Upon passing two people in the street the other day I heard one say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s a psychopath or a sociopath – or both!”
I’m no expert but from what I’ve learned studying crime and personality disorders I don’t think one person can have both of those qualities. So, how can you tell if that certain someone in your life is just annoying or has a diagnosable condition? Here’s a quick primer.
Both psychopaths and sociopaths are categorized as an antisocial personality disorder (APD) by the American Psychiatric Association, but when you dig deep there are some profound differences.
Psychopaths can be diagnosed with a brain scan. The portion of their brain that determines impulse control and emotions is underdeveloped. The condition is genetic and caused by nature. The sociopath has a normal brain but because of childhood trauma like physical, emotional or sexual abuse their disorder stems from the way they were nurtured.
A Vancouver doctor named Robert Hare devised a widely accepted checklist test to determine if a person is a true psychopath. The test was designed to be given to criminals or those suspected of a crime and is administered by two qualified experts. These doctors are on the lookout for certain characteristics in the test subject. What do they look for?
Psychopaths are charming and glib and they are expert at faking emotions. In reality, they are not able to feel any sort of emotional attachment to others or feel any empathy for another person. Psychopaths are cunning and devious but because they are usually so charismatic they are often able to hide their manipulative ways. They feel no guilt for their actions, are sexually promiscuous and cannot accept responsibility for their own actions. They think very highly of themselves and usually have many short-term marriages. They likely got in trouble with the law at a young age and have trouble controlling their negative behaviors. All this said, they are usually well educated, hold steady jobs and often appear entirely normal to the untrained.
Sound like that problematic person in your life? If not, maybe they are a sociopath.
A sociopath shares some of the psychopath’s behaviors described above, especially the manipulative, emotionless behavior and traits of lying, lack of shame and inflated ego. But sociopaths are driven by spontaneous outbursts of violence. They are often nervous and easily agitated. Children who torture animals or defenseless people are often diagnosed as being sociopathic. They have a huge sense of entitlement and believe others should provide them with what they want. They are not capable of caring about others and are only motivated by getting what they want. When confronted with their bad deeds the sociopath frequently responds with a cold, blank stare.
“The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear,” one unidentified APD patient wrote in a Psychology Today article entitled, “Confessions of a Sociopath”.
“I have never killed anyone, but I have certainly wanted to,” she wrote as she revealed details of her troubled childhood and her grown up thoughts of homicide.
“I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are,” she confessed. “I may have a disorder but I am not crazy.” This woman is described as an accomplished attorney and an active member of her church.
The truth is, psychopaths and sociopaths are all around us. It’s a safe bet that you either work with one, live close to one or are related to one. They cannot be cured but they can reign in their behaviors. Many appear to live a normal life.
There is disagreement among mental health experts over which has a higher likelihood to commit a violent crime. Is it the psychopath or the sociopath?
Some of the most infamous serial killers have displayed all the characteristics of the classic psychopath. Three examples: Ted Bundy (at least 36 victims), the ‘Killer Clown’ John Wayne Gacy (at least 33 victims) and the man who killed 10 and called himself the BTK killer, Dennis Rader. One could study thousands of serial killer cases and find many more with psychopathic tendencies.
But some in the field say the volatile and angry sociopath is the more dangerous of the two since they act out in unpredictable and impulsive ways and give in to instantaneous gratification more easily. However, those very behaviors also mean sociopaths are more likely to be caught after committing a crime because they act in such sloppy and spontaneous ways. This leaves the impression that they are the most crime prone.
But realize this: when a psychopath commits a crime it is likely to have been well thought out and executed in an organized and careful fashion so as to elude arrest. For my money the crafty psychopath’s ability to conceive and carry out heinous crimes – like serial murders – without a shred of remorse wins the title of most frightening.