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April 30, 2024 9 mins

Popular culture throws around the terms 'sociopath' and 'psychopath' a lot, but neither is a real mental health diagnosis. Learn about the actual traits and conditions behind these terms in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article:

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey Brainstuff, Lauren Volabahm. Here.
Popular media and social media alike are full of casual
diagnoses of sociopathy and psychopathy. You've probably heard these terms
come up in everything from true crime podcasts to horror
films to advice articles like seven Signs You're Dating a Sociopath.

According to a therapist, the words sociopath and psychopath are
both often used to describe someone who does things for
personal gain or who hurts other people, from telling lies
to stealing to committing grizzly violent crimes. But what do
these terms actually mean? Talk to various mental health providers

and psychological researchers, and you may get different answers before
the article. This episode is based on How Stuff Work.
Spoke via email psychotherapist Terry Cole. She said the terms
are often used interchangeably in popular literature, chronology writing, and
within the media at large, but they are not diagnostic
terms and not exactly the same. That means that you

won't find the definition for psychopath or sociopath in the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because doctors don't
give an official diagnosis for psychopath or sociopath. Instead, they
may diagnose someone with antisocial personality disorder. This is a
mental health condition in which a person consistently shows no

regard for moralistic concepts of right and wrong. Also displays
a profound lack of empathy and a dominant self importance.
How stuff works also spoke by email with Eileen Anderson,
a professor of bioethics an adjunct professor of psychiatry in
the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. She said,

typically sociopathy and psychopathy are lay terms to describe what
gets diagnosed as antisocial personality disorder. However, other personality disorders,
such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder could
be invoked to the extent that there's a difference between
a quote unquote psychopath and a sociopath. Anderson explained that

research indicates that those whom lay people refer to as
sociopaths might feel some remorse proceed with antisocial behavior that
fits their agendas anyway. Meanwhile, by common definitions, quote psychopaths
feel no conscience or remorse for risky behavior. They feel
entitled to achieve their personal goals, even when those goals

might include acts that most would include as unconscionable, such
as lying, stealing, assault, or even killing someone. When you
hear the word psychopath, you might think of pop culture
examples of villains from movies or books like Hannibal Lecter,
a person who has violent tendencies and seems to enjoy
hurting others. The latter quality is referred to as sadism.

These two traits are not the same thing, but they
are correlated, That is, they tend to appear with one another.
In general, mental disorders don't fit neat labels, partially because
we're developing and updating our understanding of mental health all
the time. For example, the term psychopath was coined as

psychopastiche by German psychiatrist J. L. A. Cock in eighteen
eighty eight to describe subjects with a tendency to hurt
themselves or others. It was a characteristic that he believed
someone was born with Another German psychiatrist Karl Bernbaum observed
the same sort of pervasive pattern of antisocial behavior, but
felt it was caused by societal forces that made it

difficult for young adults to learn a more acceptable way
to act. He came up with a different term, sociopathy
to describe this in nineteen o nine. American psychologist George E.
Partridge helped popularize the term in the nineteen thirties. Over
the years, both terms were used in psychological literature, sometimes interchangeably,

but again, neither of these terms are used as a
diagnosis today. How Stuff Works also spoke with David Schester,
an associate professor of social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University
whose research focuses upon understanding the psychological and biological processes
that motivate and constrain aggressive behavior. He explained, we're referring

to what we call a psychological construct or trait. People
can't be reduced down to a single trait, so instead
of using the term psychopath, for example, he might describe
someone as having high psychopathy. He said, it's a dimension
of personality, kind of a cluster of traits, the same

way that extraversion is a personality dimension. Psychopathy really reflects
what we call an antagonistic disposition, in which my own
desires and wishes and things like that are placed well
above the well being and desires and outcomes of other people.
The most common Psychopathic traits include negative affect or neuroticism,

detachment or low extraversion, disinhibition or low conscientiousness, and antagonism
or low agreeableness. Chester said that the hallmark feature of
psychopathy is a quote callous indifference to other people's suffering.
That is, where most people who see someone else in

pain might experience an empathetic or sympathetic response. A person
with a high degree of psychopathy might feel a blunted
reaction or a lack of empathy. Altogether, the portrayal of
these and similar traits in popular culture definitely muddles the definitions.
You may have seen sociopathy described as volatile and impulsive

and psychopaths as cold and heartless, but again, they are
not two distinct disorders, and these tendencies are highly correlated.
The same person might act like a hothead and lash
out in some situations, but at other times behave cunning
and stone cold. Chester said, instead of being hot and
cold versions of the antagonistic personality, it's really that these

are two strategies occurring in the same individual. At the
core of both is a basic antagonism and indifference to
others well being, especially when it comes to one's own
personal gain. But again, traits like antagonism and personal attachment
are found in varying degrees in different people, along with
other less scary or even admirable traits. Chester said, in

the overall population, one or two percent of people have
serious diagnosable levels of psychopathic tendencies. But that's not to
say that outside of that, psychopathy isn't an important critical
trait that people have varying degrees of. A person who
has a high degree of psychopathy might even seem kind
and pathetic in some situations. I think of Tony Soprano,

the likable fictional mobster who's the protagonist of the TV
series The Sopranos. He's capable of forming attachments and being
an affectionate father. He even cares about the welfare of
a family of ducks living in a swimming pool, but
has no qualms about killing an ex mobster who's turned
to government witness, or about beating up a guy for
dating his ex a. Chester said, Tony Soprano is not

a paradoxical character. He's very realistic and that sometimes he's nice,
sometimes he's not interested. He's honestly one of the better
examples of psychopathy because he displays it in all its messiness.
A mental health professionals debate whether people with the high
degree of psychopathy lack empathy or sympathy, or whether they

have the ability but choose not to use it. According
to Chester, the can't feel camp has been the dominant narrative,
but he be a growing number of other researchers think
the choice does fact. During the equation, he explained that
brain scans of subjects with psychopathies show they not only
have empathetic circuits, but they do use them, though not

necessarily in the way that most of us do, and
individual psychopathic tendencies might want to understand someone else's pain
not because they want to help, but because that knowledge
would enable them to hurt someone in the future more
effectively if that helps get them something that they want today.
We still don't know who will or won't develop antisocial

personality disorder. There's no single cause. Instead, research indicates that
it results from a complex combination of genetic factors and
environmental factors, including early family life and emotional attachments to
parents during childhood. As with any mental health issue, if
you're concerned about yourself or someone you care for, reach

out to a healthcare professional for more resources. We are,
after all, just a podcast. Today's episode is based on
the article What's the Difference between a Sociopath and a Psychopath?
On HowStuffWorks dot com written by Patrick J. Higer. Brainstuff
is production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how Stuffworks dot

Com and is produced by Tyler Klang. Four more podcasts
my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or
wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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