Reflections on antisocial behavior (Part 3): Is that person a sociopath/psychopath?

Five and a half years ago I started a quest to understand sociopathy/psychopathy and antisocial behavior. Long before that, in 1981, I attended a lecture by Dr. Sarnoff Medick at USC. During that lecture, he presented the results of his research. His research on adopted children indicates that antisocial behavior has a strong measurable genetic basis. His studies did not single out anyone “diagnosed” a sociopath/psychopath they only examined antisocial behavior in parents and their biologic and adopted offspring.

Remembering these studies, I read them again and found many others demonstrating the genetic basis for antisocial behavior and sociopathy/psychopathy. Also at the beginning of my quest, I read Without Conscience by Dr. Robert Hare. (If you have not read it, I strongly recommend you do so.) That book teaches us about a category of people “psychopaths” who are without conscience and are antisocial. According to Without Conscience, psychopathy can only be diagnosed by professionals who using the PCL-R find a person scores over a certain cut-off. That book also makes reference to the genetic basis for “psychopathy.”

Questions about antisocial behavior, sociopaths and psychopaths

Reading all this material, I immediately questioned if psychopaths are a separate category of antisocial people. Many experts say “psychopaths” represent 1% of the general population and 25% of the prison population. I also wondered what the other 75% of the prison population would be considered. To my dismay I found several studies showing that many maximum security, very antisocial and violent criminals would not be considered “psychopaths” according to the PCL-R.

Three things about the research reports troubled me then, and also now. First of all what good is it to tell people there are a category of dangerous “psychopaths” out there and then in the next sentence to say that only trained professionals can tell who “they” are? Second of all, there are many very antisocial and violent individuals who “professionals” say are not “psychopaths.” In fact, studies of pedophiles indicate they are less likely to be “psychopaths” than other sexual offenders. What? Excuse me? Thirdly, while saying psychopathy is genetic, scientists imply that it is 100% genetic and that is simply not true. No study has found the disorder is 100% genetic.

These 3 issues lead me to focus on antisocial behavior again as opposed to a specific category of people, psychopaths or sociopaths. If we focus on antisocial behavior we can clearly identify people who commit a large number of antisocial acts. For these people harming others has become a way of life and is not something they do only occasionally. It does not take a professional to identify antisocial behavior or harm.

The focus should be first on antisocial behavior, then the personality traits of those who show a lot of it

Many experts agree with the idea that our focus should be on antisocial behavior first, then we should try to understand what characteristics very antisocial people have in common. In their book The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, Drs. Andrews and Bonta state, “A general Antisocial Personality Pattern may be more relevant than psychopathological models of antisocial personality. If we limit ourselves to the personality traits and behavioral patterns of highly antisocial persons, then we have little need for concepts such as APD (sociopathy) and Psychopathy.”

Dr. Hare also states in a recent paper, “In any case, the use of a threshold or cut score for “diagnosing” psychopathy is problematical, given recent taxometric evidence that the PCL-R (Guay, Ruscio, Knight, & Hare, 2007) and its derivatives (Edens, Marcus, Lilienfeld, & Poythress, 2006; Walters et al., 2007) measure a dimensional construct. Cut scores are useful for communication among researchers, but of necessity are somewhat arbitrary when used for diagnostic purposes. The real issue is not how difficult it may be to reach a given “threshold” but how variations in the psychopathy dimensions relate to variables of interest, including normal range personality processes (Hare & Neumann, 2008; Lynam & Widiger, 2007).

In other words, in his scientific writings, Dr. Hare says that the best use of the PCL-R is to describe the personality traits of people we have otherwise categorized. Using it to “diagnose” psychopathy is “problematical.”

Where do we go from here and is sociopathy/psychopathy still a relevant concept?

Sociopathy (antisocial behavior) and psychopathy, or the cluster of personality traits that those with antisocial behavior have, are still very important to understand. First most people do not habitually engage in harmful antisocial behavior. It is important for us to understand all the factors, from personality to social circumstance that contribute to habitual antisocial behavior, or sociopathy.

Psychopathy represents a cluster of personality traits that are commonly found in very antisocial people (sociopaths). There is no cut-off score for determining “a psychopath.” It is more correct to say that high scores on measures of psychopathy indicate the presence of psychopathic personality traits to an extreme degree.

Let’s go ahead and call a spade a spade and categorize sociopaths

Is there any way to categorize sociopaths? Yes I say there is. There are distinct categories that people who are very psychopathic fall into, obvious examples include: con artists, rapists, child molesters and career criminals. Less obvious examples include: pathologic liars, unscrupulous sales people, and the perpetrators of domestic violence.

Your basic bad relationship choice

I also want to point out that most individuals who are your basic “bad relationship choice” are more psychopathic than the average person. So it is OK to call them psychopaths for the sake of convenience. The category, “bad relationship choice” includes people who repeatedly cheat on their mates, lie to them, and manipulate them. Hear me if your lover cheats on you, lies to you all the time, tries to destroy your reputation, takes your money, manipulates you and/or tries to control you, he or she is very psychopathic. That is not normal behavior. People who love one another are supposed to take special care of each other. Get away from that psychopath now before you are destroyed!

