Why it Matters
You might reasonably ask, “Why is the topic of sociopaths relevant to me?” Perhaps it seems as if sociopaths are a tiny group of folks, a few abnormal, scary people who are locked away somewhere.
In actuality, research suggests that sociopaths make up between 1 and 4% of the U.S. population with 5 to 15% of the world’s population deemed “almost psychopathic.” Sociopaths are master manipulators and the traits that define sociopathy tend to be assets in achieving positions of power.
Our society is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some cases actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklist.– Robert Hare, PhD
Here you can take a closer look at this disturbing topic and get up-to-speed on the sociopathic personality, the prevalence of these people in positions of power, and the danger they are to you and to society at large. Knowledge is power. With this information, you can more readily:
- Sharpen your skills of discernment.
- Know who you can trust, and who you can’t.
- Protect yourself and your loved ones.
- Take productive, wise action.
Definitions, Characteristics & Behaviors
Antisocial personality disorder is a medical term that is interchangeable with sociopathy. It means:
A mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. [These] people… tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.–Mayo Clinic
Sociopathy is a clinical diagnosis, whereby a particular checklist of characteristics is used in medical evaluation. But the information offered here is not concerned with diagnosis. This information is intended to arm potential victims (which is every one of us) with knowledge.
Contemporary sociopaths and psychopaths may outwardly appear functional and successful. They instigate abuse and harm through more indirect and insidious means.–Preston Ni, Psychology Today
Sociopaths and psychopaths exhibit many of the following traits on a regular basis, especially when personal gain is at stake:
- Pervasive lying and manipulation
- Immorality, breaking ethical norms
- Lack of empathy; cold-heartedness
- Lack of remorse
- Psychological attacks, bullying, gaslighting
- Self-serving victimhood
- Narcissism, superiority complex
- Reckless risk-taking
- Physical aggressiveness
In addition, as noted here, they may appear as:
- Talkative, entertaining, funny, charming
- Confident, boastful, arrogant
- Knowledgeable on many subjects
While in common use, the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” may be used interchangeably, technically there is a difference related to the severity of anti-social traits:
Psychopaths… are far more likely to get in trouble with the law while sociopaths are much more likely to blend in with society… Psychopathy can be thought of as a more severe form of sociopathy with more symptoms. Therefore, all psychopaths are sociopaths but sociopaths are not necessarily psychopaths.– Natasha Tracy
Research has found the following statistics:
- 1% of the general population are psychopaths — Dr. Robert Hare, criminal psychology researcher, Creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
- 4% of Americans are sociopaths — Dr. Martha Stout, Harvard University psychologist, author of The Sociopath Next Door
- 5-15% of Americans are “almost psychopaths” — Dr. Ronald Schouten, associate professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, author of Almost a Psychopath
- 20-25% of prisoners are psychopaths — Dr. Robert Hare
- 21% of corporate executives are psychopaths — Study of 261 senior professionals in the U.S., summarized in The Telegraph:1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths, study finds
A special note about the prevalence of psychopaths in the financial services industry: There have been published articles which estimate that 10% of people in the financial services industry display psychopathic characteristics. While that may or may not be accurate, the statistic doesn’t appear to hold up under scrutiny so you may wish to disregard the number while noting these observations:
Unfortunately… the best candidates for many Wall Street jobs exhibit the traits of a financial psychopath.– Sam Ro, Business Insider
Paul Marko, Ph.D. writes that during more than thirty years of coaching and teaching in big business and governments, he observed a change in the value systems held by the people working within these hierarchical structures. Over the years of giving presentations, he changed his slides in which he presented his observations. “Strategic cunning” came to replace “hard work” as an indicator of success. Political awareness (“when and which butts to kiss”) and business savvy were the most common traits among successful executives he worked with. And what did he find “constitutes a real advantage” in corporate and governmental environments? Ruthlessness. He saw that ruthlessness — “unencumbered by things like compassion, understanding or love” — was “truly the secret to success.”
