The Sociopath Next Door to the Psychopath

Featured on Biographile, Discover the World Through Biography and Memoir – March 17, 2014


Editor’s Note: The definition of “sociopathy” is quite the contentious one. Despite our casual use of the word as a catchall for “crazy,” it remains an unsettled term in the scientific community. Back in 2013, we asked self-affirmed sociopath M.E. Thomas to debunk some myths around the stigma of the term. Furthering the discussion is Dr. Dean Haycock, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Brown University and whose new book is called Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain. He joins us today to talk about M.E. Thomas, the role played by the DSM-5, the opinions of psychopathy experts, and the swirling semantics between “sociopathy” and “psychopathy.”

Confessions of a Sociopath author M.E. Thomas chose to describe herself as a sociopath. According to the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM–5, she might also have chosen the label psychopath or antisocial personality disorder. Thomas says four percent of the population shares her sociopath classification. The DSM-5 estimates that the prevalence rate of antisocial personality disorder (its equivalent of sociopathy) is between 0.2% and 3.3%.

A good indication of how much we still have to learn about the nature of psychopathy is the confusion that surrounds the labels different people apply to this disorder or personality type, depending on your view of its nature. Psychopathy expert Robert Hare asserts that most individuals with antisocial personality disorder are not psychopaths, who account for a little less than 1 percent of the population. Psychopaths, according to Hare and other academic researchers, have core features that are not included in the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder, including lack of empathy.

There are a couple of reasons the label sociopath gained a foothold firm enough to create confusion in the field of abnormal psychology, which is still struggling for agreed upon definitions. In the early part of the 20th century, the word psychopath described not only individuals who lacked a conscience but included others who had additional mental or personality disorders, such as weak mindedness and depression. Another reason the label sociopath lingers alongside that of psychopath is because the American Psychiatric Association used the diagnosis Sociopathic Personality Disturbance from 1952 to 1968.

The term sociopath became popular starting in the 1930s in part because it conveys the impression that the antisocial symptoms can be traced to social influences rather than to biological ones. (In the past, social influences in criminal behavior were considered more important than biological influences. Today, the most popular explanation is that both influences can contribute to criminal behavior, and very likely, to the development of psychopathic behavior).

The persistence of the terms sociopath and psychopath reflect the need for a better understanding of subtypes of psychopaths. Some people think of sociopaths as pseudopsychopaths or as a subtype of psychopath with less severe psychopathic traits than more “hardcore” psychopaths.

Also, use of the word sociopath would be one way to avoid confusion between psychotic (which makes a person legally insane) and psychopathic (which makes a person legally sane). Sadly, there is no general agreement that the label sociopath reflects these distinctions. Academic researchers, in contrast to many clinicians, favor the term psychopath almost exclusively.

Thomas’s account raises the interesting question of whether the presence of some psychopathic traits that do not trouble her or others — that is, that do not call for judicial, psychiatric or psychological care or intervention — even warrants use of the label sociopath or psychopath. Psychopathic traits do not equal psychopathy. Extreme psychopathic traits equals psychopathy.

Thomas doesn’t have much patience with psychologists who, she says, “quibble ad naseum on the psychological classification of sociopathy.” But perhaps she should if she wants to understand herself a bit more. Jennifer Skeem, one of the psychologists Thomas quotes in her Biographile piece “Little Do We Know: 5 Myths About Sociopathy, Debunked” co-authored a paper in which she said: “…the definition of psychopathy itself — what it is, what it is not — is one of the most fundamental questions for psychological science.”

Adapted from the book Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil by Dean A. Haycock. Pegasus Books. 2014.

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