When I tell people that I work with sociopaths, their response is usually a mix of astonishment and delight. I get it. Society today is as terrified of sociopaths as it is obsessed with them. People get their definitions from media and entertainment, and both are are filled with stereotypes that associate sociopaths with danger and little else.
The first step to identifying a sociopath is knowing what a sociopath is. Whether you are curious about your own pathology or the pathology of someone you love, it is essential that you approach this subject with something other than a pop-culture understanding of the disorder.
Think of this post as sort of a primer on sociopathy. I promise to make it as painless as possible.
The Sociopath vs The Psychopath
Let’s start with the basics. A sociopath is an individual with a personality disorder, the hallmarks of which are antisocial behavior and reduced capacity for remorse. In this way, sociopaths are a lot like psychopaths – in fact the two disorders are very often confused for one another. What most people don’t realize, however, is that psychopaths and sociopaths are not the same. Although the traits associated with both are similar, causes and treatment options for both sociopaths and psychopaths are vastly different.
The biggest difference between sociopaths and psychopaths is biology. Psychopaths are believed to suffer from abnormalities in the brain that make it impossible for them to experience fear or remorse. This pre-disposes them to engage in extreme types of antisocial behavior and they are believed to be completely immune to treatment. Psychopaths are biologically incapable of empathy, they do not experience fear or anxiety, and they do not have access to a full range of emotions.
When speaking in terms of emotions, it’s important to separate the inherent from the learned. The psychologist Robert Plutchik did just this when he identified the eight fundamental or “primary” emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy.
According to Pluchik, everyone – including psychopaths – experiences primary emotions because they are hard-wired in the brain. We are all born with them. But there is another set of emotions that are not hard wired. Reactions like guilt, shame, remorse and love are a part of another category of feelings known as “social” emotions. Unlike the ones on Plutchik’s list, social emotions are not inherent. They are learned.
Social emotions are learned by observing the emotions, behavior, and thought process of other people. If a normal child does something to make his mother sad, for example, he will observe that reaction and be negatively affected by it. In this way the child learns to feel guilt. Psychopaths are incapable of this. Psychopaths are not affected by the feelings of others and are therefore unable to internalize social emotions.
As children, psychopaths are not receptive to socialization. They aren’t able to care about blending into society nor are they bothered by punishment or disapproval. They never make a connection between antisocial behavior and punishment. They never learn to establish relationships with others. As a result they are unable to progress through the so-called normal stages of development, and are typically diagnosed with conduct and/or antisocial personality disorder at an early age.
Psychopaths tend to grow more destructive as they get older. And as their level of destructive behavior increases, so do their odds of death or imprisonment. Psychopathy believed to result from obscure biological abnormalities and is not receptive to treatment. In short, there isn’t a cure. It is also believed to be fairly rare – affecting roughly one percent of the population.
Because it is so uncommon, psychopathy hasn’t drawn the necessary attention for further research. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is believed to be far more common – five to fifteen percent more common. This is why it is so important not only to distinguish them from psychopaths, but also to understand them.
Let’s take a look at some of the traits characterized by the sociopathic personality: deceitfulness, a failure to conform to social norms, disregard for lawful behavior, aggressiveness, emotional shallowness, lack of remorse and guilt, superficial charm, manipulativeness and lying.
As we discussed above, most of these traits are similar to those exhibited by the psychopath. The difference is that psychopaths act this way because of biological defects. Sociopaths, on the other hand, do so because of environmental stressors. Sociopaths are capable of experiencing fear. They are capable of experiencing anxiety and they are able to learn how to empathize. Their sociopathic behavior is not a symptom of biological shortcomings. It’s actually a type of defense mechanism.
Sociopaths do not suffer from brain abnormalities, but researchers believe they are born with temperaments that make socialization difficult. I liken this disposition to an emotional learning disability. Although they are physically capable of learning how to empathize, they struggle with the concept of remorse and the ability to process emotion. This makes the empathic learning process a difficult one.
Difficult … but not impossible.
The Sociopathic Child
Imagine two kids at their first tennis lesson. One kid is an obvious prodigy. She picks up the racquet and is immediately comfortable with the swing. She hits most of the balls and has the spatial recognition to correct her mistakes. She’s a pro in the making.
The other kid isn’t so lucky. She swings and misses repeatedly. She trips over the ball. Her hand/eye coordination is terrible and she’s very clumsy. Both kids are physically capable of learning to play tennis properly, but the second kid is going to need a lot more lessons.