Qualitative Reports of Sociopaths among Professional Population Abound
After thirty years as a conflict resolution professional in many settings, I believe that narcissists and sociopaths are an increasing public health problem. The feedback I get from professionals worldwide is that these two personalities seem to be on the rise and the cause of many marital, workplace and criminal problems. I think it’s time that there is another large-scale study of the prevalence of personality disorders today.– Bill Eddy, Psychology Today
Sociopaths and psychopaths achieve their objectives through the relentless, immoral pursuit of power and personal gain, leaving a trail of human suffering and societal damage in their wake.– Preston Ni, Psychology Today
Here are some things to watch out for.
- Be aware when people seem “too good to be true” or often “push your buttons.” Those are signs that you could be caught in the web of a skilled manipulator, a person exploiting what he’s learned about you.
- Pay attention to an intuitive sense of discomfort you experience upon first meeting someone. While sociopaths are brilliant at using what they learn about you to thwart your intuitive sense and manipulate your perceptions, early on you may be able to more easily pick up on their true nature.
- Be alert to situations where a person who at one time was extremely likable or who you were very connected to has somehow become difficult in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. When you try to identify the problem or resolve an issue with them, you seem to end up confused or begin to question your perceptions or self-assurance.
- Remember that the prevalence of sociopaths in positions of power is likely to be far greater than in the general population.
This is not a proposal to be overly suspicious of people based on such things as their job title. These are simply clues to help you be clear-eyed when something doesn’t feel right.
Sociopaths Can Be Likable & They Can Be Overbearing
In many cases, sociopaths can be charming, likable and seemingly genuine. However, their motivation for this behavior only stems from a desire to fit in and take what they can for themselves. There may be many times where sociopaths blend into their surroundings, seeming only to be missing something that cannot be named. Other times, they may be obnoxious, overbearing, uncaring and selfish individuals who hurt those around them.–Angela Sartain Ph.D.
In personal relationships, sociopaths and psychopaths often initially entice with their superficial charisma and calculated charm, before revealing their cruel and uncaring nature over time (i.e., after a committed relationship is established or an important agreement is made). They deceive, manipulate, and abuse in relationships without remorse, leaving their victims wounded and traumatized by their utter lack of decency and empathy. In their professional careers, higher-functioning sociopaths and psychopaths are nakedly ambitious, shrewdly exploitative, and ruthlessly aggressive. They often maneuver their way to positions of power and status in business, finance, politics, media, and other prominent fields. They attain success at the unethical expense of using and abusing others.– Preston Ni, Psychology Today
The “Situational Sociopath”
Perhaps one of the most insidious forms of anti-social personality disorder is what may be termed “situational sociopathy or psychopathy,” where an individual extends cordiality, respect, and regard towards some, but exhibits inhumanity, harshness, and cruelty towards others. Targets of situational sociopathy or psychopathy are usually individuals or groups considered to be “other,” “lesser,” or “weaker,” and may be based on factors such as gender, class, race, sexual orientation, social standing, societal afflictions, etc. This “sociopathic splitting” views some people as fully human, and others as objects, commodities, and less human.– Preston Ni
Knowledge of How to Use Emotions for Power
One of the important characteristics of a psychopath is the inability to understand what other people are feeling or experiencing. They don’t know what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes. What they do is to learn about emotions. They learn from other people what emotions feel like, what they experience, and what is expected in certain situations. Therefore they can appear to be very caring and loving. But it’s all a charade, a show, playacting, in order to manipulate the emotions of others.– David McDermott
Extreme Risks & Damage
Interviews with psychopaths reveal that for them, people are simply objects, things to be used. Even family members have the same value as other things they own, such as a mobile phone or a coat. And use people they do. They will take their money, their possessions, their time, their expertise, their efforts, their bodies, and their souls. People who have been duped by psychopaths for religious reasons have said that it’s like being raped spiritually. And all this without the slightest care in the world for the victims… When called out, psychopaths will often deny or minimize the effect of their actions on others.– David McDermott
May Also Display Bullying Narcissism, Gaslighting, etc.
