Why we don’t know about sociopaths

I’ve spoken to many people who have had their lives shredded by sociopaths. They are traumatized about their physical, emotional and financial injuries. They can’t understand how someone can cause them so much pain, and be so callous about it.

A statement I hear frequently is, “I didn’t know such evil existed.”

Why don’t we know about sociopaths? I think there are several reasons:

1. Mental health professionals can’t agree on terminology and diagnostic criteria.

These disordered individuals are referred to as sociopaths, psychopaths or people with antisocial personality disorder. Which is the right term? It depends on whom you ask.

Dr. Robert Hare, the guru of the disorder, uses the term “psychopath,” which he applies to people who meet the criteria of his Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R).

The American Psychiatric Association uses the term “antisocial personality disorder,” and the definition is vague, unwieldy, and open to interpretation. This professional body has no diagnostic criteria for a psychopath.

For more on the different terminology, see Psychopath or Sociopath? on

The point is that the professionals are in disagreement and disarray. So where does that leave the rest of us? How are we supposed to figure this out when the professionals can’t come to an agreement? More importantly, how are we supposed to educate others when the basic facts—what to call the disorder and how to identify it—are so cloudy?

Here on Lovefraud, many of you refer to these predators as P/S/N psychopath-sociopath-narcissist. It works among those of us who know what they look like. But people who have not had the experience of being defrauded, devalued and discarded don’t get what we’re talking about. The awkward terminology makes trying to explain our experience even more confusing.

2. The media won’t write about sociopaths.

When it comes to sociopaths, most journalists don’t get it. I am comfortable making that statement, because I was once a journalist who didn’t get it. And it seems that journalists don’t even want to get it.

Many people have told me that information about sociopaths should be in women’s magazines. I agree. In fact, I’ve tried to get their attention.

I am a magazine journalist. I was the original editor of Atlantic City Magazine, and I’ve written for other publications. I know how the business works. To pitch a story to a magazine, you first study the publication to determine how it serves its audience. Then you craft a story idea to match the publication’s approach. Then you send a query letter to pitch your story idea. Then, when the magazine accepts your idea, you write the article.

Since 2005, I’ve sent 18 query letters to magazines such as More, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, New Woman, Self, Health and Psychology Today. I tried a range of approaches to bring attention to the problem of sociopaths.

Every single query was rejected.

Personally, I think the magazines are afraid of touching anything that sounds “nasty.” But publications face another problem—defamation lawsuits.

Media lawyers don’t want the publications or broadcasters they represent to publish anything that may lead to a lawsuit. Here’s what they tell their media clients:

  • Don’t accuse someone of a crime unless he has confessed or been convicted.
  • Don’t say someone has a physical or mental disease unless you have proof.
  • Don’t accuse someone of being incompetent or dishonest in his occupation.
  • Don’t say someone is unchaste, especially if it is a woman.

Sociopaths commit crime, are portrayed as having a mental illness (although it is actually a personality disorder), are dishonest at their jobs and are downright promiscuous. Saying any of it could cause legal problems.

This is apparent in the case study on about Ed Hicks. The victim in the case, Sandra Phipps, received a lot of media attention, because her ex was married seven times, and committed bigamy four times. Every time she was interviewed, she said, “In my opinion, Ed Hicks is a sociopath.” Usually the newspapers wouldn’t print her quote.

Sandra was even on the Dr. Phil Show about her case. When the show was taped, Dr. Phil himself said Ed Hicks was a sociopath. The lawyers cut it out.

See Call Ed Hicks a bigamist, but not a sociopath.

3. Hollywood sensationalizes the disorder.

Most people believe psychopaths are serial killers. Deranged, diabolical murderers. I think this is a direct result of how they are portrayed in movies and on television shows.

The classic, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which had nothing to do with a psychopath. More recently, the TV show Dexter is about a serial killer who channels his violent impulses to only kill people who deserve it. Many describe the Dexter character as a psychopath or sociopath. I don’t know what Dexter is, but he wouldn’t be diagnosed as either.

Read Psycho movies add to the confusion.

The cultural image of psychopaths and sociopaths makes education even more difficult. Yes, some of these disordered people are bloodthirsty killers. But only a tiny fraction of them, at the highest end of the PCL-R, match the profile. Far more run-of-the-mill sociopaths exploit, abuse, cheat and defraud, but stop way short of killing.

So educating people about sociopaths is an uphill battle. First we have to overcome their currently skewed image, delivered by Hollywood. Then we have to overcome the confusion in terminology and diagnosis in the mental health field. Then we have to convince the media to deal with the disorder, and the people who have it, accurately.

Sigh. This will take awhile.

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221 Comments on "Why we don’t know about sociopaths"

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Hey Kim Your above comment about closure is so friken true – there aint none till your just done with it – kinda like trying to understand them, it’s futile so why fry our brains over it. It does take time to get there tho – a long time but I am there.

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