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Psychopaths and Sociopaths

Allison Z's picture

Throughout modern history, there has been an abundance of interest regarding the concept of the psychopath and sociopath. Many portrayals of sociopaths seem to be overly romanticized, and fictional characters such as Hannibal Lector or Dexter Morgan (Silence of the Lambs and Dexter respectively) are sources of fascination for an uneducated public. It is difficult when watching such characterizations to discern what is true and what is fantastical about their portrayal, and that is why I began researching psychopaths and sociopaths. While the information I found was educational, it is clear that there is some confusion as to how exactly one can define these mental disorders, even among the scientific community.
The terms sociopath and psychopath are often used interchangeably, and indeed are not explicitly outlined in the DSM-IV.(3) They both fall under the heading of “Antisocial Personality Disorder”, and are characterized by lack of empathy, conscience, and emotion. While there are some differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, the DSM organizes them together, as both exhibiting the following behaviors:
1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another. (3)
    While it is clear people who exhibit these traits exist, what is shocking is in how great a percentage. Between 3 and 5 percent of the population are sociopaths or psychopaths, with the majority of that number occupied by men. These incarnations of APD have both biological and environmental factors, although there is still controversy as to what extent each plays a role. According to one website, 60% of people with psychopathic tendencies has lost a parent, and an even larger percentage is affected by neglectful or abusive parents.(1) Many people with APD have experienced some type of trauma in early life, and are without a consistent parental role model. However these environmental factors are not thought to be the sole explanation for this affliction, and biology plays a role as well. On the level of the nervous system, psychopaths are different from a “normal” person. They feel less fear or anxiety, meaning that they have low arousal levels, and therefore participate in more risky behavior. They also appear to have difficulty learning from mistakes for this same reason, as they can not utilize fear as a learning tool. Robert Hare has done extensive work in the area of psychopathy, and has created a more in depth description of the social disorder than is in the DSM. He states that psychopathy should be in its own category, and in a reaction to the DSM’s lack of specificity created the “Psycopathy Checklist- Revised”, also known as the PCL-R. While the DSM believes that both psychopathy and sociopathy as terms separate from APD are obsolete, Hare maintains that these syndromes are unique, and should be treated as such. In a write up by Hare published in 1991, he uses several studies to explore the differences in mental function between psychopaths and other criminals. In the studies of Patrick et al. in 1990 “psychopaths, defined wit the PCL-R, gave smaller autonomic responses during fearful imagery than did other offenders and failed to show normal modulation of the blink reflex to an acoustic startle stimulus presented while slides with affective content were viewed.” This study suggests that there is a clear difference in the mental processes of psychopaths, and also explains psychopaths’ apparent lack of fear or anxiety. (7)
While studies like the one mentioned prove that there are differences between psychopaths and non psychopaths, there is still very little known about the actual differences in brain function. A study done last year at the Institute of Psychology: Kings College London, used brain scans to measure activity in the brains of psychopaths. The study was small with only six psychopathic participants and nine normal ones. However their results did prove useful, as it showed clear differences in brain activity. When showed images of faces displaying fear, the psychopaths had significantly lower brain activity than their healthy counterparts. Both groups showed an increase in function when shown happy faces, but the psychopaths displayed significantly less activation. This suggests that the lack of empathy displayed by many psychopaths is in fact related to their neural pathways. Without the ability to recognize fear in others, it becomes harder to understand the connection between personal emotions and the emotions of others. While the biological factors that lead to psychopathy are still unclear, advanced technologies are bringing scientists closer to the truth. (4)
As of right now there is no way to successfully treat psychopaths, and while therapy is often used it is rarely successful. Because of a basic difference in processing, it is hard to create significant change in someone afflicted with this disorder.
Because the average person’s entire world is made up of feelings and emotions, it is incredibly difficult for most people to imagine not having them. As mentioned in the beginning of my paper there is a certain kind of myth surrounding the psychopath: he has become a subject of fear and hatred, and morbid fascination. However with up to 5% of the population exhibiting strong psychopathic and sociopathic traits, it is clear that they are not serial killers or murderers. The hysteria surrounding the disease is one that seems to me incredibly closed minded and uneducated, and incredibly harmful. Books are published that describe how to spot and avoid a sociopath, and essays describe them as evil. If anything I think that psychopaths prove there are no clear answers when it comes to morality; rather it is a sliding scale on which all factors need to be measured. The existence of psychopaths also brings the brain/mind dichotomy discussed earlier this year to mind (or brain). I think the fact that there is physical proof of a disorder in the brains of those with APD is a strong argument for the side that everything stems from organic origins, and that morality and empathy are physical processes of the brain, rather than proof of a spiritual presence. If seen as an organic problem it becomes easier to treat psychopaths rather than judge them, and while as of yet there is no real treatment plan besides therapy, hopefully in the future there will be a way to fully integrate them into mainstream society, rather than forcing them to live a half life in which they must pretend to be what they are not.











Eve Baker's picture

Psychopaths and sociopaths

In my Abnormal Psych textbook from the 1980's, sociopaths was just a new term for psychopaths. This new view started around the turn of the 20th century. Quoting my textbook, "In the late nineteenth century such people came to be called psychopaths, and in keeping with the biogenic thinking of the period, it was assumed that their problem was a hereditary defect. This "bad seed" theory was widely accepted for decades. Then, with the rise of sociology in the twentieth century, investigators began in- stead to stress the influence of social conditions. According "psychopaths" were relabeled "sociopaths." (Birnbaum, 1914), implying that the ultimate source lay not within the individual but in the individual's relationship to society.

