What’s the Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath?

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You see them on the movie screen; you read about them in the news. They’re calculating, charismatic, cold-hearted. But are they psychopaths or sociopaths?

Look to pop psychology for your answer and you’ll get a lot of conflicting opinions. Some folks believe that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are made, the products of difficult childhoods and traumatic home environments. Others say “sociopath” is just the latest buzzword for “psychopath.” There’s no real consensus.

But there may be a reason for that: neither “psychopath” nor “sociopath” is a clinical diagnosis. They're common terms for people who exhibit "pathological" personality traits. In the U.S., such traits fall under the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, or APD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which issues the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its 5th edition (DSM-5). The World Health Organization calls this dissocial personality disorder, or DPD.

APD and DPD are essentially the same thing. In order to be diagnosed with either, a person must exhibit “disregard for and violation of others’ rights.” The DSM-5 lists 6 major criteria [PDF]:

  1. Impairments in personality including a lack of remorse, egocentrism, "goal-setting based on personal gratification," and the inability to form mutually intimate relationships;

  2. Pathological personality traits, including manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness, hostility, irresponsibility, impulsivity, and risk-taking;

  3. These personality traits and impairments must be stable and consistent over time;

  4. These personality traits and impairments are not normal for the person's developmental stage (many toddlers could easily be described as psychopaths) or cultural environment;

  5. The person's personality and behavior are not explained by a medical condition or substance abuse; and

  6. The person has to be at least 18 years old—a contentious criterion, since many psychologists feel that children can begin displaying signs of APD at a very young age

Another frequently used "psychopath test" is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or the PCL-R, a 20-question checklist used by researchers, clinicians, and the courts to measure antisocial tendencies. (You can see the list to check yourself, or your boss, here.)

It's worth mentioning that there is a big difference between psychopathy and psychosis. The two words sound similar and are both used as slurs, but that's where the similarity ends. Unlike psychopathy, psychosis describes the condition of losing touch with reality, undergoing rapid personality changes, and having trouble functioning. The terms are typically mutually exclusive; most people with APD will never experience psychosis, and vice versa.

Scientists are still not sure what causes APD. Some recognize two forms of psychopathy, primary and secondary, each with its own set of causes [PDF] and manifestations. Traumatic childhoods and difficult home environments can definitely contribute, but there’s also a clear physiological component. A genetic variant called MAOA-L has been linked with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and brain scans of people with APD have shown low activity in areas related to empathy, morality, and self-control. 

This does not mean that all people with APD are violent, nor does it mean that they’re bad people. Many cases of APD go undiagnosed because the people in question are living successful, ordinary lives. 

For proof, just look at neurologist James Fallon: Fallon has spent decades researching the anatomical side of so-called psychopathy. His research has helped identify areas of difference in the brains of people with APD. One day in 2005, Fallon was looking at the brain scans of people with APD, as well as those of people with depression and schizophrenia. Sitting on his desk at the same time were a stack of scans from Fallon’s family members taken as part of a study on Alzheimer’s disease. 

“I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he told Smithsonian. The brain in the image appeared to belong to a psychopath—but the scans at the bottom of the pile belonged to his family members. Shaken, he decided to look up the code on the scan to determine whose brain he was looking at.

It was his own brain.

Fallon couldn’t quite believe it. His first thought was that his research had been wrong, and that low activity in those brain areas had nothing to do with APD. Then he talked to his family. Duh, they told him. Of course you’re a psychopath. His mother, wife, and children had recognized and been living with his personality issues all along.

Fallon underwent more tests, which confirmed the diagnosis. Over time, he realized that he’d known all along. Throughout his life, he wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian, strangers had commented that he seemed “evil,” and while he was never violent, he did have an icy streak. He had put other people in danger. He had also just generally been “kind of an a**hole,” he admitted to Smithsonian.

“I’m obnoxiously competitive,” he told the magazine. "I won’t let my grandchildren win games … I’m aggressive, but my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.”

Fallon believes his relative success may be the result of growing up in a healthy, stable environment with a lot of support. He was raised in a loving home, which, he says, may have helped him overcome some of his ugliest impulses.

APD currently has no cure. Finding successful treatment methods has been tricky, in part because people with APD tend to feel pretty comfortable with their personalities and have little motivation to change. Still, some, like Fallon, are determined to do at least a little bit better.

“Since finding all this out and looking into it, I’ve made an effort to try to change my behavior,” Fallon told Smithsonian. “I’ve more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings."

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

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iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

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Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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