In college I came across a book called “The Sociopath Next Door,” written by Martha Stout in Barnes & Noble and it immediately drew my attention. I mean, don’t we all want to know if a sociopath or psychopath is living next to us, or even walking nearby?
And just a few days ago I found an article online called “How I discovered I have the brain of a psychopath,” written by James Fallon, a neuroscientist. The book was first published in 2005, and the article was written earlier this month.
So nine years later we are still fascinated with the topic of psychopaths.
Part of the reason could be the fact that we still don’t have many answers. Depending on who you ask, "psychopath" and "sociopath" are either interchangeable terms or completely different.
For example, according to the book “The Sociopath Next Door,” the terms “psychopath,” “sociopath” and “antisocial personality disorder” are used somewhat interchangeably.
Antisocial personality disorder is an actual diagnosable mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
It is briefly defined as “a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others,” according to the DSM-5, although it is of course much more complicated than that.
There are other personality disorders that also share some traits of sociopaths and psychopaths, such as narcissistic personality disorder.
However, in society we tend to use phrases like “sociopath” or “psychopath” casually to describe someone who lacks a conscience, needs constant stimulation, tends to have social charm and a ”grandiose sense of self-worth,” according to Stout. They tend to lack empathy and affection, and engage in criminal behavior.
Ronald Schouten, MD, and James Silver, JD, are the authors of the book “Almost A Psychopath.” They argue that “psychopathy is a psychological condition in which the individual shows a profound lack of empathy for the feelings of others, a willingness to engage in immoral and antisocial behavior for short-term gains, and extreme egocentricity.”
However, the authors state that psychopaths are not necessarily psychotic or criminals, although many criminals do happen to be psychopaths. Also, they argue that psychopathy is not the same “diagnosis” as antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy is not an actual mental health diagnosis in the DSM-5.
The authors do suggest that “psychopath” and “sociopath” are basically the same, but have slightly different characteristics. For example, sociopaths are more impulsive and disorganized, but psychopaths tend to be more organized and predatory.
So what are the actual signs of a psychopath or sociopath? Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, provided via email some traits to look for in your acquaintances (or even family members or friends):
1) They tend to have a charm about them and are quite charismatic as well as intelligent.
2) They are “willing and able to draw people in to get their needs met.”
3) They are inconsistent in their lives. For example, they jump between jobs and residences and have lots of holes in their stories.
4) They’ve lied to you and others multiple times about nearly everything.
5) “They will break all kinds of rules - stealing, lying, cheating - and will do so right in front of you at times.”
6) They feel "entitled and will jump to the head of the line in everything, and have little regard for others.”
7) “They anger quickly and can even leave you feeling scared at such times.”
8) “They rarely express remorse or guilt for bad things they have done. They rarely apologize (or it is empty at best).”
9) “They don't have any really close friends or family members that they have good relationships with - but lots of acquaintances and ‘connections.’”
10) They drive really dangerously by cutting off other people, getting a DUI or not ensuring young passengers in the car are safe.
11) They tend not to adhere to laws, ethics, rules or morality, and violate the rights of others.
12) “Bottom line: they make you feel uncomfortable and unsafe.”
Stout, Martha (2005). The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. (E-Book).
Schouten, Ronald and Silver, James (2012). Almost A Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (E-Book).
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Durvasula, Ramani. Email interview. June 25, 2014.
Fallon, James. The Guardian. How I discovered I have the brain of a psychopath. Web. June 25, 2014.
Reviewed June 26, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith