Sociopaths in the United States are much more common than one would think and strangely difficult to identify. Just over 1 in 25 , or 4% (3% men, 1% women), of the population in the U.S. could be considered sociopathic. That number is slightly higher than the prevalence rate of anorexia nervosa and four times the prevalence rate of schizophrenia. What is the first thought that pops into your mind when you think of a sociopath? Is it a serial killer? Maybe a hardened criminal? Could your boss be a sociopath? Your best friend? Neighbor? It is quite possible any of the aforementioned parties could be a sociopath.
What is Sociopathy
Sociopathy is actually somewhat of a synonym for antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Another commonly used term to denote ASPD is psychopathy. ASPD is characterized, according to DSM standards, by the following: a disregard for social laws and norms; a disregard for the rights of others; a failure to feel remorse or guilt; deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure; reckless disregard for safety of self or others; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; a tendency to display violent behavior.
It should be noted experts contend there is most certainly a difference between sociopaths and psychopathy, but not all agree on the classification. Generally speaking, the two classifications represent very similar manifestations of ASPD but etiology differentiates the two classifications. Experts contend the etiology of psychopathy is most likely linked to genetics while sociopathy is linked to "nurture," or environment. Psychopaths most likely have genetically-caused biological deficiencies within the brain structure, which cause aberrant behavior including poor impulse control and dysfunctional emotional regulation. In fact, the psychopath may experience anger and frustration more frequently as a result. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is linked to childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse. Psychopaths are considered to be the most dangerous of the two due to their propensity to engage in violent behavior. Many serial killers and violent offenders meet the diagnostic criteria of ASPD.
Psychopathy, which is distinguished from sociopathy, represents about 1% of the general population. ASPD (sociopathy and psychopathy) represents about 4% of the general population. Over 47% of the male prison population is diagnosed with ASPD while 21% of the female prison population is diagnosed with the disorder.
What is the different about the brain of someone with ASPD?
Unbeknownst to many, brain structure is actually responsible for empathy and moral reasoning. It is entirely possible for brain damage to destroy one's ability to empathize and use moral reasoning to make decisions. A recent study on offenders with ASPD found that the "brains of psychopaths showed less gray matter in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles." Grey matter contains the brains neuronal cell bodies while white matter contains the axons of neurons. Neurons essentially create the ability for the brain to make connections between parts of the brain and allow for complicated sets of neuronal connections to elicit behavior, thoughts, and emotions.
The anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles are activated when one thinks about moral behavior and they are also responsible for empathic responses. Empathy essentially creates the ability for one to vicariously experience another person's perspective, thoughts, or emotions. It also creates the ability for human beings to connect with each other and seemingly allows for one to have what most people refer to as a "conscience."
What is a conscience?
Contrary to popular misconception, a "conscience" is much more complicated phenomenon than most think. A conscience is created by an interaction of neurons within a vast array of neuronal pathways contained in the Limbic System and other parts of the brain. The Limbic System is essentially responsible for four key brain functions: homeostasis, olfactory, memory and emotion. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on emotion.
Conscience is really nothing more than an emotion generated, in part, by the "moral reasoning" portion of one's brain when something is perceived as "wrong." Differentiating between right and wrong is patently different from the actual emotional response engendered by the Limbic System. It is absolutely possible for one to "know" right from wrong, but never experience the corresponding emotion.
Conscience is also very much tied to the emotional bond we experience with one. The likelihood of your conscience being impacted invariably increases with the intimacy of a given relationship. You are more likely to be impacted, emotionally, by the actions of a spouse or loved one than you are a stranger.
Scientists at Oxford University conducted some very interesting research which found an area of the brain (lateral frontal pole) that distinguishes human beings from all other animals, including our close relatives (monkeys). This area of the brain allows for a person to compare past actions to the vast array of apparent choices and allows for one to ponder what one could/should have done instead. This portion of the brain also enables one to perceive potential outcomes of given choices and weigh which action is "best" or "right."
This new research supports the notion that human beings possess the ability to choose, evaluate, and compare between a multitude of moral options and inevitably gives credence to the concept of choice and causation. What follows then, is the higher human attribute of morality and the impending ability to differentiate between "right and wrong" is made possible by the lateral frontal pole. The interaction between the lateral frontal pole and the Limbic System create what we call a "conscience."
Needless to say, the "conscience" is much more complicated than simply feeling "guilt." The conscience is created by a complicated set of neuronal pathways within the higher order structures of the brain as well as the Limbic System.
What is the big deal?
"It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation." - Stanley Milgram
Just over 4% of the American population does not have a conscience. Again, that is FOUR times the prevalence rate of schizophrenia. Regardless of what you have read about people with schizophrenia, they are seldom "dangerous." People with ASPD are often dangerous and not only in the way you may be thinking. Not all people with ASPD are considered criminals and some do not engage in violent behavior. But they can be dangerous nonetheless. Would you like our next president to run our country without conscience? What about powerful CEOs? What about your neighbor?
