Experts estimate that somewhere between 1 and 4% of people fit the criteria of a sociopath, which means you may have come across one — or you may be one yourself.
Certain traits, like rarely feeling guilt or shame, constant lying and unreliability, and having a hard time with the concept of love are all things psychologists look for when trying to diagnose sociopathy. Still, it’s an inexact science. People with so-called sociopathic traits can also appear charming because they may be confident, bold, and the life of the party.
Even the exact definition of sociopathy is contended, making it harder to estimate the amount of people actually living with the disorder. So what makes a sociopath?
“Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight” brought the idea of what’s known as a “successful sociopath” into the mainstream. It’s a memoir of someone who was allegedly diagnosed as a sociopath, and describes how she works her way through life, using some of these sociopathic traits to her advantage by scheming and manipulating.
According to the author, M. E. Thomas (a pseudonym) it’s in a sociopath’s best interest to appear “normal.” Thomas says this helped her to succeed in life without causing any suspicion and manipulate people behind the scenes when she could.
There’s a fair amount of speculation over whether Thomas was telling the whole truth, and some believe the book is merely a clever work of fiction. Either way, how exactly do sociopaths get by around us without raising anyone’s suspicion? We spoke to one to find out how he does it.
Keep in mind that one individual experience cannot represent an entire population, but instead merely provides some interesting insight into how one person diagnosed with the disorder goes about his daily life. Also be aware that like any disorder, sociopathy occurs on a spectrum, and there’s no one right answer to any question.
Down the rabbit hole
I started my search for a sociopath on internet forums, figuring it was the best place to look for someone who was detached from society but also willing to talk. After sending some requests, and a couple of taunts and jokes made at my expense on the boards, people started privately reaching out to me.
Eventually, I met David (not his real name). He’s between the ages of 25 and 35 and once worked in investment banking, but now is in a high-up position at a tech company that he co-founded.
For the sake of anonymity he asked me not to give away too much of his personal or work information, and not to mention the community I found him on. In return he would honestly and transparently answer any questions I had.
For starters, said David, there is no hard-and-fast sociopath diagnosis. The closest you can get to one is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) which is often referred to as sociopathy. David was diagnosed with ASPD as a child and saw a therapist.
Antisocial personality disorder is one of the most difficult personality disorders to treat, and unless it’s court-ordered, it’s a choice whether people go for treatment or not. In fact, there is no known effective treatment for this disorder.
David said he knew he was different from a young age, but it wasn’t until he was a bit older that the difference became more pronounced, mostly with his “willingness to use violence as a tool of persuasion.”
“I did have a few run-ins with authority figures and institutions, like most children,” David said. “They thought that these run-ins were extreme enough that a psychological evaluation was in order.”
Leading up to his diagnosis, David said he was doing well at school, but he was easily bored and recalled starting to associate with what he called “wrong people.”
“Violence and abuse to me was a way to deal with the boredom of school,” he said. “In some ways it’s animalistic, if you’ve ever hunted you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
“The look of pure animalistic fear bordering panic is something to behold. It’s a primal sort of feeling.”
Are sociopaths really the puppet-masters?
To David, the diagnosis is just an invisible label, and no one — except for his parents — has ever known about it. Traits like impulsivity, aggressiveness, recklessness and the inability to conform to social norms are all traits which aren’t ideal for someone who is trying to navigate in a modern workplace, so he keeps his diagnosis to himself.
“The traits of sociopathy almost all work against someone trying to do well in our society, which is why most end up in jail,” he said. “However, if used in the right way and kept in check, these are also traits which make a great leader.”
For example, David said his personality has been advantageous in getting him where he wants to be in his career.
“My boldness, ruthlessness and strength of will have defined who I am,” he said. “People are too scared of authority, too content with taking the beaten path, but most of all, they are enablers of weakness.
“They are the ones responsible for the disease of mediocrity spreading within an organisation. The road less travelled is littered with the careers of the weak, but I won’t apologise for not tolerating their weakness.”
At the same time, David understands that some of his personality would be off-putting if he laid it all out bare. In reality, many of the real traits of his ASPD are hidden to the people around him, like his recklessness or lack of remorse.
“Displaying a lower level of empathy is to almost everyone extremely off-putting,” he said. “Learning to care more about people and understanding other their perspective, is something that I work on constantly.”
When it comes to manipulating people, David doesn’t see it as so black and white. Indeed, where does the line between persuasion and manipulation blur?
“People are dumb, and often times don’t know what is best for them or the organisation,” he said. If I then take the liberty to use any means necessary to make them see the situation my way, is that really wrong?”
He didn’t elaborate on what “any means necessary” meant, but he did say the whip and carrot are both “excellent tools” and “anything that will get them from A to B, so long as it is legal, is necessary.”
David understands that the traits related to sociopathy don’t make for stable, long-term relationships, and the way he gets around this is by compartmentalising relationships as well as performing differently in front of different groups of people.
“You can be one person when that fits the situation and another when that’s more appropriate,” he said. “Partners tend to bore me, [because] I’m someone who enjoys extremes.
“Most people on the other hand tend to be mundane and they enjoy everyday life. I want and crave action and I detest mediocrity.”
In other words, the idea of a “normal” family life to David sounds “dreadfully boring.” While David puts aside his tendencies in the work place, he has no real reason to pretend to be something he’s not in personal relationships. Romantic relationships simply don’t interest him in the same way that they’re the goal for so many other people.
Sociopaths aren’t necessarily loners
Before I spoke to David, I talked to the creator of one of the forums I was on. She set it up so that people with sociopathic diagnoses could talk and get to know each other without limits, and with that came some disturbing content being discussed on the boards.
Ultimately though, she said it was a place where isolated people could make friends without ridicule or judgment, and many of the people had been going there for years. It’s easy to judge from the outside looking in, but when I spent a bit of time there, there was a sense of a community.
The founder also said to me that she believed both that everyone is a sociopath and nobody is. I posed this question to David.
“From a certain point of view, sure,” he said. “It’s a question of to what extent people exhibit these traits and to what degree these hinder them from fitting into society.
“The cartoonish popular idea of a sociopath is that taken to the extreme. No one acts like that. Everyone is different in one way or another.”
In the end, he said, sociopathy is simply a label to define a set of traits that are more prevalent in one group of people.