Thursday, January 19, 2012


What’s the difference between a sociopath, a psychopath, and a person with anti-social personality disorder. Answer: There is none, but it feels most satisfying to call a horrible people a “psychopath” then a “person with anti-social personality disorder” so that’s what I’m going with. I recently read a good deal of books about psychopaths, which isn't suspicious or weird at all, and I wanted to sort out my thoughts, so hence this post.

I think personality disorders are the most interesting of any mental disorders because they give you such an alien, alternative viewpoint of the world. Most mental disorders can be understood as normal behavior taken to extremes. For example, if you imagine how you feel right before an big interview and than imagine feeling like that all the time you can get a degree of understanding of generalized anxiety disorder. But how can a normal person understand how the mind of a serial killer works?

I read an interesting theory on psychopaths somewhere (I think it was in the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker) that psychopathy, as opposed to most mental disorders, can actually be advantageous. If most of the population is kind and trusting, a certain percentage of the population can take advantage of that by becoming parasites. This strategy works only if a small portion of the population takes subscribes to it. (You can’t have a society of parasite, because then there will be no host.) Fear and empathy both stops normal people from exploiting others. Conveniently psychopaths aren’t handicapped by either. It’s not hard to see how lacking these attributes would make one a better cheater, liar, stealer, murderer etc. and how that could be beneficial from a purely selfish standpoint.

This goes part way toward explaining one thing that always confused me about psychopaths- if you don’t care about anyone, why bother to deal with people? Why go out of your way to kill someone if you just don’t care? Why not just deal with computers or TV or whatever you do care about instead? Viewing psychopathy as adaptive offers an answer of sorts - Psychopaths do actually care about people but only as sources of power.

The book Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, clarified this further for me. I remember seeing the Psychopath Next Door at Barnes and Nobles six years ago, but back then I was still very much in my “nobody is really evil” phase, so I didn’t want to read it. But now I’m older, so much older (sigh), so I read it. Besides explaining how psychopaths were motivated by "making others people jump", Stout also makes the point that lacking in empathy doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as a serial murderer. Smart psychopaths might end up on Wall Street or running an entertainment company. An often repeated claim of the book is that 4% of the population are psychopaths, and that some people really are just evil and you should avoid them.

At this point, I was wondering how many psychopaths I knew and making a mental list. Thankfully, before I could go far into that rabbit hole, I read the Psychopath Test. The author, Jon Ronson, writes about his meetings with a very diverse group of people from Emmanuel Constant, an infamous Haitian death-squad leader, to the people who tried to “fix” the psychopaths with treatments such dream-therapy and LSD administration. (Sidenote: 80% of released from that psychopath rehab program reoffended (gruesomely), as opposed the normal 60%. The rehab therapy just taught them new ways to fake empathy.)

While he sees the absurdity of the view of some that psychopaths just need to be loved, he also isn’t entirely comfortable with the power to classify some people as psychopaths and thereby making them practically another species. I would highly recommend this book. Not only is it funny, informative, and easy to read, but I really like how he never over-states his case. In fact, it often seems like he doesn’t have one, he just tells the story and lets you decide what you want to take from it all. What I took from it all was that some people such as that death-squad leader really are just evil, but you can’t go around labeling everyone disagreeable as a psychopath.

….Or can you? Below is list of the twenty traits accessed by the Hare Psychopathy Test (score each trait from 0-2, a sum over 30 qualifies, source: And if you’re worried you might be a psychopath, don’t worry, you’re not one. As Dr Stout says, a real psychopath wouldn’t worry about that.

 glib/superficial charm

 grandiose estimation of self

 need for stimulation

 pathological lying

 cunning/manipulativeness

 lack of remorse or guilt

 superficial affect

 callousness/lack of empathy

 parasitic lifestyle

 poor behavioral controls

 sexual promiscuity

 early behavior problems

 lack of realistic long-term goals

 impulsivity

 irresponsibility

 failure to accept responsibility for own actions

 many short-term marital relationships

 juvenile delinquency

 revocation of conditional release

 criminal versatility

No comments:

Post a Comment