It’s easy to call someone a psychopath. You probably do it on a weekly, or even a daily basis. That dude who banged you and never called even though he PROMISED? Psychopath. Your boss who emails you about meeting Friday at 5:30pm? Psychopath. The new guy at the party who eats the last piece of pizza all willy-nilly without even asking? CLEARLY a psychopath.
And while it’s all well and good to use this word in the everyday vernacular, there's actually a difference between a clinical, legitimate psychopath, and just a plain asshole.
Note: According to current clinical terminology, there is no difference between psychopath and sociopath, and the two are often used interchangeably.
What we talk about when we talk about psychopaths
“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has various characteristics [of sociopaths], but one of the most crucial things you see is the superego lacuna, which is a term for a gap in the superego. It helps to conceptualize how an area of conduct can be outside of the internalized morality of an individual,” says Dr. Caroline Blackman Coakley, a psychiatrist trained in talk therapy and medication management. “This means that [sociopathic] people have no conscience. The ‘shoulds’ don’t exist. The moral codes that guide the rest of us don’t apply to them, either.”
Put simply, psychopaths legitimately give zero fucks. But not just about stuff like eating the last piece of pizza without even asking. (Still rude.) Cheating? Stealing? MURDER? One swift kick to Jiminy Cricket’s face and a sociopath moves on as if he just got a haircut.
The moral codes that guide the rest of us don’t apply to them
“It’s not just that they are reckless with other people's lives like stealing, vandalism, and lying. You see them wrecking their own lives, as well. Taking drugs, contracting diseases, not taking care of their lives. These people are usually burned out at 60 or in jail. There’s a disregard for their own health and that of other people,” says Coakley.
Are all psychopaths serial killers?
Not all sociopaths are violent or inclined toward murder or violence. Some of them are simply con artists. “They don’t feel guilt and disgust like the rest us, and they tend not to learn from punishment,” adds Coakley. What’s even more alarming is that unlike people that we want to call psychopaths because of their behavior, actual psychopaths might not exhibit any real signs because they have learned how to mimic being "normal."
“A lot of them fake being regular,” says Coakley. “They are smart and can learn how you’re supposed to react. They watch other people and learn it but they don’t feel it.”
It’s also important to note that psychopaths or sociopaths are very different from being psychotic. “Psychotic means you’ve lost touch with reality. You’re hearing voices, you have bizarre beliefs, delusions and paranoia. Often there’s a real disorganization or thinking. These are not sociopaths. Sociopaths know what they’re doing. It’s not because ‘God’ told them to. They know it, they just don’t feel any guilt,” says Coakley.
So how do I know if I'm dealing with a psychopath or just an annoying person?
To help mainstream the analysis of psychopaths/sociopaths, Dr. Robert Hare, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, developed a psychopathy checklist -- a diagnostic tool used by psychiatrists today to help identify psychopathic traits -- based on his research with criminals in prison.
Dr. Hare ranks each trait on a scale of 0-3. If a person ranks 1 on all 20 traits, then he or she would rank 20. Someone who ranks a 3 on all 20 trains would receive a score of 60 and would probably receive a longer stay in prison.
Luckily for you, we’ve included the checklist. So the next time you’re on a Tinder date or making chitchat with that pizza-stealing bastard, you can whip out your checklist to determine if, in fact, this person is a psychopath.
Signs someone is a psychopath
Glib and superficial charm: The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example.
Grandiose self-worth: A grossly inflated view of one’s abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.
Need for stimulation or proneness to boredom: An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.
Pathological lying: Can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.
Conning and manipulativeness: The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item four in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one’s victims.
Lack of remorse or guilt: A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, cold-hearted, and non-empathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one’s victims.
Shallow affect: Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.
Callousness and lack of empathy: A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.
Parasitic lifestyle: An intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities.
Poor behavioral controls: Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.
Promiscuous sexual behavior: A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.
Early behavior problems: A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home.
Lack of realistic, long-term goals: An inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.
Impulsivity: The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.
Irresponsibility: Repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: A failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.
Many short-term marital relationships: A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.
Juvenile delinquency: Behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.
Revocation of conditional release: A revocation of probation or other conditional releases due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.
Criminal versatility: A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.
What am I supposed to do with this information?!
Look, some of this will be more relevant to your everyday life (is someone a little too impulsive and irresponsible?), and some almost totally irrelevant (you probably won't need to look out for criminal versatility, or search through someone's record for a revocation of conditional release).
Unless you're a trained and certified psychiatrist, you won't be able to make a DSM diagnosis of a sociopath. But if that new guy who ate the last slice of pizza has also been married three times in the last five years... well, it's definitely not a sign that he's NOT a psychopath.
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