When it comes to their defining traits, sociopaths are known for using manipulation to get what they want. They tend to lack empathy, don’t care for rules or social norms, and they’re willing to use people in ways that are beneficial to them. While both men and women can have sociopathic traits, board certified psychiatrist, Dr. Melissa Deuter, tells Bustle, “Bias leads us to expect sociopaths to be men, which can lead to missing the traits in women.” And that bias can impact how female sociopaths act, and how we spot the symptoms.
Social conditioning leads us to believe that women aren’t as capable of having sociopathic traits as men. Women tend to be seen as more passive, while men tend to be more aggressive. Women also tend to be seen as motherly-types who are supposed to be compassionate, and nurturing. Because of that, we are often conditioned to believe that women aren’t often manipulative, or duplicitous. When you’re dealing with someone who’s skilled at the art of manipulation like a sociopath, a female sociopaths may use those gender expectations, like being inherently kind, to her advantage.
It’s not easy to spot a sociopath in general. In fact, sociopaths only make up about four percent of the population. So there’s still a ton of research that still needs to be done. But experts say gender stereotypes can make it even harder to spot a female sociopath. So here are some techniques they are more likely to use, according to experts.
Sociopaths tend to exploit others for their own gain. As Dr. Deuter says, male sociopaths may do this by using physical aggression. Women, on the other hand, might use more “interpersonal aggression,” such as manipulation or emotional tactics to get what they want. “A female sociopath might lead a campaign to undermine your credibility,” she says. She might damage your reputation with rumors or innuendos and may take steps to destroy your relationships. After, she might claim that hurting someone was unintentional. Due to social conditioning, women aren’t expected to act out. Ruining someone’s reputation through rumors and smear campaigns goes against that image. “For men, it’s much harder to hide or rationalize the overt physical aggression they typically resort to,” Dr. Deuter say.
“The main tool of sociopathic men is the physical control and dominance,” psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, M.D., tells Bustle. “But don’t expect that from the female sociopath.” Again, it’s all about manipulation. Women are more likely to exploit your emotions, Dr. Ivanov says, so they may resort to extreme tactics like threatening self-harm or suicide in order to get what they want. Due to social conditioning, emotional vulnerability is more often associated with women, so female sociopaths can use this to get the reaction they want.
According to Dr. Ivanov, a sociopath may reject social normals by lying just to achieve their own goals. If you’re dealing with a female who has sociopathic tendencies, she may have a habit of withholding key information in an effort control or win over her targets. She might find ways to twist your words or manipulate the truth in order to fit their needs. Overall, it’s a very subtle way to deceive and control someone. Due to the stereotype that all women are nurturing and inherently trustworthy, it’s easier to believe that a woman will lie by omission in order to protect you from getting hurt than lie just to manipulate you.
Love-bombing occurs when someone showers you with all kinds of love and attention and then takes it away out of nowhere. In a way, it keeps people hooked, wondering where they went wrong. As psychologist Dr. Sal Raichbach PsyD, of Ambrosia Treatment Center, tells Bustle, that’s exactly the kind of thing a female sociopath might do. While the goal of love-bombing is the same for all sociopaths, men and women tend to use this strategy in different ways. “Through kind words and compliments, female sociopaths convince their target that they are friendly. After the relationship is established, they’ve created an easier target and women usually love-bomb others gradually,” he says. It’s a technique that’s calculated and used to gain leverage in a relationship. Because society often expects women to be kind, and to prioritize romantic relationships, love-bombing is a particularly effective tactic because it is often not assumed to be manipulative coming from a woman.
It’s no secret that sociopaths use charm as a way to manipulate people. This may work for women more because of the societal standard that women should be inherently pleasing to other people. “A female sociopath can exaggerate her speech patterns and gestures, expressing more interest than she actually feels,” Dr. Raichbach says. When you’re dealing with a sociopath, their kindness always serves some kind of a purpose. As a society, we’re conditioned to see women as being “gentler,” he says. So the type of “shallow and insincere” charm you’ll get from a sociopath will seem more conniving coming from a woman. Often times, she will target an individual that is attracted to her because they’re much easier to control. She won’t have any intentions of forming a real relationship, but will return affection in some way in order to keep her target close and submissive. “This way, the other person will stick around in pursuit and the female sociopath can manipulate the individual at will,” Dr. Raichbach says.
“Destructive cults are often led by female sociopaths,” clinical psychologist Dr. Lori Whatley, tells Bustle. “Females are good cult leaders because they can hide behind female nurturing characteristics related to mothering.” They know how to trick their victims with fake admiration, encouragement, kindness and care because it’s what society expects of them. “A female sociopath’s abilities to induce dependance and attachment needs in others as she plays the mother role make her successful,” she says.
“Female sociopaths are chameleons,” Dr. Whatley says. Given the situation, they know which aspects of themselves to play up. For instance, if they need to come off as charming, they will. If they need to play the victim, they have no problem doing so. “During divorce, they are aware that society has some preferences toward women and mothers, and will use this to their advantage,” Dr. Whatley says. “They are charming and can hide their true intentions very easily in this manner.”
While there’s still a lot to learn about sociopathic tendencies, it’s clear that societal expectations play a role in the difference between male and female sociopaths.