has become a very popular villain-type in recent years; crime dramas and thrillers, for example, will inevitably feature one as a particularly merciless and evil antagonist. Some tropes that are frequently associated with The Sociopath
include Serial Killer
, Faux Affably Evil
, Lack of Empathy
, The Unfettered
, Manipulative Bastard
, and The Chessmaster
. Many Psychos For Hire
and believers in For the Evulz
are this as well.
Unfortunately, Hollywood tropes of "sociopaths" have built them up as fiendish, moustache-twirling evil masterminds, and this doesn't quite reflect reality. In particular, the famous Hannibal Lecter archetype has heavily influenced subsequent characters, but Lecter is more of a comic book villain - real sociopaths don't act like that. The reality is in some ways much, much worse.
While to the casual observer going about their everyday business a sociopath "seems normal" and often possess a superficial charm that can allow them to pass as normal people
, if you spend any length of time with them or know
to be looking for sociopathic indicators, their "mask of sanity" won't hold up under high scrutiny. Essentially, it is a very insulting Clark Kent Outfit
that sociopaths mentally put on when they try to blend in with society: they perceive normal people as a bunch of gullible, sentimental fools who slather each other with token pleasantries like "Hi, how are you? Looking good today, have you lost weight?" and then honestly put their "trust" in other people, based on these shallow pleasantries.
A feature of this is "semantic aphasia" — sociopaths don't associate the same negative meanings to words as normal people. Thus you might hear a sociopath, honestly trying
to keep his cover and blend in with normal society, suddenly crack a joke that they think is hilarious about rape, murder, torture, etc, that a normal person would find offensive and inappropriate. It is common for normal people to think that a sociopath just doesn't understand the full moral implications of what they're doing, that if they thought they were "bad" they wouldn't do them. However that is one of the reasons why they do it and why they enjoy it. They are malignantly antisocial, and the worse it is, the more they enjoy it. On a broad, theoretical level, they sort of understand that they're not supposed to admit to murder, rape, torture, dismemberment, arson, cannibalism, etc. but the exact line between "morally acceptable" or not is very blurred. Essentially they have learned to mimic the rules of the society that they live in, but little mistakes will give them away. In interviews with real-life serial killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, etc. they seem to have surprisingly normal speech patterns, they're not ranting or raving, but if you pay close attention over a long period of time, every now and then they make little slips where they say bizarre or disturbing things — because they're just pretending
to be normal, its all an act.
Sociopaths do not necessarily have some sort of Freudian Excuse
for their Lack of Empathy (although if they get caught out with a lie they will invent one). However, many works will have such characters grow up with horrific abuse
, conditioning them to believe that they live in a nihilistic dog-eat-dog Crapsack World
where empathy is useless
. One theory of sociopathy is that usually those who have it did not merely have Abusive Parents; rather, they had Abusive Parents who periodically would make some half-assed and short-lived attempt at discipline or generosity, or pretend that everything was "normal", for example to fool outsiders. Its the chaotic and random hypocrisy of the situation that really set them off, teaching them that punishment is arbitrary, kindness is a mask, and other such Family Unfriendly Aesops
that they end up internalising, along with a shortage or total lack of more positive role models. This is partly because many people can't see why somebody would be so 'cold' and 'ruthless' without a good reason. But sociopathy generally does not have any better reason to be there than any other sickness (although negative experiences with other human beings will change the way it manifests itself). Others have theorized that they often have abusive upbringings because their parents have the same mental illness as their children.
Sociopaths will often try to play the sympathy-ploy that they are they way they are due to abuse or trauma they suffered...but the reality is that even small children who grow up experiencing the War Is Hell
environment in all its horror, subjected to truly nightmarish experiences, don't
turn into sociopaths (and in fact may turn even more empathic to people suffering the same hell). Sociopathy is a personality disorder. While an abusive childhood will often make their behaviour worse and help it manifest, it is not the cause. Then again, some sociopaths reportedly have completely normal upbringings, with seemingly no provocation for their behavior.
In real life, medical tests conducted on sociopaths show that they're often unable to recognize pain or suffering in others - they're not necessarily evil
, they just lack the ability to "connect" to other people's feelings even if they understand them on a rational level. In fact, Cleckley notes that often the greatest harm that they bring to others is the worry and sleepless nights that they create in family members from their frequent unexplained absences, irresponsible and reckless behavior. That said, an "evil" person would probably score highly on a sociopathic checklist.
