The Sociopath is far from your ordinary criminal or villain. Combine a willingness to cross the Moral Event Horizon without a shred of guilt, a keen sense of other people's mental and emotional fault lines, and a Lack of Empathy, and you have the consummate evildoer.
The Sociopath displays these following qualities:
- Lack of Empathy and Devoid of Conscience: Their defining feature. Utterly ruthless doesn't begin to describe them: except for when trying to appear normal, they will disregard any social norms and semblance of morality in pursuit of their own selfish desires. The Sociopath will do whatever it takes: lie, cheat, steal, extort, manipulate, or use outright violence without the slightest hesitation, disgust or remorse, and for as little as Pleasure or The Evulz. Murder and violence have no more emotional weight than eating Chinese takeout or some other mundane activity, and they have no concern for the direct or collateral damage they do to other people, being unable to understand why anyone should. Likewise, they never truly understand the feelings of others on anything more than an intellectual level, and may even believe that everybody else is faking it too. As many Real Life criminal psychologists put it: "They know the words but not the music." Techniques for learning moral behaviour, such as reason, therapy, rehabilitation and behavioral reward/punishment, will not work on them or tend to only make their behavior even worse by making it easier for them to fake it.
- Consummate Liar and Manipulator: In the event they are ever targets of suspicion in crime dramas and thrillers, sociopaths are able to fool any Living Lie Detectors in the cast, pass polygraphs effortlessly, and fool even you, the audience, into believing they are genuinely kind and caring people who are victims of a "big misunderstanding" (assuming they are not so smugly confident of their own invincibility that they feel no need to hide their unsavory personality). Moreover, despite their lack of empathy, sociopaths are capable of using their knowledge of others' desires, emotions and insecurities to manipulate them for their own personal gain. Because of this, many of them are Faux Affably Evil. This is related to their lack of empathy and shame - they don't feel the slightest discomfort about lying or exploiting others, so they do so with the same ease in which normal people perform mundane activities.
- Pathological Need for Stimulation: The Sociopath's raison d'etre (i.e.: an overriding goal which serves as one's "reason for existence"). Due to their inability to empathize or even care for those around them, sociopaths largely view their existence as boring or meaningless and therefore feel compelled to engage in "thrill-seeking" activities to alleviate their restlessness. How this manifests depends largely on the sociopath's personality. It can be as relatively benign as binging on video games, compulsively gambling, or leading highly promiscuous lifestyles. Far more dangerous examples are prone to satiate their lust for thrills by partaking in criminal enterprises, becoming serial rapists and/or killers, or (if they are unusually high-functioning) accumulating vast wealth and/or influence for the sole purpose of dominating as many people as they can for their own amusement. Due to their obsession with indulging their insatiable appetites however they want whenever they want, sociopaths have a very low tolerance for inconvenience or irritation which in turn leads them to have a pronounced lack of impulse control. Because of this, many of them are Ax-Crazy, have a Hair-Trigger Temper, and/or are Mood Swingers.
- Shallow Affect and Complete Lack of Emotional Reciprocity: A Sociopath is physiologically incapable of experiencing a deep emotional attachment towards others but - being a Consummate Liar - learns early in life how to fake them. This shallow emotional life means that the Sociopath is unable to form sincere long-term relationships with anything or anyone, but will feign feelings of love and affection if they feel it serves their purposes. Most of the true feelings a sociopath harbors towards others, positive or negative, are rooted in an insatiable desire to dominate or control them. While narcissists desire to be loved or at least respected, sociopaths don't care whether others view them positively as long as they don't stand in the way of their own self-centered gratification. In the rare event that a Sociopath actually does form an "attachment" to another person, it rises no further than that between an owner and a possession and/or a valuable resource for advancing their goals. Thus, once such "friends" cease to be useful or entertaining, they will abandon them or, in some cases, even kill them without any hesitation or regret. Any emotional reaction to having committed a heinous act is met indifference at best and glee at worst.
- Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth: The trait that ties it all together - the one that changes it from moustache-twirling evil into a mental disorder. Sociopaths will go so far as to convince themselves that they have succeeded in their plan, even as failure stares them in the face and snaps on the handcuffs. They genuinely believe it. They don't really care what others truly think on the matter, but they do care about what they say, and like to fill their social circle with people who say what they want to hear. Any others - even former 'friends' - will be dismissed from the sociopath's social circle simply for doubting them. They consider themselves better than anybody else and that they are entitled to special treatment - and they can't stand anybody being considered better than them. However, while the Narcissist is self-conscious of how they measure up to others' standards (and therefore will experience shame or guilt for failing them), a sociopath's grandiosity is all-encompassing to the point they have no concern how their actions reflect upon them UNLESS it threatens their ability to indulge their appetite for further stimulation. They are incapable of acknowledging personal responsibility for failure, and will always blame others, no matter how irrational it is. In fact, it's considerably difficult convincing them that the activity they have partaken in has even failed. This is all part of why a sociopath can't change - since they consider themselves to already be perfect, and refuse to acknowledge failure on their part, and consider the true opinions and feelings of others insignificant, they never try to improve themselves.
Under such circumstances, high-functioning examples will obey social norms to the extent necessary to sustain their hedonistic lifestyle while more low-functioning examples will react with unrestrained hostility towards anything resembling a challenge to their "freedom". Likewise, sociopaths are incapable of acknowledging personal responsibility for any failures or disappointments they encounter (i.e: events which they automatically attribute to those out to "keep them down" or unfortunate twists of fate entirely beyond their control).
Many of these traits are shared with other disorders, but it's the combination of them all that creates the true Sociopath. And, like many other disorders, sociopathy falls on a spectrum. Some sociopaths are just unusually self-absorbed. On the other end of the scale are the ruthless, remorseless and totally insane monsters. Sociopaths also have varying levels of intelligence, and goals, which influences how their disorder manifests in everyday life. Some sociopaths just want a family - but the very best, most happy family, and only to reflect well on them and make them happy. At any cost. For example if another family member is 'spoiling' this dream, they may simply dispose of that person, and lack empathy and can't see why they might be at fault.
The high-functioning Sociopath will usually have better-than-average impulse control for someone with their condition, and may actually appear perfectly normal for years. They know murder is bad because they're told it's bad — and know murderers who are caught will get in trouble — but the action has no more emotional weight to them than brushing their teeth. They emulate the moral behaviour of society only because a failure to do so has negative consequences, and not because Good Feels Good. What You Are in the Dark exposes them for who they are, and they do not consider something wrong if they do not get caught. If killing advances their goals more easily and they can get away with it, they will often do so. And they will often seek positions of respectability within their communities in order to maintain the façade of being just like everybody else.
They might even go their whole lives appearing almost normal... but there will always be something a little "off" about them; something cold and distant and fake. And they won't even care. This type can make a terrifying Knight Templar, liable to believe that Utopia Justifies the Means — some sociopathic serial killers claim they are simply a Necessary Evil removing undesirable elements from society or making a political statement. They may understand intellectually that their actions are undesirable in society at large, but feel that they should be rewarded, not punished, for acting to solve a perceived problem.
The low-functioning version is defined mostly by their impulse control being particularly shoddy, or having a personality type that predisposes them to violent behavior. For them, maintaining the façade of "fitting in" is simply impossible, as their violent outbursts make them highly visible. But even a low-functioning Sociopath can be glib and charming, the perfect liar, allowing them to accrue loyal followers who perceive their behavior as revolutionary and secretly having a higher purpose. The sociopath will see these followers as useful pawns at best, however, and will not return any of their loyalty in kind, though they may pretend to when it suits them.
Not all sociopaths lust for world domination, of course. Your every-day low-functioning sociopath may just want to get their next hit of crack, and not only will they go to any lengths but they won't feel bad about the distress they cause others by being an addict. Addicts do a lot to fund their addiction, but a non-sociopath will feel bad enough about it to eventually seek help to quit for the sake of others, while a sociopath doesn't give a crap. They're too great to overdose, they're not going to get caught (regardless of how little effort they put into not getting caught), and they don't get why others would get worried about what they're doing to their body or the whole family because they wouldn't care about them.
If the Sociopath happens to be a ruler, and considers themselves above the law, then expect them to be The Caligula.
If the Sociopath has standards, there's a good chance those standards are either carefully calculated to manipulate others, or incidental to the sociopath's personality type. Often, their lack of emotional investment in any kind of moral code or ideology can strike a person with more typical psychological makeup as Blue and Orange Morality.
