Psychopath – a word that is equal parts famous and misunderstood. In our society, a person who stands out from the crowd and goes out of his way to revolt against societal norms is referred to as a psychopath or a sociopath. Although these two are entirely different psychological conditions, people use them interchangeably to refer to a person who is ruthless in his journey towards success and doesn’t care about other people’s feelings. In this article, I will shatter myths not only about what a psychopath is but also about the difference between psychopathy and sociopathy.
Sociopath Vs. Psychopath
The primary difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is that psychopathy is a condition that exists from birth and sociopathy pertains to a set of tendencies that develop over time in a person usually because of some kind of accident or psychological trauma. To be more precise, a sociopath is a person who inherits psychopathic tendencies due to some trauma in his life.
What is a Psychopath?
So now that we have understood the basic difference between the two psychological conditions, let us try to understand what exactly a psychopath is. As the psychopathic condition is an outlier that stands out from normal human behavior, let us first try to understand what normal human functioning is. A normal human being -or what our society considers to be normal- has emotions, goals, objectives, and vested interests. In fact the characteristic that differentiates us from animals is that we have emotions and feelings. When a tiger kills a deer he is not acting out of anger or frustration; he wants to fulfill his basic instinct to survive. The tiger has no animosity towards a deer and does not prefer one deer over another. If one deer praises him he will not indulge in favoritism and opt for a more non-social deer.
“The concept of human emotions is as alien to psychopaths, as it is to a lion or a wolf.”
On the other hand, if humans are in a position of power they quite often indulge in favoritism. This is what makes us different from animals and it is what makes psychopathic individuals different from normal humans. Psychopaths similar to animals have no regard for human emotions or feelings. To be precise they have no inkling of what exactly emotions or feelings are. They don’t understand anger, sorrow, happiness, or rage. None of these words make any sense to them out of their normal dictionary meaning. They don’t get angry, don’t fall in love, and don’t cry when sad, probably because they never get sad.
However, I want to be very clear about something. It is true that psychopaths don’t understand the human spectrum of sentiments and are in essence averse to them. But it’s not because they don’t want to or have grown past them. Psychopathy presents itself with a defect or an anomaly in the brain due to which the Hippocampus is unable to process emotions. As a result, when they receive an emotional stimulus they don’t know how to react. If somebody is crying in front of them they don’t know how to console them because they don’t know what exactly is ‘crying’. The concept of human emotions is as alien to them as it is to a lion or a wolf.
Psychopaths are Master Manipulators
Does that mean then that psychopaths are like animals in all respect? Not really. Infact psychopathy is characterized by exceptionally high intelligence and IQ. Psychopaths are experts in their field of interest and are merciless in trying to achieve their goals. They especially exhibit expertise in analytical subjects like mathematics, science, and quantitative aptitude. Many theories have been proposed to explain the same. One of them which I find very interesting and quite logical is that since they don’t have to spend their valuable attention span in understanding and reacting to emotional situations, that brainpower is utilized in understanding complex topics which normal humans beings can’t grasp.
There is another myth I want to break here. People think just because psychopaths don’t understand emotions, they can’t exhibit emotions also. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just because they can’t process emotions like normal human beings doesn’t mean they can’t fake them. Infact this is why psychopaths are called master manipulators. Although they don’t get why people become angry or sad, they can use their high observational skills to emulate normal human behavior and make others believe they are one of them. By acting concerned or hurt they can maneuver around social hurdles and indulge in gaslighting or social manipulation to make sure they get what they want. As psychopathic individuals don’t care how their actions affect others and are inherently devoid of any guilt for their actions, they can be pretty heartless when it comes to manipulating others or making them suffer.
Cause of Psychopathy
So the question that arises now is that what kind of deficiency or ailment causes one to become a psychopath. Various experiments have been conducted to answer this question and almost all of them have come up with different results. However, certain trends have helped to form a set of symptoms that can be used to decide if a person is a psychopath. This set of symptoms not only helps us to differentiate normal human beings from psychopaths but also helps doctors to avoid confusing psychopathy with other psychological conditions having overlapping symptoms. Some of these are Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) and the Autism spectrum ailments. Uninformed physicians can mistakenly diagnose people Psychopaths with APD or the other way around because the DSM criteria for APD has many common factors with Psychopathy. These include antisocial behavior, rebellious attitude, impulsive nature, and childhood trauma. The differences however are as important as the similarities.
“I’m not a psychopath. I’m a high-functioning sociopath.”
In addition to the Antisocial characteristics, Psychopathy is characterized by superficial charm, lack of remorse, parasitic lifestyle, low anxiety, and high anger. Here low anxiety and lack of remorse is a significant combination, since anxiety is one of the important contributing factors in making a human emotional. A person who does something evil avoids it for the next time because of the remorse and the anxiety associated with the event. If a person doesn’t get a feeling of guilt before committing a crime, he isn’t fearful of hurting others.
The root cause of psychopathic tendencies is generally considered to be the underdevelopment of the Hippocampus or an injury to the same. Former can be due to birth defects or genetic predispositions. Since the Hippocampus is responsible for converting short-term memory into long-term memory psychopathic individuals sometimes have memory-related problems too. More often than not the emotion-processing capability of the Hippocampus is the one that is affected the most. Why this is the case, is not clear yet.
So What Is A Psychopath?
To end our discussion, let me reiterate what a psychopath is. An individual who has an inherent anomaly in his brain due to which (s)he is not able to understand -stressing on the word understand- emotions or feelings is a psychopath. A psychopathic individual has no sympathy towards people and has no concept of empathy since they literally can’t put themselves in the shoes of others. They don’t become happy, they are never sad, and they have no sorrow for the suckers they have robbed or fooled. They are foreign to these concepts and however much you try through psychotherapy to make them understand they will never get it until the physiological deficiency can be fulfilled.
“Be aware the next time you call your rebellious and impulsive friend a psychopath. Who knows he might very well be a psychopath.”
Let me also remind you people what I always do when discussing mental health topics. Psychopathic tendencies or any other psychological ailments are not inherently positive or negative. They’re like a tool and can be used for good as well as for bad. Psychopaths as I said are highly intelligent and very cunning. If they use that brilliance for the benefit of humanity and their fellow human beings they shall yield positive results.
But if they use it for pulling people down they will, of course, bring bad experiences and toxic effects to others’ lives. The word psychopath should not be used as an abusive or derogatory remark. Psychopathy is a psychological condition that has its merits and downfalls. So please keep this in mind next time you call your rebellious and impulsive friend a psychopath. Who knows he might very well be a psychopath.