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.