Brain scans have determined that there is indeed something structurally wrong with the brains of sociopaths: Their amygdala, the deep part of the brain responsible for processing higher emotions, is severely damaged. They can't comprehend empathy
. Heavy use of narcotics is associated with the development of sociopathy, because the drugs cause brain cell apoptosis (cellular death), causing brain lesions. Genetics are also believed to play a factor.
They can use the rational part of their intellect to play-act or mime their way through imitating
complex emotions, but they don't truly feel them, and thus can't really understand them. Besides pretentiousness and an utter lack of empathy, the other major defining feature of sociopaths is extreme impulsivity. Impulse Control Disorders have been shown to be caused by frontal lobe damage. They frequently complain of being "bored" and thus doing it "For the Evulz
" — psychologists suspect this is due to a lack of serotonin which causes the ever-present boredom and the seeking out of "exciting" activities, or because their damaged amygdala also structurally prevents them from restraining their impulses.
The behavior of a sociopath also seems to make very little sense to those who observe them. An example would be a patient at a psychiatric facility who spends weeks trying to get grounds privileges. Once they have these privileges, they do something so obvious that a sensible person would expect to get caught, and which results in little gain, like escaping only to get into a fight at a nearby bar. It appears that they have just squandered something that they worked weeks for, for only a slight bit of amusement. This results because their cognitive abilities (i.e. ability to sort through information immediately coming from the surrounding environment) is limited by an inability to take responsibility and long term goals into consideration, making them unable to learn from punishment. Whatever the cause, this leads to one of the major disconnects between the Hollywood "evil mastermind" sociopath and the real-life kind: true sociopaths tend to be very bad at long-term planning
. They follow poorly planned out whims, purely focused on the immediate gratification and with zero
thought of the consequences...even to themselves. Even when lying or bragging would only get them into even more trouble. This might be surprising considering how well sociopaths are often able to charm normal people in long-cons, blending into society...but a charming used-car salesman doesn't really need that much long-term planning.
This is because a sociopath's skills as a Manipulative Bastard
is based largely on improvisation
: they custom-tailor their lies spur-of-the-moment, without much thought as to how all of their lies will fit together into a cohesive whole. Not that they care, they'll just think up a new lie to patch over the inconsistency, but over time they add up. For example, when Ted Bundy was asked if he ever did drugs, he launched into a long and rambling diatribe, first adamantly insisting that he never did, then that he might have tried marijuana, then admitting that he took marijuana and might have tried crack, but yeah, he still feels he "doesn't do drugs". Each individual sentence was "acted" wholeheartedly, because he was a shameless liar, but if you paid attention to the logic of his words, they were incredibly incoherent. John Wayne Gacy adamantly insisted in court that he was innocent, but when victims on the stand described how he tortured and nearly killed them, he started laughing
in open court, sort of how a normal person might laugh at a man getting hit in the groin by a football — he couldn't comprehend that this was inappropriate to normal people, nor did he realize how absurd it made his defense look. Thus a sociopath can maintain the mime-act of pretending to be normal for years, but this isn't really a "long-term plan" so much as they're so impulsive and willing to lie, that they just make up new lies every day. The reason for this charm is fairly simple: Having zero remorse and the ability to discard anything if it does not suit them
, they have absolutely no fear of lying and/or believing that Two Plus Two Makes Five
, and this makes them very good actors. A major component of sociopathic lying is not appearing nervous, and being truly "shameless", sociopaths will tell you exactly what you want to hear. Pathological lying is caused by damage to the frontal lobes to the brain, so their compulsive lying is also a symptom of their illness.
TL;DR: We think that for sociopaths everything goes "Just As Planned
" when in fact that's what they want you to think. An exception to this cognitive weakness can exist in the more intelligent types of sociopaths who do know how to Cut Lex Luthor a Check
and use their skills to rise in the social hierarchy.
The combined result is possibly one of the most frightening aspects of the most hardcore of sociopaths: Because they're so apathetic, impulsive and unfettered
, they have an inability to learn from past mistakes and it becomes impossible to punish them, and they never learn to fear punishment of any kind, even when it would mean their own destruction. The Sociopath never seems to see that there's a problem with the way he treats others and as such don't admit he has a problem, even if you humiliate him and kick him out - so it's tough to teach him a lesson. The only reason he'll stay in somebody's life is because that person is gullible and there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Thus criminal recidivism (re-offending) is highly correlated with sociopathy.
