Friday, October 16, 2015

Psychopath versus Sociopath: Is There a Difference?


There were two school shootings on John Lennon’s 75th birthday. All you need is love, right? And a nice stash of high-powered firearms, a lifetime of discontent and a dose of sociopathy, or is it psychopathy? You hear the terms tossed about pretty liberally by armchair psychiatrists in the wake of such incidents, the words often being used interchangeably, when in fact, psychopaths and sociopaths differ in significant ways.

Psychopaths are Lady Gaga fans, not because her music is in any way insane, but rather because of her huge hit, “Born This Way.” Psychopaths are hardwired for their mischief. They have lived a disturbed life since birth, one side effect of which is that they become very good at it. They often hold down jobs and present a façade of normalcy to the outside world. Having experienced negative reactions to their impulses from a very early age, they learn how to survive in society by creating a normalized persona behind which lurks a demented viewpoint. Ted Bundy is a classic psychopath.

A sociopath, however, comes to his iteration of antisocial personality disorder experientially or through an aggregating sense of having been wronged by society. Psychopaths and sociopaths share lawlessness, deception, aggressiveness and an inability to feel remorse or guilt, but sociopaths are not nearly as “good” at it, not having had to incorporate their antisocial impulses into a presentable façade over the course of a lifetime. Robert John Maudsley, the inspiration for the Hannibal Lecter character, was severely beaten throughout his childhood and was (according to Maudsley) raped by his father, largely theorized to be the source of his sociopathy, one that led him to a condition in which the mere presence of another person excited an internal obligation to kill that person.

There is of course much more information available on this distinction, and naturally, the two have plenty of shared traits, but it’s probably best not to toss those two terms around without a bit of consideration. After all, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of a psychopathic grammarian who resents your mischaracterization.