“Are psychopaths and sociopaths the same thing?” is a question that I receive a lot. The word ‘sociopath’ has had a bit of a Renaissance as of late thanks to books mentioning the term in their titles and due to pop culture references such as with the BBC show, Sherlock. It’s unfortunate, because the current academic climate – see Kiehl’s book, The Psychopath Whisperer – does not use the word ‘sociopath’ at all. Unfortunately this is all made infinitely more complicated as ‘psychopath’ – the correct term when referring to a “sociopath” – is not a medical definition but rather an academic definition. This leaves some individuals equating the medical definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder, with the term ‘sociopath’ and the academic construct with ‘psychopath’. We are left with a disjoint language as there is no agreement by the layperson as to which term should be used in which context.
The sins of academics that study psychopathy are great. They are intellectually stunted individuals that lack curiosity. In no one area is this more evident than with their insistence to study only those psychopaths in prisons. This sin knows no nationality as the whole lot results to opportunity samples, the bane of statistical sampling. As a result, research tends to be used solely in criminological circles which leads to mass hysteria regarding the condition, should individuals even consider the disorder to be real in the first place. I am beyond tired of the common conversations that I hear regarding psychopathy and the fault lies solely with the academics “studying” this condition.
What if oncologists did not study less lethal forms of cancer? What if they studied only lung and pancreatic cancer and declared the rest of cancer untreatable and unworthy of study as a result? This may sound ludicrous, but this is exactly what happens with the study of psychopaths. Academic researchers go to where they know they can find psychopaths: prisons. However, they did not include the possibility that there are psychopaths outside of prison walls because such field studies would prove “too hard”. This leads to a general picture of what the psychopath can do but not the complete picture of all psychopaths. If Kent Kiehl is right in his book, The Psychopath Whisperer, then 77% of psychopaths are in jail. This means that roughly 1 in 4 are not, however. Leaving 25% of any population unaccounted for is laughable, but yet we are expected to treat the prison psychopath as representative of all psychopaths. This is the result of nothing less than systematic failure when it comes to the study of psychopaths.
We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ before. When it comes to studying the psyche this approach could not be more dangerous. It would be ludicrous to claim that depression is incurable or that it can be cured with one silver bullet, yes? It would be considered tactless to write off all schizophrenics as untreatable. Yet, the psychopath is deemed incurable and untreatable. The mental health professionals that are sworn to help those that seek their aid tend to refer clients with antisocial disorders to other professionals who then do the same thing until these clients are exhausted. The view that the antisocial is untreatable is ubiquitous. And, this has no reason to change. Before we dive in, let me note that I am playing a bit fast and loose with the terms ‘cure’ and ‘treat’ with respect to the psychopath or otherwise antisocial. The antisocial most likely does not want to be cured, but she may wish to control her disorder rather than it control her.
Psychopathy is a real and separate disorder from Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Innumerable academic studies have concluded that psychopathy is distinct and real via confirmatory factor analysis – a statistical technique. Neurological studies confirm differences in the paralimbic system between psychopaths and those only exhibiting ASPD. The paralimbic system is much more “atrophied” in those with psychopathy. Yet, many refuse to acknowledge psychopathy as real. Some perceive the disorders existence as being pure oppression by criminological circles. Others cite the DSM, the “Bible” of psychiatry and proclaim that it must not be real. In all cases, a pandemic of psychopath erasure is in play.
Numerous studies by academics including Robert Hare and Kent Kiehl have confirmed neurological differences in those called psychopaths versus those simply diagnosed as ASPD. Anticipatory anxiety is nearly non-existent. The areas of the brain controlling empathy and emotion are atrophied. The corpus callosum – the construct connecting the hemispheres of the brain – is thicker. Etc. etc. These distinct – and statistically significant – differences create the framework for differentiating psychopathy from ASPD. Yet, many cover their eyes and ears and proclaim psychopathy is not real. Rather than honoring our individuality, they attempt to place us in the same group as vanilla ASPD individuals. This would be akin to referring to humans only as primates rather than a distinct species simply because the baseline is the same between us and apes. Does that truly make sense?