More confusion over antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy and psychopathy

This semester I taught both Forensic Psychology and Abnormal Psychology at the University of Bridgeport. The students there are an ethnically diverse group and I think are fairly representative of America’s young adult population. In both classes we discussed those individuals who have a “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” I wrote antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy and psychopathy on the blackboard before we began our discussion. I then asked the students if they had heard of these terms and if they could tell me the definitions.

Only a small percentage had heard the term antisocial personality disorder, nearly everyone had heard the word sociopath, about a third had heard the word psychopath.

The next question to the students was, “What do all these terms mean?” Someone asked if antisocial personality referred to a person that didn’t like to be around others. Someone else said that psychopaths are “out of touch with reality, psychotic.” Most who heard the word sociopath associated it with criminality.

The students were shocked to discover that all three terms basically refer to the same disorder.

That same week, I spoke with an internet search expert. He told me that the term antisocial personality disorder is searched through Google about 5,000 times per day. The term psychopath is searched 60,000 times per day and the term sociopath is searched 110,000 times per day. These numbers are consistent with my survey of university students. My findings indicate that the American Psychiatric Association has done the public a great disservice with their boggled naming of the disorder.

An interesting historical fact is that this disorder used to be called “moral insanity.” Insanity is a legal term that indicates that due to mental defect a person is not responsible for his/her actions. Although many people believe that the morally insane have a mental (brain)defect there is considerable resistance to saying this absolves them of responsibility for their criminal acts.

This week we discussed the case of John W. Hinckley, Jr. the man who shot President Reagan and Mr. Brady, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital. A psychiatrist for the prosecution, Dietz testified that Hinckley viewed his actions on March 30 as successful. “It worked,” Hinckley told Dietz in an interview. “You know, actually, I accomplished everything I was going for there. Actually, I should feel good because I accomplished everything on a grand scale….I didn’t get any big thrill out of killing–I mean shooting–him. I did it for her sake….The movie isn’t over yet.” In short, Deitz saw Hinckley as a sociopath who was grandiose and trying to impress Jody Foster with his actions, though I believe he actually diagnosed him with borderline personality.

I reflected to the class that it seems that individuals like Hinckley and Dahmer (the serial killer) should be considered special cases of sociopathy and not lumped with the rest. There are sociopaths who are so grandiose and obsessed with power that they seem to lose touch with reality. Not that they are schizophrenic and have delusions or hallucinations, but their interpretations of the world cannot be construed as “normal.”

This is actually where the term “borderline” came from, as is used today to refer to “borderline personality.” The borderline is some point between neurotic and psychotic-borderline psychotic actually. So perhaps we could consider psychopaths those sociopaths who are so afflicted that their thinking and behavior indicate they have lost their grip on reality. Some psychiatrists do think of psychopaths as the worst sociopaths.

Should those with moral insanity who commit crimes be treated differently than others? Should John Hinckley be released now that he has been judged not psychotic? These are questions for another week.
See also:

If you have a personal example of a sociopath’s “loose grip on reality” please share it with us in a comment.

Comment on this article

179 Comments on "More confusion over antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy and psychopathy"

Notify of

Here is a study to read over and think about:


Bascially it says that in children with psychopathic tendencies, antisocial behaviour was strongly inherited. In contrast, the antisocial behaviour of children who did not have psychopathic tendencies was mainly influenced by environmental factors.

And this research is adding to previous research that showed similar results in the past.

A few things to note that Dr Viding points out. One is this statement “Any behaviour is influenced by multiple genes and an unlucky combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder.”

Another one from the study is “In antisocial 7-year-olds with callous and unemotional traits, Viding found, the antisocial behavior was strongly genetic in origin (a group heritability of 80%).”

So yes research is slowly showing that indeed there are two groups. Psychopaths and sociopaths.

Wini said: Well BloggerT7165: If they find out it is a missing gene, I’ll agree with it. But, as of this writing, no one is putting an absolute to why they are the way they are.

With all this research beginning to come out about their brains and they way they function differently, some of the stuff I’ve read, it just sounds to me almost as if they have similar brains to an animal. Of course I am not a psychologist and also don’t know diddly about the brain etc. from a scientific perspective, but anyhow that is just my laymans take on it.

Wini, I also sometimes have a warped sense of humor and hey, I’m not even Catholic! BTW, funniest wedding I ever went to was a Catholic one about 25 years ago. The bride was about 6 months pregnant in a beautiful white gown, the groom was a nervous wreck and looked as if he was gonna throw up any second, and the Priest performing the ceremony had very obviously already been heavily into the wine. The reception food was great, the Priest stuck around and drank some more, and everyone had a jolly good time, but especially the Priest. 🙂

Jen2008: Funny you mentioned the similar brains to animals … because I did post a long time ago about all God’s characteristics … and being animal was one of the characteristics.