Sociopaths are the second kid in this analogy. Only instead of being mediocre athletes with bad swings and clumsy feet, they are social outliers with limited emotional range and a penchant for lying.
Research tells us that “normal” children are born with a temperament that makes socialization (and the learning of social emotions) close to instinctual. This innate disposition makes them highly receptive to traditional concepts of guilt, wrong vs. right, and good vs. evil. In most cases if you tell a kid not to do something because it is bad, he will internalize it, feel guilty about it, and eventually stop doing it. He will become conscientious, which is the general preference to avoid antisocial behavior.
Sociopathic children aren’t like this. Sociopaths are born with temperaments that make socialization difficult. As I said before, it’s akin to having an emotional learning disability. Psychopaths are never able to overcome this disability due to biological defects. But sociopaths do not have these defects. This means they are capable of learning social emotions in spite of having a temperament that makes it difficult. Their innate disposition is not emotionally turn-key so the process of learning socialization takes a bit more time.
Children who are sociopaths don’t have an automatic guilt response and they are not innately concerned with altruism. They don’t respond to shame and they aren’t inherently worried about the feelings of others. When told he shouldn’t do something because it is wrong or bad, the sociopathic child’s reaction is usually one of, “So what?”
This is not because he is a bad kid but because he has a harder time learning social emotions. This child needs more than, “Because it is wrong.” Sociopathic children don’t innately grasp these concepts. But just because empathy doesn’t come naturally to these types of children doesn’t mean it won’t come at all. Sociopathic kids just need a little extra help.
One problem is that parents in today’s society are completely unprepared to deal with these types of kids. This is especially true in single-parent households where there is often barely enough time to socialize normal children much less ones with emotional problems. Dozens of researchers have studied the relationship between single-family households and antisocial behavioral patterns, and have discovered that children raised in single-parent homes are far more likely to display sociopathic traits. But single moms and dads aren’t the root of the problem.
Modern parenting techniques are designed for “normal” kids – and only these kids. So when parents find themselves with a child that doesn’t seem to care about rules or basic principles of normal behavior, there is nowhere to go for help. There are no books to read about sociopathic kids, there are no psychologists to visit, there are no support groups to attend or online tips to research. Socializing a sociopath is hard and despite doing the best they can, most parents simply don’t know how to do it.
Without the introduction to socialization they are expected to receive at home, sociopathic children generally have a hard time at school. They don’t understand basic social norms and are subsequently rejected by other kids. After this happens enough times, these children start to hide their behavior and learn to mimic the reactions and behaviors of their classmates so that they won’t be rejected. They teach themselves what normal looks like, but don’t ever internalize it.
Are you familiar with the term “trench coat mafia?” It came into vogue after the Columbine murders. It’s used to describe any group of students who are social outcasts. In 1999 the media focused a great deal of their coverage on “trench coat mafias,” telling parents to be “on guard” for trench-coat-wearing teens and other nonsense. Even to this day whenever there is a school shooting you will inevitably hear a reporter drawing similar comparisons.
These kids – these members of the “trench coat mafia” and other outcast groups – are perceived as the bad guys. And for what? They are simply peer-rejected adolescents trying to fit in somewhere. They aren’t accepted by most of the other students, so they band together to create their own little family. This is a completely reasonable course of action, and yet these kids are the ones who are negatively labeled for it. Why? Because the general population doesn’t understand them. And what people don’t understand, they fear.
Conventional kids don’t want unconventional people in their group, which means sociopaths aren’t allowed to belong. But these kids are similarly punished for starting their own groups. So what should they do? Wander their schools all alone? No. Sociopathic kids don’t have many options other than to go into hiding or start pretending. The risk of being outed as “different” isn’t worth the reward of appearing normal.
Better grades, better relationships with teachers, better chances for college, better prospects for career – everything is better for the person who appears to be normal. So sociopaths hide. They lie. They manipulate. They learn to become master impersonators and they blend right in. Sociopaths can’t help the fact that they aren’t naturally remorseful. This is a symptom of their personality type and they have no control over it. So they conceal it. They deal with the symptom but not the disease, and they usually have to do it on their own.
Sociopaths have little choice but to deal with their problems by themselves, because most psychologists don’t know how to help – don’t even know that they can help. The disorder is largely perceived as untreatable, and many “experts” in the field claim there is no cure for sociopathy. But that’s not what the research says.
