Who comes to mind when you imagine a sociopath?
Famous fictional characters like Sherlock, maybe, or Dexter. Alex DeLarge, Patrick Bateman and Dr. Hannibal Lecter have all graced the screen with charm and witty banter in between murderous rampages. Even in reality, the media has made infamous celebrities out of serial killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.
Sociopaths are sensationalized. They are painted as terrifying machines of unfeeling cruelty and murder, killing people left and right while sipping from a glass of Chianti, unable to rest peacefully until they’ve achieved supervillain status.
What you might not know is that it’s likely that you’ve probably met one of these supposedly murderous maniacs. In fact, you may even be friends with one of them right now. According to Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, roughly 1 in every 25 Americans is estimated to fit the diagnostic criteria of a sociopath.
Before you start unfriending all your friends on Facebook, let us first consider: what does it really mean to be a sociopath?
While sociopathy itself is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mental health professionals generally agree that most forms of what is commonly called sociopathy is due to antisocial personality disorder.
Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.”[i] While this may sound like simple rudeness, people with antisocial personality disorder go far beyond tailgating or cutting someone in line. Or, rather, a person with this disorder can go far beyond simple rudeness — so long as this behavior will benefit them.
According to Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, roughly 1 in every 25 Americans is estimated to fit the diagnostic criteria of a sociopath.
To get a better idea of what this lack of empathy entails, consider what criminal psychologist Dr. Robert Hare said of the typical sociopath:
“You’re walking down a street and there’s an accident. A car has hit a child in the crosswalk. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child’s lying on the ground and there’s blood running all over the place. You get a little blood on your shoes and you look down and say, “Oh shit.” You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you’re not repelled or horrified. You’re just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you’re really fascinated by the mother, who’s emoting, crying out, doing all these different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother. That’s the psychopath: somebody who doesn’t understand what’s going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened.” [ii]
A sociopath will therefore understand that something is considered sad or tragic, and will acknowledge that there are certain standards that people label “good” and “evil.” However, they glean all of this information from the reactions of the people around them — they are simply incapable of experiencing these emotions themselves.
The cause of this lack of empathy has been a matter of dispute and contention for many years. While it is unknown what exactly is happening neurologically, certain studies have shown that there are differences between the brain activities of a sociopath and those of a normal person. Walter Lippert Jr. and R.J. Senter, for example, found very early on that sociopaths had a significantly lower electrodermal response (often used as a measure of emotional or physiological arousal) to a shock threat stress condition compared to non-sociopaths.[iii] Findings such as these have supported the biological explanation — that there is simply something different about the brain of a sociopath.
However, research has found that both child abuse and an exposure to alcoholism in the family increase the likelihood of the occurrence of sociopathy, hinting at the influence of the environment.[iv]
In the face of this typical nature vs. nurture debate, most psychologists say that antisocial personality disorder is caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Ultimately, however, it is a disorder that is still rather difficult to understand for a variety of reasons.
One of these reasons is tied to the lack of success in treating this disorder. Most sociopaths, if they are detected and diagnosed, do not believe that they need to be treated, and therefore do not desire to undergo treatment at all. If diagnosed, the most successful form of treatment is psychotherapy in which the sociopath is offered incentives and instant rewards for abiding by rules and laws. This treatment is often only effective as long as these rewards are consistently offered, and antisocial personality therefore remains one of the most difficult disorders to successfully treat.
Furthermore, detection itself is a large challenge. Because sociopaths are generally logical, detached and uncaring, if they can be shown that abiding by the law will benefit them, they will do so. In fact, some sociopaths live perfectly assimilated within society without ever having any trouble with the law. These “successful” sociopaths are often intelligent and manipulative, hiding their disorder and ruthlessness under a veneer of superficial charm — sometimes resembling the rich Hollywood sociopath so often portrayed in movies and television. Even if these sociopaths do commit crimes, they are much more likely to be white-collar crimes like fraud or embezzlement than violent crimes like murder.
Most people with antisocial personality disorder, however, are actually unable to hold down stable jobs. Because of their irresponsibility and reliance on bullying, coercion and dishonesty, they are usually unable to maintain long-term relationships or occupations. Many of these sociopaths do end up in prison — but like the “successful” sociopaths mentioned above, their crimes tend towards assault or theft rather than mass murders. A sociopath is not automatically an evil genius — sociopaths have been found to score similarly to people without the disorder on certain estimates of intelligence.[v] However, they are logical enough to know not to commit crimes indiscriminately and without a very specific purpose.
In the end, sociopaths do not necessarily warrant the fear and sensationalism that surrounds them. Sociopaths suffer from a disorder; they are technically sick and in need of treatment. The most frightening aspect of the statistic on the prevalence of sociopathy is, therefore, how difficult it really is to detect sociopaths, and how ultimately similar they are to many “normal” human beings — or, in other words, how one sometimes can’t tell the difference “between a sociopath and the average stock-trader.”[vi]
[vi] Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas.