The use of the term sociopath is synonymous with psychopath. It depends mostly on your own point of orientation. “Psychopath” typically bears influence of psychology, while “Sociopath” is preferred by sociologists. It opens discussion on the Nature/Nurture argument. Forensic psychologists use the savvy approach of thinking of Sociopath as Sub-Clinical Psychopath. However we use these interchangeable terms they refer to the same personality disorder.
Psychopaths are as old as Cain. They are found in all cultures, although our western culture emphasizing a prevalent individualism seems to provide a fertile field for it to thrive.
It’s historical development is loaded with issues, almost as though no one wanted to acknowledge or even believe such cold-hearted people could exist. Some of the malicious behavior was just too painful to admit.
- 1801, Philippe Pinel described its clinical nature as “mania without delirium.”
- 1800’s, Benjamin Rush described it as “moral derangement” in which the subject behavior was profoundly antisocial, marked with violence.
- mid 1800’s, “Moral Insanity” was accepted as a way to describe hardened criminals
- 1880’s, German researchers adapted the term “Psychopath,” meaning literally, “suffering soul”
- 1920’s, a new phrase caught on as “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” to express violent, antisocial characteristics. The lack of a conscience begins to take some attention.
- 1930, G. E. Partridge coins the term “sociopath”
- 1958, the American Psychiatric Association accepts “sociopathic personality” to describe the disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
- 1968, DSM II renames it as “general antisocial personality disorder”
A miscellany of terms have been used to describe the disorder, such as
- Manie sans delire
- Psychopathic inferiority
- Moral insanity
- Moral imbecility
- “Exploitative-sadistic” (Erich Fromm, 1973)
(See especially: Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, ed. by Theodore Millon, PhD, DSc, Erik Simonsen MD, Roger D. Davis PhD, Morten Birket-Smith MD, Chapter 1, “Historical Conceptions of Psychopathy in the United States and Europe,” by Theodore Millon, Erik Simonson and Morten Birket-Smith, for an excellent overview of the psychological development of this issue)
But it was in the 1930’s that Hervey Cleckley, a psychiatrist in Augusta, Georgia, begins the first extensive study of these mysterious people. He noted they arise from diverse backgrounds, some poor and some rich. Economic considerations bore no real patterns. In 1941, he published his book, “The Mask of Insanity,” outlining sixteen notable traits of patients he considered “primary psychopaths.”
Hervey Cleckley’s List of Psychopathy Symptoms:
1. Considerable superficial charm and average or above average intelligence.
2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.
3. Absence of anxiety or other “neurotic” symptoms. Considerable poise, calmness and verbal facility.
4. Unreliability, disregard for obligations, no sense of responsibility, in matters of little and great import.
5. Untruthfulness and insincerity.
6. Antisocial behavior which is inadequately motivated and poorly planned, seeming to stem from an inexplicable impulsiveness.
7. Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior.
8. Poor judgment and failure to learn from experience.
9. Pathological egocentricity. Total self-centeredness and an incapacity for real love and attachment.
10. General poverty of deep and lasting emotions.
11. Lack of any true insight; inability to see oneself as others do.
12. Ingratitude for any special considerations, kindness and trust.
13. Fantastic and objectionable behavior, after drinking and sometimes even when not drinking. Vulgarity, rudeness, quick mood shifts, pranks for facile entertainment.
14. No history of genuine suicide attempts.
15. An impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated sex life.
16. Failure to have a life plan and to live in any ordered way (unless it is for destructive purposes or a sham).
Cleckley emphasized their deceptive, predatory nature, capable of “concealing behind a perfect mimicry of normal emotion, fine intelligence, and social responsibility a grossly disabled and irresponsible personality.” This mimicry allows psychopaths to thrive in normal society.
But he was met with stiff resistance. The psychiatric profession wanted little to do with psychopathy, for several reasons,
It was thought to be incurable. Any therapy actually empowered sociopaths, enabling them to hone their efforts of mimicry for their fine art of manipulation.