Research indicates that while there is no cure for psychopathy, sociopathy is actually quite receptive to certain types of treatment. Therapeutic interventions -including those targeting anxiety and re-socialization, for example – are known to be very effective for the treatment of sociopathy. But in order to benefit from such treatments, sociopaths must first get a correct diagnosis.
The Anti-Social Personality
One of the biggest obstacles in the diagnosis of sociopathy is the common belief among therapists that it is synonymous with anti-social personality disorder (or ASPD). It’s not.
When attempting to diagnose any mental illness, therapists refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is currently in its fifth edition. The DSM is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is very specific with diagnostic requirements. Naturally, psychologists refer to it when attempting to diagnose a sociopath.
This is where things get complicated.
The general rule among therapists is that in order to be labeled a sociopath, a patient must first be diagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder. According to the DSM, a diagnosis for ASPD is appropriate only for those who have repeatedly exhibited acts that are ground for arrest, have been expelled from school, have been the aggressor in repeated physical assaults, and who are consistently irresponsible.
But this diagnosis is only considered applicable if the patient in question has engaged in such behaviors prior to the age of fifteen. What this means is that an antisocial diagnosis is only applicable to people who acted up as kids and got caught doing it.
Do you realize how ridiculous this is?
We’ve already learned that because of their social anxiety and fear of rejection (combined with the stigma of being in a group like the trench coat mafia) sociopaths are better off staying under the radar. With that in mind, do you know how many of these kids have taught themselves how to be invisible?
Do you know how many Dylan Kleebold and Eric-Harris-types are silently drifting through the school systems making sure they don’t get caught until they choose to get caught? Trying to diagnose a sociopath based on conduct criteria is like trying to fish with a giant hole in your net. You might catch a few, but most of us are figuring out very quickly how to swim through the opening.
I went to dozens of therapists, all of whom told me that I couldn’t be labeled a sociopath because I hadn’t met the criteria for antisocial personality disorder. And the reason I hadn’t met this criteria was not because my behavior wasn’t antisocial. It was because I hadn’t been expelled, arrested, or red-flagged as having conduct disorder by a mental health professional prior to the age of fifteen. Because I’d never been caught, I could not be considered a sociopath.
Never mind the fact that I struggled with empathy. Never mind that I exhibited little to no remorse. Never mind the fact that I was callous, manipulative, or that my sociopathic behavior was increasing in severity. Based on the DSM criteria, I could not be diagnosed as sociopathic.
This wouldn’t have been the case had I been a psychopath. Based on what we know about psychopathy, the diagnostic requirement of antisocial personality disorder is an appropriate tool. Remember, these individuals are not capable of experiencing fear or remorse nor are they able to adjust their behavior.
This means they are going to get caught. They are going to be expelled or arrested or flagged for conduct disorder and this behavior will likely start before the age of fifteen. But as we discussed earlier, psychopaths make up a very small percentage of the population. What about the rest of us?
What about the sociopaths, who are believed to represent anywhere from five to fifteen percent of the population? If the DSM criteria for sociopathy is only applicable to psychopaths, how are sociopaths supposed to get help?
Right now they can’t. And this is mostly because the mental health field lags behind the research in both its understanding and diagnostic criteria for the disorder. The DSM doesn’t recognize sociopathy as an independent disorder. This has created a giant diagnostic loophole that some of the most troubled and potentially dangerous individuals are slipping right through.
Sociopaths are capable of self-awareness and self-control. This means they are able to learn from their mistakes and are entirely capable of indulging in either good or bad behavior when it is in their best interests to do so. With practice they can turn their sociopathic tendencies on or off like a switch. They are immune to guilt and they are immune to fear. But fortunately, they are not immune to anxiety.
The Anxious Sociopath
Anxiety plays a huge role in the life of a sociopath. Studies show that sociopaths score very highly on tests related to anxiety, and many researchers believe that these individuals experience a great deal of anxiety when engaging in destructive behavior. But this is actually good news. Admittedly, the mind reels when imagining how a sociopath suffering from intense anxiety can be anything other than a disastrous fire person. But trust me there’s a silver lining.
The fact that sociopaths suffer from anxiety is what makes many professionals believe they can be treated. One of the first physicians to understand this was Dr. Benjamin Karpman.
Karpman’s extensive case studies revealed that psychopaths behave antisocially without fear or remorse. Sociopaths, however, engage in similar antisocial behavior but experience considerable anxiety in the process. Dr. Karpman’s research indicates that the underlying cause of sociopathy is acute anxiety, and that this anxiety is the direct result of environmental stressors.
