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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
5-minute read
Episode #26
checklist for psychopath

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." 

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The brain of a psychopath is different from 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.

Psychopath trait #3: Low autonomic arousal

This means your physiology is different from non-psychopaths. Your resting heart rate is lower, your skin conductance is lower, and the beat-to-beat alterations in your heart rate are different from the rest of those losers.

So, you’re cool as a cucumber, even when others react. When your partner is freaking out, this is when you do your best work. You may be part of the 20% of batterers for whom violence doesn’t involve rage at all. Instead, your heart rate goes down when you’re arguing with and, often, beating up your partners. The epitome was Hannibal Lechter: his heart rate never broke 85 even as he attacked a nurse and...well, you know what happened next.

Psychopaths vs. sociopaths

Researchers sometimes make a distinction between primary psychopaths—confirmed, bona fide psychopaths—and secondary psychopaths, also called sociopaths.

Sociopaths are cut from the same cloth as psychopaths, with 3 key differences:

Unlike psychopathy, sociopathy can even be acquired: dementia or a head injury can do the trick. 

  • First, while true psychopaths are confident, social, and dominant, sociopaths are reserved and inhibited, sometimes loners. And while psychopaths are exempt from negative emotion, sociopaths are often hostile and do experience anxiety and rejection.

  • Second, while psychopaths truly have no morals, sociopaths do have a sense of morality and a conscience, but their sense of right and wrong is skewed and doesn’t match society at large. Sociopaths are often crusaders or martyrs for a perceived cause; they see their depraved acts as necessary. So antagonistic, withdrawn Timothy McVeigh is a good example.

  • The third, oversimplified, difference is that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are made, often through extreme childhood adversity and exposure to violence. But it’s not as simple as just nature or nurture—the truth lies somewhere in a scramble of genetics, neurology, and environment. 

Unlike psychopathy, sociopathy can even be acquired: dementia or a head injury can do the trick. For example, think of Phineas Gage from your Psych 101 class. He was an easygoing construction foreman with lots of friends until, in 1848, a railroad explosion sent a 13-pound tamping rod into Gage’s eye and out the top of his head. Miraculously, he survived, but even as he physically healed, he became "fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little deference for his fellows." He was also "impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, unable to settle on any of the plans he devised for future action." Basically, this was the 1840s version of calling him a stubborn, foulmouthed, flaky a--hole with mood swings—if not true acquired sociopathy, at least a close cousin.

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with the best example of psychopathy I’ve ever seen. He’s not a serial killer, evil CEO, or maniacal despot—he’s Eric Cartman from South Park. Cartman is a genuine psychopath. Indeed, making chili out of Scott Tenorman’s parents is the tip of his horrific iceberg.

Here's a link to South Park clips that prove Cartman is a psychopath (plus more about Phineas Gage). 

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Pemment, J.  (2013).  Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 458-461.

Thompson, D. F., Ramos, C. L. and Willett, J. K. (2014), Psychopathy: clinical features, developmental basis and therapeutic challenges. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics. doi: 10.1111/jcpt.12182

Gottman, J.M., Jacobson, N.S., Rushe, R.H. Shortt, J.W., Babcock, J.B., La Taillade, J.J., et al. (1995).  The Relationship Between Heart Rate Reactivity, Emotionally Aggressive Behavior, and General Violence in Batterers, 9, 227-248.

Yang, Y., Raine, A., Narr, K.L, Colletti, P., & Toga, A.W. (2009).  Localization of deformations within the amygdala in individuals with psychopathy.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 986-994.

Babiak, P. & Hare, R.D. (2006).  Snakes in suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins Publishing Inc.

Stout, M. (2005).  The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless vs. the Rest of Us.  New York: Broadway Books.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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