Recognize the Signs of a Sociopath

Before he stepped into a darkened theater and started pumping bullets into moviegoers last month, James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora, Colorado shootings, didn't seem to display any signs that he would soon commit mass murder. Many Americans are left wondering whether any behavioral red flags could have let on that he was a dangerous sociopath. The same could be wondered for any number of high-profile violent criminals who seemed to be normal until their lives took a sinister turn and they hurt or killed others.

What exactly is a sociopath? And are there characteristic red flags to look out for?

"Sociopaths are very charming and very good at talking the game they want to play," says. Elizabeth Waterman, Psy.D, of Morningside Recovery Centers in Newport Beach, California. "They've learned how to get people to believe what they are saying even though they are telling outright lies."

Here are more red flags to watch out for.

● A sociopath can make you think he cares about you and that he is altruistic, Waterman says. "But he is out for personal gain," she says. "They lack empathy, remorse and guilt, and they have a very limited, if any, capacity to truly love another."

● A sociopath doesn't think there's anything wrong with him, Waterman says. "And he is very good at acting," she adds, making it possible for him to fool those around him.

● A sociopath is very impulsive and grandiose in his sense of self. "They are often like parasites, manipulating others so they don't have to do their own work," Waterman says.

● Sociopaths may display a change in behavior, says Taft Parsons III, MD, medical director of Henry Ford Kingswood Hospital in Michigan. "He may drop out of school and become less friendly with people," he says. And, he adds, sociopaths tend to take advantage of other people to get what they want.

● Sociopathic behavior typically shows up before age 15, Waterman says. In fact, signs such as cruelty to people and animals, violating rules, and problematic behaviors typically start in childhood or adolescence, Waterman says. "They don't just pop up one day in an adult," she says.

While diagnostically, a person cannot be labeled a sociopath until age 18, signals surface much earlier that a person has sociopathic tendencies, says Lynn Schiller, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in Summit, New Jersey. "Sociopaths present as having had a conduct disorder younger than the 18 year diagnostic criteria," Schiller says.

Is someone born a sociopath? Some research shows that some sociopaths have diminished neurotransmitters in their brains - especially serotonin and norepinephrine, says Schiller. "Ultimately, it may be a combination of nature and nurture, with family, environment, and lifestyle impacting whether the person acts on their predisposition," she says.

As for treatment, Schiller says, medications may address underlying issues like aggression and depression. "The best treatment," she says, "would be a combination of psychotherapy and appropriate medication."