In 1941 Hervey Cleckley described 16 sociopath symptoms in his book 'The Mask of Sanity". He had been studying male adult psychopaths who were hospitalized in a closed institution. Over the next decade he had the opportunity to study a wider range of psychopaths (he uses the terms sociopath psychopath and antisocial personality interchangeably) and he says he made some significant changes in the second edition of the book.
He starts the book with lots of case histories demonstrating sociopath symptoms in actual situations. He then does a comparison with other disorders such as psychosis, the ordinary criminal, sexually deviant behavior and the alcoholic before talking about the psychopath in history.
He then consolidates the information into the following 16 sociopath symptoms:
Let's have a look at each in turn.
Sociopaths appear normal and often talk a lot. They may seem to have a lot of genuine interests and seem to be very intelligent. Careful observation will reveal that he has less social or emotional impediments than the average person. That is, they are usually not shy or awkward or embarrassed in any way. They give the impression that they have desirable and superior human qualities.
There is no evidence of mental illness or delusions. He seems to be able to reason logically, understands past mistakes, and takes them into account when organizing his future. He also appears to respond with normal emotions and is convincing about his beliefs.
They seem to be immune from anxiety and worry that would be normal for people in disturbing situations. They easily maintain their poise and confidence. In situations when normal people would be embarrassed, confused or insecure, it is noteworthy how they are able to remain calm.
In jails or psychiatric hospitals it's often somewhat different. They may be vexed or restless (probably because they've lost their freedom and control, something that is very important for them). Hervey Cleckley points out that this uneasiness seems to be provoked entirely by external circumstances and never by guilt or remorse.
While giving the impression of being reliable, it very quickly becomes obvious that they have no sense of responsibility whatsoever. No matter how often they have promised, or how important, they don't take responsibility. And when confronted about it their attitude or their decision making does not change either.
However, he notes that they can actually do what it takes to appear reliable. They turn up to study or to work for weeks or months. They get elected as president of the club. They win a scholarship. What they are doing is creating an impression. This makes it more difficult to deal with them, because if they were unreliable from day one, people would know what to expect.
The sociopath will be unreliable in trivial and serious matters. It's impossible to determine when they will be reliable and when not. Hervey Cleckley says this is not even a consistency in inconsistency, but an inconsistency in inconsistency!
This is one of the more important sociopath symptoms because they show such a remarkable disregard for truth that you cannot trust what they say happened, what they promise will happen or what they say their intentions are now.
They lie very convincingly. Whether they think they won't be caught out in a lie, or whether there's a high probability that they will be caught, they do the same impressive job. They can look trustworthy and look somebody in the eye and tell barefaced lies.
Cleckley says it is difficult to explain how thoroughly straightforward some sociopaths can appear. They can be disarming not only to strangers but also to people who know that they are liars.
And despite being found out in lies and breaking serious promises, the sociopath will continue to talk about his word of honor and will appear surprised and upset if somebody questions it.
It seems they will lie to avoid unpleasantness or to gain something, even if this something is small and insignificant.
One of the very common sociopath symptoms is that the sociopath does not accept blame for his problems or problems he causes to others. The typical response is to blame everybody else and put himself in the role of victim.
If he does accept responsibility it is with the same amount of conviction as the person who finishes a letter with "your humble and obedient servant". However his manner can indicate that he is genuinely serious and he can be deceptive enough to recreate the broken trust!
But closer questioning about what he is accepting responsibility for may show that not only is he not serious, but the idea is inconceivable to him.
Nor is there shame, humiliation or regret. Not even for the most horrible things he may have done. He says "If Santayana is correct in saying that 'perhaps the true dignity of man is his ability to despise himself,' the psychopath is without a means to acquire true dignity."
Sociopaths cheat, swindle, fail, brawl, desert, steel, forge, defraud for surprisingly small stakes even if the risks of being discovered are great. They will even do such things in the absence of any goal whatsoever.
The antisocial behavior is not circumscribed, for example, only kleptomania or only fighting. They typically engage in a whole range of anti-social activities.
Despite seemingly rational powers, one of the common sociopath symptoms is that they often throw away great opportunities to, for example, make money or improve personal relationships.
And at the same time, despite punishments for wrongdoings, the sociopath will often continue with the same behavior, knowing that if they are caught they will be punished again. The classic example is the rapist who leaves jail and rapes again.
Cleckley believes that no punishment is likely to make a sociopath change their ways.
He also notes that in theoretical situations he can offer sensible advice for life situations for others and for himself. However when it comes time for action, there is lots of evidence for the deficiency in his decision making.
Read the rest of the Hervey Cleckley sociopath symptoms here and learn how the sociopath symptoms appear in real life situations.
More recently, Robert Hare has also written about sociopath symptoms and about their antisocial lifestyle. and Martha Stout has written The Sociopath Next Door. Read more about marriage to a sociopath, how to leave an abusive relationship and how to divorce a sociopath.
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