Little Do We Know: 5 Myths About Sociopathy, Debunked

Confessions of a Sociopath
Image © fotoduki / Shutterstock

Editor's Note: M.E. Thomas is the author of Confessions of a Sociopath, a psychological study of diagnosed sociopaths by none other than one who is diagnosed herself. Thomas turns conventional wisdom of sociopathy on its head, revealing how one in twenty-five people are sociopaths (that's four percent!), and -- before you quake with paranoia -- how harmless the majority of them actually are. We've asked Thomas to share with us some of the most common misconceptions of sociopathy -- the violence, the inhumanity, the gender constructs -- and have given her the opportunity to swiftly debunk each and every one of them. While psychologists quibble ad naseum on the psychological classification of sociopathy, here's a chance to take a crash course on the human psyche from someone who's been forced to reflect on her own every day. [For an alternative take on this subject, see Dean A. Haycock's post on the swirling semantics around the definitions of "sociopathy" vs. "psychopathy."]

I’m a diagnosed sociopath, but that doesn’t mean I’m an evil serial killer. You would like me if you met me. I’m fun, exciting, the perfect office escort—your boss’s wife has never met anyone quite so charming.  I have never stalked prison halls; I prefer mine to be covered in ivy. I’m accomplished and easy to talk to, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about me is my ability to blend in seamlessly in my surroundings. Everyone has met a sociopath, probably without realizing it. Sociopaths are notoriously difficult to spot, particularly since most people don’t know what to look for. Here are some of the biggest myths about sociopaths:

1. Myth: Sociopaths are psychotic. Nomenclature for “sociopathy” is not standard. Some psychologists call it psychopathy, others refer to it by the DSM-5’s title “antisocial personality disorder”. What is clear, however, is that although people sometimes refer to sociopaths as “psychos,” sociopaths do not suffer from psychosis, a condition characterized by derangement and detachment from reality that might take the form of delusions and hallucinations. We’re not crazy. And the truth is that we are sometimes quite successful. It is just that we live, think, and make decisions in a way that some people find loathsome and most find disturbingly amoral.

2. Myth: Sociopaths are all violent, sadistic, killers. “Most psychopaths are not violent, and most violent people are not psychopaths,” according to psychologist and researcher Scott Lilienfield. Sociopaths have a constant need for stimulation, and that can sometimes manifest itself in malicious or violent acts, particularly if those are the opportunities that regularly present themselves to the sociopath. I’m not necessarily a sadist. I intentionally hurt people sometimes, but don’t we all? For the most part, I find my stimulation through more legitimate routes: thrill-seeking sports, risky stock trading, and the occasional consensual choking of a significant other.

3. Myth: Sociopaths are all in prison. Only 20 percent of male and female prison inmates are sociopaths, although we are probably responsible for about half of serious crimes committed. Although sociopaths are more likely to be in prison than the average person, “psychopathy can and does occur in the absence of official criminal convictions, and many psychopathic individuals have no histories of violence," according to psychologist and researcher Jennifer Skeem.

4. Myth: Sociopaths are all men. Sociopathy is diagnosed much more frequently in men. One possible explanation is that very little research data exists regarding sociopathy in women. However, what research has been done reveals that female sociopaths exhibit only two or three main features that are similar to those found in men—usually, a lack of empathy and a pleasure in the manipulation and exploitation of others—but do not often exhibit violently impulsive behavior. This may be one reason that while I’m a diagnosed sociopath, I am not a prototypical sociopath.

5. Myth: Sociopaths are inhuman. When I first started writing about sociopathy, I hoped to help people realize that sociopaths are natural human variants. I thought at the time that the big challenge would be to try to showcase some of our strengths in a more positive light, to demonstrate that we are not as bad as people might think. Recently I have been thinking that the real problem is not in getting “normal” people to believe that we’re better than they think, but in getting them to see that the “normal” ones are actually worse than they believe themselves to be. It is convenient to define normal as whatever you happen to be. No need to confront the possibility that maybe you aren’t as empathetic as you seem. Maybe your conscience doesn’t have quite the sway that you thought it did. Maybe you are both capable and incapable of much more than you had hoped. Maybe you have a lot more in common with sociopaths than you’d like to think. Maybe it is just one big long spectrum with only a few people at the extremes and the rest huddled closer to the middle.

