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How to Identify a Psychopath or Sociopath

The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” often get used interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same.  Regardless of semantics, here’s how to spot the heartless, charming evil of a psychopath or sociopath.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
July 4, 2014
Episode #026

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Thanks to Savvy Psychologist listener Cindy Jossart of Webster City, Iowa for the idea for this week's podcast.

With darkness in their hearts, ice water in their veins, and snake-charming smiles on their faces, psychopaths make up anywhere from 0.6% to 4% of the population. This personality disorder affects men more frequently than women.  It’s been documented in cultures the world over. Here's a great icebreaker for your next cocktail party: the Native Alaskan peoples call psychopaths "kunlangeta." 

The brain of a psychopath is different than yours or mine (unless you're a psychopath).  It has a smaller prefrontal cortex—the part that regulates behavior, impulse control, and planning—and a deformed amygdala, the seat of negative emotions like fear, guilt, and sadness.

You can’t tell superficially who is a psychopath—so let’s get to know them.  Here are 3 traits of psychopaths, plus the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath:

Psychopath Trait #1: Fearless Dominance

Let’s look at fearless dominance from an empathetic point of view (ironically, something psychopaths lack).  Imagine total freedom from fear, anxiety, or guilt.  You do whatever you want without the pesky hindrance of conscience, social consequences, authority figures, or worrying about the well-being of others.  You know the rules of society; you just don’t care.

You’re also a master at concealing your hard-hearted self-assurance.  On the outside, you’re charming, outgoing, charismatic, and convincing—people like and admire you.   You’re definitely not a loner. You thrive on power and control, which you get from these suckers who—willingly!—seem to take this thing called responsibility seriously.  But they’re beneath you.  These losers deserve to lose—they had it coming all along.  You look out for #1. 

You also have no empathy so you’re free from dealing with the pain you inflict on others. You get this emotion thing intellectually, so you study it to learn how to act and what to say to get what you want, no matter what; you are a master manipulator.  You’d be a first-rate cult leader, corporate raider, or dictator.

Aptly described by Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, you are like a color-blind person looking at a traffic light. You know the topmost light is “red,” and you know what to do about it, but you have no understanding of what red truly is.

Psychopath Trait #2: Self-Centered Impulsivity

You do what you want, when you want.  You need a lot of stimulation and get bored easily, so sometimes you’ll drive drunk, shoplift, start fights, humiliate coworkers, roofie that girl’s drink, or torture animals just for the fun of it.

You’re also totally irresponsible.  You don’t need to pay people back.  You don’t go to work if you don’t feel like it.  You might have a dishonorable discharge from the military. 

Finally, you’re impulsive.  You’ll walk out of a job, break off relationships, drop out of school—which is for losers anyway—and have sex with many partners, even if you’re in a relationship.  Why?  Because you feel like it.  But your impulsivity also means you’re more likely to die in a violent accident, commit impulsive suicide, or get killed by someone else.

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