Psycho comes from the Greek word psykho, which means mental. The Greek root word path can mean either “feeling” or “disease.” So psychopath is a word meaning “mental illness”. “Sociopath” is not a clinical term and it is a no-no for mental health professionals to use it. However, I am NOT a mental health professional, and the name is rather on point about the issue: Sick towards society, towards people. In the 1830’s this disorder was called “moral insanity.” By 1900 it was changed to “psychopathic personality.” More recently it has been termed “antisocial personality disorder” in the DSM-III and DSM-IV.

DSM-IV Definition: Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a lack of regard for the moral or legal standards in the local culture. There is a marked inability to get along with others or abide by societal rules.

It’s easy to take the DSM on faith at face value as sufficient authority to settle the issue of who is or isn’t thoroughly, but the needs of the mental health community and others who have to deal with psychopaths don’t line up perfectly. The DSM criteria depend heavily on observed behaviors while law enforcement and criminal justice must often predict behavior based on personality characteristics.

Common features describing the behavior of psychopaths/sociopaths.

  1. Glibness and Superficial Charm
  2. Manipulative and Conning: Conventional appearance.
  3. Grandiose Sense of Self: Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.” Does not perceive that anything is wrong with them.
  4. Pathological Lying: Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.  Only rarely in difficulty with the law, but seeks out situations where their tyrannical behavior will be tolerated, condoned, or admired.
  5. Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt: A deep-seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. They do not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Has an emotional need to justify their crimes and therefore needs their victim’s affirmation (respect, gratitude, and love).
  6. Shallow Emotions: When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love, and compassion it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person.
  7. Incapacity for Love. Incapable of real human attachment to another
  8. Need for Stimulation: Living on the edge. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Promiscuity and gambling are common.
  9. Callousness/Lack of Empathy: Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others’ feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them.
  10. Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature: Rage and abuse, alternating with small expressions of love and approval produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. Believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for their impact on others.
  11. Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency: Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet “gets by” by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc.
  12. Irresponsibility/Unreliability: Not concerned about wrecking others’ lives and dreams. Oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. Does not accept blame themselves, but blames others, even for acts they obviously committed.
  13. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior/Infidelity: Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts. Exercises despotic control over every aspect of the victim’s life.
  14. Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle: Tends to move around a lot or makes all encompassing promises for the future, poor work ethic but exploits others effectively.
  15. Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility: Changes their image as needed to avoid prosecution. Changes life story readily.

Cough, cough TRUMP, cough.

These negatives are so big and dramatic that you’d think that despite being clever, psychopaths would dramatically out themselves and fail. The incidence of psychopaths in society at large is 1% and in prison populations, it is 15%. Psychopaths lean toward criminality but criminality comes in different strengths and flavors. The authors of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Robert Hare, Ph.D., 2006 note that many psychopaths are not suited for the business environment:

“Some do not have enough social or communication skill or education to interact successfully with others, relying instead on threats, coercion, intimidation, and violence to dominate others and to get what they want. Typically, such individuals are manifestly aggressive and rather nasty, and unlikely to charm victims into submission, relying on their bullying approach instead. This book (Snakes in Suits) is less about them than about those who are willing to use their ‘deadly charm’ to con and manipulate others.”

Sociopathy: The other spectrum disorder

Psychopaths have one thing in common with autistics… they’ve been diagnosed. A diagnosis indicates that their condition was:

  1. Enough trouble to somebody that a diagnosis was called for.
  2. Presenting clearly enough for strong confirmation.

The Autism spectrum runs from the most extreme and overt case, through kids who can be mainstreamed in class and continues, invisibly from that point through everyone on Earth. The behaviors and sensitivities of ASD are standard issue human traits such as social comfort and competence, sensitivity to noise, etc. A spectrum condition runs from pathology, through normal, and all the way to the opposite extreme. There are extremely competent ASD people “passing for normal” while possessing some of the famous gifts that can accompany Autism.

The Sociopathy spectrum runs from demonic selfishness through moral neutrality and all the way to beautiful, openhearted saints. The ones with a diagnosis were high-profile trouble to somebody. There are extremely competent sociopaths “passing for normal” and thriving in business, law, government due to a complete commitment to their own wishes and indifference to others. As a spectrum that passes through all of us, this means there are a lot of cold and selfish “normal” people out there.

Research indicates that psychopathic behavior is more common than we’d think in senior management, at 3%. Remember psychopaths are 1% of the population overall. Three times more of anything is significant, toxic people maybe most of all.

Certain psychopathic qualities like charm, charisma, and grandiosity can suggest vision and supreme self-confidence, making the job candidate stand out from the crowd with the atmosphere of a winner. Humans are suckers for confidence. “Performing” as yourself sounds foolish and LOOKS foolish too if done uncertainly but high performing psychopaths give their all to selling their story.

Snakes in Suits” looks at how psychopaths operate effectively in the workplace. To quote a few portions:

“Several abilities – skills, actually – make it difficult to see psychopaths for who they are. First, they are motivated to, and have a talent for, ‘reading people’ and for sizing them up quickly. They identify a person’s likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities… Second, many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people… Third, they are masters of impression management; their insight into the psyche of others combined with a superficial – but convincing – verbal fluency allows them to change their situation skillfully as it suits the situation and their game plan.”

The psychopath scale includes one measure common to powerful leaders: Fearless dominance: it seems to initiate a willing follower role in many people. Psychopaths can be magicians of manipulation and interpersonal theater. This system of magnetizing belief is critical to generating momentum. Belief is viral, and momentum generates more of itself. By hacking human vulnerability a talented psychopathic entrepreneur can move heaven and earth in pursuit of their goal. Cough, cough Bezos, cough.

So the structural role of high functioning psychopaths in society is 1. Upper management in organizations that don’t care who they hurt or as 2. Centers of gravity, organizational magnets creating large, powerful organizations. Cough, cough Musk, cough.

Oh, and criminals.