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7 Characteristics of the Modern Psychopath

Seven signs of the ruthless and the heartless.

Key points

  • Antisocial personality disorder is sometimes identified interchangeably as sociopathy or psychopathy.
  • Research suggests that 4% of the population is "sociopathic," and 5-15% is “almost psychopathic.”
  • Modern sociopaths and psychopaths may outwardly appear functional and successful, abusing others through indirect and insidious means.

“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.” —Paramahansa Yogananda

“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

Antisocial personality disorder, sometimes identified interchangeably as sociopathy or psychopathy, is defined by the Mayo Clinic as: “A mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.”

Research suggests that 4 percent of the population are sociopathic*, and 5 to 15 percent are “almost psychopathic.”** Cultural elements such as materialism, social intolerance, and desensitization to violence may influence a society to nurture, facilitate, and embolden sociopathic and/or psychopathic behavior. About 75 percent of sociopaths are men, and 25 percent are women.*** The sociopathic and/or psychopathic pathology is often intertwined with other traits, including and not limited to bullying, narcissism, gaslighting, bigotry, and misogyny.

In the modern age, sociopaths and psychopaths are usually not the mass murderers that are sometimes portrayed in popular media (with exceptions). Instead, contemporary sociopaths and psychopaths may outwardly appear functional and successful. They instigate abuse and harm through more indirect and insidious means.

New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

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. Examples may include the business executive who cuts employees’ living wage and healthcare for higher profit, the financial advisor who defrauds clients’ life savings for unscrupulous investment, the politician who scapegoats and demonizes “undesirable” groups to incite his following, and the media talking head who shocks and offends to gain notoriety and exposure. 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.

Below are seven characteristics of the modern sociopath or psychopath. While not everyone who possesses this disorder may have all of the traits listed, a clinically diagnosed sociopath or psychopath will likely exhibit many of the following signs on a regular basis, especially when personal gain, relational control, and social domination are at stake.

1. Pathological Lying and Manipulation

“If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth.” —attributed to various sources

In their desire for ever more power (over relationships, organizations, or society at large), many sociopaths and psychopaths will literally make up and say anything in order to achieve their aims. Blatant lies, distortions, deceptions, broken promises, and blaming the victim are just some of the common devices used to enable the sociopath or psychopath to advance his or her aggressive and unscrupulous schemes. Instead of making factual statements based on reality, sociopaths and psychopaths repeat lies incessantly to distort. Solid evidence is ignored and dismissed with contempt.

2. Lack of Morality and Rule Breaking

“Rules are meant to be broken; that’s how you WIN.” —Anonymous

Most people have a basic sense of right and wrong. In general, we may agree that kindness is right, and cruelty is wrong; healthy relationships are right, and toxic relationships are wrong; honest hard work is right, and stealing and cheating are wrong. Sociopaths and psychopaths, however, have little or no sense of morality. They are more inclined than the general population to violate human rights or have brushes with the law. They believe that “might is right” and “rules are meant to be broken.” Human and ethical considerations are abhorred and viewed as weaknesses. In short, they have little or no conscience.

On occasions when sociopaths and psychopaths do mention morality or “fairness,” it is done either for the sake of appearance or to conveniently forward their own self-serving agenda. Fake morality is used as a manipulative device, rather than genuine value.

3. Lack of Empathy and Cold-Heartedness

"Sociopathy is, at its very essence, ice-cold.” —Martha Stout

Research by neuroscientist Adrian Raine reveals that people with antisocial personality disorder have fewer cells in their prefrontal cortex — considered the most evolved region of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for, among many functions, the capacity to understand other people’s feelings (empathy), the capacity to make sound, principled judgments (ethics), and the capacity to learn from life experience (reflection).

As sociopaths and psychopaths lack empathy, ethics, and reflection, they also tend to be unfeeling and cold-hearted toward the pain and suffering they cause others. This lack of humanity has several dangerous implications:

  • It compels the sociopath or psychopath to commit trespasses with little or no moral conflict.
  • Knowing the suffering of their victims does not bring about ethical pause. Just the opposite — it may encourage the sociopath or psychopath to do more harm (for they feel like they’re “winning”).
  • Abuses are committed without regret or remorse.
  • Little or no lessons are learned from the negative consequences of their actions. Sociopaths and psychopaths often blame their victims for causing their own victimization.

Many sociopaths and psychopaths become “serial offenders” in their transgressions against others until consequential intervention takes place (i.e., strong action by a coalition of people) to halt their misconduct and destruction.

4. Narcissism and False Superiority Complex

“Narcissism is, in a metaphorical sense, one half of what sociopathy is.” —Martha Stout

Not all narcissists are sociopathic (many narcissists are emotive, many sociopaths are non-emotive, or primitively emotive), but most sociopaths and psychopaths possess certain narcissistic traits, such as calculated charm, manipulativeness, self-absorption, entitlement, conceit, and a false superiority complex. In the mindset of many sociopaths and psychopaths, being “better” than others provides them with twisted justification to exploit and mistreat people at will. Those who are “inferior” deserve their downtrodden fate, and should only be regarded with contempt.

5. Gaslighting and Psychological Bullying

“When someone constantly puts you down, leaves you feeling like you can't do anything right, or makes you feel worthless and bad about yourself in general… it's emotional abuse.” —Unknown

Gaslighting is a form of persistent brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose his or her own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. At its worst, pathological gaslighting constitutes a severe form of mind-control and psychological bullying. Gaslighting can occur in personal relationships, at the workplace, or over an entire society.

For many sociopaths and psychopaths, gaslighting is used as a specialized form of lying and manipulation, where the gaslighter incessantly repeats falsehoods about the undesirability, inadequacy, and/or detestableness of the gaslightee. It degrades an individual or a group’s identity and stigmatizes and marginalizes their value and acceptability. Gaslighting is psychological violence.

6. Lack of Contrition and Self-Serving Victimhood

When caught in the act with their unscrupulous behavior, most sociopaths and psychopaths will not show signs of contrition or remorse (unless it is strategically advantageous for them to do so). On the contrary, they are more likely to double or triple down on their aggressive tendencies, increase hostility, deny responsibility, accuse and blame others, and maintain a facade of arrogance and conceit. Interestingly, many sociopaths will invent a victimhood story for themselves: The romantic partner charged with domestic battery claims he was “set-up,” the investment advisor caught defrauding clients thinks he was betrayed, the politician whose policies harmed entire populations insists he’s being scapegoated, the business executive accused of setting up sweatshops overseas laments being singled out, and the media talking head penalized for spewing vile and hateful remarks believes she’s being persecuted. Casting themselves as victims can help sociopaths and psychopaths to defend their immoral conduct.

7. The “Situational” Sociopath or Psychopath

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. Situational sociopathy or psychopathy contributes to many unjust conditions, such as misogyny, class bigotry, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, extreme poverty, and structural violence in society.

© 2018 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.

Disclaimer: Communication Success blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant to an individual's specific circumstances.


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*Based on research in the United States (Stout).

**Based on research in the United States and Sweden (Schouten).

***The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV-TR.

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