Are Sociopaths Really "Charming"?

It seems to me that there’s a widespread belief out there that sociopaths tend to have unusually “charming” personalities.

I somehow doubt that you would find a lot of “charming” individuals in a maximum-security prison or a mental ward. Is there any statistical evidence to support this notion? Where did this stereotype come from?


I think being unencumbered by the normal insecurities most people face is considered charming.

Most serial killers are sociopaths, and they are not particularly noted for being charming.

While some sociopaths are charming, I don’t think you need to be charming to cause a lot of collateral damage.


Umm Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy are all famous for being charming.

We like to think we are.

They will figure out what you want to hear, and then, without hesitation or remorse, they will tell you whatever lies it takes to manipulate you into doing what they want.

Long-term, you will eventually catch on, and become suspicious. But in the short term, someone who tells you what you want to hear can be extremely flattering and charming.

Most psychopaths (AKA sociopaths) I’ve met are quite charming. Of course, one of the (continuously debated) differences between psychopaths and sociopaths is that psychopaths tend to have better organizational skills, and can mimic societal norms successfully. So psychopaths, almost by definition, will have some people skills.

At this point in my career, I consider that any patient who is charming or who is making me feel good, is a psychopath, and I’d better keep my guard up. Of course, probably up to 20% of my patients are psychopaths.

Ted Bundy, one of the most well-known and definitive American serial killers of the 'Seventies, was known to be quite charming.

The term “sociopath” is often wielded fairly loosely, both in common vernacular and in psychiatric literature. Technically, a sociopath is someone who suffers from Antisocial Personality Disorder; a psychopath is a more general diagnosis, though the treatment is the same for all character disorders, to wit, separation from other people, as there is no current way to effectively treat psychopathy in mature stages. APDs may become experienced at manipulation, but are rarely capable of maintaining the facade for long, as they are compulsive liars and are incapable of genuine empathy.

It is worth noting that some forms of psychopathy can be beneficial in legitimate career paths; one (albeit rather limited) study concluded that certain personality disorders are actually more prevalent in business executives than in criminals. These may not be the kind of people that you want to marry or have for next door neighbors, but they may for good executive-level leaders and decision makers.

I’m surprised you consider it to be that low. Of all the ex-cons I’ve worked with, I’d wager that better than 80% of them were probably psychopaths, demonstrating clear and unquestionable positive indications per DSM-IV criteria. I suspect for psychopaths without supportive upbringing and counseling during their formative years the criminal lifestyle is the only one that is suited to them.


I’ve known two definites, a borderline third, and had a relationship with someone I strongly suspect, people with serious missing empathy problems (that’s not just bitterness talking).

Notably, one was one of the most gorgeous girls I know, a tiny wee thing with cascading auburn curls, a sweet smile and huge brown eyes, who went out with a friend and ruined his life by spreading lies and rumours and assaulting him regularly (waiting until, the tenth time she attacked him, this time with a dinner plate, he hit back, to parade her black eye around town). Another one embezzled huge sums of money from a charity I helped found - and used it to pay his rent and have a wild old time. When we finally realised what was going on and confronted him, he merely laughed in everyone’s faces, then threatened our lawyer with physical violence.

All of them were blisteringly charming at first - when I first met her, I dubbed my buddy’s eventual girlfriend “the perfect woman” and said I’d marry her on the spot, and I would have. She ended up stalking another friend of mine for several years.

The embezzler was totally believable and very credible for months. When he “turned”, it was like something out of a movie, and seriously disturbing. I googled him a couple of years ago and found him trying to get funding to search for buried treasure in the Philippines… :rolleyes:

I, being an overly trusting soul, was completely taken in by all of them. Eventually - usually around a year or so - there was a process I now dub as “the cracks beginning to show”, and their true nature revealed itself - at first through inconsistent behaviour and weird emotional reactions, and finally through the unravelling of the tissue of lies they’d told.

Depressingly, I see there is no known treatment. I guess the only thing to do, when you meet someone like this and realise that is their nature, is to run the hell away and remove them from your life - if you can.

I think you’re right on the rest, but not Dahmer. Didn’t he have this really creepy kind of flat, almost emotionless, affect?

Our own mental health statistics indicate around 20%. Remember, anti-social does not equal psychopathy. Antisociality rates in forensic populations run around 50 to 80%. Psychopathy. Note slide 34.