The trope is named following an old edition of the DSM which used the term to refer to what is now classed as Antisocial personality disorder. Though the terms sociopathy and psychopathy are still recognized in some circles, they have no official standing. See Analysis and UsefulNotes.Lack Of Empathy for more detailed information.
The Sociopath 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, The Chessmaster and The Übermensch. Many Psychos For Hire, Soullesses, and believers in For the Evulz are this as well. If a character qualifies as a Complete Monster, there's a good chance that this trope applies to them. Compare Sociopathic Hero, Comedic Sociopathy, Moral Sociopathy. Contrast the Narcissist, who has the grandiose ego and Lack of Empathy, but experiences the full range and intensity of human emotion, and is capable of love — even if it's a very one-sided, selfish kind of love.
Note: very few fictional sociopaths — even the ones identified as such by the work itself — would be considered as such by a real-life psychiatrist. This is because, as Robert Hare points out in his book Without Conscience, sociopaths by definition are two-dimensional characters, lacking an ability to have anything resembling Character Development (not to mention that people who have the full range of human emotions may find it near impossible to conceive of a human being that truly lives without them). The biggest indication that a fictional character may score high on the psychopath checklist is antisocial behavior (whether violent or nonviolent) coupled with their loyalty or affection to other characters being dubious at best. So if a character has a Morality Pet, Morality Chain, or a deep attachment to a family member or leader that goes beyond simple practicality, it's a good bet this trope doesn't apply to the character.
One important thing to note is that even family members and long-term 'friends' are not excused from these behaviours. Even their own children mean nothing to the Sociopath. They too are tools to be used and tossed aside as soon as they reflect poorly on the sociopath or get in their way. If a character cares about anybody other than themselves; if they can hesitate, they may be terrifyingly, murderously ambitious, but they have empathy for others, and by extension they are not a sociopath.
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- Several songs from the Hip-Hop group Gravediggaz are known for their lyrics describing people mentally unstable, or completely sociopathic murderers.
- Cracked has 17 Famous Love Songs Clearly Written by Sociopaths. As usual however, few of the examples are displaying actual clinical symptoms of sociopathy. In fact, many of the songs go in the complete opposite direction, detailing people with borderline-like symptoms such as feeling deep connections or falling in love with people they barely know. Relationships involving sociopaths, on the other hand, are defined by their lack of (real) emotional connections even with their spouses and family, and instead using a so-called "Mask of Sanity" to feign, among other things, caring and love in order to use people or maintain a facade as a well-adjusted person.
- In Trinity, this is the dirty secret of the main branch of the vitakinetic order. Their powers make them intimately aware of the physical and mental health of people in close proximity to them. Quite a few of these healers find being surrounded by so much pain and decay so overwhelming that they voluntarily undergo a process that turns them into sociopaths, just so they can get on with their jobs without being constantly crippled by empathy with their patients.
- Among the Night Lords in Warhammer 40,000, Captain Jago Sevatarion (best known for being the first to utter the Chaos Marine catchphrase "Death to the False Emperor") pretty clearly suffers from genuine antisocial personality disorder. As an illustration of how screwed-up the Night Lords are, Sevatar approaches being the Only Sane Man; he might suffer from a Lack of Empathy and believe strongly in the power of Flaying Alive, but the rest of the Night Lords are worse.
- The Crucible: Abigail Williams, who manipulates her town into mass executing people for witchcraft because one guy broke off his affair with her.
- Atreus from Lucius Annaeus Seneca's tragedy/horror classic Thyestes is one of the most chilling sociopaths in literature. He's a card-carrying tyrant with zero empathy, and his crown has only intensified his ego issues. He shows no signs of any of The Four Loves towards anyone (he would have turned on his sons Agamemnon and Menelaus in a heartbeat had they showed evidence of being Thyestes' instead), and any injury done him must be repaid with interest. In the play, Thyestes had been exiled after he seduced Atreus' wife Aërope and tried to claim the crown. Atreus, craving some deeper vengeance, pretends to extend the olive branch and claims that all is forgiven. Nope. It turns out that Thyestes' own sons were the main course of that banquet Atreus served.