Thursday, June 12, 2008

What's A Sociopath?

As my fourth and final post for Clink Week here at Shrink Rap, I have been inspired by Roy (again). I was curious about our different reactions to the character Tippi Hedron played in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Marnie. Roy pointed to different aspects of her personality to say that she wasn't a sociopath, so it got me thinking about why I reacted so differently. We've already speculated about whether or not Darth Vader had borderline personality disorder, so lets progress to another Cluster B disorder by talking about Marnie.

First of all, sociopathy per se does not exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It was originally conceived in the mid-nineteenth century as "moral insanity", in other words a defect in moral reasoning. Even then there was argument about whether or not this constituted a "real" mental disorder.

Later in the Twentieth Century sociopathy was further refined by Hervey Cleckley's book The Mask of Sanity. His series of case reports of psychopaths formed the basis for Robert Hare's later Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a tool that is in common use in forensic settings. Both of these sources describe several core features of psychopathy:

  • a parasitic lifestyle, the ability to control or manipulate others
  • superficial charm, glibness, pathological lying
  • criminal versatility
  • lack of remorse, inability to empathize or lack of regard for impact on others
  • shallow or feigned emotions
  • early behavior problems, impulsive or unstable adult behavior
The descriptions go on and on, but those are some of the main aspects. So, that being said, how does Marnie stack up?

Well, what struck me at first was her level of ease and comfort while committing her crimes. She took her time, observed her workplace surroundings, kept her cool and escaped without breaking a sweat. She readily used aliases and multiple false identities, and her facile lying ability allowed her to quickly gain the confidence of the employers who later became her victims. Many people commented on her confidence, poise, intelligence and charm. She showed no apparent remorse nor did she ever even comment upon the damage her crimes inflicted on others. It's true that she was committing crimes to buy the love of her mother, as Roy suggests, but she showed a startling level of callousness to a young girl in her mother's care who also needed attention. She loved her horse, an attachment that seemed to be her only genuine emotion. Although she agreed to marry Connery, her love for him is closely tied to his willingness to help her as he made restitution for her crimes and took steps to help her avoid prosecution. As far as the impulsive or unstable lifestyle goes, one of the most intense scenes in the movie took place after she shot her horse (her only strong consistent relationship) when it seemed she might shoot Connery as well.

And for the last criteria---the early childhood behavior problems---well, you'll have to watch the movie to find out what that was. Let's just say it's not the behavior of a typical child. (I'm amazed she was so strong for such a little kid!)

So that's why I thought Marnie was a sociopath, for those who are interested in them.

I'm going to let Dinah out from under the floorboards now.


Anonymous said...

My co-bloggers have gone mad.

I go through my days thinking about what to blog about, but these days, no need....

The Silent Voices in my Mind said...

okay, i'm a little slow so bear with me... a psychopath and a sociopath are the same thing? Why two different phrases and is one preferred over another or have different connotation than the other or fit better in some settings than the other?

Anonymous said...

Silent: Great question. For the purposes of the blog I'm using the two terms interchangeably. For purists and researchers, sociopathy more commonly refers to antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) with its criminal behaviors, violence and unstable lifestyle. The term psychopathy is broader in a way, as well as different, in that it refers to lack of remorse and shallow emotions, manipulation and charm, none of which are diagnostic criteria for ASPD.

Purists make the distinction because people with ASPD more often come into contact with the law and have more problems getting by in life, while psychopaths can "pass" for normal and even succeed---like the head of a corporation who is ruthless and manipulative in business but doesn't break the law.

Dinah: I figured you might enjoy a blog vacation for a bit. I'm stepping back now for the weekend.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that you'd need more than one isolated killing to count as an early behavioural problem. Really, we don't have enough information about Marnie to be able to make a determination of psychopathy. A psychopath probably wouldn't be experiencing the emotional problems that she has, i.e., the PTSD and red phobia.

Anonymous said...

I have always been intrigued as to why the reference to "under the floorboards". Why not the basement, the cellar or any secret hidey-hole? Do floorboards have a particular significance? Whatever the reason, it is good to see all three shrinks emerge from under the floorboards from time to time.

BTW: In googling "under the floorboards", I came across some lyrics to a song of the same name which starts:
I am angry I am ill and Im as ugly as sin
My irritability keeps me alive and kicking
I know the meaning of life, it doesnt help me a bit
I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it.

Seems appropriate for a blog called My Three Shrinks. You can check out the rest of the lyrics at:

Roy said...

So, Clink, there was evident reversal at the end, with Connery's dramatic intervention. Could it be that she was cured? Can sociopathy be treated or cured? They tried to in Clockwork Orange, but I recall it not going so well.

