The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath has been the subject of much heated debate since the two classifications were accepted into psychology. Are people who suffer from these mental illnesses able to live a normal life in society and more importantly what are these people really capable of?
Much like doctor Frankenstein’s famous abomination, psychopaths are created by the people in their lives and their environment, a nurture not nature case. It takes a person who is born with a predisposition for violence or someone with a fringe type personality and just the right mix of childhood abuse and lack of personal interactions with others to make this particular type of monster. The recipe is very complex, with many different things to take into account; one of the main offsets would have to be the possibility of another mental illness present that might aggravate any of the above. Such as in the case of Ed Gein who was called by the press “The butcher of Plainfield.” Gein suffered from a very low IQ but had no signs of violent tendencies or any evidence of a mental disorder at a young age. However combined with his low intelligence, his mothers possible sexual abuse and his dependence on her, Ed began to dig up bodies in an attempt to bring her back to life after she died. Later he killed women because his mother’s voice told him to and he began to show signs of schizophrenia, a mental disease that causes delusions and hallucinations.
A psychopath is someone who has lost the ability to stop themselves when they know what they are doing is wrong according to social norms or they simple do not care and have become lost to impulse. They have the ability to rationalize their actions, no matter how disturbing or depraved. Such as in the case of John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown, who was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing over a dozen men. He reasoned that it was all right to kill them because they were gay and as such a sin against God and since he didn’t really love any of them and was able to kill them he couldn’t be gay himself. More evidence of how warped a psychopath’s way of thinking can become can be seen in Dennis Rader, AKA BTK’s actions toward his victims. The idea of killing them was of little consequence to BTK because in his mind he had already dehumanized them but the act of sexually assaulting them was morally repugnant to him even though he subjected them to multiple attacks of bondage and strangulation so that he could achieve sexual release. To him killing them was a lesser sin than having sex with them, which would have been adultery and by his own account he loved his wife. It is also speculated that the act of adultery bothered him more since it would have shamed not only his wife but also the church he was a deacon for.
Psychopaths are outwardly well adjusted and charming. They have a knack for finding the weak parts of people and exploiting that to their own ends. Case in point, Ted Bundy. Bundy was the quintessential, “good catch”. Extremely intelligent, well read and very good looking; he was in fact nothing like what he appeared to be. Instead Ted Bundy was a controlling, manipulative, con artist who killed in upwards of 35 women and even went as far as to gauged in acts of necrophilia with some of their bodies. Always the showman, even to the end, Ted Bundy demonstrated another common trait of a psychopath, Narcissism. He had done an impressive job defending himself in court and the judge even went so far as lamenting Bundy’s choice to a killer, saying he would have been proud for Ted to practice law in his court room.
The other side of the fringe
Not all people who have fringe type personalities grow up to become the next Ted Bundy or have dreams of being the second gunman on the grassy knoll. In fact people who have fringe type personalities go on in many cases to live positive and very productive lives, a lot of the time taking up roles as firemen or policeman. The reason behind this is that people with this type of personality have a lack of flight response. Inside each human being is that little tug that pulls us from something or draws us toward it. This “fight or flight” response is the reason why people have natural fears of heights or fires but fringe type people have a stronger tug away from fear. They are, for all intent and purposes, fearless. However it is a very thin line between a psychopath and a fringe personality, the only real difference is how they were raised as children.
Jiminy Cricket is dead
A sociopath is someone who is highly intelligent but lacks empathy for anyone else, to a point where they feel no real emotion at all, not even toward the suffering of others. A case study was done on someone with a sociopath type personality compared to an every day Joe. They were both shown a series of photos and a brain wave monitor kept track of their mental activity. They would be shown a house, a rock, a tree and then a mutilated toddler’s body or something equally disturbing. The normal subject would recoil at the sudden and sickening change in photos, shown as spikes on the monitor. The sociopath on the other hand showed no sign of change, looking at a torn and mangled child was no different than looking at a tree in the wind.
According to statistics put together by a panel of psychologists there is at least one sociopath per one hundred people. So why are we not over run with killers? The answer to that is a simple one, self-preservation. A sociopath might have the ability to kill without remorse but why do so, the only feelings they are truly capable of having are for themselves and in most cases killing random people would only serve in hurting themselves in the long run. Most sociopaths live normal, high paying, high stress lives, such as doctors or lawyers and in many cases benefit their society greatly.
That being said many of histories most prolific killers have been sociopaths but normally always in conjunction with another mental illness, commonly schizophrenia. Like in the case of Richard Ramirez or Charles Manson (who was later shown to have extremely paranoid delusions). It is interesting to note that most people who suffer from schizophrenia are non-violent but, as in the cases already listed, when that disease is paired up with another it creates a dangerous cocktail.
To date there have been many claims that most psychopathic personalities are caused by chemical deficiencies in the brain and only a few are in fact caused by childhood trauma and a lack of interaction. As stated before creating a psychopath is not something that is easily done and many researchers are now starting to believe that it is in fact a combination of chemical imbalance and trauma that can create someone with a psychopath type personality. This new controversy is sparked by the fact that just like not all people with psychopathic tendencies (the fringe personalities mentioned before) are killers, not all chemically imbalanced people are psychopaths. This issue is such a complex one that nothing can be definitively stated as to why a psychopath or sociopath forms. In the end there can only be more research done and more theories put forth.
(Sources: “Psychology”, by David G. Myers ~ “Without a Conscience”, by Robert D. Hare ~ “Encyclopedia of Serial Killers”, by Brian Lane)