The overdiagnosis of sociopaths

(The following article is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)

Let’s be honest. The term “sociopath” has become so commonplace, a very good thing (reflecting the increasingly spacious public awareness of exploiters), that it sometimes seems that pretty much every jerk we confront we’re tempted to call a “sociopath.”

Now, there’s way more “upside” to this than “downside.” And I’d say this applies to terms like “abusive” as well. And thank goodness the concept of “abuse” is now much more widely understood—it’s wider public reach, along with the lay public’s greater access to issues like “narcissism” and the various diagnoses associated with it (like sociopathy), are wonderful and important developments.

At the same time, a small consequence of this is that these “labels” can be thrown around with some recklessness and, frankly, often are. Not every act of deception, manipulation, not every outburst of anger, not every act of insensitivity, is perpetrated by a sociopath, malignant narcissist or abuser.

All of us, at least most of us, are capable of highly insensitive and destructive behaviors, or behaviors perceived as such by others. This doesn’t diminish their seriousness or their destructiveness; after all, non-sociopaths can murder while a great many sociopaths won’t, and maybe even can’t.

Many non-sociopaths are guilty of acts of harm that don’t make them sociopaths—acts that many sociopaths themselves, at the end of the day, will be able to say, “Well, hell, I didn’t do that!

And so we want to be perhaps somewhat disciplined around the liberality with which we’re tempted, whenever outraged by another’s selfishness or insensivity, to hurl the epithet, “You sociopath!”

Sure, we’re all happily addicted to the Investigation Discovery channel, which leaves us, naturally, with the conviction that 47% of the population must be hard-core sociopathic. (No, Mitt Romney didn’t allege that percentage.). Watch the ID channel every night and you can jack that number up to 68%.

I mean I heard a customer leave a Rite Aid the other day, annoyed about failing, apparently, to get a refund on a product, and scream at the manager, “You sociopath!” Now her anger may have been very justified, but the diagnosis seemed a bit rash and, based on the evidence, a bit thin.

Nor would it have surprised me to hear the manager scream back defensively, “Who’s the sociopath, lady!?” He didn’t, in a demonstration of great diagnostic self-discipline.

As the lady walked past me, she muttered, “What the hell are you looking at?”

Well, I was looking at her. Was there some law against that? I half expected her to stop in her tracks and lay me out right there.

But I think we need to remember this about sociopaths—they demonstrate a very longstanding pattern of deeply disturbing behaviors, characterized by gross, shocking, outrageous transgressions against others, with pathological indifference to the suffering and trauma their behaviors cause others.

When you are dealing with an individual with this history, with this track record, you are dealing with a seriously disturbed individual who absolutely deserves to be diagnosed with a “warning label” such as “warning: sociopath,” or “warning: abuser,” or “warning: malignant narcissist,” or something of the sort.

For the rest of us, inexcusable, selfish and hurtful behaviors should never be condoned, whether we are their perpetrators or victims. We can’t excuse destructive behaviors. We must confront them, and if we are on the receiving end, we need to put ourselves in positions of safety as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the next time someone cuts you off on the road, even recklessly, although Robert Hare, Ph.D., might call him a “psychopath,” we need to remember it’s possible, too, that he’s just a lousy driver, in a rush from his own foolish making, or maybe just a good-old fashioned jerk. But he may not be a sociopath, and probably isn’t.

Even though it’s so sorely tempting to flip him the finger as you shout, “You ”¦.ing sociopath!”








Comment on this article

45 Comments on "The overdiagnosis of sociopaths"

Notify of

A little knowledge is such a dangerous thing.

It saddens me when people uses terms inappropriately because when they are used appropriately, they can be very powerful and descriptive.

About the only thing that I can see changing the status quo is education and more education.

Sure we can speak up on a one-by-one basis, but we’re very limited to who would be approachable with our message to begin with.

Still, it’s better that people are aware of something. Maybe it’s progressive. We keep planting seeds and hoping that something takes.

At least people now are starting to understand that everybody is not born good.

I don’t think the general public begins to have a clue about the prevalence of psychopaths or how dangerous, cunning, and deceptive they are.

We have so far still to go, but I do think we’re out of the gate!

Steve your point is extremely valid….the term has come to have no consistent meaning. Experts can’t agree on a NAME for the disorder, and the public thinks it is the same as “jerk” or “serial killer” and/or anywhere in between.