ClinkShrink said...

Romeo: Oooo you gave away the surprise ending. You're right, one incident of misbehavior (even a murder) would not meet the conduct disorder criteria required for antisocial personality disorder. I still think she showed enough aspects of psychopathy in the movie to qualify for that, although I'd want to know a PCL-R score. Both you and Roy bring up good questions about whether or not psychopaths have enough genuine emotions to develop PTSD or traumatic sequellae. I'd question that, but I have no data off the top of my head.

Non-psychopathic murders do get traumatized by their offenses, which I'm sure you already knew from working in prison (congratulations on your escape).

Mindful: Early in the blog Roy disappeared for a while when work got busy. Dinah posted and suggested that someone had stuffed him under the floorboards. You're right, a basement or cellar would work equally well. Thanks for the suggestion.

Roy: Can't believe I glossed over the treatment aspect. The general thought now is that psychopaths can't be cured, and treatment is controversial. Some folks think giving psychotherapy to psychopaths just makes them better psychopaths, but I don't think this is settled yet.

shraddha said...

Sounds like an interesting movie!
I have been telling my readers about Sandra .I have only told what happened to her yet, but she did some pretty wild things too.I wonder if she has makings of a sociopath?

I am not going to judge!

Dr. Pink Freud said...

Robert Hare is the man you want to read if you're interested in Psychopahty.

If I recall, Hare concetualizing the distinction between sociopath and psychopath as based perspective (sociological, marco [societal] based influences, versus micro [internal, perhaps genetic] psychological processes).

Read, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. It's an eye opener, and a must read for anyone in correctional settings.

Anonymous said...

You psychiatrist-quacks are ridiculous. Undoubtedly, "sociopathic" tendencies exist as a spectrum and probably exist in most of us in some degree. To claim that there is a "disease" with some identifiable somatic situation associated with sociopathy or psychopathy is ridiculous. It's time we make psychiatrists read Popper and get into some other line of business.

Dinah said...

Don't we need a post on Treating Sociopathy before I crawl out?

Dr. Pink Freud said...

Psychopaths are somewhat chameleons, as far as social creatures. Roy makes a good point. Psychotherapy would simply provide a psychopath with a window into what a "good" patient is expected to say.

As an aside, I read an interesting study a while back, in which individuals with APD were presented with pictures of different facial expressions. When presented with depictions of "fear' or "anxiety", they would misread the expression as more benign. To me, this suggests they are, at least partially, wired wrong. Peter Kramer would probably argue that we can medicate personality, but the evidence suggests this typically works only in a more societally acceptable way, e.g., increasing confidence, or decreasing feelings of social awkwardness. I've not seen a shred of data that suggests these individuals can be successfully treated. Thankfully, due to their propensity for risk-taking behaviors, some tend to self-select themselves out of the gene pool.

shraddha said...

For Mr Anonymous,

Was the description to close to home?Hence such an outburst!

Or is it more simple... like forgetting to take your medicine?

Sorry Shrinks, to read early in the morning Anonymous's comment irritated me.I am sure no one here has subscribed to the comments thread for his/her 'great' opinions!

Anonymous said...

we just ignore the trolls

Aqua said...

Just curious,
I have read somewhere that at least 10% of policemen, stock brokers and people in jobs that require quick difficult moral decisions are sociopathic (the idea being that feelings cannot get in the way of whatever decision the person makes, their ability to lie, or at least convince others well...imagine undercover police, or stock promoters). This seems to be at odds with your Hare description of psychopaths/sociopaths being "criminals.

Part of the reason I ask is that my Dad seems to me to be sociopatic, but was a good policeman.
Egs. of why I wonder if he's sociopathic:
Complete lack of emotion
Glib, but extremely charming at the same time,
Everyone loves him, but those of us close to him get hurt again and again, because he makes us trust him and then immediately does something extremely hurtful, ability to lie without any seeming regrets (i.e. left Mom for another woman, never told us, got married without telling us and had stepkids etc. I only discovered his marriage because one of the kids answered the phone, has absolutely no ability to empathize (has never once, in the 6.5 years I've been in a MDE asked me if I am okay, or even brought up my illness, even when I was in the hospital for it), Seems to have absolutely no regard for anyone, but himself, but can pretend he does, which sucks all of his kids into trusting him time and time again, only to be painfully dumped on at his convenience, superficial charm (absolutely aeveryone who meets him thinks he is charming and exceptionally interesing, no conpunctions about leaving families (on his 3rd wife now)...the list goes on, but I am wondering....can upstanding citizens (i.e. those involved in absolutely no criminal enterprise) be psychopaths?

