situations, and presenting a normal family life to the outside world.
When a sociopath engages in criminal behavior, they may do so in an impulsive and largely unplanned manner, with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions. They may become agitated and angered easily, sometimes resulting in violent outbursts. These kinds of behaviors increase a sociopath’s chances of being apprehended.
Who is More Dangerous?
As with many things in life, there are different degrees of severity in psychopaths and sociopaths. In reality, both pose risks to society, because they must constantly, 24/7-365, find ways to cope with a way of thinking and a way of life that is different from society’s accepted norm, and this can make them edgy. But, that said, psychopathy is the more dangerous disorder, because people with it experience far less guilt connected to their actions. Also, a psychopath is better able to dissociate from their actions, meaning they can easily separate emotional feelings from any actions they undertake. Without this emotional involvement, any pain that other people suffer is completely meaningless to a psychopath. All of the most famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Psychopath v Sociopath: Childhood Clues
Clues indicative of later psychopathy and sociopathy are usually available in childhood. Most people who are diagnosed with sociopathy or psychopathy have had a previous pattern of behavior in which they violated the basic rights of others or endangered their safety. They also often have a childhood history of breaking rules and laws, as well as societal norms too. These kinds of childhood behaviors are recognized as a conduct disorder.
Four categories of problem behavior
Aggression to people and animals
Destruction of property
Deceitfulness or theft
Serious violations of rules or laws
If you recognize any of the above four symptoms or any of the specific childhood clues of conduct in a child or young teen, they’re at much greater risk for having antisocial personality disorder. We’ll talk about what to do with that next week. Also next week, we’ll get deeper into how to spot a sociopath.
Check out my website for more blogs at dragresti.com/blog/ and pass them around to friends. Search my name on YouTube to see all of my lectures there and subscribe to my channel, people. And share with your friends! Also, as always, my book Tales from the Couch is available on Amazon.com.Learn More