Sean Allen's picture

Is this person a sociopath/psychopath?

I have a family member who has great sympathy and loyalty for anyone related to him or his pet animals. When he was younger he was verbally abused and slightly bullied in elementary school. After getting in the wrong crowd, he attended an catholic school for 2 years. When he returned to my high school, he acted like a "mobster" and participated in prohibited academic activity but never got caught. He spent weeks and months constructing these plans of cheating, bargaining which he calls dealing, stealing, and even "muscling" specific people around he did not like. He dislikes socializing with people outside his family but can easily attract people and puts on a "mask" of charm and excitement when needed. He lies at least once in every conversation with non family members and constantly warns his younger cousins,"Don't let anyone outside the family know what your thinking." Weird thing is though, he has great empathy and respect to elderly people and anyone he identifies as innocent (children, nerds/geeks, bullied kids). He believes that relationships are unnecessary and the only purpose of life is surviving and progressing your species (humanity). He treats women very kind but has no intentions to date them (even the hot chicks) and uses the phrase," You can never win a fight with a girl, you beat her up your a jerk, you get beaten your a pussy". He also some what admits his criminal like behavior by always saying to the family,"People like me are cancer, too much cancer in the body results in death. So I make sure that those who are good and support the body do not have to deal with people like me". I think it is a comparison to like America (community) and successful people that will progress the country and criminals that bring the worst out of people. I dearly love him and want to know if this is related to sociopathy or psychopathy so he can get help? I truly believe if the family does an intervention and begs him to seek treatment, he will do it. He is a genius and eccentric man and it would be a waste for him to use his skills incorrectly. I am worried that if he does ever get caught, he will go to extreme measures before giving himself up. He says,"once the pigs have your picture and prints, it is over."

Derek's picture

My Fears

Very interesting and scary. I have believed for many years that most large corporations most money market/stock market concerns and many if not most politicians and lawyers fall under this category. Which means our retirement accounts healthcare and even our laws are controlled by these people to whom we do not even exist. I see this almost daily where if they see money in you they are your best friend if not then they wont even give room in a hallway for you to walk because you do not exist. I don`t feel we can just pleasantly coexist with people who would take your retirement and cause your early demise to enlarge their obscene fortunes.

Anonymous's picture

In response to zoe. I

In response to zoe. I welcome that you have taken the unusually unbiased interest in the case of sociopaths. In my "disorder", for lack of better words, early environmental factors only insured I would become as unempathical as I am currently. I suppose I am a rare case in that I was just the same prior to an exacerbating part of childhood. Frankly, I like who I am. I understand myself, my mind, and my limitations. I prefer having logic over emotions. From this I have found a niche most suiting due to society having careers where people like myself simply excel. I don't break the law. Infact I spend a lot of time taking out my impulses by tactfully combating malicious behavior especially among those like myself in civil debate. Well, I try to keep it as civil as possible anyways lol. I have found that despite how I function upstairs we live in a society where everyone operates from self interest. In conclusion to all of this i believe it's in everyone's best interest to exercise some utilitarianism and/or humanitarianism because all men rely on one another. "Disorder" or no disorder. Is this just me trying to be controlling by perpetuating this sort of tipping point? Absolutely, I have no difficulties admitting that. However I find it to be what is logical and balanced. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous's picture

Parts of your essay are

Parts of your essay are interesting and indeed accurate. However, while I do not doubt that certain brain imaging techniques such as fMRI, CAT, PET scans to detect changes in the activity of the brain of sociopaths, indicating that this is evidence for a biological origin of this type of behavior is seriously flawed thoguh. To use such arguments is to use the logical fallacy of tautology, i.e. chicken and egg reasoning. If you are to ever have the opportunity to hear the life story of a sociopath understanding their behavior will become much clearer. In those stories you will likely find a continuous pattern of neglect, abuse, manipulation, hatred, deceit, etc. Sometimes this is a conscious action on the part of the parent (or whoever the "parent" is), but not always. These experiences or lack thereof in developing the recognition of emotion in the self and others, are what leads to changes in brain activity. In our society today, too often people are want to believe that all problems lie in biological determinism when in fact there is actually very little scientific evidence for these factors.

Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

Very Interesting

I find your paper extremely interesting, as like most people, I have simply feared psychopaths and also been fascinated with their emotional difference to non-psychopaths. Although I am interested and agree that we should begin thinking about this disease and group of people differently, and move away from labeling them "evil," I do think that the disease presents perplexing problems. Those who exibit antisocial behavior have not necessarily committed terrible acts, but I do think that a certain level of caution must be taken due to their particular differences from average emotions. Thinking of psychopaths does make me question our overall assumption of morality, but for those who have an extreme decrease in empathy, have difficulty with authority, and a "reckless disregard for safety of self or others," what do you invision as a way to integrate these behaviors into mainstream society?
Paul Grobstein's picture

sociopathy and psychopathy

Interesting set of issues. The DSM does indeed seem to confuse "sociopathy" and "psychopathy". Should they be distinguished? If Emily Dickinson is right, and brain = behavior, then indeed "everything stems from organic origins, and ... morality and empathy are physical processes of the brain". And so might be different in different brains. So what follows from that? Of what use is it to have "physical proof" of differences? What happens to the distinction between "biological and environmental factors"? What are the implications for "treatment"? For either sociopaths or psychopaths, can one really imagine "a way to fully integrate them into mainstream society"?

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