Psychopaths, Sociopaths, and Assholes

I love Sherlock Holmes. I adore Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern interpretation of the classic sleuth; Mark Gatiss’ writing (and his turn as Mycroft) are wonderful. However, I think we have confused some very basic ideas about the human condition. It is not uncommon for us to use words incorrectly for long enough that they become part of a subculture vernacular that we are inevitably share.

Here are a couple I am sick of hearing:

Psychopath

This terms conjures up images of a serial killer wearing a victim’s skin like a windbreaker, but in a clinical setting, and according to the DSM-V, the term Anti-social Personality Disorder is a more apt description. Here is a definition drawn from http://www.mayoclinic.org/:

“Antisocial personality disorder is a type of chronic mental condition in which a person’s ways of thinking, perceiving situations, and relating to others are dysfunctional—and destructive. People with antisocial personality disorder typically have no regard for right and wrong and often disregard the rights, wishes, and feelings of others.

Those with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate, or treat others either harshly or with callous indifference. They may often violate the law, landing in frequent trouble, yet they show no guilt or remorse. They may lie, behave violently or impulsively, and have problems with drug and alcohol use. These characteristics typically make people with antisocial personality disorder unable to fulfill responsibilities related to family, work, or school.”

It should be difficult to see that few people who you maintain stable relationships in your life would fall into the category of anti-social personality disorder. And if they do, stop reading and seek professional help for your friend. If your friend has a partner or a job, it is likely that being a jerk and becoming behaviorally addicted to being cold is more likely.

Sociopath

According to Psychology Today, which I would not reference were this a peer-reviewed article, here are some pretty basic characteristics of a sociopath:

  • Superficial charm and good intelligence
  • Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
  • Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
  • Unreliability
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse and shame
  • Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
  • Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  • Pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love
  • General poverty in major affective reactions
  • Specific loss of insight
  • Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
  • Fantastic and uninviting behavior with alcohol and sometimes without
  • Suicide threats rarely carried out
  • Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
  • Failure to follow any life plan

What is important to note here is that if we are to really know whether or not a friend is a sociopath (which, again, is best described in the anti-social personality spectrum), we can’t simply pick and choose from this list of characteristics and declare them a sociopath. We all, at one point or another, will manifest some of these characteristics. We may not feel shame for something because we are proud instead. We might not have any life plan because we are still in a transitory period of our life. We will lie and be insincere to save face.

I can hear your you protesting now: but, I know so-and-so is a sociopath.

How exactly do you know that? Have you conducted a battery of tests that are both reliable and valid and compared those with other measures to see if they have convergent validity? Are you a board- or state-certified therapist? No, you just like to tell people that you’re friend is a sociopath because they act like a robot or treat people like objects.

Welcome to the word: people have been marginalizing entire populations for generations and wasn’t just from sociopaths. Just ask women. Being a jackass and violating social norms is par for the course when we are conforming to being a group-think jackass.

Which leads me to the final category….

Asshole

The guy who touts being a sociopath (or psychopath) without the relevant characteristics is simply a callous jackass best described as being an asshole. He can easily be distinguished because they want your attention, but love the mystery of being labelled as one of the above (with the requisite high functioning caveat) because he thinks it makes him like a fictional character. Want to meet a real sociopath or psychopath, peruse mass murders and current inmates severing consecutive life sentences for crimes, not for a socially acceptable slip that makes them seem cool.

Just stop already and call them on being an asshole and move on with your life.

Rant over.

 

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