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Hiding in Plain Sight: Identifying Psychopaths and Sociopaths

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Hiding in Plain Sight: How to Identify Psychopaths and Sociopaths ViewApart/Fotolia

They often pride themselves — even in the comments on articles such as these — about how they fly below the radar, how they “pass” as normal, even as charming. They are master manipulators.

A new boyfriend love-bombs you, reads your weaknesses and deepest desires, then constructs a persona which perfectly complements you. A dream come true.

But he’s divorced from true emotion, only able to mimic the expected emotions in any situation. Your boyfriend is a psychopath.

Eventually, the psychopath’s carefully constructed facade starts to crumble, and you notice inconsistencies in his back story, a plague of broken promises, and a stone-cold lack of empathy.

Antisocial Personality Disorders

The terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are not perfectly interchangeable, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. DSM-5 lists both sociopathy and psychopathy under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD).

Psychopaths and sociopaths share these traits: (3)

- A complete disregard for laws and social mores

- A disregard for the rights of others

- A lack of remorse or guilt

- A tendency towards violent behavior

Think of psychopaths as cold, calculating and manipulative. (1) They are socially dominant, greasing the social wheels to achieve their goals, whether it’s a promotion, your love and admiration, or custody of the children in a divorce. (2)

Sociopaths, on the other hand, don’t try so hard to ingratiate themselves. They don’t care if you like them. (1) They’re more introverted, have difficulty forming attachments and tend to be indifferent to societal norms and expectations.(2)

While sociopaths have a hard time holding down a job, CEOs and lawyers are the professions that attract the most psychopaths.(5)

Psychopaths seem to be born, and sociopaths created. Psychopaths have a physiological defect — the part of their brain responsible for impulse control and emotions is underdeveloped.(3)

This defect, combined with environment, results in this most dangerous of antisocial personality disorders. Sociopaths, on the other hand, seem to have developed their disorder after suffering childhood abuse and trauma.(3)

A psychopath will not empathize with you. Sociopaths are capable of empathy in some circumstances, with some people.

"Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others," says Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex.(1)

A Distinct Lack of Empathy

A psychopath has no conscience. He can steal your money without a thought. A sociopath has a conscience, but a weak one. She knows it’s wrong to steal, but will slip the cash out of your wallet anyway.

The psychopath will not, and a sociopath may not, conceptualize that the $100 was the last you had, your grocery money for the next two weeks.

She will not give a thought to how hard you worked for the money, your sense of loss or your anxiety over what you’ll feed the kids until your next paycheck.

For most of us, saying the wrong thing in a social situation, losing our temper or hurting someone’s feelings, induces feelings of guilt or shame. Most of us try to remedy such situations by apologizing and making things right.

In her book "The Sociopath Next Door," author and psychologist Martha Stout explains, “It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior.

The intellectual difference between right and wrong does not bring on the emotional sirens and flashing blue lights, or the fear of God, that it does for the rest of us.”

Stout estimates that 1 in 25 people has no conscience. One in 25 are ruthless, sadistic and completely without regret. She puts it jarringly — “Without the slightest blip of guilt or remorse, one in twenty-five people can do anything at all.”

Is there someone in your life who is capable of doing anything at all — and does it? Is this person undermining your sense of safety? If you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233.


1) Sociopath vs Psychopath: What’s the Difference? WebMd.com. Retrieved February 1, 2016.

2) How to Identify a Psychopath or Sociopath. ScientificAmerican.com. Retrieved February 1, 2016.

3) How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved February 1, 2016.

4) What is Gaslighting? TheHotline.org. Retrieved February 1, 2016.

5) Which Professions Have the Most Psychopaths? The Fewest? time.com. Retrieved February 1, 2016.

6) The Psychopath Next Door by Martha Stout.

7) Is Psychopathy Genetic? aftermath-surviving-psychopathy.org. Retrieved February 2, 2016.

Reviewed February 3, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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