People who are extremely abusive, however, NEED a “label” of some sort that MEANS SOMETHING CONSISTENTLY who as you say

“But I think we need to remember this about sociopaths—they demonstrate a very longstanding pattern of deeply disturbing behaviors, characterized by gross, shocking, outrageous transgressions against others, with pathological indifference to the suffering and trauma their behaviors cause others.”

Not all socio/psycho-paths however are Charlie Manson, OJ, Sandusky, or some other “serial” killer or rapist, there are the Bernie Maddoff’s, and frankly I think he qualifies, though he had good manners and was “suavie and de-boner” —he had “a very longstanding pattern of deeply disturbing behaviors characterized by gross, shocking, outrageous transgressions against others with pathological indifference to the suffering and trauma” his behaviors caused others.

I wish the professionals would get their act together and get a NAME for this disorder decided on and come to agreement about the necessary diagnostic criteria…(can you tell I am frustrated?) LOL

Good article Steve,

I have felt this is what happened with the Parent Alienation Syndrome and I am concerned about how much I am hearing the Borderline Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder being overused in court cases. It’s unfortunate these can’t all be proven with a blood test or something easy with the rest being labeled “troubled” and in need of some help……

Perhaps the lady in the rite aid was projecting? It’s possible.

You said, “But I think we need to remember this about sociopaths—they demonstrate a very longstanding pattern of deeply disturbing behaviors, characterized by gross, shocking, outrageous transgressions against others, with pathological indifference to the suffering and trauma their behaviors cause others.”

It’s a very good definition and certainly true. But, if we need to wait until we see this long standing pattern, that leaves us unable to use the red flags for those times when we need an instant diagnosis before we get involved.

My experience has been that I can use the red flags to go on alert. Later, as I learn more about a person and his/her previous relationshits, it confirms what the red flags already showed.

The truth is though, I’m not sure I know the difference between a spath and a jerk. I’ve known spaths who will say, “I’m a jerk” and it’s true. So sometimes spaths will hide behind the “jerk” label. We need to be careful of that.

Another question: Do normal people sometimes go off the edge and start behaving maliciously toward others for no apparent reason? If you see someone do that, who has never done so before, can we say that they are not spaths because this is the first time you’ve known them to do that?

I’d rather err on the side of caution and just call them a spath.

One small point: since neither psychopathy nor sociopathy are currently accepted diagnoses in the DSM, it’s not possible – technically – for anyone to ‘diagnose’ someone as a sociopath or psychopath. However, it is possible for someone to accuse someone else of being so, which I think is the main caution in Steve’s argument, that that term is lobbed at people as a weapon, rather than being properly applied in an informed and educated – and situationally appropriate – way.

Of course, Oxy’s point that even the experts can’t figure out what to call whom with any consistency doesn’t help make things any clearer.

I agree with both Skylar and Oxy here – for our purposes the label is pretty much irrelevant – what’s important is to notice the red flag and step back to safety, until one can better determine that persons character over the long term. A single red flag does not a sociopath make, but it should make a ‘sit back and observe their behaviour’ stance more requisite on the part of the observer. I think most of the advice here on LF is, if you see enough red flags in the right combination, don’t wait around long enough to figure out the ‘diagnosis’ unless you have to – treat them all with the same caution.

yes, that is exactly what I believe. We do have the power to discern a disordered person. The signs are all over the place and so are the spaths.

As an example, I’ve told this story before but it bears repeating.

I met an 80 year old lady who cried on my shoulder, “WHY did my parents abandon me? They left me with 12 different families in my first 18 years.” She had told me a little about them and for some reason I said, “Your mom was protecting you from your dad. I think he was a pedophile.”

Her response, “Oh NO! My father wasn’t like that! He was an admiral in the navy.”

Later I met her daughter and her granddaughter (and various other members). The whole family has narcissistic PD’s coming out their ears. I told the daughter about my exchange with her mom. She said, “oh no! grand daddy wasn’t like that. Although he did fondle me once. I never talked to him again.”

It isn’t hard to see when you know what to look for. Even 60 years later, the signs of the spath linger. You can see them through space and time, in the slime they leave behind. Hey, that rhymed!

I did not know sociopathy and psychopathy weren’t in the DSM. Is BPD or Anti-Social in it?

“…even 60 years later, the signs of the spath linger.
You can see them through space and time,
in the slime they leave behind.”


That was great!
LOVE IT!!!!!

