NOTE: My statements are not necessarily my opinions. I often post point-counterpoint essays in which I strongly take one side of an issue and later counter that with antithetical views. This intellectual exercise helps me see the merit in opposing opinions and augments my creativity.

How to spot a sociopath, from prominent politicians to Joran van der Sloot

Joran van der Sloot, the prime suspect in the mysterious disappearance of Natalee Holloway, was later sought by police after a Peruvian woman was found dead in a Lima hotel. As a doctor, when I think of van der Sloot, one word pops into my mind: SOCIOPATH! Everyone who dates should possess at least a rudimentary understanding of psychiatry so he or she can recognize manifestations of mental illness in others. The prevalence of sociopathy is about 1 to 3% in the general population and probably much higher amongst very successful politicians. Voters are often suckers for the charm that sociopaths typically exude.

Here's your chance to play doctor. I'll give you a lesson in how to spot a sociopath. After reading it, ask yourself what prominent political figures fit this picture.

Sociopaths are often:

1. Exciting, dynamic, captivating, audacious, self-centered, overly confident, slick, manipulative, cunning, and glib—even silver-tongued; appears conventional and charming, yet filled with covert hostility.

2. A con artist. Chameleon-like; can be what he needs to be to sucker people. Skilled in taking advantage of people. Able to readily generate synthetic emotions to con people into thinking he is genuine. Possesses a flair for making a good, likable first impression. Can mimic emotions as well as—or better than—professional actors. Sociopaths are good impostors and exhibit a Jekyll and Hyde nature: vicious, vindictive, and vile in private; charming in public.

3. Exhibits tyrannical, egotistical, and narcissistic behavior; tends to gravitate toward situations where those traits are tolerated, condoned, or admired.

4. Grandiose sense of entitlement; may want to rule the world and honestly thinks he is qualified to do that.

5. Confuses bullying with leadership.

6. Mean-spirited and petty.

7. Pathological, frequent lying; breaks promises. When confronted with evidence of their lying, sociopaths deny they ever said or did the thing in question, or will fabricate another lie to try covering up the first lie.

8. A lack of remorse for lying. According to forensic psychiatrist Keith Ablow, MD, “A sociopath has no anxiety [because they] don't care about the feelings of others.”

9. Emotionally detached; too cool. Ice water runs in their veins.

10. Self-serving and exploitive; views individuals around them as targets and opportunities, not people. Enjoys using people and taking, not giving. Sees nothing wrong with living off the labors of others or violating their rights. Likes to see others suffer.

11. Enjoys exerting dominant, despotic control over every aspect of the lives of his victims; enjoys enslaving them.

12. Arrogant, egomaniacal jerks. More likely to be the ultimate alpha male; cocky, in control, totally full of himself, body language that says, “I'm #1.” Women are often highly attracted to sociopathic men who exude confidence, charisma and a willingness to take risks.

13. Can wreck the lives and dreams of others with zero concern for the devastation caused. Rationalizes the pain he inflicts on others.

14. Callous disregard for the well-being of others; lacks a conscience and empathy; unmoved by things that would upset a normal person.

15. Sociopaths are prejudiced but go to great lengths to hide their bias.

16. Believes that the end always justifies the means; lets nothing stand in his way. Laws are to be evaded, not followed. Constitution? Ditto.

17. Habitually dodges responsibility by scapegoating; unwilling to accept blame, but eager to blame others.

18. Evasive; good at dodging questions. Houdini-like ability to escape accountability.

19. Secretive. Sociopaths often use fake credentials to get jobs they are not qualified or eligible for. Sociopaths often seem impressive initially, but when you dig below the surface of their bluster, you often find that they don't have a clue what they're talking about.

20. Behavior is often guided by ulterior motives.

21. Exploits the goodwill and/or income of others.

22. Fond of intimidation and backstabbing. Sociopaths have clever ways to gain your trust and then stab you in the back, often without you knowing what they are doing until it is too late.

23. Sociopaths are vindictive when thwarted or exposed.

24. Sociopaths are unable to see any problems with their behavior. They have no desire to change because they think they're fine just the way they are.

25. Can witness a disaster and feel none of the horror, shock, or panic experienced by other onlookers.

26. Greedy and selfish; exhibits apathy toward relatives. Although sociopaths are stingy and parasitic, they like to portray themselves as wonderful, compassionate, kind, and caring.

27. Sociopaths who don't get their way often become irritated or angered.

28. More likely than normal people to abuse drugs or commit crimes at some point in their lives; approximately one-quarter of U.S. prisoners are sociopaths.

29. Sociopaths often possess above-average intelligence.

Sociopaths are good observers who keenly recognize what others expect in terms of behavior, so they are skilled at blending in and often go undetected, enabling them to wreak havoc on others. Sociopaths exhibit red flags, but people tend to ignore them. In fact, their charm often makes people eager to rush to their defense when they are exposed. Nonprofessionals are often swayed by the words, and blind to the deeds, of sociopaths.

Laymen (nonprofessionals) often think of sociopaths as being violent serial killers, but few are. About 1% to 4% of the population is sociopathic—so common that you likely know at least one. People tend to assume that all others think and feel like they do. Sociopaths exploit this assumption to victimize the trusting masses. Their ruthlessness, absence of a conscience, and charisma can make them spectacularly successful, especially in fields such as law, politics, and business. By magnifying their attributes and being blind to their shortcomings, sociopaths think they are God's gift to the universe.

