Although sociopaths are widely thought of as being the same as serial killers, sociopathic behavior is absolutely not confined to criminals. While all serial killers are sociopaths, not all sociopaths are serial killers. They are people who manipulate their way into your psyche, often causing emotional harm, self-doubt, and general misery. They are everyday people, like co-workers, neighbors, and sometimes those close to you.

Researchers believe that 1 in 25 Americans fit the criteria for sociopathy. It's nearly impossible to live your life without some sort of interaction with a sociopath!

Dr. Hervey Cleckley was the first researcher to name the concept of psychopathy in 1941. (Mental health professionals often use the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably.) Here are his 16 characteristics of a psychopath. Might these signs apply to someone you know?

  1. Sociopaths are superficially charming and intelligent.
  2. They are coldly rational.
  3. They are rarely, if ever, overly nervous. Sociopaths are not afraid of risk.
  4. Sociopaths are not reliable.
  5. They often tell lies or say insincere things.
  6. They never feel remorse or shame.
  7. Their behavior turns anti-social for no good reason.
  8. They have poor judgment and do not learn from experience, as they believe they are smarter than everyone else.
  9. Sociopaths are pathologically egocentric, and incapable of love.
  10. They generally lack the ability to react emotionally with sincerity. They have a general lack of emotion.
  11. They lack insight and are not self-reflective.
  12. Sociopaths appear responsive socially, often faking it to avoid being “found out.”
  13. They are likely to be the life of the party.
  14. Sociopaths may make false suicide threats.
  15. Their sex life is impersonal, trivial, and/or poorly integrated.
  16. They will consistently fail to follow a life plan.

Tips on avoiding the trap of a sociopath:

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, clinical psychologist and former Harvard faculty member Martha Stout, PhD, provides a great roadmap for conceptualizing, understanding, and avoiding sociopaths. This is the short list:

  1. Accept that some people have no conscience. And they don't look like a serial killer; they look like us.
  2. Always listen to your gut and prioritize what it tells you. "In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on--educator, doctor, leader, animal lover, policeman, humanist, parent--go with your instincts," Stout urges.
  3. Practice the “Rule of Threes.” Three strikes and they are out. One lie, one promise broken, one neglected responsibility--it could be a misunderstanding. Two: could be a serious mistake. Three: you are now dealing with a liar, and deceit lies at the heart of a person with no conscience. Cut your losses immediately.
  4. Suspect flattery. Know the difference between compliments and flattery. Compliments usually feel good. Flattery feels like too much. Know that sociopaths use flattery to manipulate.
  5. Do not participate in intrigue. Don't play the game you're being invited to play. Don't compete with, or try to outsmart, or psychoanalyze, or even banter with a sociopath. Your No. 1 goal is to protect yourself.
  6. Question your tendency to pity too easily. Evoking pity is a classic sociopathic tool. If you find yourself pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, chances are close to 100 percent that you are dealing with a sociopath.
  7. Defend your psyche. Don't let someone without a conscience try to convince you that people aren't good. Know that most of us do, thankfully, posses a conscience, and can love.