Friday, November 2, 2012

Psychological Self-Defense: Protecting Oneself From Sociopaths

Photo courtesy of ©

Sociopaths are hazardous to everyone. This is a hard truth to accept, thus we downplay their ruthlessness and extreme self-interested behavior. We prefer to see sociopaths as misjudged or free-spirited. Let's use the character Neal Caffrey in White Collar as an example. We tend to ignore Neal’s deceptions, con jobs, and thefts, but rather focus on his good looks, sad past, quirky friends, and charming personality. He is simply misunderstood, instead of dangerous. His likeability reduces our internal sense of threat. This type of misdirection is commonly employed by sociopaths.

What are the indicators that we are dealing with someone dangerous?

The best resources for this information are found in Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door and Babiak and Hare’s Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work. I have pulled out several tips from these outstanding books for the benefit of this article.

According to Martha Stout, the best interpersonal warning signal of a sociopath is when this individual appeals to our sense of pity. She calls this move the “pity play.” Sociopath uses our sympathy rather than our fear to manipulate and deceive us.  She goes on to say, “when deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given.” (p. 109)

How can we protect ourselves from sociopaths?

First, we must learn to trust our gut. If something seems off kilter or wrong about an individual, even if this person has impressive credentials, then suspect a problem and be on guard.

Second, we need to know ourselves. What are our psychological needs and weaknesses? Sociopaths are experts at identifying our psychological vulnerabilities or “hot buttons” and use them against us. If we look for approval from others, then they will make sure to build us up so that they can manipulate us. Becoming more aware of our insecurities will help to alert us when they are being used against us.

Third, we need to suspect the excessive use of flattery and to watch out for flowery phrases, inconsistencies, distortions, bad logics, or outright lies. Sociopaths often implore such tactics to sound impressive and to create a smoke screen. It is helpful to be clear about what we are trying to express during key conversations in order to avoid being misled or deceived.

Fourth, once someone has lied three times, including broken promises or neglected responsibilities, we should suspect this person’s integrity and get out of the relationship as quickly as possible.

And finally, if we suspect someone may be a sociopath, we should not try to outsmart or to redeem this person. As harsh as this seems, some people are dangerous and should be avoided.

The next article will be a list of resources on this topic and will be the final one in this series on Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Current Television Show Sociopaths:

White Collar - (Neal Caffrey)
Dexter - (Dexter Morgan)
Revenge - (Emily Thorne, Conrad Grayson, Victoria Grayson)
Falling Skies - (Pope)
Persons of Interest - (aka Root/Caroline Turing)


The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, PhD (2005) Broadway Books

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work by Paul Babiak, PhD & Robert D. Hare, PhD (2006) HarperCollins Publishers

1 comment: