The 8 traits that can help you identify a psychopath, according to experts

And how to tell the difference between garden-variety narcissism and antisocial personality disorder

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 7, 2023 5:23PM (EST)

Wild-eyed man peeking ominously through the blinds (Getty Images/RapidEye)
Wild-eyed man peeking ominously through the blinds (Getty Images/RapidEye)

In an era when serial killers are fetishized, gory horror movies continue to be popular and lacking a conscience gives one a competitive edge in politics, it is hardly surprising that our culture is fascinated by sociopaths. The clinical term for sociopathy is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a condition marked by lack of regard for right, wrong, and more generally the feelings of others. While the most conspicuous ASPD patients are those who make headlines — usually for all the wrong reasons — there are countless people you will meet in your everyday life who have ASPD and/or a similar neuropsychiatric disorder, psychopathy.

"People who associate with sociopaths are likely to become their victims, or to victimize other people while serving the sociopath's interests."

If that sounds unsettling, bear in mind that not everyone with ASPD goes on to commit "Dexter"-style killing sprees. Of course, most of us will probably aspire to avoid individuals with ASPD or psychopathy, both in terms of direct interactions and in terms of creating environments where they can flourish.

But this is easier said than done, unless you know what to look for. Those with ASPD might be charming, friendly and disarming at first blush. The key is to learn to identify red flags.

"Sociopathy is very consistent with the dark tetrad of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and sadism," explained Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, in an email to Salon. "In a word — these are your combative, blustery, reactive, thin-skinned bar brawlers, road ragers, and bullies. They are deeply manipulative, so if they do have a job, they will be workplace bullies or tyrants."

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Dr. Robert Faris, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, described the clinical traits associated with ASPD: "impulsivity, aggression, irritability, disregard for the wellbeing of others, violating rules, laws, and norms, deceitfulness, manipulativeness, and lack of remorse for one's actions."

Practically speaking, what does that mean? Here are eight red flags that will help you identify a sociopath, according to experts. 

Lack of empathy
Durvasula told Salon that "lack of empathy" is a core characteristic possessed by sociopaths. Indeed, as Faris observed, "people who associate with sociopaths are likely to become their victims, or to victimize other people while serving the sociopath's interests. At the very least, they will be thought of as doing so."
As Durvasula elaborated to Salon, sociopaths perceive the world as owing them things and do not feel confined by moral codes when their sense of entitlement is denied. "If their belief of specialness or hypocritical belief that rules don't apply to them isn't honored, they will either become verbally or physically violent," Durvasula warned. Not surprisingly, she noted that sociopaths tend to be "thin-skinned" and have trouble holding down jobs due to their "hot-headedness."
As a rule, people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than anyone else in the population; in fact, they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. This rule does not apply to people with ASPD, however, as multiple studies have linked ASPD and psychopathy with a tendency to commit violent crimes. A 2020 study in the journal PLOS One found that most criminal with ASPD act out impulsively, but those who score higher on psychopathic tests are more likely to commit premeditated offenses. 
If you have ever shared the road with a driver who is going 30 miles over the speed limit, weaving between lines of traffic and with passengers in their car, you have just picked up on the essence of this trait. People with ASPD and psychopathy tend to behave, as Durvasula put it, in a way best described as "chronically irresponsible," with a tendency to "put others at risk via their behavior (e.g. driving drunk with kids in a car, leaving children without adequate supervision)."
Controlling behavior
People with ASPD and psychopathy enjoy having power over other people. Independent filmmaker John Borowski, who has studied a number of serial killers, observed to Salon last year that "it comes down to their lust and desire for tension and power, domination and control." Even if this does not manifest in acts of murder or criminality, it can still lead to horribly toxic and abusive relationships for those who interact with them on a professional or personal level.
Constant lying is another classic trait for psychopaths and people with ASPD. Even though people with these conditions can be charming, witty and even persuasive, they are also notoriously dishonest. Again, this is in no small part because of the lack of empathy or remorse, qualities that both keep healthy people from egregiously lying.
Insincere relationships
Sociopaths have "little capacity for close, mutually intimate relationships," explains Durvasula. "Any relationships are superficial and transactional." That said, this does not mean that sociopaths cannot fake close, mutually intimate relationships. After all, sociopaths can also be deftly manipulative. Tragically, many abuse victims find themselves in precisely that trap.
Violation of social norms
This quality has less to do with the sociopaths themselves than the milieu which cultivates them.
"You have no doubt encountered quite a few sociopaths in grocery stores and on airplanes, but if they stood out at all, it was probably for being rude or cutting in line," Faris wrote to Salon. People with ASPD and psychopathy thrive in environments where they can act with impunity.
Faris noted that one's respect for social norms affects this; environments with "soft rules" might be prime environments for sociopaths to thrive. Consider "the degree to which the context is governed by soft rules — either norms, or rules without enforcement teeth," Faris said. "If we've learned anything from the past five years, it's that even the most enduring, foundational traditions of our democracy can be tossed aside with impunity. It requires gumption and a certain bull-like force of personality, but norms often turn out to be the China shop."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Antisocial Personality Disorder Explainer Mental Health Mental Illness Psychology Psychopath Sociopath