By LARA RUTHERFORD-MORRISON ~ June 19, 2015
I’m increasingly convinced that people don’t actually know what makes someone a sociopath. They often throw around the word “sociopath” to refer to anyone who is a jerk or a liar. “Sociopath,” however, describes a distinct psychological type: A person who exhibits a set of antisocial behavioral traits that make him or her difficult and sometimes even dangerous to interact with. Sociopathy is a personality disorder. The term is at times used interchangeably with “psychopathy.” (Some argue that the two terms are synonymous, while others suggest that they are different, though related.) Sociopaths are unconcerned by questions of right and wrong; they tend to be indifferent to the emotions of others, and to be manipulative and deceptive.
The most famous examples of sociopaths are incredibly scary people, like the mercifully fictional Alex from A Clockwork Orange or the disturbingly real serial killer Ted Bundy. But most sociopaths aren’t physically violent. Dr. Martha Stout, writer of The Sociopath Next Door, estimates that one out of every 25 people in North America is a sociopath; by that number, it’s likely that most of us have met at least one. She told Interview,
[T]he central trait of sociopathy is a complete lack of conscience, which is very difficult for most people to get their heads around, because those of us who do have a conscience can’t really imagine what it would be like if we didn’t. … So if you don’t have a conscience, what is your behavior like? Apparently, if you don’t have a conscience, if you don’t really . . . love, then the only thing that’s left for you is the game—it’s about controlling things.
Sociopaths are difficult, often (emotionally, if not physically) dangerous people to be around. Read on for 11 signs that you or someone you know may be a one of them:
1. You lie just for the hell of it
Sociopaths are often chronically dishonest, lying simply to see if they can get away with it. The lies can run the gamut from minor fibs about why they’re running late for dinner to major deceptions about their lives and backgrounds. If they get caught, they don’t feel shame or guilt.
2. You know something is immoral, and you don’t care
As Stout explains, sociopaths can learn the rules of what’s right and wrong, but they don’t care about following them. While some people might feel guilt about doing things like stealing clothes or cheating on a test — even as they continue to commit the wrong — sociopaths feel none of this conflict. They simply don’t feel guilt or remorse.
3. You know you’re being hurtful, and you don’t care
A sociopath does not feel empathy for other people. They can understand on an intellectual level that they are hurting someone’s feelings, but they don’t feel that pain themselves.
4. You’re impulsive and reckless
Stout suggests that, for sociopaths, boredom is prevalent and painful. They commit many of their actions to try to relieve the sense of boredom they feel, which is why they will engage in impulsive, sometimes dangerous behavior, from driving at high speeds to experimenting with drugs.
5. You can make friends, but you can’t keep them
A sociopath can get very good at being charming, but he or she will lack emotional depth. Thus, sociopaths can attract people to themselves easily, but they rarely will have close friends or meaningful relationships with others.
6. You enjoy manipulating others
According to the Mayo Clinic, a sociopath often uses “charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or for sheer personal pleasure.” If you’re a sociopath, you enjoy seeing if you can get the people around you to do things they wouldn’t normally do (even if it creates major problems for them).
7. You could not care less about work
Sociopaths don’t feel guilt or a sense of duty, so if their jobs don’t interest them, they’ll perform their duties inconsistently or irresponsibly. Sometimes, they’ll manipulate others to do the work for them.
8. Your sex life is detached and purely physical
In 1941, Hervey Cleckley identified the major traits of the sociopathic individual. According to Cleckley, a sociopath’s sex life will be “impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated.” Plenty of people have anonymous sex outside of committed relationships, but a sociopathic person will be incapable of having sex that involves emotional attachment.
9. You get angry without justification
Cleckley suggests that sociopathic people exhibit “[i]nadequately motivated antisocial behavior.” They are subject to rages with little cause and are liable to act with emotional and sometimes physical aggression.
10. You don’t learn from your mistakes
One of Cleckley’s perhaps unexpected findings was that, although sociopaths can display a high level of rationality, they often make impulsive, bad decisions and then fail to learn from the consequences of those decisions.
11. You are completely self-centered
A sociopath is only concerned with him or herself. Cleckley argues that they are completely incapable of love. They simply don’t understand and don’t care about the emotions of others. A sociopath may be able to pretend to feel certain emotions and deep affection, but will never actually do so.
