How to Know if You Are Dealing With a Sociopath

Sociopaths can be violent and dangerous.

Posted Apr 18, 2016

Bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock
Source: Bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

Over the years, neurobiologists have identified several factors that are highly correlated or associated with violent behavior in people. 

First, the failure to develop adequate coping mechanisms in childhood has been associated with violent behavior later in life. Second, neglect and abuse by caregivers during childhood have been linked to an increased risk of adult violence. 

Third, substance abuse (alcohol and drugs) is highly correlated with increased aggression and violence in adolescents and adults. Fourth, childhood brain trauma—due to severe head injury during childhood—has been linked by neurologists to violent behavior in adulthood.

Each one of these correlates of violence—that is, factors which are often found in combination with it—has been observed among violent criminals and murderers over the years. 

Although these factors have been scientifically linked to violent behavior, none of them, either individually or collectively, should be considered sufficient or even necessary for an individual to become violent. 

In order to understand violent behavior it is necessary to know some fundamental principles about human personality first. The personalities of people represent who they are and how they behave. Personalities result from genetics and upbringing, and reflect how people view the world and believe the world views them. 

Personalities dictate how people interact with others and how they cope with problems, both real and imagined. Human personalities develop and evolve until sometime around their late twenties. After that, human personalities are hardwired, static and cannot be altered.

Forensic psychologists have discovered that certain key traits of violent behavior are very consistent with an antisocial personality disorder known as sociopathy. This disorder is manifested in certain distinct and troublesome behavioral traits and characteristics. 

Sociopathy is not classified as mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), released by the APA in 2013, lists sociopathy under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD). 

The APA estimates that there are approximately eight million sociopaths in the U.S. Therefore, many of us know one, and may be related to one or intimately involved with one. 

Sociopathy is characterized by the following personality and behavioral traits:

  • A disregard for laws and social mores 
  • A disregard for the rights of others
  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt 
  • A tendency to display violent behavior and emotional outbursts

Sociopaths tend to be volatile. That is, they tend to be nervous and easily agitated or angered. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. In addition, they may be uneducated and live on the fringes of traditional society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. They are frequently transients and drifters. 

It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people in certain situations but not others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules. 

In the eyes of others, sociopaths will typically appear to be very disturbed. Any crimes committed by a sociopath will tend to be haphazard or spontaneous. If they commit murder, for example, their decision to kill will typically be impulsive and triggered by a fit of rage. The killing itself will generally be committed in a blitz-like attack on the victim and the crime scene will be very messy and disorganized.

It is believed that sociopathy is the result of “nurture” (environment) rather than “nature” (genetics). According to the late Dr. David Lykken, a behavioral geneticist known for his studies involving twins, sociopathy is the product of childhood trauma and abuse. Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy or forming an emotional connection with others, but only to certain individuals such as a family member or a friend, and only in certain circumstances. 

The good news about sociopaths is that due to their volatile personalities, you can typically see them coming. Forewarned is forearmed. 

On a related subject, I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded, in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. To read the reviews and order it now, visit: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1629144320/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_B-2Stb0D57SDB

In a forthcoming book that is tentatively titled Women We Love to Hate: Jodi Arias, Pamela Smart, Casey Anthony and Others I explore the intense fascination with female killers and why they are demonized by the media and much of the public. More specifically, I examine the social processes that transform certain attractive, young, white females who are charged with murder into high-profile, celebrity monsters. 

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for expert consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com