It has been shown that punishment and behavior modification techniques do not improve the behavior of a sociopath, in fact, such techniques only make the sociopath learn how to be more adept at manipulation and concealing their behaviour. They are almost impossible to cure as they often see their therapist as just another person to con
, and may well persuade them that they have been cured when they still don't see a problem with their past behaviour. If you do try to lecture and psychoanalyze an intelligent sociopath, he will lecture and psychoanalyze you back
. And chances are he'll win (or perceive himself as winning, which for him is the same thing). A common tactic that sociopaths fall back on, after all other possible lies have been exhausted (and that does take a while, for them) is to flat out insist that their accuser
is simply delusional or insane, i.e. deny that their hands are visibly covered in blood — this isn't because they're being petulant or stubborn...they genuinely can't mentally process a scenario in which this is their fault (though in some cases they do know, and this is a calculated tactic to simply bully their accuser into submission).
This makes them different from other personality disorders associated with shamelessness, impulsivity, lack of empathy and an It's All About Me
mentality, such as the Extreme Narcissist
: when in doubt narcissists want others to take care of their needs and wants. Sociopaths will just take
what they need or want. Narcissists cannot really dispose of their emotional, moral and conscientious weaknesses, such as love or guilt, and when cornered, are far more easy to be humiliated
On the whole, however, they are completely impulsive and will keep doing bad things...because possessing no empathy, there is no greater rush for them than to cheat and harm other people. Being utterly impulsive and lacking any emotional and rational restraint, they'll keep doing harmful, self-destructive things. Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy killed dozens of people, not as spur-of-the-moment crime of passion, but consistently over many years...because they honestly enjoyed doing it, thought of their victims as simply objects for their amusement, and would never stop.
For them, a lover is just another potential victim. Any kids are simply a burden - or at best a tool. They will often run away if they are faced with any responsibility for their family. However, sociopaths are capable of faking affection for a time, which will seem authentic to many. Love is merely a game for them, and they will essentially see their lover as simply a prize to be won, or a possession to be owned.
These kinds of behaviors cause The Sociopath
to be nigh-universally shown in fiction as remorseless, unsympathetic, and unfettered
, and he (and it is almost always a he, as female sociopaths are extremely rarely diagnosed in real life) is almost never redeemable, with no remorse for their actions or the pain they cause others and take a sadistic pleasure in it; we very, very
rarely get a sympathetic or redeemable sociopath. If a sociopath is portrayed as attractive or "sympathetic"
, it is less from actual sympathy and more from Magnificent Bastardry
and other examples of Evil Is Cool
. This is unfortunately frequently Truth in Television
, as they often inflict repeated harm on both those close to them and strangers.
A diagnosis of sociopathy is only applied to adults; if the individual in question is under the age of 18 then they would receive a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. It is mainly a semantic and legal issue.
Many professionals have tried to cure them or to get them to withhold their impulses with various kinds of techniques. While some of them can be conditioned to keep their behaviour in check for a while, it is only out of fear of punishment and getting caught. They only act morally as long as they're rats in a Skinner Box. When the Skinner Box's rewards disappear, the self-restraint behaviour goes extinct
. Their recidivism rate (how often they repeat crimes) is still universally high. It does not change what they are.
While The Sociopath is often associated with other Above Good and Evil
personalities, many examples with morals also exist
, but they are more likely to suffer from Moral Myopia
, or subscribe to a self-centered moral code. The only thing that would potentially cure their diseased brains is something biological that would regenerate their brain and get it to work in a healthy way.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding these days as to the overlap and meanings of the words "sociopath" and "psychopath". The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not equal. "Sociopath" is no longer considered a useful word, because the term was originally also applied to people with autism
("sociopath" in fact means "social illness", and it could arguably be applied to both groups on that basis), and wasn't very useful as a category. "Psychopath" (meaning "mind illness") has superseded and replaced it in medical fields, as the term is much more specific and diagnostic in its definition. But that hasn't yet trickled into the language, so "sociopath" continues to be used with a more-or-less identical meaning.