It really bothers me that researchers haven’t developed a measure to help people figure out if their loved ones are sociopathic. Instead, measures have been developed and the public is told NOT to use them to “diagnose” anyone. What good is research if it doesn’t teach people how to protect themselves? It would not be too difficult to identify a group of sociopaths, then determine a few easy questions related to the disorder most of the sociopaths answer yes or no to (that is sensitivity). The questions would be even better if non-sociopaths were unlikely to give the same response (that is specificity).
In a recent study (Comp. Psych. 48, 529), Dr. Heather Gelhorn and her colleagues from the University of Colorado have determined the four questions that identify sociopaths with a good degree of accuracy (sensitivity and specificity). Additionally, there are some other questions that also help. The best part is that these questions are easy to ask so you don’t have to have a Ph.D. or an M.D. to ask them.
Before I tell you the questions let me give you some background. As part of a large study, government researchers interviewed 43,093 residents of the United States. Of these, 1,403 were diagnosed with sociopathy (932 men and 471 women). That was between 3 and 4 percent of the total sample. These individuals were asked a number of simple questions about their behavior. The answers to these questions given by diagnosed sociopaths were then compared to answers given by other people who had only one symptom of sociopathy and so could not be “diagnosed.” These sub-clinical sociopaths numbered 17,767 men and 4,659 women. There are a lot of somewhat “sociopathic” people out there (22,426, over half the sample). The issue is how we identify people who are the real deal, given that so many “are a little sociopathic.”
Dr. Gelhorn and her colleagues performed a statistical analysis on specific questions and on groups of questions to determine those that best specifically identified the sociopaths. Of these four questions, a “yes” answer to any two was a good indicator of sociopathy in both men and women:
1. Have you ever hit someone so hard that you injured them, or they had to see a doctor? OR: Physically hurt another person in any other way on purpose?
2. Have you ever used a weapon, like a stick, knife or gun in a fight?
3. Have you ever had a time in your life when you lied a lot, not counting any times you lied to keep from being hurt? OR: Used a false or made-up name or alias? OR: Scammed or conned someone for money, to avoid responsibility or just for fun? OR: Forged someone else’s signature—like on a legal document or on a check?
4. Have you ever robbed or mugged someone, or snatched a purse?
Two other questions were nearly as good:
1. Have you had a time when you bullied or pushed people around or tried to make them afraid of you? OR: Harassed, threatened or blackmailed someone?
2. Have you ever stolen anything from someone or someplace when no one was around? OR: Shoplifted?
The basic problem is finding questions that all sociopaths answer the same to, and that no one who is not “a sociopath” answers that way. There was one question that everyone who answered yes to was a sociopath but the problem was that too few sociopaths endorsed this item. In other words, if your loved one answers “yes” to this you can say with a high degree of confidence he/she is sociopathic, but not answering “yes” does not rule out sociopathy. This question was:
1. Have you ever forced someone to have sex with you against their will?
I find it remarkable that habitual lying is on the same list as other more obviously hurtful behavior. It is clear that if you are with someone who is a liar; you have to wonder what else that person does that you do not know about.
The purpose of this analysis that Dr. Gelhorn and her colleagues performed was not to help us pick out sociopaths. The purpose of the study was to help us identify teenagers who are likely to develop sociopathy. These researchers found that 75 percent of people who had conduct disorder as teenagers went on to become sociopaths.
An observation I found particularly interesting was that cruelty to animals was not very common in sociopaths, either as teens or adults. Whereas 67 percent of sociopaths were “physically cruel to people” only 22 percent were physically cruel to animals. This information is consistent with what Sandra L. Brown, M.A. and I found when we surveyed the female partners of sociopaths. Sociopaths were always mean to the people in their lives, but only a few were also mean to animals.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? First, sociopathy is a disorder where people use coercion, either physical or non-physical, to overpower other people. Why do sociopaths do this? As Dr. Steve said this week, because they like to. This power behavior gives them pleasure. To them, having power is like having an orgasm. The reason physical violence is especially pleasurable for some is that observing someone else crying or wincing over what they did makes them feel especially powerful. Those sociopaths who are better at observing and understanding people just lie to hurt. They don’t have to see physical pain before they can get that gratification.