16 questions that doctors use to figure out if you're a sociopath

Joseph GibbonsJoseph Gibbons / Confessions of a Sociopath / YouTubeJoe Gibbons in a still from his movie about being a sociopath.

In June, Joseph Gibbons, a former MIT lecturer, was found guilty of filming himself while robbing a New York bank in what he claimed was an art project. He took $US1,000, and now faces up to three years in prison.

In the art world, Gibbons is best-known for his 2002 film, “Confessions of a Sociopath,” which was named as one of the Best Films of the Year by Artforum magazine.

The nature of Gibbons’ art is that you can never be sure whether Gibbons really is a sociopath, or whether he is just playing a role. The fact that he also allegedly robbed a bank in Rhode Island and took $US50,000 suggests a mixture of the two.

One of the best books about sociopathy is “Confessions of a Sociopath; A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight,” written by pseudonymous author M.E. Thomas. She describes what it’s like to be a sociopath — someone who lacks the ability to feel or sympathize with others.

Sociopaths can be sexy and beguiling; they take risks the rest of us don’t and come across as bold and exciting. Socially, they are often leaders, the life and soul of the party.

The downside is that they regard others to be used, don’t feel sympathy, empathy or guilt, and are often one step away from becoming what psychologists used to call psychopaths: criminally vindictive types whose only motivation is to take advantage of weaker people.

Psychologists have changed the definition of sociopathy several times over the decades. It used to be called being a “psychopath.” Sociopath is the newer term. The first researcher to name the concept of psychopathy was Dr. Hervey Cleckley in 1941. Cleckley noted that psychopathy was difficult to diagnose precisely because it presents itself without the obvious symptoms of mental disorder. Psychopaths and sociopaths are often a bit too rational.

Here are Cleckley’s 16 characteristics. Ask yourself if they apply to you.

1. Are you superficially charming and intelligent?


(Answer: For sociopaths, the answer to this question is yes.)

2. Do you have delusions or other signs of irrational thinking?

(A: For sociopaths, the answer is no. They're super-rational, coldly so.)

5. Do you tell lies or say insincere things?

(A: Sociopaths are comfortable not telling the truth when it suits them.)

8. Do you have poor judgment, and fail to learn from experience?

(A: Sociopaths think they're smarter than everyone else, but they take risks the rest of us would not and don't learn from punishment.)

9. Are you pathologically egocentric, and incapable of love?

(A: Sociopaths are.)

10. Do you generally lack the ability to react emotionally?

(A: Sociopaths don't experience emotions the way the rest of us do.)

13. Are you a crazy party fiend?

(A: Sociopaths engage in 'fantastic and uninviting behaviour with drink and sometimes without,' Cleckley says. Thomas adds that sociopaths often crave (meaningless) sex more than the rest of us, too.)

14. Do you make false suicide threats?

(A: Yep, sociopaths are drama queens.)

15. Is your sex life impersonal, trivial or poorly integrated?

(A: Sociopaths lack the ability to love.)

16. Have you failed to follow a life plan?

(A: Sociopaths have difficulty holding down jobs. It requires long-term obligations to others.)

There's no surefire way of self-diagnosing yourself as a sociopath, as sociopaths also tend to lie in tests like these.

But if you recognised yourself or others in these questions, you might want to seek professional help.

Thomas points out that many sociopaths do not want to end up in prison, or as psychotic outcasts. They can use their skills to be successful in business, in ways that less single-minded people cannot.

They're just not your friends, is all.

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