Karpman isn’t the only researcher to have established a link between sociopathy and anxiety. Dr. David Lykken is also well known for his progressive work studying sociopaths. Lykken took Karpman’s theory a step further and studied the behavioral motivators of thirty-nine individuals he identified as sociopaths using diagnostic criteria set forth in Cleckley’s Psychopathic Checklist.
While testing these subjects, Lykken found the sociopaths scored higher than expected on anxiety tests. He also found that they were likely to learn from mistakes and were able to control inappropriate responses. From this and other studies he conducted, Lykken theorized that the antisocial behavior exhibited by many sociopaths was driven by anxiety associated with frustration or inner conflict. What’s more, he believed that this anxiety was treatable.
Lykken later expanded his studies to include sociopathic children and reached a similar conclusion. His research discovered that sociopathic youths also suffer from acute anxiety, and that their sociopathic behavior is a defense against rising anxiety. He concluded that this anxiety is largely driven by exclusion from pro-social peer groups. Simply put, sociopaths are anxious because they are lonely.
Think about it: If you are a kid who doesn’t seem to get things the way other kids do, and whose parents might love you but because of your behavior don’t particularly like you, and whose attempts to make friends fail because you don’t act the “right” way, then chances are you are going to be filled with anxiety. You never know when you are going to say or do the wrong thing. You never know who you can really trust or if there is anyone you can really trust at all. And this anxiety doesn’t go away. It gets worse with age.
Sociopathic kids don’t “grow out” of their personality. It isn’t “just a phase.” They simply learn to hide their behavior so they aren’t caught. At least the smart ones do. They start hiding in plain sight, but they never truly make friends. They never truly fit into regular society. They just grow up. They get jobs at places where they aren’t understood. They endure relationships with people who don’t really know them. All the while their anxiety grows and grows.
A researcher named Linda Mealey proposed that sociopaths are simply psychologically disadvantaged people who use manipulative behavior and cheating strategies to “make the best of a bad job.” I couldn’t agree more, but I believe Jessica Rabbit described it best when she said, “We’re not bad, we’re just drawn that way.”
Sociopaths are not bad people; they just have an emotional learning disability that makes bad behavior an easier choice. They rarely have to deal with the consequence of regret – a social emotion – so deciding to do the right thing is just that, a decision. It’s not something they are compelled to do based on shame or guilt.
I understand this first-hand. As a sociopath, I can’t be blamed for the way that I feel (or not feel). I can only be blamed for my actions. So I try to make the right decisions because I want to make them, since – unlike most – I am not compelled to make them.
Mealy’s stance on the prevention of sociopathy addresses these disadvantages as well as the urge many sociopaths have to pretend to be someone they’re not. She proposes classes that encourage self-acceptance among sociopaths, and suggests therapy for underlying anxiety as treatment for the disorder.
I couldn’t agree more.
Instead of wandering through life alone and trading one social mask for another, sociopaths should be encouraged to be themselves. They should be taught to respect the facets of their personalities as well as those around them, and they should be showered with compassion.
It might sound counter intuitive, but sociopaths are in desperate need of empathy. This might not be a concept to which they can relate, but it is certainly one from which they can benefit. After all, how can anyone be expected to demonstrate compassion if they have never witnessed it for themselves?
I can tell you from experience that empathy is a game changer for sociopaths. Once I knew I wasn’t alone, once I understood that I wasn’t “bad,” and once I was taught that my personality type was not “wrong” but different … that is when the anxiety began to lesson and the destructive urges began to cease. That’s why I started this blog. Because I wanted to do for others what someone once did for me: demonstrate empathy.
Empathy is a psychological skeleton key. It opens every door. It softens every stance. To empathize with someone is to relate to them. To relate is to understand. Understanding the personality of sociopaths is the first step in seeing these people as human beings – not monsters.
Sociopaths aren’t bad, they’re just drawn that way. In fact, a lot of them are quite friendly. And why wouldn’t they be? Theirs is a personality type unlike anything else – one that is full of perks and surprises. Trust me, you’d be amazed. You just have to know where to look.
How about you? Are you someone whose personality is hidden? Do you struggle with destructive urges and antisocial behavior? Has this blog post hit a nerve? Do these definitions and explanations make sense? Do you recognize yourself in these words? Do you recognize someone you love?
If so then I want to help you. A sociopathic diagnosis isn’t a death wish. It also doesn’t have to be “bad,” or scary or lonely or without hope. All it takes is a little understanding and a willingness to learn.
Trust me. I’ve been there.