Sociopaths are motivated by an extreme desire to win at whatever game they are playing. If they are in business, they are more concerned with crushing the competition than with rising to the top by making superb products.

The term psychopath is often used interchangeably with sociopath, but many professionals prefer to use sociopath (or antisocial personality disorder) because laymen often confuse psychopaths with people who are psychotic or “psycho.” People who manifest signs of psychosis frequently stand out like a sore thumb; even children can often instantly recognize that they are “nuts.” In contrast, sociopaths have a deceptively normal veneer. Signs of their mental aberrancy are evident and often alarming to trained professionals, but those signs can be magnetic honey to laymen—even intelligent ones, like Katie Couric. She can rub shoulders with sociopathic politicians and be duped like a naïve schoolgirl, oblivious to their mental pathology. Laymen are often unable to spot sociopaths, or are very slow in doing so, even when the sociopath's wake of destruction is glaringly obvious. Normal nonprofessionals tend to explain behavior by using their behavioral frame of reference, which—being normal—is wholly inadequate for understanding what makes sociopaths tick.

Just as all people with depression are not equally depressed, all sociopaths are not equally aberrant.

Many sociopaths possess an almost supernatural ability to enchant people. They're sick, but mesmerizing. Sociopaths are skilled manipulators. Like actors, they can often convincingly mimic emotions they don't feel. I could program a robot to laugh, cry, and say, “I love you,” but it wouldn't feel any associated emotions. Over time, the disconnect between what sociopaths say and do becomes increasingly apparent.

The prevalence of sociopathy is substantially higher in current and past world leaders. Given that most citizens are not medical doctors or psychologists, and given that laymen are notoriously poor at detecting sociopathy, it is not surprising that most people fail to recognize how mentally ill their leaders are, and how the poor decisions they make are often traceable to psychopathology. In the past century alone, sociopathic world leaders have killed well over 100 million people, made billions miserable, and wasted many trillions of dollars fighting needless wars. Yet we put up with them!

High schools are incredibly remiss for not making psychology a core requirement. Virtually everyone who doesn't know psychology is penalized at least once—often, multiple times—by their ignorance of that subject. The prevalence of mental illness (not just sociopathy) is so high that almost everyone will encounter one or more mentally ill people while dating or in marriage, business, their family, or neighborhood. If you can't identify (diagnose) the particular form of mental illness, you are likely to fall victim to it.

Should you confront a sociopath regarding their aberrancy?

Only if you want to waste your time and raise your blood pressure. Sociopaths are often so narcissistic that they think they're wonderful—no, make that WONDERFUL! They are less cognizant of their lack of a conscience than I am cognizant of what it feels like to touch the cervix I never had. Sociopaths are blind to their character flaws. In their minds, there is nothing wrong with them. If you don't wholeheartedly agree, you are the problem—in their minds.

There is no effective cure or even treatment for sociopaths. The best solution is to get them out of your life pronto.

POP QUIZ: Name at least two prominent politicians who exhibit multiple signs of sociopathy. Just as in other diseases, all of the possible symptoms and signs of sociopathy are not necessary to make its diagnosis. However, the presence of a few such characteristics is not diagnostic of sociopathy. For example, one can be exciting, dynamic, captivating, self-centered, overly confident, and even slick yet not be a sociopath. It's the pattern and the degree to which these signs are present, especially when coupled with the primary defect in sociopathy: lack of a conscience. If you truly care about others and genuinely feel bad when you hurt someone, you're not a sociopath no matter how behaviorally flamboyant and arrogant you are.

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Notes:

Here is a poignant response from Kaitlyn Collins, a victim of cyberbullying by Facebook sociopaths. She is a former Packers cheerleader and, as you can see, quite pretty, but that didn't stop those nuts from going for her jugular.

This reminds me of the vicious comments directed at women labeled “butterface” girls, referring to women with hot bodies but supposedly ugly faces. No one deserves such personal attacks based on appearance, but those women often have gorgeous faces, too, making me wonder how those blasting them could have such a screw loose. However, as Bill O'Reilly said:

“Because of the Internet, anonymous sociopaths can now smear and bully anyone they want. We all know people who make millions of dollars simply by defaming other people. The First Amendment is in place to protect the rights of Americans, but free speech can be abused; slander is real; bullying is real; inflicting pain on others through words is real. With the rise of the Net, cowardly sociopaths are running wild, with hateful invective, outrageous smears, and bullying tactics. It's not just about free speech anymore; it's about personal destruction.”

What's motivating those attacks? It is typically jealousy. People often cut others down in an attempt to bring them down to their low level. Cutting others down is the only way some people can feel good about themselves. As a doctor, I know those attacks are a sign of mental illness. Good, mentally healthy people want to help others and augment their happiness, not hurt them.

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The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

Comments (2)

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Comment #211 by Observer
May 15 2012 04:23:23 AM

Excellent, excellent article Dr. Pezzi! I have studied psychology and worked with people with this disorder. I've also met a few psychopaths (and narcissists) in my life. This blog article of yours is so well written and important—yes, I agree that more people should be aware of the dangers of sociopaths! Thanks for the blog entry, I'm going to share this with friends.

Comment #194 by Anonymous
December 30 2011 01:19:30 PM

I think the 42nd President of the United States shows many classic symptoms of sociopathy, and I am concerned with our current President, whom we know little about his past since he goes to extreme lengths to prevent disclosures about it.

REPLY FROM KEVIN PEZZI: Here's a brilliantly written article about our 42nd President: Sociopath alert: Bill Clinton.

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