“Psychopath and sociopath are pop psychology terms for what psychiatry calls an antisocial personality disorder.” – Dr. John M. Grohol, Differences Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath
On the higher end of the narcissistic spectrum lies Antisocial Personality Disorder; a disorder that carries with it the symptoms of narcissism along with law-breaking behavior and a long-standing pattern of disregarding the rights of others. Psychopaths have also been shown by studies to have structural abnormalities in parts of the brain that deal with empathy, remorse and moral reasoning (Oliveira-Souza et. al, 2008; Gregory, 2012).
Dr. Samenow (2011), author of Inside the Criminal Mind, notes that it can be difficult to distinguish the two disorders because they share so much in common. As he writes:
“The most important point is that people who are either antisocial or narcissistic are victimizers. Most likely, every reader of this column has unfortunately known a man or woman who is incredibly self-centered and self-aggrandizing, who is untruthful and cannot be trusted, who fails to see things from any point of view other than his own, and who is able to eliminate fear (and conscience) long enough to pursue any means to an end. Invariably, others are betrayed, deceived, and emotionally (perhaps financially) injured. The narcissist may not commit an act that is illegal, but the damage he does may be devastating.”
Only a mental health professional can make a diagnosis as to whether a person meets the criteria for NPD or ASPD. However, whether you think you may be dealing with what is called a sociopath, a psychopath or a malignant narcissist (a narcissist with antisocial traits, paranoia and aggression), there are often signs that can give you a clue that the person you’re dealing with may lack empathy – or even remorse – depending on where they fall on the spectrum and how overt they are.
After all, in the real world of dating and relationships, it only takes a few destructive behaviors to cause a psychological injury and pose significant emotional harm. The specific label placed on a toxic, abusive person may matter far less than how their behavior affects others, especially if it is accompanied by a sense of entitlement and a lack of remorse for their exploitative behavior. Not all psychopaths will have a criminal history (many are also clever at evading legal charges), but there are subtler ways in which they communicate their character.
Here are five eerie signs you may be dealing with someone who is on the more severe end of the narcissistic spectrum:
1. Shallow affect and limited emotional responsiveness.
Research indicates that psychopaths have reduced affective responses and an absence of a startle response (Patrick et. al, 1993). In fact, lab experiments indicate that they lack the physiological responses associated with fear (Lykken, 1995; Ogloff & Wong, 1990).
Such findings suggest that psychopaths have a greater ability than others to engage in cruel and callous behavior without considering the emotional consequences or even punishment for their actions. After all, this is someone who does not experience anxiety or fear in the same way other empathic individuals do, which makes for a rather chilling experience when they are expected to empathize with their partners or modulate aggressive behavior.
When psychopaths are in their natural state, there is an eerie sense of calm, quiet and nonchalance about them that may be quite different from the interpersonal warmth they attempt to fake in social settings. Their charisma and superficial, glib charm may initially attract others to them, but the bond that is created is often emotionally one-sided and short-lived. Their smiles are forced, rather than genuine, and while others who are not as severely narcissistic may exude a natural warmth, psychopaths manufacture a mere flicker that quickly burns out when no one is watching.
“Psychopaths have little aptitude for experiencing the emotional responses – fear and anxiety – that are the mainsprings of conscience.” – Robert Hare (1970), Psychopathy: Theory and Research
This type of person has a demeanor that can come across as staged when they are forced to portray emotions; they may display no emotional response or inappropriate emotional reactions to events that might otherwise provoke others. You might notice that a psychopath demonstrates a flat affect when they are not “performing” for others or attempting to exploit or manipulate someone. Their cold, callous indifference towards others is often hidden beneath a shallow veneer of gregariousness that does not quite reach their eyes.
2. Their predatory gaze zooms in on potential prey.
On the other hand, when they are manipulating someone, those with antisocial traits are known for their intense “predatory gaze” when they fixate on a specific victim. This can be an almost reptilian gaze that is described as “dead” and “dark” or even seductive if the psychopath is attempting to lure someone in sexually. As Robert Hare (1993) writes in Without Conscience:
“Many people find it difficult to deal with intense, emotionless, or “predatory” stare of the psychopath. Normal people maintain close eye contact with others for a variety of reasons, but the fixated stare of the psychopath is more of a prelude to self-gratification and the exercise of power than simple interest or empathic caring…Some people respond to the emotionless stare of the psychopath, with considerable discomfort, almost as if they feel like potential prey in the presence of a predator.”
