Beware of the charm and the flattery. Both are warning signs of the charisma of a sociopath. I always wish I could warn young people before they begin dating. You might be young, insecure and lacking confidence in yourself, but don't mistake the charisma of a sociopath for true confidence. Through counseling a number of bewildered adults through trying to repair their lives after surviving having a parent, or a marriage or relationship with a sociopath, I have developed a lending library of books to help the wounded partner try to make sense of what's happened.
One excellent book to start with is The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. (Broadway Books, 2005). Stout is a Harvard psychologist who clears up the misconception that all sociopaths are violent criminals. They are not. In fact, Stout estimates that 4 in every 100 people, or 1 in every 25 people, fit the criteria for sociopathy. These individuals seldom seek counseling or professional help. Most often it's the people around and closest to the sociopath that are likely to come for counseling to try to heal from the trauma they have experienced.
Stout describes sociopaths as "ice people" who really aren't capable of loving or empathizing with others. This dynamic really confounds people who are in the majority who can do both of those things. It's been called various names, including psychopathy, sociopathy, guiltlessness disorder, missing conscience, and/or antisocial personality disorder. According to the DSMIV, the current bible of psychiatric diagnoses, people with antisocial personality disorder have to have at least 3 of these 7 criteria met:
1. Failure to conform to social norms
2. Deceitfulness or manipulative
3. Impulsivity, failure to plan ahead
4. Irritability, aggressiveness
5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self and others
6. Consistent irresponsibility
7. Lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person
Researchers also note the tendency of sociopaths to crave greater than normal stimulation, which creates more risk-taking. Many sociopaths began to have legal issues as teens with breaking rules. Their emotions run hollow. Many sociopaths are not violent and are not in prison. They may, however, be wreaking havoc on the lives of people who are in relationships with them or work with them. Sociopaths have no conscience, so it's like the normal rules don't apply to them. They may appear spontaneous, exciting, interesting, and charismatic, but they can be very dangerous to your safety, your self-esteem, your bank account, and your heart.
Both Stout and I have seen too many people hurt by sociopaths and helped them begin the journey to heal from the trauma that was caused. It's important for the public to be educated and aware that such people exist, and what some of the characteristic behaviors are.
In her book, Stout does a good job of discussing the nature vs. nurture debate about the possible causes of sociopathy. It's probably some of each. Identical twin studies have shown a heredity factor. No one can tell you exactly how a sociopath is created, but it's interesting to see the cultural differences in the incidence of sociopaths, which is more common in cultures which highly value individuality. In the United States, the incidence level of sociopathy appears to be on the rise.
Sociopaths want to win at any cost. They can marry for money or power. They can act attached, but it is not genuine. Some wish to have others feel sorry for them, see themselves as victims, and can be lazy while taking gross advantage of those closest to them.
In contrast, narcissists are somewhat different. Narcissists can't empathize with others, but they do have a conscience, and they can feel guilt. Narcissists can be in pain about the poor quality of their relationships because of their lack of empathy, and can enter therapy to address this pain.
True sociopaths would usually only go to therapy if court-ordered. Sociopaths feel little beyond the basics of pleasure and pain, aggression, boredom, frustration, or anger. Sociopaths don't care about other people and they don't marry for love. See how dangerous they are, and how the unsuspecting person can get caught up in their web?
There are lots of religious, ethical, and moral implications of people not having a conscience. Stout does an excellent job of discussing these implications.
Mostly, The Sociopath Next Door is a wake-up call for people to be aware that sociopaths do exist, are more common that you might have imagined, and are not likely to change. It is incredibly helpful for people who have been traumatized by the damage of a sociopath to understand the disorder, and educate themselves in order to heal and move on with their lives. If the book helps increase public awareness so that people can avoid a sociopath, that's a really good outcome, too.