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!”








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45 Comments on "The overdiagnosis of sociopaths"

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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..

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