These days one hears and reads a lot about sociopaths or psychopaths. The main reasons for this are that there appears to be somewhat of an increase in the prevalence of this very disturbing personality disorder and interest in such problem characters has grown in recent years. Yet there are some misconceptions that persist not only about the disorder itself but also about the meaning of the terms used to describe it. Further, there has been a tendency to use the terms sociopath or psychopath inappropriately (i.e. to describe personalities who are indeed very disturbed but lack some of the most essential characteristics necessary to be so labeled).
The term psychopath was used early in the 20th century by some researchers and authors to describe individuals who appeared extremely deficient in conscience and who presented a fairly serious threat to the social order. Later, the term sociopath began to be used more frequently to describe this type of personality as attention moved away from descriptions rooted in psychoanalytic explanations of its causes to descriptions of its impact on society. Late in the 20th century the term “antisocial” (literally, in opposition to society) became the most popular way to label such individuals and the focus shifted even further to those individuals of deficient conscience who frequently engage in criminal activity. In fact, for a long time, the official diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association pretty much equated the Antisocial Personality Disorder with the career criminal.
Hervey Cleckley introduced the concept of psychopathy in his book The Mask of Sanity. He was struck by the fact that the personality of some individuals was marked by a remarkable lack of the qualities that make us human, namely the capacity for conscience and an emotional bond or feeling of connectedness to others of our species. He was particularly struck by the fact that these individuals could “mimic” hallmark human behaviors and concerns but lacked any genuine empathy or conscience. He regarded their false self-presentation to be so extreme that it bordered on the insane.
Robert Hare has written several scholarly articles as well as some popular books like Without Conscience. He has been a primary advocate for the notion that the antisocial bahavior patterns (parasitic lifestyle, criminal behavior, etc.) sometimes observed in psychopaths do not represent the core of the personality disturbance. Rather, he notes that the heart of the problem appears to be this personality’s callous, senseless, and remorseless use and abuse of others, rooted in their lack of empathy and absence of conscience.
Some authors such as Marsha Stout suggest that psychopathy is much more prevalent these days. She does rightfully note in her book The Sociopath Next Door that some of the darkest characters among us are capable of presenting a convincingly civil and charming facade. Many researchers note that there are more psychopaths among us than just those that make headlines or spend time incarcerated. Some even suggest that it’s only the unsuccessful psychopaths who get caught while the more skilled “cons” go undetected (hence the apt title of Stout’s book). But Hare cautions that we need to be careful about how and when we brand others with the label. And he notes that not all who we would label as “antisocial” are in fact psychopathic. Psychopathy is an extremely serious condition Individuals with this disorder are the most severely disturbed in charcter. Further, there are many other problem characters besides psychopaths who create legal, moral, and interpersonal problems.
In many of my posts on this site, and on some of the international blogs for which I write, such as Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life, I have made a concerted effort to bring to light the vast spectrum of character disturbance and where exactly the psychopath fits along that spectrum. I have also laid out a much more detailed framework for this in my book In Sheep’s Clothing. But more than this, in the book I describe how the psychpath fits into a class of other disturbed characters that I call the aggressive personalities. Indeed, I prefer to use the label “predatory aggressive” to describe the psychopath because I believe that at the root of what Hare describes with regard to their abuse and exploitation of others is a markedly malignant narcissism. You see, the psychopath or predatory aggressive personality knows that he is different from most others (because he knows others posess this entity called conscience and that they have emotional connections to others that keep them from doing certain things) and he thinks he is a superior being to common man because he is not encumbered by these traits. Seeing himself as a superior creature and viewing conscience-laden and emotionally vulnerable others as inferior beings, he regards such underlings as rightful prey.
I’ll be doing making some additional posts on this topic. A greatly expanded discussion on the topic will be included in my upcoming book Disturbances of Character (tent.)