The likelihood of you making it through life without interacting with a sociopath is slim to none. You will undoubtedly interact with someone who does not have a conscience. Neurotypical human beings view one another as a person with thoughts, feelings, and a need for regard as a person. A person they might like to connect with. The sociopath, on the other hand, views people as "tools" to use for their own purposes. The key to manipulation is the creating the ability to avoid feeling guilt. One can achieve his or her goals much easier without that pesky feeling. People with ASPD have all the ingredients to master the art of manipulation. They don't have a conscience and they often posses above-average intelligence. Worse yet, they are motivated for self, and self alone.
It is of paramount importance that you change the way you think about sociopaths and psychopaths. Many of these individuals, like the Wolf of Wall Street (Jordan Belfort) make a fortune off manipulating others while others make a living off the misfortunes of others. Always remember that sociopaths gravitate to positions of power and they can make great CEOs and leaders.
One of the most well known psychopaths, Ted Bundy, lived a relatively normal life. He was brilliant, good looking, and people were naturally drawn to his charisma. Bundy graduated from the University of Washington, was accepted into law school and many believed he had a future in politics. In 1972, he was hired as an assistant to Ross Davis, Chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. Bundy was executed in 1989 after being convicted of murdering of 30 or more women. Strangely enough, most people who knew Bundy never thought he was capable of such great evil.
Not all sociopaths and psychopaths will end up like Ted Bundy but most are dangerous in their own right. Some will generate great financial scams, like Bernie Madoff. Some will seek positions of power and will have no problem abusing that power. Some may run large American companies. Some may have been voted in as Senators and Representatives. Some will quietly wreak havoc on the infrastructure of the world wide web as they create malware and viruses for their own gain. Some will be charged with your medical and mental health care. Many are rotting inside of the walls of American prisons but some roam free willing to take advantage of any opportunity they find. While most Americans worry about an impending terrorist attack on American soil, an equally dangerous brand of evil may lurk. Do you know how to identify a sociopath or psychopath?
Professions with the highest and lowest rate of psychopathy
A recent study, by Oxford scientist Kevin Dutton, revealed the top ten professions held by psychopaths (in order of desire): CEO, lawyer, media, salesperson, surgeon, journalist, police officer, clergy-person, chef, and civil servant. Another study published by psychologist, Paul Babiak, found that 1 in 25 bosses are psychopaths — four times the rate of the general population.
The same study by Kevin Dutton found that the following positions (in order) boast the lowest rate of psychopathy: care aide, nurse, therapist, craftsperson, beautician, charity worker, teacher, creative artist, doctor, and accountant. Most of the positions listed above require a high level of empathy. It is not surprising that the aforementioned occupations posses a low number of people diagnosed with ASPD.
Identifying sociopaths and psychopaths
Lack of empathy: psychopaths possess very little empathy and do not show much regard for the feelings of others. Lack of empathy in a person with ASPD may be difficult to identify, at times, due to the ability of a psychopath to manipulate.
Manipulation: psychopaths are great at manipulating situations and other people for their own gain. They may use charm and intelligence to manipulate others. To the psychopath, manipulation is an art and they are not afraid to use it.
Disregard for right and wrong: psychopaths may show a blatant disregard for rules and morality. They may rationalize their behavior with convoluted explanations about why rules may not apply to them, personally.
Egocentrism: psychopaths have a strong sense of ego and tend to embellish their self-image. They like to be around people who feed their ego and bow to their sense of superiority. They view themselves as unequivocally more important than others and almost expect to be treated that way.
Risky behavior: psychopaths love the thrill of risky behavior and are prone to reckless and impulsive behavior. They constantly need high level stimulation and may be addicted to stimulants, as a result. Similarly, they enjoy the thrill off risky behavior.
Deception: psychopaths tend to prevail with the art of deception. They have no problem lying and are often very convincing. They often use deception as a form of manipulation.
Irritability and aggression: psychopaths are prone to anger and aggressive outbursts. They may often engage in physically violent behavior but are also likely to be emotionally and verbally aggressive with others.
Lack of remorse: psychopaths have not trouble trampling on the feelings and rights of other people as long as it serves their own interests. In fact, they may display a blatant disregard for the feelings of others and often rationalize their behavior (He deserves it. It is his fault).
Pay attention to the people around you and avoid being drawn in by a sociopath. These people exist all over the spectrum in American society and have no problem trampling on others to achieve their goals. The likelihood of you being impacted by a psychopath of sociopath is far greater than being impacted by a terrorist. Keep your eyes peeled and trust your instincts. Be careful who you trust and don't let the song of a psychopaths tongue mesmerize you.