Your red-faced coworker yells in your face like a psychopath for the thousandth time, eyes narrowed into slits, neck veins protruding, nostrils flaring, ears like a Uber taxi with both doors wide open - Hulk on acid would be a fair description of him at this point. Why? Because you missed a deadline for a report by a paltry five minutes. The reason for his uncontrollable anger is that you dared to take your son to an emergency hospital appointment (and told him you’d be a few minutes late with the report). In their world, there is one compartment for right, as they see it, and another for wrong. The problem is, there’s no middle ground where the two can commingle (to paraphrase Howard Beale). Your coworker can be nice as pie one minute, complete with megawatt sunbeam smile and Southern charm, but the next can morph into one of those monumentally narcissistic, sneering, malignant…
Who is this guy? What is he? You’ve worked with him for over a year now, but you’re still in the dark …
Lightbulb moment. Ca-ching! Your psycho coworker is a sociopath. Sociopaths have been somewhat glamorised in movies, those typically good-looking, brooding heroes and antiheroes with a chronic lack of empathy, superficial charm and a mammoth ego. Typically, they are the cold-hearted cynics or cut-throat lawyers or sadistic, seedy bankers (not dissimilar to the bankers some of us loved hating in the film The Wolf of Wall Street).
Psychopaths v Sociopaths
“Psychopath” and “sociopath” are terms used interchangeably by people (as I’ve just done), but this belies the fact that they are in fact different conditions. Although it is true that both are a form of mental illness, the two are formally categorised as antisocial personality disorders, those medically classed as psychopathic tend to have a relentless anger at everything and everyone and are prone to violence, whereas sociopaths simply ‘don’t care’ about anything or anyone. Or if you prefer a more succinct differentiation, psychopaths put little value on the sanctity of life; by contrast, sociopaths don’t care about the rules and norms of ‘society’, hence the term socio-o-path. Moreover, although there is some evidence that psychopathy is the result of either a brain injury or an embedded belief system and also has a hereditary component, there is little evidence of this being the case with sociopathy.
If you’re not sure how to spot a sociopath, and if you’d like to know whether there’s one lurking in your midst (there’s bound to be: according to some academics one in twenty-five Americans fit the criteria for sociopathy), read on for 5 research-backed clues that will help you cast aside any doubts about whether your coworker is a sociopath.
1. Fickleness, Coupled With Constant Lying/Deception
Does your coworker introduce a new initiative every other day and then, when it’s convenient, cancel it only to replace it with something else? Does he fabricate stories about clients or business partners only for you to later discover that his stories don’t fit the facts? Does he lie a lot? If your coworker is guilty of all these, take it as confirmation that he is indeed a sociopath. Sociopaths lie because they have no conscience; they will always lie in order achieve their goals.
2. Your Coworker Has an Inability to Accept Responsibility
Perhaps you’ve lost count of the number of times your coworker has either promised to give you information or promised to fix something and not done so and then blamed you for their own failures. Worse, they deny that they ever agreed to do anything for you. If this is true, consider your suspicion of sociopathy confirmed.
3. A Lack of Empathy and Normal Human Emotions
Does your coworker appear callous, or cold-hearted? Sociopaths are capable of the vilest of actions without feeling even the slightest remorse. If you’ve seen the film The Devil Wears Prada, you’ll be familiar with the main character, fearsome fashionista Miranda Priestly. She thinks nothing of undermining and belittling her assistant, lacks empathy and patience and appears devoid of normal human emotions.
Like Priestly, sociopaths are incapable of feeling regular human emotions such as empathy or sorrow. In their mind, their belly button is the center of the universe; no one else matters in their private dome of me. Had your child been rushed to the hospital? Spare the explanations. Otherwise, expect nothing more than sarcasm or vilification delivered in a peremptory manner - a more realistic outcome when sharing personal news with a sociopath.
For sociopaths, emotions are pointless. These guys can remain eerily calm and collected during highly emotional events. Did a popular CEO just die? Don’t expect even a blink from them. Cold blank stares are typical – sociopaths simply don’t register events the same way as the rest of us do. Studies confirm this: sociopaths don’t show anxiety or ‘normal’ reactions when they are faced with disturbing images or given small electrical shocks, whereas non-sociopaths do respond as expected in these situations.
4. Pathalogical Egocentricity
Is your coworker supremely selfish? Sociopaths have an unchecked egocentricity that goes hand in hand with their lack of empathy and inability to feel regular emotions. Compromise is anathema to them – they simply cannot or will not take someone else’s interests into account. Their actions are in their best interests, and no one else’s. So they don’t ‘do’ teamwork – except for the kind of teamwork that means the team does the work for them.
5. Your Coworker is Incapable of Learning From Failure
Self-reflection or insight is for meditating, moronic yoga nuts, as far as the sociopath is concerned. Sociopaths believe they are always right, and there is no accommodation of failure in their world. Therefore, they are incapable changing – the kind of change that results from remorse or regret.
It’s worth adding at this point that sociopathy isn’t fixed: it exists on a continuum. Many of us show sociopathic tendencies that are evident in our decision making and our actions. Certain careers require steely sociopathic attitudes: how can you be a frontline soldier about to kill another human being otherwise? How else can you make a decision to take a country to war, a decision that will cost thousands upon thousands of lives?
You could reasonably assume that sociopathic traits in world leaders are a given (this article describes why Benjamin Franklin would qualify as one, citing his dysfunctional familial relationships, his “risk-taking behavior” and his “legendary charm” amongst other reasons). Still, not all those who work to defend national security are sociopaths or vice versa. Several other careers nurture and indeed reward sociopathic traits, typically those where there are high-pressure stakes: surgeons, lawyers and CEOs are good examples of this, and even entrepreneurs, according to studies, exhibit a number of sociopathic tendencies.
Do you recognise any or all of these traits in any of your coworkers? Do you think you are working with a sociopath? Your thoughts and comments below please...