The good news

Did you make a “bad relationship choice”? Do you know a pathological liar? If you answer yes to these questions you do not need me or any specially trained expert to tell you the person you know is very psychopathic- a psychopath and a sociopath. If you want to review the set of personality traits that pathological liars, “bad relationship choices,” con artists, rapists, pedophiles, and career criminals have in common, see What is a sociopath? and Dr. Robert Hare’s symptoms of psychopaths. Use the list of personality traits to decide for yourself just how psychopathic that person you know is.

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160 Comments on "Reflections on antisocial behavior (Part 3): Is that person a sociopath/psychopath?"

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I wrote twenty sentences about sociopathy and how we struggle to identify them.

I wrote one sentence asserting that B & H are not sociopaths.

Dear Suzie,

You hit a nerve with me, obviously, I don’t like B & H. LOL

Dr. Leedom seems to think that the PCL-R is “too strict” and doesn’t identify people who are obviously criminals of horrible calibers, and I am in agreement with her on that. (see some of the archives she has written on this subject).

It IS, I think, difficult to make a “check list” that will “one size fits all” where identifying psycho/sociopaths, and part of the problem is that there is not even agreement on the CRITERIA, and even on what we “call them”–while the wrangling among professionals about what the name should be goes on, in the meant time there is little information passed on to the PUBLIC who are the ones who NEED TO KNOW what these people are in some meaningful way.

Public education, including media ads about “depression” and that depression can be treated, and about “bi-polar” etc. have raised awareness among the public that it is not just a “state of mind” that you can “snap out of” etc.

I agree with you that there is an epidemic of psychopathic behavior in our society. The media glamorizes this kind of behavior in the role models for our youth. The “success” of Psychopaths in business (ENRON for example) and only small “slaps on the wrist” are usually given to “white collar criminals.”

It is “politically correct” to believe that we can rehabilitate just about anyone if we throw enough money at it.

Too many politicians who behave as Ps continue to be reelected over and over.

Besides, I AGREED with everything else you said except about B & H—LOL

Hi you guys in USA,
Not really so into the politics of whats going on there, so if I could bring the blog to another point?…..
Although he is out of my life, and there is NO CONTACT except for me wanting “permission” to dispose of his car, so sending him a letter, I have still been reading books on sociopathy, seems he has affected me more than I thought! Anyway, what I want to share with you is what I gathered reading the scientific explanation of sociopathy in Martha Stouts book “The Sociopath Next Door”. I am a scientist and interested in genetics, so always want answers…….
Her explanation for sociopathy is as I understand it, that like other traits, we are born with a certain combination of genes which determine all sorts of aspects of our being, from eye colour to behaviour and so on. In the case of sociopathy, the genes are such that the person will grow up to be self absorbed and to put themselves first. (How they are brought up will also have an influennce). They lack the genes to permit emotional attachment to others, and therefore lack empathy, love etc.
Dr Stout, I hope I have this right, is saying that the driving force is the continuation of the genes throughout generations, ie they are “selfish”. The genes that give us empathy and non-sociopathic tendencies are what allow us to share with others and in time allow the species ( and the genes) to continue. (ie we share food, support etc) The sociopathic mind however is “all out for himself” and although in a sense he is ensuring the continuation of HIS genes over time, his mindset does nothing to help the human race to continue, only himself. So in fact his genes are “failures” in this respect, and he himself lives a live some would consider as a failed life.
After reading this stuff, I ended up feeling sorry for sociopaths, thinking they “cant help” the way they are. DR Stout says that that is precisely what they crave, pity – makes you think doesnt it?

Just wondering guys, I was reading this book as above, and although it has scientific stuff in it, it also has many stories of sociopaths and it is really quite readable. Anyhow, in one story, we are talking about a father who winds up in jail having killed someone who came to his house looking for something. (Turns out he knew him and was involved with a drugs ring.) His daughter, a clever woman, starts to work out that he is a sociopath, and goes to the jail and asks him if he has murdered before. His answer is “I plead the fifth amendment” – I presume that means “yes I have”
but could someone please explain? Thanks.

Well, that’s a legal term meaning he refuses to answer on the grounds that he may incriminate himself.. so he’s tacitly admitting it, yeah.


Well, a rattlesnake, a pit viper, is born that way…so when they bite you do you feel sorry for them because they can’t help it? I actually think that the psychopaths HAVE CHOICES like the rest of us. Just as a person who is an “alcoholic” has genes that make him MORE SUCEPTIBLE to alcohol addiction, however, he has the CHOICE to NOT drink alcohol. His genes do not COMPEL him to drink. The thing is, the Ps have a choice not to hurt others, even though they may have the tendency to be selfish, they can still CHOOSE not to harm others. The thing is that they enjoy being the way they are (well most of the time).

My Uncle “monster” was an alcoholic and only did his monsterous things when he was drunk. He knew he did these things, but he CHOSE to keep on drinking, knowing he would do these monsterous things. So is he to be “pitied”? Not to my mind he isn’t. He had a CHOICE and he CHOSE to drink. He had the genes, no doubt, but that doesn’t excuse him.

My P-son has the genes for P-ness, but he KNOWS RIGHT FROM WRONG. He just choses to continue to do wrong.

Does anyone here believe they can recognize S/Ps on sight? I had a female friend who had been married to one that claimed she could. Literally, we’d be waiting for the subway and she’d point one or two out. I don’t know if she was generally accurate but concerning the test cases, the people we knew in common, I’d often come around to her position. I have no idea what she relied on, she said she could “just tell.”


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