Just need a tune to go with it…
We’ll YOU TUBE it. lol


What Hare and others refer to as “psychopathy” is in the DSM IV which is the diagnostic manual for psychologists and psychiatrists…first off let me say though the DSM is on the net and available, the DSM is not intended for the lay person, it is intended for the professional.

Many “common” words used in psychology are not used the same way in normal speech. For example, if I told you someone was “anti social” you would probably think they didn’t like parties, or they were a hermit, or just didn’t like to socialize.

The words “anti social” are used in describing what Lay people think of more or less as a “psychopath” or “sociopath” and it is

ANTI-SOCIAL Personality disorder.

There is disagreement in the professional community about what the name of the disorder should be and also what the exact criteria are.

Dr. Robert Hare developed the “Psychopath check list-Revised” which is used by many courts as the “gold standard” in determining if a criminal is a “psychopath or not” It is also used in research.

The form on which diagnoses in psychology are used is divided into sections and the part labeled AXIS II contains the “personality disorders” (the symptoms of which over lap quite a bit with each other.) What is called “cluster B” is where you find ASPD and BPD etc. So if you hear someone referred to as a “cluster B” PD that is what they are talking about.

There are those who think the term “sociopath” means a person became that because of how they were raised and a psychopath is born that way. There is no research I know of that supports such a distinction.

I prefer the term psychopath because that is what I am used to and what Hare uses. Donna Andersen uses “sociopath” because she thinks it has less bad press among the media and general public and she may be right. (I hope I explained your stance correctly Donna, if not, please correct me)

Actually I don’t CARE if the professionals will “label” the condition DOODLY SQUAT as long as they agree on some name and quit CHANGING it every time a new book (DSM revision) comes out. I do think the term “ASPD” is not understood at all by the general public and it sounds like someone is a hermit, not a psychopath so I would prefer some other name than the one they have now.

Okay here is a link to an article from psycohlogy today that explains things pretty well


Hi Eralyn,
Here is an article by Hare on this subject: “Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder: A Case of Diagnostic Confusion”

You might also be interested in this one, where he discusses what he believes to be the difference between psychopathy and sociopathy, in the section “Where do they come from” (Note: just remove the spaces in the link address – not sure how many links we can post before comments get caught up in the spam filter):
“Criminal Psychopathy: An Introduction for Police”:
h t t p : / / www . mattloganhalo . com / uploads / pdf / St_Yves_Book_Chapter_English_Version_Edited_Sept_30_08 . pdf

ASPD does not get the attention that the term “sociopath” does. When I started researching the person I was with I was confused about ASPD for a long time and would kind of skim over it until I realized what it was after reading the definition. I still have a hard time explaining ASPD. Sociopathy is quite a bit easier to describe. You can go down a list of behavior characteristics and then add to it. I too thought ASPD was someone that didn’t like socializing. I even tried to/had to explain ASPD to my sociopath. HAHA! In the beginning he commented he could be an a__hole. Come to find out that was a GROSS understatement.

Annie, I read the article by Hare that you posted the link for and it was as usual (anything by Hare–my hero!) is very good.

There are unfortunately way too many “professionals” who have a poor grasp of what a psychopath (by any name) is and what damage they can do. Hare is one of those that “gets it.” Thanks for the link.

I just ordered twoo new books:

Puzzling People, the Labryninth of the psychopath


The Wisdom of the Psychopath: what Saints, Spies,, Serial Killers teach us about success by Kevin Dutton.

I am anxiously awaiting reading both of these books…may turn out to be worthless or may have lots of good information. Will see.


I will read that article. I wanted to say my (and I hope I am not repeating myself too much here) daughters bio-hazard was diagnosed on his discharge papers by a team of psychiatrists, Bi-polar (line drawn through it) and Borderline Personality Disorder with anti-social traits and chronic auditory hallucinations of the devil since childhood!!

So this subject is especially interesting to me. There are 12 pages of notes from different people during his stay there and narcisistic traits, schizoforum (?spelling) and a few other things like something I believe meant he was pathological.

Steve, thank you for the article! LMAO!!!! You’re absolutely right – overuse of the term “sociopath” has definitely robbed the definition of its impact.

And, I have to acknowledge the fact that some people are just assholes. Not everyone who is fits the profile of a socoipath. LOLOLOL

“What are you looking at?” I would have been tempted to respond with, “A very ill-behaved individual.” LOL

in reality, the personality disordered may show strikingly positive qualites that seem in conflict with the seriouness of their illness. that is why I say only someone who has been involved with one of these charming asshole’s know’s what we are talkin about…

Thanks Steve for this article.

