Inventing Anna. The Tinder Swindler. You. What do all these series have in common? Well, for starters, they’re all getting a lot of attention from Netflix subscribers. Also, they feature lead characters who’ve (allegedly) deceived friends and loved ones close to them and can only be described as sociopathic, not to mention charming as hell. But how can this be? If the characteristics and behavior patterns of sociopathic individuals are so destructive, why are these types of personalities so magnetic both on and off screen?
Well, first it’s important to understand something about the term “sociopath.” The label is actually layman’s term for antisocial personality disorder (APD), says forensic psychologist Dr. Debra Warner. “The term sociopath is not actually diagnosable according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5),” she says to TZR in an email. “Characteristics of APD include failure to obey laws, being deceptive, manipulative, having impulsive behavior, having a blatant disregard for other people and their safety, being irresponsible, and having no remorse [...] I want to note the distinction. Sociopathy is the behavioral traits people use to label; APD is what a person may be diagnosed with.”
While the aforementioned characteristics of ADP may seem like immediate red flags that anyone could detect easily, don’t be so sure. As perfectly evidenced in Shonda Rhimes’ hit Inventing Anna, the sociopathic person in question Anna Sorokin (based on a real individual of the same name) attracted a garden variety of friends and admirers into her web of lies and acts of fraud that inevitably led to her arrest. For those unfamiliar with the twisted tale, Sorokin — who claimed the fake name Anna Delvey — posed as a German heiress with a $60 million trust and scammed a number of financial institutions and people out of thousands of dollars. She was eventually arrested and convicted of attempted grand larceny, three counts of grand larceny, and four counts of theft services.
Possibly some of the most chilling and entertaining parts of Sorokin’s on-screen portrayal (by actor Julia Garner) was how seemingly unfazed she was by her divisive behavior and how it impacted those around her. Even in the midst of an angry confrontation with a person she deceived or stole from, Sorokin stayed calm and reasoned her behavior. “Humans are social creatures who live in groups,” explains Dr. Tomi Mitchell, board-certified family physician and health and wellness coach. “We have developed various institutions and rituals to help us navigate our complex worlds, such as laws that punish those who break them. But, not all humans follow these rules blindly. Some lack empathy for others or care about what's right; they only see things from their own point of view with no room left over just because someone else might disagree.”
Which begs the original question, why do so many individuals with antisocial personality disorder or sociopathic tendencies get away with it? And, more importantly, why do many of us fall prey to it? Top mental experts help get to the bottom of it.
What Is APD Or Sociopathy A Result Of?
“Sociopathy results from many challenges, often seen in childhood,” says Dr. Mitchell. “There could have been problems with attachment with caregivers, childhood traumas, and other issues in development. Sociopaths can also be formed as a result of traumatic brain injuries, but this isn't the norm.”
Dr. Warner seconds the notion above, explaining that sociopathy and ADP are often a matter of both nature and nurture. “Some things are taught by environment,” she explains. “If you are taught to disregard people, you will learn to disregard people, and this belief grows to be a part of your personality. Behaviors that are rewarded are usually the ones taken with us into adulthood and become a part of who we are.”
Why Are APD’s So Magnetic?
If you’ve found yourself entangled with a person with APD, and can’t quite figure out how, don’t beat yourself up too much. As Dr. Mitchell explains, these types of personalities are extremely hard to spot. “They typically come in such a charming disguise that you may not even recognize them,” she says. “They appear kind and gentle; however, they typically do this to make their victims feel at ease, so they can ‘use’ them. The manipulators will probably tell little lies and many white lies with a straight face.”
Dr. Warner adds that these individuals also have the ability to make others believe their inflated sense of self, are great at manipulating others, and can draw you in to their perception of self. “APD individuals have learned to manipulate others to achieve their goals, whether it is to swindle or harm in some way,” she says. “People are drawn in before they realize that are being manipulated.”
Speaking of swindle, this characterization brings yet another Netflix hit, The Tinder Swindler, a documentary that tells the story of Simon Leviev who allegedly conned multiple women (three of which were interviewed for the film) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars on dating app Tinder, under the guise of a wealthy heir to a diamond empire. According to the documentary, Leviev was allegedly prone to initially showering his victims with gifts, luxe trips, complements, and declarations of love as a means to earn their affection and trust, another common trait of ADP. “They can appear very charming, spend a great deal of time on a target of interest to win you over, but it is ultimately motivated by self interest,” says Dr. Craig Beach, general and forensic psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Open Mind Health
How To Spot A Sociopath
“I like to say that when you meet someone and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, you should be concerned,” says Dr. Warner. “Following your gut is very important. Trusting those initial instincts can save you from getting hurt or used in the long run.” But, when in doubt, she says to look for patterns in people’s behaviors. “Are they making everything about them? Do they focus on what they can get from others? Do they have no regard for authority? Those with APD may feel that authority is against them or targeting them,” explains Dr. Warner. “Something else to look for is their lack of connection to others and no stability in their lives with other people.”
Dr. Mitchell seconds this notion, encouraging a deeper look into a person’s history of unstable relationships and if they are the common denominator to the instability and do not accept any responsibility, that could be a red flag.
Also, as previously explained, love bombing, or quickly putting you on a pedestal or moving the relationship forward very quickly can be another key sign of APD to look out for, says Dr. Mitchell.
With so many films and programming centered on a collective fascination around ADP and sociopathic individuals, it brings one to wonder if this Hollywood-izing of these personalities is actually a good thing.
“I think there are both positive and negative aspects of publicizing the issues,” says Dr. Mitchell. “One of the negatives would be that the term sociopath is used too liberally, further adding to the stigma associated with mental health. On the other hand, I think it's good to increase awareness of these personality disorders and provide a venue for people who suffer from them to find help.”
Dr. Warner agrees, noting it’s good to build awareness, particularly for those who might be victims of this type of behavior. “[This type of programming] puts a spotlight on APD behaviors to assist people in recognizing them” she says. “In the past people have pretended these kinds of problems in life don’t exist or it is not spoken about so the public isn’t alarmed or scared. This silence is why it continues, and people continually end up in harmful situations. This silence is why we have had serial killers or master manipulators like Anna Delvey [Sorokin]. Hollywood has a way of inflating and glamorizing, but if you look at why the story exists the series could be a tool to assist people to protect themselves and their families from being survivors of a crime.”