Images: Warner Bros; Giphy (5)
Sociopath Causes: the Making of a Sociopath
TANYA J. PETERSON print
It’s common to wonder what causes someone to be a sociopath as we watch in disbelief as the sociopath lies, manipulates, harms, and feels no empathy for anyone (Do Sociopaths Cry or Even Have Feelings?).
As you may know, sociopaths are anti-social; they exist outside the norms of society and care nothing for its rules or its people. Why is he like this? How did she get this way? Although the answers are incomplete, researchers are beginning to discover sociopath causes.
Causes of Sociopath, Both Nature and Nurture
Call it by any of its names – antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, or sociopathy – the disorder affects all aspects of someone’s life. A sociopath is antisocial, manipulative, deceitful, rule-breaking, and superficially charming so he can have his way. Where does something this severe come from?
Like all personality disorders, antisocial personality disorder is so intricately a part of every facet of a person’s inner and outer worlds that it’s logical that there are many things that cause someone to be a sociopath or a high-functioning sociopath. It makes sense that, like sociopathy itself, the causes come from both within a person and from their external world.
The sociopath causes are biological as well as environmental. Aspects of nature (the person’s biology and genetic make-up) influence the development of sociopathy. Also, events in the nurturing of the person impact sociopathic behaviors. While it’s still unknown exactly how much of the sociopath causes come from nature and how much come from nurture, researchers do know that both play an important role in the development of sociopathy Sociopathic Children: How Do They Become That Way?.
The Biological Causes of Sociopathy
What is it in someone’s nature that causes him to be a sociopath? Scientists have some theories. One is that the brain of a sociopath matures at a slower rate than the brain of a non-sociopath. Further, early brain damage could lead to the development of this disorder. Damage isn’t the only thing that can cause the brain to develop abnormally. Researchers are also studying biological dysfunction, or faulty wiring, as a sociopath cause.
Sociopath tests that illustrate brain functioning, such as fMRIs and EEGs, show without a doubt that there are brain-based causes of sociopathy. Biology, nature, unquestionably contributes to antisocial personality disorder. This is only part of the picture, however. The genetics or the organic brain itself must exist, but something has to trigger them.
The Environmental Causes of Sociopathy
With the right biological conditions in place, a person’s background can further add to the development of sociopathy. Early life experiences or trauma, such as extreme poverty, abuse, rejection, and other adverse conditions can, if the biological nature allows, be part of the causes of sociopathy (Sociopathic Parents and Their Effects on Children).
Interestingly, when exploring what causes someone to be a sociopath, some researchers have noticed that sociopaths coming from unstable backgrounds commit more violent crimes than sociopaths from stable backgrounds (Hare, 1999). Sociopaths do indeed come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. There is some evidence that many factors influence the severity of sociopathy.
Are Sociopath Causes Seen Later in Life?
A child is born with the capacity to become a sociopath. Environmental causes of sociopathy trigger the biological disposition. In addition, there are behaviors that exist in childhood that are clues that he will be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder as an adult (My Child Is A Sociopath! Is There Anything I Can Do?). This means that someone can’t just suddenly become a sociopath later in life.
There is one rare exception. Traumatic brain injury specifically to the paralimbic system can (but doesn’t always) cause someone to develop a sociopathic personality.
It appears that someone is born a sociopath. It takes triggers from the environment in childhood for the full-blown symptoms of a sociopath to develop, but the brain is primed for it from birth. It’s the dance between nature and nurture that are the sociopath causes underlying the making of a sociopath.
Peterson, T. (2015, August 11). Sociopath Causes: the Making of a Sociopath, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, June 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/sociopath/sociopath-causes-the-making-of-a-sociopathLast Updated: May 31, 2019
Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD
Trump Is a ‘Successful Sociopath’ and a Predator Who ‘Lacks a Conscience and Lacks Empathy,’ Says Former Harvard Psychiatrist
Aretired Harvard psychiatry professor described President Donald Trump as “essentially a predator” and a “successful sociopath.”
Lance M. Dodes, MD, a former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is yet another mental health expert to call into question the president’s state of mind
“His focus on his personal benefit at any cost is why he’s a successful sociopath,” Dodes told Salon, adding that he can “see Donald for who he really is.”
“It’s very hard to get this across to the public, because every time people talk about him, they start out with the unspoken unconscious assumption that he’s basically like the rest of us,” Dodes told Salon.Ads by scrollerads.com
“But in order to explain and predict Trump’s behavior, you have to begin with awareness that he is essentially a predator.