- Research tools to measure the personality traits had not yet been developed. Usually only criminal records could be used (a bit late by that point).
- Liberal minded thinkers demanded external causes of social deviancy. That such “evil” behavior existed within an individual was much too personally distressing.
Sadly, Cleckley lost favor with the psychiatric community. He described himself reminiscent of John the Baptist as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” His legacy was mostly tied to another work, “The Three Faces of Eve,” written by Corbett Thigpen.
Robert Hare is generally noted as the modern pioneer of Sociopathy. His first encounter with psychopaths made quite an impression. In 1960, he was the sole psychologist at the British Columbia Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison just outside of Vancouver. On the morning of his first day, a nice looking inmate named Ray entered his office and said, “Hey, Doc, how’s it going? Look, I’ve got a problem. I need your help.” Ray then “pulled out a knife and waved it in front of my nose, all the while smiling and maintaining that intense eye contact.” With many such first hand experiences, Hare was well acquainted with his subject when in 1993 he wrote the book, ‘Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.” His twenty point checklist has become the established criteria.
Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathic Checklist (PCL-R) for Sociopathic Traits
1. GLIB and SUPERFICIAL CHARM – smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Sociopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A sociopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example.
2. GRANDIOSE SELF-WORTH – a grossly inflated view of one’s abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Sociopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.
3. NEED FOR STIMULATION or PRONENESS TO BOREDOM – an excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Sociopaths often have low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.
4. PATHOLOGICAL LYING – can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.
5. CONNING AND MANIPULATIVENESS – the use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one’s victims.
6. LACK OF REMORSE OR GUILT – a lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and un empathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one’s victims.
7. SHALLOW AFFECT – emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.
8. CALLOUSNESS and LACK OF EMPATHY – a lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.
9. PARASITIC LIFESTYLE – an intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities.
10. POOR BEHAVIORAL CONTROLS – expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.
11. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR – a variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.
12. EARLY BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS – a variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home.
13. LACK OF REALISTIC, LONG-TERM GOALS – an inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.
14. IMPULSIVITY – the occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.
15. IRRESPONSIBILITY – repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.
16. FAILURE TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR OWN ACTIONS – a failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.
17. MANY SHORT-TERM MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS – a lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.
18. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY – behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.
19. REVOCATION OF CONDITION RELEASE – a revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.
20. CRIMINAL VERSATILITY – a diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.
The PCL-R is used for psycho-diagnostic purposes and only by clinician, who possess an advanced degree in the social, medical, or behavioral sciences, such as a Ph.D., D.Ed. or M.D., are registered with the local state or provincial registration body that regulates the assessment and diagnosis of mental disorder, have experience with forensic populations, and have adequate training and experience in the use of the PCL-R.
Martha Stout has written a most readable book on this subject which is highly recommended, “The Sociopath Next Door” (2005, Broadway Books). She highlights common sociopathic traits as,
- Conscience defect
- Exaggerated sexuality
- Excessive boasting
- Risk taking
- Inability to resist temptation
- Deprecating attitude toward the opposite sex
- Lack of interest in bonding with a mate.
The most recent edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (commonly referred to as DSM5; 2013 The American Psychiatric Association), arguably the most authoritative and technical resource, although still reluctant to use the term psychopath or sociopath, to Robert Hare’s consternation, list this Diagnostic Criteria under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” (301.7fF60.2, p. 659),
A. A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
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.
B. The individual is at least age 18 years.
C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Perhaps the Yupik Eskimos hold the best practical insight and advice in the matter. They use the term kunlangeta for a man who lies compulsively, cheats whenever no one notices, steals, and takes sexual advantage of women; a good summary of sociopaths. When asked what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, the matter of fact reply was, “Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”
Hmmmmmm. All things considered . . . . hmmmmmm.
“Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”
— Barry Goldwater
Acceptance Speech as the Republican Presidential candidate, San Francisco (July 1964)