Psychopathy vs Sociopathy
A recent post spurred my irritation about sociopaths and psychopaths and the general opinion of them in pop culture. So, here is a bit of a rant.
Both psychopathy and sociopathy are personality disorders that impact a human being’s behavior. Often, people confuse sociopathy and psychopathy because of the media’s general depiction of them and pop culture’s inability to properly label either.
In general, psychopaths are born and sociopaths are raised. A psychopath tends to result from genetics and is passed down through families. Sociopaths are the result of their environment, often in the form of abuse or severe pressure while as a child.
If an individual displays troubling behavior from the get go, they’re likely a psychopath. If they develop that troubling behavior over years, they are likely a sociopath. This can be hard to know because psychopaths can be the victims of violence and abuse (and since it is genetic, its possible one of their parents is a psychopath as well, increasing the chance for abuse) and psychopaths are extremely adept at hiding their behavior.
Empathy is another way to define both these conditions.
Sociopaths can feel empathy but it is highly muted. I’ve heard it explained to me like people with severe autism, where connections take repeated and constant attempts before success. I’ve also heard of it explained like a switch, where the sociopath can effectively ‘turn off/on’ their empathy, which given the cause of sociopathy, makes sense. Since sociopathy is created from pressure, stress and abuse, the sociopath’s empathy is effectively dissociated as a coping mechanism.
Psychopaths, however, do not feel empathy. Period. They may be extremely adept at mimicking empathy. They can understand the process and behavior. But they don’t feel empathy.
Connections are made based on the psychopath’s needs. The psychopath views others as tools; to inflate their ego, as property, as means to an end, as intellectual stimulus. Psychopaths don’t have friends on an emotional level, but rather those they respect based on other traits, such as their intelligence or skill.
Sociopaths tend to be erratic and their behavior is more impulse than direct choice. Sociopaths may be habitual liars, may have rage issues or may steal with little thought beyond immediate gratification. While sociopaths can plan, their impulse control tends to be hampered, meaning that their plans tend to fall apart after some time. This leads to a lot of sociopaths losing their job and, combined with their impulses, leads to them turning to crime or substance abuse.
Psychopaths, in contrast, are not erratic. They are calculating and meticulous. Early identification of psychopathy, such as mutilating animals, is not done out of impulse control, but rather the psychopath’s inability to understand the inherent wrongness of their actions.
Psychopaths often hold jobs and their actions, such as lying, stealing or violence, tend to be extremely calculated and are done in a way to provide specific and targeted results for the psychopath.
So, who is an actual sociopath or psychopath in pop culture? I’ll give a few examples.
Traditionally, The Joker in comics/DCAU is a psychopath due to his lack of empathy, eye for detail and his use of Harley Quinn. In modern media, like Suicide Squad and The Dark Knight, Joker is depicted as more of a sociopath, with more erratic behavior.
Lord Voldemort is a psychopath, incapable of feeling love and empathy, who only views those around him as tools or obstacles.
Patrick Bateman from American Psycho is, correctly, identified as a psychopath.
The Purple Man from Jessica Jones is a sociopath. It is hinted that he became the way he is after his parents experimented on him. In addition, his behavior tends to fall closer to the erratic and impulsive side. While not to be trusted (especially if he was a psychopath) his admission that he has feelings for Jessica would also point to him being a sociopath.
Racter from Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a psychopath. Right down to his admission that he views the player as a friend, not for any emotional reason, but for academic reasons.