We need to remember that we are looking for a predominant way of being that permeates all or nearly most aspects of a person’s interactions with others before we label someone

Maybe the person is just having a bad day. LOL!

When I see bx that makes me prickle, I make a note of it, “there’s that icky/bad behavior.”

So, I am keeping notes on all of you. JUST KIDDING!!! (I wonder if anyone saw that?)

Anyway, I love your articles! Thanks for another great one.


Yea, Hens, a lot of them get voted into office! LOL


Hey hens

Glad to see you still come around here from time to time.


Ah, come on Hens, tell me it ain’t true that a bunch of them get voted in? Heck I live in one of te most politically corrupt counties in the US…and I’m related to most of the crooks, but they are MY crooks!

Hello Athena,
They can’t get rid of me here at love fraud…
I always read your post Athena.
Hey everybody I have had a good day, ain’t that a nice change?

Over-diagnosis? Like when they discovered bacteria or cancer!! It was there all the time, they just could not see it because it did not have a name or a definition. I have read everything I can get my hands on including the DSM IV which really needs work. Hare is probably the best authority other than us, their survivors.

Personally it seems similar to me never being able to see a wild deer. Their camouflage made me blind to them until I finally saw the first one. Now I see them all of the time. Same is true of psychopaths. You cannot see one until you see the first one and then you know what it is.

betsybugs…your deer analogy is spot on ~! they are everywhere..

Hens and Betsy,

While there may not be HUGE NUMBERS of people who would score over 30 on the PCL-R and “qualify” as a genuine card-carrying blue nosed psychopath, there are plenty of people who are HIGH IN P TRAITS…people that we do not want to have as our “best friends”—so the thing is that we need to be able to SPOT THE TRAITS…

lack of empathy
rude, crude and indescent
mean and nasty
hateful to others
being mooches
blaming others for their own problems that they caused themselves
jealousy of others

and the list goes on…

The thing is that if we associate with TRASHY people we will get up smelling like garbage….

So when we learn about the RED FLAGS (Donna’s book is a good place to start) and then we must learn to HONOR THOSE RED FLAGS and get the heck away from people who show those signs of dysfunction or P traits. We don’t need them in our lives.

Well, I kicked butt today, and got off the hook. I will not have to pay back the 50 bucks, and I will not be suspended. My boss got on the phone with her boss, and had my back. Spath still has a job, though, unfortunately.
One of my regulars, who is also a friend of mine knew of the issues I was having, and he broached a conversation in spath’s presence about taking the towels from a motel room, then feeling so guilty, washing and bleaching them, packaging them up, and sending them back….we talked, (loudly) about temptation, falling short of the mark, conscience, integrety, shame and remorse. We agreed that we had something in common, and then I said that was the difference between us the sociopath. Spath was listening and asked, “what’s a sociopath?” She was holding her cell’phone, and asked me how to spell it….she was gonna google it, so I spelled it, but then I told her what a sociopath is. I said they are people who live their lives, lying, conniving, cheating, and theiving everybody and everything because they have no real ability to care about anybody but theemselves. They have no conscience, no remorse, and they have no empathy. They are usually well-liked because they can be quite charming, but, they are really snakes. She stopped googeling, got up and walked out of the dining room. 🙂 High five!!! Can I get a TOWANDA?


Towander ~!

Wow Kim,

You don’t even sound like the same person who posted that earlier!

Good Job! High Five! TOWANDA!

Could someone please tell me what Towanda is……lol????

I am sure you deserve one!! That’s excellent.

I have never had the opportunity to define a sociopath to their face when I suspected them. I think it would be weird to see their face while they have that “AHA” moment. ….

Eralyn, my friend said it was so clear to him that she “got it” that he felt it in his gut, when she walked out of the room.
Towanda is our victory cry here on LF. It comes from a scene in “Fried Green Tomatoes” where one caatty woman steals another woman’s parking spot….so, the other woman just plows into her, and yells, “TOWANDAAAAAAA.”
Not sure who the LF members were who started our tradition, but would sure love to hear the story.


I thought I’d heard it before but I was not able to figure it out! lol I knew it meant something “good”.

