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.
Psychopath and sociopath are popular psychology terms to describe violent monsters born of our worst nightmares. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). In making these characters famous, popular culture has also burned the words used to describe them into our collective consciousness.
Most of us, fortunately, will never meet a Hannibal Lecter, but psychopaths and sociopaths certainly do exist. And they hide among us. Sometimes as the most successful people in society because they’re often ruthless, callous and superficially charming, while having little or no regard for the feelings or needs of others.
These are known as “successful” psychopaths, as they have a tendency to perform premeditated crimes with calculated risk. Or they may manipulate someone else into breaking the law, while keeping themselves safely at a distance. They’re master manipulators of other peoples’ feelings, but are unable to experience emotions themselves.
Sound like someone you know? Well, heads up. You do know one; at least one. Prevalence rates come in somewhere between 0.2% and 3.3% of the population.
If you’re worried about yourself, you can take a quiz to find out, but before you click on that link let me save you some time: you’re not a psychopath or sociopath. If you were, you probably wouldn’t be interested in taking that personality test.
You just wouldn’t be that self-aware or concerned about your character flaws. That’s why both psychopathy and sociopathy are known as anti-social personality disorders, which are long-term mental health conditions.
Although most of us will never meet someone like Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, we all know at least one sociopath. from shutterstock.com
What’s The Difference?
Psychopaths and sociopaths share a number of characteristics, including a lack of remorse or empathy for others, a lack of guilt or ability to take responsibility for their actions, a disregard for laws or social conventions, and an inclination to violence. A core feature of both is a deceitful and manipulative nature. But how can we tell them apart?
Sociopaths are normally less emotionally stable and highly impulsive – their behaviour tends to be more erratic than psychopaths. When committing crimes – either violent or non-violent – sociopaths will act more on compulsion. And they will lack patience, giving in much more easily to impulsiveness and lacking detailed planning.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, will plan their crimes down to the smallest detail, taking calculated risks to avoid detection. The smart ones will leave few clues that may lead to being caught. Psychopaths don’t get carried away in the moment and make fewer mistakes as a result.
Both act on a continuum of behaviours, and many psychologists still debate whether the two should be differentiated at all. But for those who do differentiate between the two, one thing is largely agreed upon: psychiatrists use the term psychopathy to illustrate that the cause of the anti-social personality disorder is hereditary. Sociopathy describes behaviours that are the result of a brain injury, or abuse and/or neglect in childhood.
Psychopaths are born and sociopaths are made. In essence, their difference reflects the nature versus nurture debate.
There’s a particularly interesting link between serial killers and psychopaths or sociopaths – although, of course, not all psychopaths and sociopaths become serial killers. And not all serial killers are psychopaths or sociopaths.
Thomas Hemming murdered two people in 2014 just to know what it felt like to kill. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image
But America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has noted certain traits shared between known serial killers and these anti-social personality disorders. These include predatory behaviour (for instance, Ivan Milat, who hunted and murdered his seven victims); sensation-seeking (think hedonistic killers who murder for excitement or arousal, such as 21-year-old Thomas Hemming who, in 2014, murdered two people just to know what it felt like to kill); lack of remorse; impulsivity; and the need for control or power over others (such as Dennis Rader, an American serial killer who murdered ten people between 1974 and 1991, and became known as the “BTK (bind, torture, kill) killer”).
A Case Study
The Sydney murder of Morgan Huxley by 22-year-old Jack Kelsall, who arguably shows all the hallmarks of a psychopath, highlights the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths.
In 2013, Kelsall followed Huxley home where he indecently assaulted the 31-year-old before stabbing him 28 times. Kelsall showed no remorse for his crime, which was extremely violent and pre-meditated.
There’s no doubt in my mind he’s psychopathic rather than sociopathic because although the murder was frenzied, Kelsall showed patience and planning. He had followed potential victims before and had shared fantasies he had about murdering a stranger with a knife with his psychiatrist a year before he killed Huxley, allegedly for “the thrill of it”.
Whatever Kelsall’s motive, regardless of whether his dysfunction was born or made, the case stands as an example of the worst possible outcome of an anti-social personality disorder: senseless violence perpetrated against a random victim for self-gratification. Throughout his trial and sentencing, Kelsall showed no sign of remorse, no guilt, and gave no apology.
A textbook psychopath, he would, I believe, have gone on to kill again. In my opinion – and that of the police who arrested him – Kelsall was a serial killer in the making.
In the end, does the distinction between a psychopath and sociopath matter? They can both be dangerous and even deadly, the worst wreaking havoc with people’s lives. Or they can spend their life among people who are none the wiser for it.
Xanthe Mallett is Senior Lecturer in Forensic Criminology at University of New England.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.