How do I identify a sociopath?

There is a simple way to identify psychopaths. Most people aren’t familiar with it because they instinctively avoid getting into the position needed to “test” for socio-psychopathy, since it involves making ourselves emotionally vulnerable.

First, a note about the terms.

“Sociopath” and “psychopath” are two different ways of identifying the same thing.

Sociopath implies using social norms and mores and a person’s ability to function in socially acceptable ways to tell the difference between “normal” and “pathological”. I don’t much use the term, because in a psychopathic society, normal, healthy people would test out as pathological as far as authorities in that society would be concerned. For example someone who wanted to protect potential victims of ethnic cleansing probably would be considered sociopaths in a society controlled and indoctrinated by racists.

I prefer to think and talk in terms of psychopathy because it gets to the real issue. If a person is a healthy, functional individual, their psyche (i.e., neurochemistry and neurocircuitry) is the opposite of pathological. If a person is psychopathic in a psychopathic society, they might well rise to pinnacles of success as defined by that society, so they wouldn’t be called sociopaths even though they’re still psychopaths. And a psychopath in a relatively healthy society can learn to function in acceptable ways, i.e., neurotypical ways. In fact, they’re very good at this kind of daily acting. The fact that they can detach from personal traits, preferences and habits that might run afoul of the PC Police makes them great at fitting in, precisely because they’re psychopathic.

So here’s a reliable way to detect psychopaths. It was inspired from a saying attributed to Jesus:

Do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

So, toss out a pearl you don’t mind (too much) possibly getting trampled and see what the reaction is. In practical terms:

  1. Share a mildly risky, personal, emotional truth about yourself, then look for signs of empathy.
  2. Notice what the person’s attention instinctively latches onto— the “pearl” or you.
  3. Feed any indications of psychopathy and see if the person takes the bait, tramples the pearl, and makes any move toward tearing into you.

This can all be done in a very low-risk way, verbally. It’s like they say about trading stocks or currencies: Only invest money you can afford to lose. Except in this case the valuables are emotional. Besides, you don’t lose the pearl and any trampling that happens won’t damage it—can’t even touch it, in fact. It’s still yours. Although it smarts a bit, you can just pick that pearl back up and put it safe in its little drawer of the heart and walk on, none the worse for the wear but quite a bit wiser.

All but the most sophisticated psychopaths can be “outed” this way.

Will this method help you answer the question whether the person would qualify as clinically psychopathic? No, but that’s probably not your purpose. They are psychopathic enough to notice it, which means psychopathic enough to affect you negatively. You might not want to have anything to do with them, or you might want to limit your contact. If that’s not possible, say it’s an ex-partner and kids so you have no choice but to deal with the person, at least now you’re well advised to put on gloves and Kevlar before stepping into the arena with them once again.

An empathetic person will try to relate to you when you share something intimate with them. They’ll try to mirror, sympathize, and understand your feelings so they can understand you. Most importantly, they will immediately make you the focus of their attention in a way that feels like understanding, or at least that signals they want to understand. They won’t forget you in order to focus on the pearl.

Feelings are key. A psychopath’s affective psyche is to some degree non-functional. In order to appear normal, they have to fake it. So look at their eyes. There’s a difference between a friend’s eyes and a predator’s eyes and yet again a reptile’s eyes. The closer you get to the feeling like you’re looking at predatory or reptilian eyes—think how it feels looking into a shark’s eyes—the closer they are to being a psychopath as far as you can see, which is the best that any of us can do. (It’s not all and only about their eyes, but it’s the best place to start because it’s really hard to fake the eyes.)

Mere absence of empathy, focusing on something other than you and how you feel, such as events, details, facts, concepts, principles that apply to the situation or people in the story, etc., doesn’t prove psychopathy, but it’s consistent with psychopathy. At least, given it would be healthy for a person hearing what you just confided to empathize with you, you could say that lack of empathy is at least mildly psychopathic.

On the other hand, if the person reacts negatively toward what you confided, especially if the person reacts negatively toward you as a person because of what you confided, putting you down, dissing you, or any other belittling, degrading, offensive, abusive reaction, you are dealing with some form of psychopath.