The sociopathic [characteristics] are often intertwined with other traits, including and not limited to bullying, narcissism, gaslighting, bigotry, and misogyny.– Preston Ni, Psychology Today
If learning about the tactics of sociopaths is new for you, it might seem shocking or repulsive. But notice if you also come to find that this knowledge sheds light on a situation you previously found confounding.
The first step is acknowledging that these folks are in our midst and they often hold positions of power. Recognize that they are masters at maneuvering their way into relationships using manipulation and deception. Next, learn how to respond to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Know your weaknesses, because the sociopath certainly does—and has been taking full advantage of them. At least if you understand what your weaknesses are, it gives you a better chance of dealing with a sociopath because you will recognize when he is pressing your buttons. And while you’re at it, check out your strengths too. Chances are the sociopath has been manipulating you by using them as well! For example, if you are good at helping people, he will want to be helped.– David McDermott
- Be clear with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses.
- Listen to your instincts. The tricky part about this strategy is that sociopaths are masters at getting you to override your instincts! Their brilliant manipulation tactics are more likely to make you think you’re being paranoid than that there’s anything to be concerned about.
- When you realize you’re involved with a sociopath, the most ideal course of action is to cease all contact. When this is possible, it’s by far the most successful and satisfying strategy. Resist the desire to make ultimatums, reform them, or engage in power plays: any level of engagement increases the chance of more damage to you. “No phone calls, no text messages, no e-mails. As long as you continue to engage the sociopath, they will continue to try and manipulate you.” (David McDermott)
- When you are not yet certain of the person’s motives, or you must continue interacting with them despite their sociopathic behaviors, then use extreme caution in the topics you discuss. Do not share information about yourself. “Any information you give them can and will be used against you… Communicate as if your communication is going to be read in court.” (David McDermott) Focus on mundane, commonplace topics. (Angela Sartain PhD)
- Get help from a therapist or other professional who specializes in this area. (We recommend ALWAYS doing your homework when hiring “experts” in any field. Please be sure you have good reason to trust the person beyond their credentials or place of employment.)
- Beyond the defensive strategies to protect yourself from a sociopath, ideally you will work to heal the damage that has been done to your psyche from a master manipulator. See more in How to Move On After a Psychopath and other readings below.
Be Very Cautious About What You Discuss
Sociopaths are well-trained hunters for any information that may be useful to them. Any conversation can provide them with the information they need to best use you for money, power, relationships or other benefits for them. When engaging in conversation, try to discuss mundane, commonplace topics such as the weather or sporting events. Avoid conversations discussing your personal life or relationships, money, travel plans or any topic which could provide the sociopath with an opening to manipulate you for their own gain. Keep your thoughts about business ventures, powerful connections you may have or plans that you are making to yourself. A sociopath can use these pieces of information to make you doubt your plans, interact with your connections themselves or sabotage your business just because they enjoy the feeling of manipulation.– Angela Sartain PhD
Sources & Resources
- Babiak, Paul Ph.D., et al — Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk
- Decovny, Sherree, CFA Institute — The Financial Psychopath Next Door
- Mc Kerney, Kathleen, Wbur — The ‘Almost Psychopaths’ Among Us
- Schouten, Ronald, M.D., J.D., Harvard Business Review — Psychopaths on Wall Street
- Grohol, John, Psy.D., Psych Central — Untrue: 1 out of Every 10 Wall Street Employees is a Psychopath
- Hare, Robert — Some Comments on Qualifications for the Forensic Use of the Hare PCL-R
- Wynn, Rolf, et al — Psychopathy in women: theoretical and clinical perspectives
- Hare, Robert — Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us — 1993 book
- Mayo Clinic — Antisocial Personality Disorder
- McDermott, David — Dealing with a Sociopath: 9 Important Rules to Follow
- McDermott, David — What are The Essential Characteristics of a Psychopath?
- Ni, Preston MSBA, Psychology Today — 7 characteristics of the modern psychopath
- Ro, Sam, Business Insider, The Shocking Statistic about Psychopaths on Wall Street
- Sartain, Angela Ph.D., Mind Cology — 7 Tips on How to Deal with a Sociopath
- Tracy, Natasha, Healthy Place — Psychopath vs. Sociopath: What’s the Difference
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