I am so glad that worked out for you. It’s too bad the thief didn’t get canned. Keep your eyes open for another job if she stays. Do you think they will stop bugging you when the money is missing next time?

I just thought about how spaths get bent out of shape when they are exposed.

Well. my boss said, “I have a plan. You need to trust me.” We are going to catch her, red-handed, at something else. Something that IS, ABSOLUTELY, reason for termination of employment….something we CAN prove. For now, I am placated. Know what I mean?
You can’t trust anybody/ 🙁

Kim, DOUBLE TOWANDA!!!!!!!!!!!

Eralyn, the war-cry, “TOWANDA!” comes from the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” It’s sort of a girl-thing that translates into “WAY TO GO” or “IN YOUR FACE!”

If you’ve never seen the movie, I strongly recommend it as a HUGELY empowering message of determination, recovery, and self-love. It’s sort of par with “The Color Purple” which I cannot even talk about without getting all choked up.


I’m glad things have worked in your favor so far and that you don’t TRUST anyone.

In my experience, I’ve never had it turn out well when someone said “Trust me.”

So now that’s a red flag for me.

I LOVE how you and your friend outed the spathy cook. That was exxxxxxxxxcellent! Now watch your back. They don’t like being outed.

Skylar, yeah…..when people say, “You’re just gonna have to trust me on this,” they have instantly become an eggplant and suspect.

Kim took this bull by the proverbial horns, and wow. Just, WOW. See? This is the inspiration of Kim’s whole experience: that standing up, taking NO shit, and calling a spade what it is takes US out of the Spath Ring Of Doom, and in a place of empowerment.

And, Skylar’s right: watch your OWN back because the spath isn’t going to take this whole thing on the chin.

Brightest blessings

Yea, I know. I’m very aware that they don’t like to be outted….i’m watching my back. I won’t let the “egg-plant” catch me off guard, though. Oh, no. Not again. Egg-plant…..haaaa haaa haaaaaaa. Truthy, you crack me up.


I have seen Fried Green Tomatoes but it must be in a black hole file in my brain as I cannot recall it. lol…..

I will watch it again. Empowering movies are preferred at this time.

It must be a regional thing because I have never heard sociopath or psychopath used in such an off handed manner, and in fact it is quite sad to me that people do it. I was never the one that put that label on my ex spath, that was the US military when they did his psychological profile and decided that he was “Unfit for service”. I didn’t even throw it at my grandmother my therapist did that, and looking back at it, it makes total sense, althought I like malignant narcassist for my grandmother while it doesn’t fit my ex spath.
Also there could be the question that is it really over diagnosed, or is it just more common now? The gene pool hasn’t changed while the population has exploded, and people just don’t seem to bring up their kids with good values anymore; also they ignore the warning signs that there could be something in that direction wrong with their kid, and could possibly “fix it” before their personality is set.


I just went to parent teacher conferences yesterday (middle school) and a whole group of boys and girls are suspended and/or expelled for a recorded beat down of another girl. She attempted to get the school involved and the school ignored her. So she called the police and one of the girls is charged with assault! This needs to happen. When they beat down a person these days, they are there to do damage. They kicked this girls head and smashed it!!!!! I was talking to a teacher about it who validated a psychologist/social worker who told me there is a mob mentality now that wasn’t there. I am glad these kids got into trouble and the worst, sickest part is, a parent of one of the kids can be heard in the video promoting the whole scene!!! The parent should also be charged.

Last year I wrote 2 letters to the school on the advice of above psychologist/sw as my daughter was set up on a phony facebook account (my daughter does not have facebook) and it blew my mind watching the posts and how fast the fire was lit to attack my daughter. The school never responded even though I told them I was involved in a child custody case and a black eye wasn’t an option. They just ignored it. Luckily my daughter and I and some old friends stopped the MOB with reasoning.

I am glad the police are involved and this needs to be handled this way to get it to stop.

Some people act mean but have a good heart and I see this but some are spaths in training and just need any excuse to harm another with absolutely no regard.

TOWANDA!!!!!!!, Kim!

Towanda ~


hey louise, i just deleted my little story about the over bearing kiosh salesman,,,how are you doing tonite louise?


OK, I will delete mine, too! 🙂

I am doing OK. Still having pangs of bad feelings about my mom situation and memories of the spath slide in now and then, but other than that, I cannot complain. How about you??

Same here Louise, cant complain about a thing…maybe next week tho..lol gnite..

Send this to a friend