I realize that’s not what most people mean by “psychopath” these days because, like they do with violence, physical and sexual abuse, authoritarianism, and a host of other essentially repugnant human behaviors and attitudes, they assume that some of it is inevitable and must be tolerated. (I don’t accept that cynicism, with the result that I’ve gotten quite competent in recognizing and dealing with psychopaths, although I haven’t yet had to deal with serial killers or the like. But I have dealt with the next closest thing: cult leaders.) From this cynical standpoint, their question becomes where to draw the “this far but no further” line beyond which it’s “too much”, but short of which pejorative labels aren’t appropriate.

Notice that as long as we maintain that kind of cynical tolerance for problematic behaviors, we’ve effectively condoned the problem in perpetuity as long as it’s not “too much”.

This really makes no sense. Poison is still poison, caustic acid is still caustic acid, and shit it still shit regardless how much or how concentrated they are or are not.

Psychopathy is still a dysfunctional condition that results from damage to cognitive and especially to affective neurochemistry and neurocircuitry, regardless how severe or widespread the damage is. A little dysfunction is still dysfunction. A little damage is still damage. Genetic propensity toward psychological dysfunction is far rarer than psychic damage inflicted by trauma, especially traumatic abuse—which in this authoritarian, punishment-oriented society is quite common.

This means there’s some psychopath in all of us, and there’s some healthy psyche in a psychopath. It’s a good way to look at it, because it introduces hope for us all.

There’s a step four, which isn’t really a step so much as a follow-up: Give it time. If you can, that is. If not, err on the side of caution using this rule: Healthy, empathetic people are obvious because you can feel it. If you have a question about a person, it’s a good question. If you happen to be wrong and doubt an empathetic, healthy person, you don’t have to worry. They won’t fault you because, of course, they’ll understand and empathize. If someone does fault you for doubting or questioning them, you probably want to stay away from them anyway, psychopath or not.

As you see how a person handles your pearls, it will become clear what they’re really about. If doubt still remains, though, there is a dead giveaway that hinges on commitment. It’s a great litmus test to cap off this method.

If you don’t make commitments before you’re comfortable making them, you won’t get into trouble very often. The problem is that it’s easy to induce us to commit prematurely, whether it’s commitment to a person, a belief, an organization, a regime, and whether it’s commitment of our minds, hearts, property, money, time, work, energy, or even our bodies.

All con schemes revolve around getting you to commit prematurely. So the simple way to keep from getting burned is to never commit until you’re sure you want to and don’t feel compelled to. That’s sometimes hard to do—which the con artist well knows and loves—but it really doesn’t take too much practice to get the hang of it.

If a person wants you to commit and sees you’re not ready, they’ll either respect where you’re at or they’ll try to push you. Someone who is genuinely on your side and cares for you will do the opposite of push: They’ll defend your right to remain noncommittal. If no one has your back and will advocate for you, you can still advocate for yourself. We sometimes call this “holding boundaries”.

Establish a boundary for yourself: No one is welcome to induce you to commit prematurely. If someone tries to violate that boundary, the question whether they’re a psychopath or not becomes secondary, because you probably should extricate yourself from them regardless and not wait around to figure out their state of mental health.

On the other hand, if someone does not push you to commit prematurely, the question whether or not they’re a psychopath becomes less important, because then they pose no real threat to you even if they are a psychopath.

So always refuse to commit prematurely, i.e., before you’re ready and comfortable. In other words, never commit because you’re being told to commit or made to believe you should or must commit or get scared into making a commitment.

A favorite of con artists (and salespeople, but what’s the difference, lol?) is the “snooze you lose” gambit. Fear of loss easily induces us to commit before it’s wise to. By maintaining your commitment boundary you’ll either aggravate con-artist-could-be-psychopaths, thus exposing them, or they’ll decide you’re not worth the pain and move on. Win-win!

Every scam has one of these red flags: ex-con man Frank Abagnale

In the past, con men were able to charm people one-on-one with a nice attire, great

In the past, con men were able to charm people one-on-one with a nice attire, great vocabulary and a likable personality. While they were captivating in person, modern day con artists are anything but that. They work remotely behind computers and in their pajamas, where it’s easy to take everything without any compassion.

Ex-con man Frank Abagnale, made famous in the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” says technology may have changed the ways scammers operate, but it has not changed how scams work. To spot them, there are two red flags that are in almost every scam.

  1. Flag one: Artists will say they need money urgently. Whether it’s money or card information. They often obtain this through a romance scam, where the artists will target those looking for a relationship.
  2. Flag two: Artists will ask for personal information. They will often call or email as a bank fraud agent. By evoking fear into their victims, they can easily obtain the credit card security codes or social security numbers.