Monday, March 05, 2007

What is a "Psychopath"?

One bit of confusion that I have been wanting to clear up for a long time: What's the difference between a "psychopath" and a "sociopath"? This is just one of the little mysteries that's been nagging at me. So now it looks like I've finally got the answer to my question. I've consulted an "expert"- Robert D. Hare, PhD. His book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (1993) is supposed to be the authoritative text on the subject. Normally I wouldn't comment on a book until I have completed reading it, but this has already got me thinking (and I'm not quite prepared to write about James Dobson and Focus on the Family yet).

Hare claims that there are at least two million psychopaths in North America, and over 100,000 in New York City alone. How he arrived at such a figure is not really explained, but its simple citation is certainly alarming. Anyway... this is, in Hare's view, a significant problem. But what is a psychopath? In very basic terms, it is a person without a conscience. I had always been under the impression that a similar definition applied to a "sociopath". Apparently that is the case. The words are used virtually interchangeably by professionals and laypeople alike. The main difference is that, while a sociopath has arrived at his/her condition by exposure to environmental influences, a psychopath is defined by certain innate personality traits. To confuse the reader even further, Hare tosses in the DSM III-R* diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. This affliction is defined by the presence of objective, socially deviant behaviors that can be clinically assessed. Although this is the technical term for a "psychopath", it discounts subjective determinations such as the evaluation of personality traits. Therefore it tends to be more of a catch-all label for criminals, rather than having the specific connotations that people generally associate with the "psychopath".

In order to get at the root meaning of a "psychopath", Hare has developed a profile and Psychopathy Checklist (which it seems he didn't include in the book) as standardized instruments of assessment for clinicians. His definition includes key symptoms, including "Emotional/Interpersonal" and "Social Deviance" components. But the author has demonstrated a professional level of caution in warning the reader: "Don't use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or others." Having made sure to give this caveat its fair due, I proceeded to apply the list to myself and everyone that I know.

So now we are getting to the meat of the post at last... What are some key personality traits ("Emotional/Interpersonal") of the "psychopath"?

Glib and superficial.
Egocentric and grandiose.
Lack of remorse or guilt.
Lack of empathy.
Deceitful and manipulative.
Shallow emotions.

Hmmm... do I know anybody like that? What about the entire American body politique? No? Ok, what about just the federal goverment?

All kidding aside, my initial impression is that these ingredients can be found to some degree or other in every single contemporary citizen of the "beacon of freedom" that is our nation. And yes, I realize mine is a very cynical viewpoint. But we live in an increasingly hard world. Perhaps many mature adults have transcended these qualities... but take it from someone who knows- most adolescents in this society fit Hare's definition of "psychopath". And it's only with the sophistication of adulthood that many have learned to hide this truth behind their social facade.

What about the items under the "Social Deviance" category?

Poor behavior controls.
Need for excitement.
Lack of responsibility.
Early behavior problems.
Adult antisocial behavior.

Ummm... yup. Sounds awfully familiar. Perhaps two million is a low estimate.

*The DSM III-R (1987), and its successor the DSM IV (1994) are psychiatric diagnostic manuals used in the treatment of the mentally ill. DSM indeed stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


Blogger The Raisin Girl said...

I'm pretty sure "psychopath" and "sociopath" were both just different names given to the same personality disorder at different times...the same thing they now call "antisocial personality disorder." Maybe this guy is just re-defining them, but I've read several texts that said they increasingly more politically correct names for the same disorder.

What you have to understand about those traits is that they're a little more specific than that. It isn't only a lack of's more a lack of the capacity for it. Those with antisocial personality disorder see the people around them as less than they are, as toys or tools to be played with or manipulated.

Also, it's interesting to note that although only two (or it might be three now) of these traits are necessary to diagnose a person as a sociopath...which is a problem when you consider that there may be a lot of superficial, impulsive people out there who are perfectly able to relate to and care about those around them, and who feel remorse for their wrongdoing.

I get what you're saying...but a true sociopath is a kind of evil you just don't find in your average idiot teenager. Trust me, if you ever spend some time with one, you'll know.

12:06 PM  

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