Editor’s note: This is a more complete explanation of a proposal I made a few weeks ago.
How do you avoid a social predator? First, you have to know that they exist.
I didn’t know they existed. So when a charming, charismatic and supremely confident man swept into my life, I didn’t know that charm, charisma and overconfidence were red flags that he might be a predator. And he was. This man took a quarter-million dollars from me, cheated with at least six women during our 2.5-year marriage, had a child with one of the women, and then, 10 days after I left him, married the mother of the child. It was the second time he committed bigamy.
“He might be a sociopath,” my therapist commented, as I described his mind-boggling betrayal and duplicity.
Sociopath? I thought a sociopath was a serial killer.
Well, not necessarily. Sociopaths are people who live their lives by exploiting others. Sometimes they commit serious crimes or kill, but usually they abuse their partners, neglect their children, defraud credit card companies, indulge in drugs and alcohol, bilk customers, steal from employers, bully their co-workers and find more ways to disregard and violate the rights of others.
But you’d never know it to meet them. Sociopaths are not delusional, and they do not necessarily look like thugs. In fact, they blend easily into society and often have good social skills. Like the man I married, they are frequently charming, charismatic and confident.
And they are a huge problem. Experts estimate that 1% to 4% of the population are sociopaths. That means there are 3 million to 12 million of them in the United States. Plus, additional millions have sociopathic traits but not the full disorder.
Back in 2005, I launched Lovefraud.com to educate the public about these disordered individuals—people who have no empathy and no conscience. My first problem was deciding how to refer to them.
Multiple names for essentially the same disorder
In the mental health field, social predators may be called sociopaths, psychopaths, malignant narcissists or antisocials, depending upon whom you ask.
Research psychologists tend to use the term “psychopath.” The official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the bible of mental health conditions and illnesses—was once “sociopath,” but was changed to “antisocial personality disorder.” Psychiatrists and clinicians tend to use this term when describing the condition, and “sociopath” as a shorthand way of referring to a person with the condition. At least, that’s the current usage. The psychiatrists are in the process of updating their manual and have suggested yet another name for this disorder: “antisocial/psychopathic type.” (Try using that in a sentence.)
In addition to disagreeing about the name, experts also argue about what the names mean.
- Some consider a “psychopath” to be an extreme form of “sociopath.”
- Some say “psychopath” describes personality traits and “sociopath” describes behavior.
- Some see this as a nature vs. nurture issue—”psychopaths” are born, “sociopaths” are the result of bad parenting and deprivation.
- Some people use the terms depending on how a person is diagnosed. If psychiatric standards are used, the person is a “sociopath.” If the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), a standardized evaluation, is used, the person is a “psychopath.”
- Some think of a sociopath as someone who is socialized into an antisocial subculture, such as a gang.
In short, naming this disorder is a mess. And as the experts argue, the public is in the dark.
Confusion in the general public
Lovefraud.com gets 50,000 unique visitors a month, and I’ve collected more than 2,400 cases of people involved with sociopaths. Last year, we surveyed our readers and asked a few questions about the name of the disorder. More than 1,200 people responded. Here are the questions and the results:
“Before your involvement with this disordered individual, what did you understand the term ‘sociopath’ to mean?”
- Criminal — 19%
- Serial killer — 19%
- Someone who was delusional — 6%
- Person without empathy or a conscience — 20%
- I didn’t know what it meant — 35%
“Before your involvement with this disordered individual, what did you understand the term ‘psychopath’ to mean?”
- Criminal — 15%
- Serial killer — 51%
- Someone who was delusional —13%
- Person without empathy or a conscience — 9%
- I didn’t know what it meant — 12%
The correct definition of both of these terms is “a person without empathy or a conscience.” This was selected by 20% of the respondents in reference to “sociopath” and only 9% in reference to “psychopath.” On the other hand, half of the readers thought “psychopath” meant serial killer, and the largest number of responses for “sociopath” was “I didn’t know what it meant.”
No support in the aftermath
Why is this discussion important? Why should anyone care about what to call people who lie, cheat, steal and abuse?