“Once you keep in mind that Trump lacks a conscience and lacks empathy, he becomes very easy to follow. Unlike normal people, who are complex, he’s basically running on a very simple and very disordered program.”
Last week, John M. Talmadge, MD, a physician and clinical professor of psychiatry at U.T. Southwestern Medical Center, wrote on Twitter that Trump’s “mental impairment means he cannot think strategically or in abstract terms.”
“Trump does not have a vision or a plan, because he can think only in concrete, elementary, childlike, one dimensional terms,” Talmadge, who was commenting in a personal capacity, wrote.
“He does not process an abstract idea like American forces stabilizing a multilateral conflict with geopolitical implications.
“This Trumpian brain failure is hard for normal people to understand because for normal people, abstract thought is natural, baked in, largely unnoticed. Normal people see the consequences, assess risk, make rational decisions most of the time.”
Earlier in October, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, suggested that Trump should be detained involuntarily to assess his mental health.
It followed a tweet by Trump in which the president claimed he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)” if Turkey did anything that “I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
“Am I the only psychologist who finds this claim and this threat truly alarming? Wouldn’t these normally trigger a mental health hold? Right and Left must set aside politics and agree that there is a serious problem here,” Gilbert wrote on Twitter.
Last year, Bandy Lee, MD, a Yale psychiatrist, told Newsweek that a longtime Trump family friend approached her with concerns about the president’s well-being. She also said two officials from the administration did the same.
Lee wrote in a piece for The Conversation that Trump displayed “psychological symptoms reflective of emotional compulsion, impulsivity, poor concentration, narcissism and recklessness.”
In a recent article for The Atlantic, George Conway, an attorney and former Republican who is married to senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, detailed at length the evidence that Trump is mentally unfit to hold his office.
“Simply put, Trump’s ingrained and extreme behavioral characteristics make it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires,” Conway wrote.
“The question is whether he can possibly act as a public fiduciary for the nation’s highest public trust… Given that Trump displays the extreme behavioral characteristics of a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, or a malignant narcissist—take your pick—it’s clear that he can’t.”
Sociopath v. Psychopath: What’s the Difference?
You may have heard people call someone else a “psychopath” or a “sociopath.” But what do those words really mean?
You won’t find the definitions in mental health’s official handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. They use a different term instead: antisocial personality disorder.
Most experts believe psychopaths and sociopaths share a similar set of traits. People like this have a poor inner sense of right and wrong. They also can’t seem to understand or share another person’s feelings. But there are some differences, too.
Do They Have a Conscience?
A key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice inside that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong, says L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. He’s a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.
A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.
A sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. They may know that taking your money is wrong, and they might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop their behavior.
Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others, says Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex. Someone with this personality type sees others as objects he can use for his own benefit.
They’re Not Always Violent
In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the villains who kill or torture innocent people. In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.
“At worst, they’re cold, calculating killers,” Kipnis says. Others, he says, are skilled at climbing their way up the corporate ladder, even if they have to hurt someone to get there.
If you recognize some of these traits in a family member or coworker, you may be tempted to think you’re living or working with a psychopath or sociopath. But just because a person is mean or selfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disorder.
‘Cold-Hearted Psychopath, Hot-Headed Sociopath’
It’s not easy to spot a psychopath. They can be intelligent, charming, and good at mimicking emotions. They may pretend to be interested in you, but in reality, they probably don’t care.
“They’re skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain,” Tompkins says.
Sociopaths are less able to play along. They make it plain that they’re not interested in anyone but themselves. They often blame others and have excuses for their behavior.
Some experts see sociopaths as “hot-headed.” They act without thinking how others will be affected.
Psychopaths are more “cold-hearted” and calculating. They carefully plot their moves, and use aggression in a planned-out way to get what they want. If they’re after more money or status in the office, for example, they’ll make a plan to take out any barriers that stand in the way, even if it’s another person’s job or reputation.
Recent research suggests a psychopath’s brain is not like other people’s. It may have physical differences that make it hard for the person to identify with someone else’s distress.
The differences can even change basic body functions. For example, when most people see blood or violence in a movie, their hearts beat faster, their breathing quickens, and their palms get sweaty.
A psychopath has the opposite reaction. He gets calmer. Kipnis says that quality helps psychopaths be fearless and engage in risky behavior.
“They don’t fear the consequences of their actions,” he says.