3. They require high levels of stimulation because of perpetual boredom.
The Psychopathy Checklist developed by Robert Hare (2008) lists “prone to boredom” as one of the traits of being a psychopath. Someone who is perpetually bored is unbelievably restless and can be impulsive when it comes to high-risk behavior. It is unsurprising that due to their chronic boredom, psychopaths gain the most excitement from conning others or engaging in criminal activities of all kinds.
Their excessive need for stimulation and entertainment, combined with their lack of remorse, is also what enables them to engage in multiple relationships and sexual liaisons simultaneously.
Even if they have a primary partner, they are always out on the prowl – at the bar, in the workplace, on numerous dating sites – wherever they can get supply. You will notice that your particular partner, if he or she possesses these traits, does not seem satisfied with having a stable family life or a rewarding career; for psychopaths, the novel is what is most exciting and they quickly get bored with their current pursuits in search of something “better.”
4. They demonstrate a haughty, superior and contemptuous attitude.
As natural braggarts, psychopaths tend to oversell themselves and their abilities. They self-aggrandize and believe the world must cater to their ego. They take pride in whatever qualities make them special and they believe themselves to be the exception to every rule.
This form of grandiosity isn’t just your garden-variety arrogance, but rather, a core belief the psychopath holds about himself or herself that shapes everything they do. No amount of theft, criminal activity, con artistry, infidelity, or pathological lying may be out of bounds for them; they are contemptuous of the “mere mortals” who allow their values or morals to interfere with achieving their goals. They can intellectually distinguish between right and wrong, but they simply do not have the moral capacity to care. Psychopaths believe that they are superior and this form of warped thinking allows them to trespass the boundaries of others as a way of life.
For example, a highly physically attractive malignant narcissist may feel that his good looks entitle him to sex with multiple women outside of his marriage or favoritism in the workplace. Psychopathic people feel as if they do not have to work as hard as others to “earn” what they believe should be given to them freely, and they bear no qualms about violating the rights of others or stepping on toes to get it.
5. Their curiosity is limited to what they can gain.
Psychopaths and other similarly empathy-challenged individuals do not care about someone else’s successes, goals, interests, hobbies or needs unless those very things can be used to serve them. For example, a wealthier partner can be “useful” to a predator so long as he or she can financially depend on them for a place to stay or funds. Psychopaths are known for leading parasitic lifestyles that grant them access to financial resources without having to work for them.
Yet the psychopathic partner will rarely celebrate or show interest in the success of that same partner unless it serves them in some way. Once they have hooked their victims into investing in them, they unmask their true selves. This goes beyond just normal self-absorption; it lies on the cusp of pathological self-involvement.
You may find it unsettling when a dating partner fails to ask you about your day or never asks follow-up questions to an important piece of news you mention. They may show little to no emotional response or curiosity about your welfare, your dreams or your basic needs. Perhaps they even demonstrate a startling indifference to your physical well-being, abandoning you in times of duress or illness. Consider this chronic lack of curiosity and a failure to reciprocate as a red flag that this person is incapable of any form of healthy emotional connection, unless it can be used to maintain their own goals.
If you have encountered someone who seems to display any of these traits as a long-standing pattern of behavior, be wary and do whatever you can to detach from them emotionally, financially and interpersonally. There is a distinction between occasional selfishness and the overblown grandiose sense of self-worth that empathy-deficient individuals demonstrate. Someone in the latter category will violate your basic human rights while fulfilling their own agendas, even when wearing the “mask of sanity” while doing so (Cleckley, 1988).
Cleckley, H. M. (1988). Mask of sanity. New York: Penguin Books.
Gregory, S. (2012). The Antisocial Brain: Psychopathy Matters. Archives of General Psychiatry, 69(9), 962. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.222
Grohol, J. M. (2016, July 10). Differences Between a Psychopath vs Sociopath. Retrieved September 16, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/02/12/differences-between-a-psychopath-vs-sociopath/ Hare, R. D. (2008).
Hare, R.D. (2008). Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (2nd Edition) (PCL-R). In B. Cutler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology and law. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hare, R. D. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York: The Guilford Press.
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Ogloff, J., & Wong, S. (1990). Electrodermal and cardiovascular evidence of a coping response in psychopaths. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17(2), 231-245. doi:10.1177/0093854890017002006
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Samenow, S. (2011, July 15). Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the Antisocial Personality Disorder — A Lot in Common. Retrieved September 16, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inside-the-criminal-mind/201107/narcissistic-personality-disorder-and-the-antisocial