Truth be told, sociopathy is one of the least crisp ideas in all of psychology. There is still debate over how best to distinguish psychopathy from sociopathy (the two are often conflated), and there was much disappointment among clinicians when the recent revision to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) failed to include any substantive clarifications in the description of Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is defined according to the following:
A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:The age cutoffs are, of course, completely arbitrary and artificial (and thus silly), and the whole definition reads like the committee-brewed dreck that it is.
B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
- failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
- deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
- impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
- irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
- reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
- consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
- lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.
If you happen to meet the above criteria, bad news: There's no pill you can take to get better (although you can rest assured, drug companies are trying to connect serotonin reuptake to ASPD in various ways as we speak). But that's okay, because if you're a true sociopath, chances are you're not interested in "getting better" anyway. In fact, you may well be a highly functional, productive member of society. (Notice that you don't actually have to be a lawbreaker—or even antisocial—to meet the DSM criteria for ASPD. You might simply be impulsive, grumpy, and reckless.)
Sociopaths tend to be charming, confident, perceptive, resourceful people who are good at "gaming the system," whatever system it happens to be. They're canny and cunning. They're manipulators and users with a deep grasp of situational ethics, who often go far in their careers. Look around you. Sociopaths are running major corporations; armies; legislative bodies; movie studios; nations. These people are running the world.
Google Engram Plot of Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy in Books, 1908-2008
As ill-defined (and dated; see graph above) as sociopathy is, it's a concept that resonates strongly, because it's so familiar. The TV show Dallas was a hit because of the starkly sociopathic machinations of its characters. Indeed, most of Shakespeare still resonates because of the chill of recognition caused by characters like Hamlet or "honest Iago" in Othello. Every memorable vampire character in literature is the embodiment of sociopathy. (Dracula was charming to a fault, supremely adept at giving the appearance of sincerity, yet also a heartless, self-centered, calculating, dispassionate killer.) Sociopaths and drama go hand in hand.
Western capitalistic society is rooted in predatory economic behavior (profiting off others)—there have been many articles in professional and lay journals comparing corporations to psychopaths—but it would be a mistake to believe sociopathy is not cross-cultural. The Chinese concept of Thick Black Theory goes back more than 100 years. In Europe, Machiavelli wrote extensively about sociopathy in the 1500s. (Many of Machiavelli's precepts have precedents in Greek literature; Machiavelli himself cites Xenophon extensively.) Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy reported in 1976 that the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria had its own word ("arankan") for sociopathic individuals. Whatever sociopathy is, it's been around a long time and can be found in many cultures.
One of the more interesting insights provided by M. E. Thomas in her confessional book is the notion that sociopaths typically have a poorly defined sense of self, or at least a highly protean self-construct. (At one point, she uses the term "shape-shifters.") This partly explains how sociopaths are able to dodge feelings of remorse or personal responsibility. But it also means sociopaths are likely to score high on a test for sociopathy one day and lower on the same test another day. And it aligns with the idea that certain specific social situations might bring out the latent sociopath in a person, whereas other social situations might bring out the same person's "normative" side.
As if to prove her worthiness of being called a sociopath, M. E. Thomas, in her book, goes beyond telling of her official diagnosis (including suitably damning scores on the PCL:SV and other tests; you can try one of these tests online here) to relate, in detail, a number of personal escapades involving unscrupulous (or at best, ethically questionable) behavior: stealing (but then returning) a bicycle, letting a baby opossum drown, inserting herself in other people's romantic relationships (for the express purpose of scuttling someone's budding romance), manipulating coworkers, bringing charges against teachers, etc. (Chapter 7 of the book is devoted to Ruining People.) After you read enough of her exploits, you'll be duly revolted by them (or maybe not, if you're a sociopath yourself). If you want more, you can always go to the author's website, sociopathworld.com. You can also see a video of "M. E. Thomas" (wearing a blond wig) on the Dr. Phil show here. (The link was live at this writing. Who knows how long it will stay up, though.)
For more on this subject, be sure to see my post at BigThink. If you enjoyed this post (or the BigThink post), please share the URL. And feel free to leave a comment.