Hence, if we are created in the image of our creator … and he does have the animal(s) as part of his image … then this study would make sense to me.

What’s to say that we are all bits and parts of our creator … and these folks are closet match to the animal part of our creator.

By the way, speaking of animals … someone mentioned mad, vicious dogs the other day. I’ve never met a vicious dog that was born vicious. I have met nice dogs that were trained by idiot owners to become vicious. Knowing the pup was a friendly creature … to finding out the owner purposely trained them to attack … went against their natural grain and just became pure mean due to fear of being beaten by the owner if they didn’t attack on command. I have met female dogs that were mean spirited to their off springs and would be abusive to them … which makes me think, that was passed down to them as well by their mom’s (I’m purposely not using the word bitch).

I don’t think dry sense of humor is predominate with Catholics … I don’t know, you just had to deal with the nuns the way we did (LOL) … they were fun, kind, but no nonsense. I remember every morning coming on to the school grounds … and our Dean of Girls would stand in the front door … pointing her fingers at any one of us. It was the early 70’s … mini skirts were the rage … and when she pointed, we had to kneel … as we bent our kneels to kneel …. our skirts got rolled out from under our blazers to hit the ground with our knees. As soon as we were (cough) presentable again … we could walk into school … passing the Dean of girls, with a bow to our heads … looking back to see who else she pointed that finger of hers at … as we rolled up our skirts to be mini-length again.

It was just a nature of the beast … the Catholic humor.

I’m glad you had a good time at the wedding. I’ve never attended a wedding that didn’t have a glitch happen. I was just talking with my cousin’s wife at my uncle’s funeral last week … telling her that her wedding was a riot … whatever could go wrong, did … and she never batted an eye. We did have a blast at her wedding …


How is it possible that 2/3 of a class of college students, PSYCH students, had NEVER heard the word “psychopath”?!! That word is used movies, TV shows, articles, and regular conversation all the time; no one over the age of 5 in this country should be unaware of it… no one over age 5 should have failed to have heard that word within the past WEEK.

They asked College students how many states there are in The united States of America ????????? Do you pretend a College student is Knowledgable?!

You know, come to think of it, there wasn’t much mention–if any–of psychopathy in my undergraduate or graduate psych programs. We mainly learn the different personality and psychodynamic theories. In grad school that was expanded to include the transpersonal (spiritual) realm (I went to an alternative school.). In fact I didn’t start reading about psychopaths till I started studying Alexander Lowen’s theories on my own while in school. And even he doesn’t make a big deal about psychopathy. Nowhere was there any mention of a condition that was incurable. We always focused on healing of mental illness. But I guess psychopaths are not considered mentally ill, so they wouldn’t get much air time in a psych class.

my brother was DXed as a sociopath back in the 70s/80s. my ex-H is a callous, ruthless, charming, extremely manipulative, exploitative, calculating, grandiose and exceedingly self-centered, sadistic individual who has never been diagnosed-but would likely be diagnosed psychopathic.

he is image-oriented, disparages others to feed his ego and has never been convicted of any criminal activities. if you are hurt by my ex-H, it is because he set his sites on you and the attack was planned, well thought out and designed to do optimal damage (as long as he has deemed you a target to attack). he has and does aim attacks at those outside the ‘family’ as well as within the ‘family’. he thinks of the consequences and strategizes so as not to get caught. he wants what he wants when he wants it, but prefers to go about it covertly. he is fond of unmasking once he has perpetrated and gotten away with crimes against you-always has to let you know he won. he is dangerous and morally repugnant.

my brother and my ex-H are as different as night and day in their MO. my brother can be slick, yet has spent a lot of time in and out of jail (got caught) as he is far more impulse and not very concerned about the consequences of his actions. he could care less about his image, he simple does what he wants when and if he wants to do it. if you are hurt by my brother, it is typically inadvertent and had never been his goal.

for example, when he’s lost his driver’s license but needs to get somewhere, he will not hesitate to drive without a license. my brother has always been articulate and capable of carrying on deep conversations which include emotional content while ex-H both speaks and writes in an almost ‘backwards’ sort of way-his intended meanings get garbled and lost (even when not intentionally playing the word salad game).

both men have a history of head injuries, my brother suffered 3 major head traumas starting at age four, with the last occurring at age 18. ex-H incurred head trauma to the left frontal lobe at 17.

my ex-H has a mother who completely lacks emotion and in her own words ‘does not know how to be nurturing’. she operates from an ‘every man for himself’ world view and is highly suspicious and judgmental, almost always incorrectly interpreting the motives and emotions of others as being some kind of attempt at manipulation. her grasp of reality has seemed to trend toward delusional as she aged-she is now 74 yrs old. not sure if there is any kind of genetic predisposition in this family but it seems possible.

it is thought that my brother’s father was probably a sociopath but he was adopted so there was no way to know if his father had been diagnosed.


1 18 19 20

Send this to a friend