They may sound rare and exotic, like they only exist in movies or the news, but sociopaths and psychopaths form a significant percentage of our population, sociopaths being roughly 4% of the population and psychopaths being somewhere between 0.60-2.5% (but rising to 4% at high levels of the corporate world).
Both conditions fall under Antisocial Personality Disorder. The biggest difference between the two is the cause of each disorder. Psychopathy, on the one hand, is thought to be found in nature (i.e. a certain number of kids are born this way) and forms a stable proportion of our population at all times, while sociopathy, on the other hand, is thought to be caused by a child’s early, adverse circumstances in life. These separate causes will shape some of the differences in the symptoms between these two disorders even though they also share some characteristics.
Traits shared by both psychopaths and sociopaths (keep in mind these traits can range from mild to severe):
- Intelligent, wily, cunning and manipulative
- Charming, even highly charismatic (you want to drink their Kool-Aid)
- Narcissistic (egocentric)
- Blatant lying
- Re-writing reality
- Failure to accept responsibility (great difficulty apologizing)
- Emotional expression is always a little off; shallow affect or genuine emotion seems short-lived
- Disregard for laws and social mores
- Disregard for the rights of others
- Failure to feel remorse or guilt
- Cruelty seems hardwired or as though it comes too easily
Traits that can differentiate between a psychopath and a sociopath include:
- Psychopaths are thought to feel zero remorse or empathy, while sociopaths are thought to express and feel occasional remorse and emotion.
- Psychopaths are thought to be emotionless, highly organized thinkers who will enact their plans often without a finger pointing back at them, while sociopaths are thought to be angrier, more disorganized and more clearly “off”—meaning that people around the sociopath eventually know something is up with them.
Antisocial Personality Disorders do not necessarily make a person a dangerous criminal. Although, they certainly can as in the cases of Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate Cult) and Jim Jones (The People’s Temple). And these disorders do not necessarily make a person manipulative on the scale of, say, Bernie Madoff. Although, they certainly can.
Like so many mental health conditions, the traits of sociopathy and psychopathy exist on a continuum and comprise some traits we all share to a degree at specific moments in our lives even though we would not be diagnosed with one of these disorders. Ron Johnson, author of The Psychopath Test, asserts that "to be super successful in corporate America, one needs to be somewhat psychopathic."
On her book jacket, Confessions of a Sociopath M.E. Thomas says, “we are your neighbors, co-workers, and quite possibly the people closest to you: lovers, family, friends. Our risk-seeking behavior and general fearlessness are thrilling, our glibness and charm alluring. Our often quick wit and outside-the-box thinking make us appear intelligent—even brilliant. We climb the corporate ladder faster than the rest, and appear to have limitless self-confidence. Who are we? We are highly successful, non-criminal sociopaths and we comprise 4% of the American population (that’s 1 in 25 people!).”
Thomas describes herself as, “a cutthroat attorney who sailed through law school without much effort, landed a position at a prestigious law firm, and then became a professor. She also claims to fantasize about murder, drops friends when their personal problems get in the way of her fun, and plots ways to ‘ruin people’ in her spare time. She straddles a fine line between success and failure, with the traits that have gotten her ahead simultaneously contributing to her periodic downfalls.”
So if you find yourself at dinner with or, falling for or, married to someone who may fit the above descriptions, ask yourself the following questions:
- When you realize the person you are going out with is highly charismatic and charming, ask yourself, “Do I wish I could be more likable, therefore this person seems to fill the void of this perceived fault of mine?” or “Am I uncomfortable with my own charisma, therefore I can bury it even further under the dominating personality of this other person?”
- When you realize the person you are going out with has a tendency to disregard rules or the law, ask yourself, “What are my own boundaries? Am I willing to be with someone who crosses established boundaries so easily?”
- When you think you catch this person re-writing history of an event or just flat out lying, ask yourself, “Is the truth important to me? Why would I not look at this as a major warning sign? Am I looking the other way or letting things like this slide too easily when I know deep down something is wrong?”
- When you realize this person is somewhat unusual in how they express emotion (too carefully, as though scripted, nothing at all, or too hot-headedly), ask yourself, “Am I comfortable with this? What is happening to my own emotions? Do I feel free to be myself and share my own true thoughts and feelings? What happens when I do?”
- When you realize this person can show little to no empathy in their actions or statements about others, ask yourself, “Am I comfortable with this person’s callousness? Is there a chance my ego is soothed by the fact that they accept me when they are so clearly disdainful of others? Do I feel like I am ‘accepted’ into this person’s orbit and therefore feel privileged, somehow?”
- If you witness cruelty, suspect cruelty, or are the recipient of this person’s cruelty, ask yourself what you are still doing there. Get help from sources outside of this person’s influence. Remember who you are.
With Antisocial Personality Disorder, you do not want to stand up to, or confront, this person. You would do best to get outside of their sphere of influence as quickly as possible. Yes, the people with these disorders can be lovable—even if they, themselves, don’t feel love. And they did not ask to have these disorders. However, if you can see the writing on the wall and you haven’t gotten in too deep, the key here is to jump ship early, no matter how hot or charismatic they are. Jump ship early or face dealing with this personality 24/7. There is no known cure.