The 9 Creepiest Manipulation Tactics Sociopaths Often Use
Even though it's not super common to deal with a sociopath in everyday life — whether you end up dating one, working with one, etc. — it's still a good idea to be able to spot their more common manipulation techniques. If there's one thing some sociopaths have in common, experts say it's often a desire to use other people for personal gain. And you don't want to get caught up in that.
"Sociopaths are manipulative because they are trying to achieve what they want for themselves in the world," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "People around them can either help them or be a hinderance. They engage in so much of this because they [might not have a] moral compass — nothing that tells them not to."
This is all part of sociopathy, or what's otherwise known as Antisocial Personality Disorder. "They are manipulative because this is how they’ve learned to negotiate in the world and get what they want," psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW tells Bustle. "Lacking empathy, they don’t feel badly for those they hurt but think of them as easy prey."
Since it doesn't feel good to be manipulated — and it can even land you in some pretty scary situations — here are some of their most common manipulation techniques to watch out for, so you don't get caught up in their toxic games.
1. They Use "Love Bombing" Techniques
When a sociopath is trying to win someone over — especially in a romantic relationship — they may use a technique known as love bombing, which basically means they try to be kind in a super, over-the-top way in order to get what they want.
"They will shower you with affection and attention to overcome any reservations you may have," Koenig says. "They do this at the start of a relationship and when they feel you pulling away."
This is creepy because the love and affection isn't genuine, but instead just a way to get you to stick around in a situation that isn't healthy. So if someone's kindness feels "off," or if their affection seems to be "too much too soon," listen to your gut.
2. They Are Super Charming
In a similar vein, sociopaths tend to be the most charming people in the room — whether they're at work, at parties, on dates, etc. They're funny, kind, and full of compliments. But the thing is, it's not genuine at all.
And usually, it can be spotted by how excessive it all is. "Being described as ‘charming’ is usually a positive and complimentary comment. And, in fact, a charming personality is a lovely quality to be gifted with. However, people who are sociopaths use excessive charm to manipulate others into believing they are good guys," Beverly Hills sex and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish tells Bustle. "They use their slippery ... charm to weave a false sense of safety and trap their victims into trusting them."
3. They Target Vulnerable People
While anyone can fall for a sociopath's surface-level charm, they tend to go for folks who are aching for attention, and thus more likely to fall for it.
As Koenig says, they might "pick out vulnerable people with low self-esteem and self-worth who are the 'echo' to the sociopath’s 'narcissism.' The victims of sociopaths are often [people] who have had trauma, abuse, or neglect (or all of the above) in their lives." For anyone who's been through the ringer in life, it's easy to see how this tactic might work.
4. They Know How To Reel You Back In
Sociopaths tend to have a near-magical ability to reel people back into their web, especially when they're trying to break away.
To do so, they often "engage in intermittent reinforcement ... to keep their victims attached," Koenig says. "This involves being nice interspersed with being not nice, or lots of engagement interspersed with withdrawal of love and attention."
Right when you think you're done with them, or feel like you'd really like to end the friendship/relationship, they'll figure out the perfect thing to say so that you stick around. That's why it's important to stick to your guns, and not fall for false kindness.
5. They Are Quick To Apologize
Sometimes manipulation can be spotted in the way they apologize. "Sociopaths may give sincere-sounding apologies, when they are not sorry at all," Laurie Endicott Thomas, MA, ELS, relationship expert and author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health, tells Bustle. "They will say whatever they think you want to hear." But their words will be conflicting with their actions.
So if you aren't sure if the apology is an attempt at manipulation, try to focus on their actions instead of their words, Thomas says. Do they apologize, while continuing to act in a mean or cruel way? If so, they aren't likely being genuine.
6. They Use Gaslighting
Toxic folks use gaslighting techniques to manipulate others. But it's a common habit of sociopaths, too. They "rely on gaslighting to disempower their victims," Koenig says. "This involves lying about their activities ... and making someone else think they’re wrong when they’re right, did something they didn’t, or didn’t do something they did." It's confusing AF, which is why it's manipulative.
7. They Don't Show Any Remorse
Sociopaths are not able to show remorse for their negative actions. "From the minor — such as a lying to make themselves appear better — to the most horrific — such committing crimes, etc. — when they engage in these acts, the creepiest thing is that they literally feel nothing," Dr. Klapow says. "No remorse, no second thoughts, no concerns. So no matter what they do, no matter how bad or hurtful, in their mind it was justified and OK. No remorse, no concern."
And that, in its own way, can be manipulative. Since they don't show any remorse, they often have a way of making it seem like they did nothing wrong — even when they totally did.
8. They Use Empty Threats
Many sociopaths can get a bit threatening when they're trying to manipulate — though they may cover it up with that aforementioned charm.
As therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW tells Bustle, "Sociopaths often use threats to keep you in their control, such as threats of suicide or saying 'you'll be sorry' for your behavior."
This can also be a sign of other personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. So it's important not to diagnose anyone as a sociopath, just because they use a threat. It is, however, helpful to know that this is one tactic common to sociopaths when they're trying to manipulate.
9. They Use Excessive Flattery
Think of a sociopath as a car salesman on steroids; they often know just what to say to make you feel good about yourself, so that you'll be more inclined to do what they want — even if it isn't in your best interest.
While it may be tricky, there is a way to see through it, and tell the difference between a genuine compliment and manipulative flattery. As Hershenson says, "Instead of saying they enjoy being with you, a sociopath may say 'you are the most amazing person I've ever met and I can't imagine life without you' even though you've only known them a short time." It's all in the over-the-top wording.
That's not to say, of course, that everyone who uses creepy manipulation tactics is a sociopath. But it can help to recognize these signs regardless. By knowing what may be an attempt at manipulation, you'll be less likely to get caught up in it all.