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I’ve read more than a few stories lately that cover the topics of sociopaths and psychopaths but there’s a lot of confusion out there. I thought I’d help to clear this up as best as I can and deal with the typical issues I see coming up again, and again.
So let's get stuck in - psychopathy is usually defined as the absence of empathy, or as a deficit in empathy. But it’s not all that clear what’s really going on. We know that a lot of journalists, policemen, businessmen and soldiers have deficits in empathy, but are we saying they’re psychopaths? This gets to the heart of a brutal debate in the literature about whether you need to be a criminal to qualify. Some people quite rightly point out that Ted Bundy was still a psychopath long before he was convicted and given a criminal record. Others point out that there needs to be a functional distinction between the traits we see in pragmatic stock brokers, or heartless lawyers, and rapists and serial killers. Lacking empathy is not the same thing as being a threat, but being a threat doesn’t always mean you’ve got a criminal record.
I’m not here to give any answer – but I am here to point out that not all murderers are psychopaths, and that not all people with psychopathic traits are murderers. Psychopathy is best defined as a deficit in affective empathy (that thing that makes you yawn when other people yawn, or wince when you see a youtube video of some guy landing scrotum first on a hand rail – it’s also known as ‘contagious empathy’ which gives you a good sense of what it means), but it doesn’t mean that all psychopaths become murderers. Many people who have psychopathic traits just direct their attention towards jobs where being a bit ruthless is an advantage – like I said popular jobs include policing, the military, investment stock brokers, lawyers, paparaazzi, etc. Psychopaths aren’t, by default, Jason Voorhees running around with a machete, and many lead healthy lives. And nor is it an absolute all-or-nothing situation, like most mental illnesses it exists on a spectrum. I think we can all appreciate that some people can be a bit ruthless, and that this does not make them cannibal monsters, and there are times where, frankly, letting go of that empathy is more than just an advantage, it's flat-out necessary.
Interestingly empathy is usually dissociated into affective and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy lets you know what others feel, cognitive empathy lets you know what others think. Without affective empathy to constantly reinforce why being a prick is wrong, many psychopathic killers have to learn basic morality from external, and societal cues (like rows, and punishments). An interesting way that child psychologists distinguish between violent children with, and without, psychopathic traits is to see if they cry after causing someone else pain in the playground - kids without psychopathic traits often get extremely upset and hysterical after realizing that they've caused someone else pain. It's a fundamental trait of most people to experience the emotions they see in those around them, albeit at a diminished rate.
Ever smiled when looking at someone else smile for no real reason? Ever seen a kid go down in a nursery and start crying, and then watched every other kid start crying for no reason? This is what I am on about. Here's where it can get frightening too. Psychopaths have no deficit in cognitive empathy – they are 100% capable of knowing and understanding what other people think, they just don’t automatically feel emotion upon seeing it in another person. This is what makes so many of them seem charming, and manipulative.
Interesting fact – a violent criminal with psychopathic traits is 35% more likely to receive parole than a violent criminal without psychopathic traits. This is why a lot of psychopaths seem pretty clever.
But here’s another interesting paradox – most people don’t know this but the majority of serial killers have below average IQ’s. If you take all the psychopaths in a prison they’ll be, on average, dumber than the non-psychopaths in that same prison. Obviously this raises the concerning question of, “is being stupid part of being a psychopath, or are we only catching the stupid ones?”
No one has the answer to this, frankly, scary question. But what we can at least put forward is that an intelligent psychopath is one who, hopefully, knows that rape/murdering their way across the tristate area is going to attract unnecessary attention. They’re much better off just getting a damned job and paying a hooker to wear some squibs and roleplay some rape. This is an important thing to note – most psychopathic killers are from working class backgrounds, uneducated, and unintelligent. Most people picture Hannibal Lecter as the iconic serial killer, but in reality a better archetype is that of Henry Lucas and Ottis Toole. Look at the face of Otis Toole to see the sort of 'mastermind tactician' that usually qualifies as a psychopathic serial killer.
There are exceptions to this of course, but they’re just that, exceptions.
Now one last point - sociopath or psychopath? This is one of the more common things that you will see come up again and again. The basics of it is this – it depends what camp of thought you subscribe to. Sociopath usually refers to the idea that you think societal problems, like poverty and childhood abuse, cause the underlying problem. Psychopath usually refers to the idea that you think there are fundamental psychological/neurological causes instead that occur irrelevant of other things like being wealthy or suffering maltreatment. They both refer to the same thing, and are increasingly interchangeable regardless of what you think. There’s no real strict reason to stick to one or another – it’s quite arbitrary, use whatever one you want.
I mainly wrote this to hopefully offer a bit of insight into this aspect of psychology that gets a phenomenal amount of mainstream attention, but I don’t want it to just be an information dump either. I’d love to know what people think of this topic – and to ask the question,
“Who is your favourite fictional serial killer?”
Mine is Paul Spector from The Fall. I highly recommend you watch that show if you haven’t – it’s a great watch. I'd love to hear your thoughts below.