There is no treatment because, as with Personality Disorders in genreal, they are not mentally ill. There’s nothing “wrong” with them medically. Really, there’s usually nothing wrong with them psychologically: that is, they are perfectly normal for human beings. The fact that any decent human being does NOT want to think of them as normal is itself healthy but also wrongheaded. There is no real innate drive which forced humans to be good, or to care about one another, or anything. most of us want to be. Some… not so much.

I’ve dealt with two. Not sure how to diagnose, but I can tell you for sure that neither of them had any idea what “guilt” feels like. They simply could not comprehend regretting an action which had not directly harmed them, or caused them to get caught. They hurt other people with less compunction than I would have about harming a stuffed animal.

Both were remarkably charming. One of the main things I’ve realized is that I used to actually select for guys like this because they seemed to have an air of integrity about them. Turns out that’s because they don’t show the usual signs of lying, which most people do pretty regularly. And most people do because they feel guilty about lying, which these guys don’t.

It’s all pretty convoluted, but then the world does get convoluted when one of these guys comes around. . .

A really good book on the subject is “The Sociopath Next Door.”

One of his victims made it outside and to a police officer. Standing there naked and begging for help, Dahmer convinced the cop to help him get the poor man back into his apartment.

That’s charming.

Part of the magic is that they seldom assert anything, because they have no real self. They become a reflection of whoever they are talking to. They are a blank slate upon which we just naturally fill in what we want to see.

Being charming is a skill.

Take for example how you’ll see some people who you would categorize as a “fat loser”. You’d say to yourself that he’d be much more successful and popular if he lost weight and looked better. But then you’ll see some other fellow who’s also overweight and yet has no problem picking up good looking women or being perfectly successful at his career. There’s nothing in particular stopping our fat loser from becoming our fat winner except for skill at selling himself.

Doing well with other people is a process of noting subtle clues and acting on them, showing interest, and being proactive. All of these are things that can be consciously done, which means they can be learned. Inherent skill of course makes a large difference, minus any training. Intelligence can also be fairly necessary, particularly for being able to interpret cues that the other person has given in the correct way. I don’t know that I would agree that psychopaths and sociopaths have a different disorder, just that most people won’t be all that bright and so most people who lack empathy won’t be all that bright and hence never work out that it pays to act like you care about other people, let alone figuring out the skills necessary to be popular.

Evolution favors that people naturally prefer a social order that is beneficial to the species. This social order is termed, “moral”. Evolution is a rather scatter-shot deal that doesn’t quite perfectly achieve something that makes rigorous, logical sense–it just goes with what seems to work generally (for instance, making us likely to be slightly less than perfectly monogamous). A sufficiently intelligent sociopath would theoretically work out that living a moral life is easiest and the most beneficial to himself. One who is slightly less intelligent might figure that being able to understand the limitations and foibles of others, that he might as well improve his lot based on them, even if it’s a bit immoral.

Of course, just being intelligent doesn’t mean that you’re skilled at or interested in analyzing the human condition, game theory, and philosophy. Not having inherited the basic moral programming that others did will make their foibles stand out more clearly to be analyzed. So it’s probably more likely for them to do so, but I’d venture to guess that many jobs require you to do the same thing (for instance, sales). Once you start preying on people’s foibles, some might then call you a sociopath, even though you’ve simply picked up a skill, rather than having a natural lack of empathy.

Everything what jjimm said.

I volunteer (not full time) for the mentally ill and domestic abuse “victims.”

It is gut-wrenching.

Why is victims in scare quotes?

Personally, I believe that generalized altruism/cooperation is an evolved quality. Of course, like many instinctive behaviours, our cerebella can override it (see Ayn Rand) but I think its prevalence in nearly every society* indicate that it’s innate.

*Note that I acknowledge that many societies override the freedoms and rights of the individual, but there is almost always a generalized “obeying society’s rules” despite this.

Also I think very few of them seek treatment on their own initative, it is usually some other agency that compels them to do so, with usually limited effectiveness. I have seen lawyers pull out the DSM-IV Axis II diagnoses as a “reason” their clients have committed a crime. It’s circular reasoning…the person has an antisocial orientation, acts on it, and therefore is “disordered”. Therefore, nobody who can buy a diagnosis should be considered culpable for any illegal act they commit. The way I understand them, the personality disorders help explain certain deviant patters of behavior, but do not necessarily imply these folks are victims of some type of malady they can’t control.

I’ve heard of the class of personality disorders likened to “onion and garlic” lifestyles…they don’t bother those who have them, just the people who happen to be around them.