Two reasons: First of all, these social predators are probably responsible for most of the manmade misery in the world, ranging from the fraud perpetrated by Ponzi schemers, to the abusers who force their partners into domestic violence shelters, to the bullies causing turmoil in the workplace.
Secondly, once you become entangled with a sociopath, there is usually no support from legal, financial or other institutions. Why? Because most sociopaths use social interactions to find and exploit their targets. This means there is some kind of relationship between the predator and the victim, which muddies the water when the victim seeks redress.
The only effective way to deal with the trauma caused by social predators is prevention. Prevention requires education. And for education to work, we need agreement on what to call these people.
This is a medical disorder
It is not sufficient to say that these predatory individuals are “abusers” or “toxic.” We are talking about a medical disorder, a mental illness, not merely a lifestyle choice. Of all the personality disorders, only this one is defined by the affected individual’s victimization of others. The perpetrators themselves rarely experience distress because of their actions. It is the people around them who experience distress.
Mental health professionals, searching for possible causes and treatment, engage in nuanced debates with each other about definitions and diagnostic criteria. For example, are antisocial personality, narcissism and psychopathy distinct disorders, or are they different points on the same continuum of abusive behavior? In practice, the behaviors and traits exhibited by individuals diagnosed with psychopathy, sociopathy, narcissism and even borderline personality disorders overlap, so it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins.
From the perspective of those of us who have tangled with one of these individuals, however, the clinical diagnosis doesn’t matter. Our lives were turned upside-down, we lost money, our homes, our children. We suffered PTSD or other maladies. The point is that we were involved with a disordered person, and we were damaged.
Proposal for a name
When it comes to helping people avoid exploitative personalities, it’s not a diagnostic issue, but an education and communications issue.
I propose a solution for the name problem. I propose that “sociopathy” be used as a generic, layman’s term, similar to “heart disease.” It would not be a clinical diagnosis. It would be a general description of a personality disorder in which the people who have the disorder purposely exploit others.
Let’s compare it to “heart disease.” There are various types of heart disease, like a heart attack, or, clinically speaking, a myocardial infarction. There’s also cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease, and so on. The American Heart Association tells us to keep our heart healthy by not smoking, avoiding fatty foods, and getting regular exercise. They don’t tell us to avoid heart attacks by doing this, or avoid strokes by doing that. They provide information to protect the whole system.
With my suggestion, under the umbrella of “sociopathy,” the professionals could determine actual clinical diagnoses. They may decide that a “psychopath” should be defined as someone who scores 30 or more on the PCL-R. A “narcissist” should be someone with an overactive sense of entitlement. “Antisocial personality disorder” should describe the people who are worse than a narcissist, but not as bad as a psychopath. Other subcategories could be defined as the experts see fit.
The idea here is coming up with a general term that describes social predators so that people can be educated. It doesn’t matter if someone is diagnosed to be a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath. The idea is to avoid all of them.
Understanding the red flags
I’ve talked to and corresponded with hundreds of people who have tangled with these exploiters. Time after time I’ve heard, “I never knew that people like this existed.” This is the problem that needs to be solved—alerting the public that social predators exist. To do this effectively, one agreed-upon term is necessary.
“Sociopath” has the advantage of already being in the lexicon, without the cultural baggage of “psychopath.” People are generally aware that the word has something to do with bad behavior towards others. But, as our survey pointed out, most people don’t really know what “sociopath” means, so they can be educated.
In another Lovefraud survey about romantic relationships involving sociopaths, 71% of people said that they had a gut feeling or intuition early in the relationship that the individual was bad news. Most people said they ignored their internal warnings and continued the relationship. Why? I think a big reason is because they did not have the empirical knowledge that sociopaths existed. They saw the red flags and did not know what they meant, so they dismissed them.
In my view, settling on a clear name for this disorder, or range of disorders, is a public health issue. People have learned how to protect themselves from heart disease. Sociopaths cause physical, emotional and psychological injury, illness and trauma. We need to learn how to protect ourselves from them.
Can the ill effects from tangling with these predators be totally avoided? Probably not. But if we know that sociopaths exist, and know the warning signs of exploitative behavior, we may be able to escape before too much damage is done.