Anonymous said...

"For Mr Anonymous,

Was the description to close to home?Hence such an outburst!

Or is it more simple... like forgetting to take your medicine?"

Dear Psychiatry 101: This is anonymous. What a typical psychiatric reaction: you pathologize dissent?!! Anyone who disagrees with you is a prior sick.

Hew, quack, why don't you go back lobotomizing people or subjecting them to Freudian analysis or blaming uncaring mothers for autistic children instead of presuming to diagnose me?

ClinkShrink said...

Oh dear. Please be kind. Some people come to the blog because they are interested in psychiatrists, some because they don't like psychiatrists or psychiatry, but nobody intentionally posts to offend. Differences of opinion are inevitable but need not be taken personally.

Anonymous suggests that sociopathic traits, like other personality traits, may exist along a continuum and may not always be pathological or should not be considered a somatic disease. I know Hare and colleagues have done studies looking at physiological differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths, and have found some (galvanic skin response to affect-laden stimuli, for example) but I don't think that's really a "disease"-type cause or a side effect of being a psychopath. Dr. Pink also mentioned the studies about interpreting facial expression. There are differences in how psychopaths react emotionally or physiologically to things, but I'm not sure yet if that really qualifies as a medical disease.

As far as pharmacology goes, I think aspects do get treated with medication---meds targeting violence and aggression for example, but this obviously wouldn't touch maladaptive learned behaviors or cognitions.

shraddha said...

Anonymous, so now I have a typical reaction in your not so typical and unquackish opinion!

One thing is for sure, i need to brush up my english!I had to google to see what troll meant!

Aqua said...

My question above may have become lost in all the squabbling, but I'm still curious re: my comments above, whether all sociopaths are by definition criminals, or whether some professions are "tailor-made" to attract sociopaths...professions where a person needs to have their decisions completely distinct or disconnected from any emotions. Also, can there be sociopaths who are not criminals?

Dinah said...

I should leave this to Clink, but I'll chime in. I think it's a matter of semantics. Everyone who is charming and lacks empathy does not become a criminal. We do tend to reserve the terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" for people with disruptive, illegal, or hurtful behaviors. And not everyone with disruptive, illegal, &/or hurtful behaviors is a sociopath/psychopath.

Some people have all of these qualities-- the ability to manipulate others and superficial charm (think politics or car salesman). Lack of remorse is not a particularly troublesome quality if one isn't doing hurtful things. It may make it easier to fire employees who are slacking off. It may eliminate lots of unhealthy guilt in life. Did Truman lose sleep after he dropped the bombs on the Japanese? Stories were told that made it the "right" thing to do.

So yes, I think the qualities that make for criminals are present in many people, if they funnel these characteristics into legal/functional pursuits, we don't tend to label it as psychopathology.

We tend to think of "sociopaths" exclusively as criminals or as those we think might turn into criminals (the child who microwaves the cat for fun, who gets into fights, who teases others, who grows up to continue microwaving the cat, fighting and teasing, but still hasn't been arrested). The charming, glib, manipulative CEO -- he's often too busy on his yacht to seek psychiatric diagnosis. If he presents for another reason (depression, relationship distress), perhaps we quietly think , hmmmm a bit narcissistic, but without illegal activity, the term "sociopath" or "antisocial personality disorder" doesn't generally surface.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about all this that probably sounds like a crazy question in itself. Is mental illness contagious to any degree? For instance, if a young woman marries a man who she obviously thinks is normal, but in reality is a sociopath, couldn't she over many many years begin to consider his behavior as normal, thus affecting her sense of normal vs abnormal?

It just seems to me that the manipulation and excessive controlling nature of a sociopath, could rub off (for lack of a better phrase) on someone who lived with that behavior everyday.

Aqua said...

I don't know if my Dad is a sociopath, but I am realizing there is something sinister about how easily he manipulates and fools us, and abuses us, and ridicules and bullies us again and again.

The irony is that I have integrated his behaviour towards me, into my behaviour towards myself. I have become my own bully, my own abuser. I ridicule myself when I believe I am not doing enough to get well, or just "snap out of it".

So for me, definitely there is some aspect of my "normalizing" this type of behaviour; though when my psychiatrist points out my behaviour to myself I see it is damaging, and I still see how harmful and hurtful my Dad's behaviour is to myself and my sisters.

Anonymous said...

acording to this im a sociopath who would have guessed? its understandable that i would be hahahaha

Anonymous said...

I believe everyones a bit fuckin nuts,I'm sick of it all

How to Recognize a Sociopath said...

Why is our society seemingly producing more sociopaths? I hope the trend does not continue