Identifying sociopathic behaviour

Sociopathy affects an estimated 1- 4% of the population, but not all sociopaths are cold-blooded murderers. They’re best described as people without a conscience, who prey on those with high levels of empathy, but themselves lack any concern for others’ feelings and show no remorse for their actions.

97818470927621In their book, The Empathy Trap: Understanding antisocial personalities, Dr Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor draw on real life cases to explore this taboo subject, looking at how people can protect themselves against these arch-manipulators.

Identifying sociopathic behaviour is an important topic in the book, with a section dedicated to some of the traits of the sociopath. These include superficial charm, the need for stimulation, a parasitic lifestyle, manipulative behaviour, pathological lying, faking illness, aggression and anti-social behaviour, and a lack of empathy and remorse,

The following extract is taken from that section.

Superficial charm

Have you ever come across someone with magnetic charm? Perhaps alongside this he affects an air of importance and has a grandiose view of himself? Sociopathic charm is not like any other. It is not in the least self-conscious. Sociopaths rarely exhibit social inhibitions, so they hardly ever get anxious or tongue-tied. Nor are they afraid of offending you. They aren’t held back by the social convention that ensures most of us take turns in talking. They talk at you, confident that you will agree with everything they say.

Often they have a lot to say. A ‘conversation’ with a sociopath can feel like a bombardment. To the untrained ear sociopaths’ pronouncements sound authoritative because they tend to use words and phrases intended to make them sound knowledgeable, but which on dissection sometimes prove nothing more than gob- bledygook. This peculiarity in their mode of expression can be exacerbated by their use of muddled-up phrases and mixed meta- phor. No one really knows why this is the case, but it seems to be a common feature.

When you first meet a sociopath, you may be impressed by her good manners. She tends to be charming at first, may go out of her way to please you and often falls back on flattery. These tactics are designed to draw you in. But beware, for she is not what she appears, which is why sociopaths are often called ‘social chameleons’. It seems counterintuitive that someone so charming can be so dangerous, but many people are duped this way. Being charming is a sociopath’s most potent trait. Targets often later remark that they were over- whelmed by the sociopath’s charm offensive. He may seem larger than life, a go-getter, an adventurer. His grandiose air and smooth conversation add to the illusion of being in the presence of someone special. He makes you feel boring and insipid by comparison.

Everything a sociopath does is calculated to have an effect on you. Just as his charm is superficial, so too is everything else about him. The smile looks phoney because it is phoney. The sociopath has blunt emotional reactions and fakes emotions to appear sincere. Occasionally you might catch him looking closely at your mouth as you speak, as though mouthing words and rehearsing. One com- monly observed habit is frequent pursing of the lips or chewing the sides of the mouth, while he may twist and contort his mouth in peculiar ways. It is not clear why sociopaths do any of these things. Perhaps they are practising facial expressions, or perhaps there is some physical reason. But the only natural smile you will see exhibited by a sociopath is a sneer as he derives pleasure from seeing others suffer.

It is hard to recognize the shameless. In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout claims that the sociopath will make it his business to know how a person can be manipulated, hence his use of flattery and charm. It is quite common for sociopaths to create a sense of similarity and intimacy. They will tell you that only you understand them, that you are their special ‘soul mate’. In our earlier case histories all the central characters possessed this quality in varying degrees. John the workplace bully is a master of flattery. He compliments Mary in order to ‘play’ her and to unwittingly involve her in his sociopathic games. Our 15-year-old schoolboy James possesses a phoney charm. He uses it to blindside those in authority. As a consequence, no one guesses he is manipulating everyone behind the scenes. In other sociopaths, such as Peter, the ‘charm offensive’ is more muted.

The Empathy Trap is available online. To be in with a chance of winning a free copy, enter our #FridayFreebie over on Twitter.

The authors’ new book, Coping with Aggressive Behaviour is published in April 2017.


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Mark Greener spent a decade in biomedical research before joining MIMS Magazine for GPs in 1989. Since then, he has written on health and biology for magazines worldwide for patients, healthcare professionals and scientists. He is a member of the Royal Society of Biology and is the author of 22 other books.