For an alternative take on this subject, see Dean A. Haycock's post on the swirling semantics around the definition of "sociopathy" vs. "psychopathy."

Related: The Brains of Maniacs: A Q&A with ‘Psychopath Whisperer’ Author Dr. Kent A. Kiehl

  • Dmytri Andreev

    WOW. Is any one actually FOOLED by this? If so it could only be a sign of the times. Not that it is any thing new. I have had it up to here covering for these cynical satanists who try to act like every one is secretly on their level, "whether they know it or not." They invariably screw me over at one point or an other, and yet who are they fooling? Not I. The most they can do now is trigger my indignation, mixed with a sense of public humiliation. After all: if This kind of crud is in the news, then wow must a lot of people be weak of fibre. Of course no one will publish confessions of a rapist or confessions of a child molester (explicitly) because that just hits a little too close to home. Every cynical relativist falls apart the moment that one's own flesh (and blood) come under threat.

    Yes: the world is pervaded with evil. But you know in your heart (if you have one) that you mean well and do well. Invariably the people who try to tell you you are worse than you believe your self to be cause destruction the kinds of which would shock you, its consequences leaving you vulnerable beyond belief. But courage and love compel us to learn from their missed takes and eventually to forgive them. That is the journey of life; this is but merely a temptation.

    Do not be fooled. Survive. The world is full of good people and goodness in general. The seduction of power winds us all up in a hell of distrust and suicidal nihilism. And the wolf does appear in sheep's clothing; the devil, whether metaphysical or metaphorical, all ways offers you what you want. In this case: a break from genuine responsibility. Another meek artificial coping mechanism for the kali yuga. But look more closely: does it not depend all ways upon the labours of the exploited Good? If ANY thing is hidden, it is surely THAT. But do not let them tell you, once you've established a purity of intent, that that too is prone to disillusion. Free will cannot be stolen from you. Even if you alone know your self to mean well, that is enough to light a light in the dark. All else is superficiality. It makes a difference; sufferers, even evil ones, will take note of it. Only self-absorption can cloud this crucial and beautiful difference.

    But do not take my word for it. Dm.

    • Reppy07

      People like you are just plain stupid. People like you who claim they've had their lives destroyed by a sociopath when all they're describing is an asshole.

      It took over 20 years myself to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. This stems from my childhood being destroyed beyond recognition and thus making me a very problematic child diagnosed with just everything you can think of. As I matured these outbursts diminished from little to nothing.

      What made it clear that I have ASPD is my severe lack of empathy. I'm no serial killer, I'm not a meticulous con artist, I've never set out to intentionally hurt people. I've never gotten my jollies rocked from sabotaging someone. So you are gravely mistaken by the term "sociopath". You see a sociopath as what the media describes it, as movies portrays them to be, as people who dealt with an extreme asshole and just needs to give them a label that they think suits them have.

      No. Sociopaths are not inherently evil. They're not self possessive narcissistic serial killers. You should really do some research rather than be a dumbass.

      People with ASPD can actually be VERY useful. Take a surgeon for example, if said surgeon had ASPD, they'd excel in their field because they focus strictly on the job without having an emotional connection with the patient. Emotions get in the way. Bleeding hearts (from my perspective) do more damage. I'm the kind of person who could easily sacrifice 10,000 children if it meant curing the world of cancer and disease. Hell, I'd sacrifice a million or even more. Easily. I could never understand how this made people sick. The very idea is enough to churn people's stomachs. And why? Because their empathy gets in the way, they'd rather watch the world suffer instead of sacrificing 10,000 children.

      This is an example. Nothing more. Obviously such a scenario doesn't exist but it shows insight. Having little to no empathy does not make someone evil. We're not stupid. Most of us KNOW we should feel bad but we have no clue why or how. Most of us get around this by using alternatives. Myself, I try and put myself in the persons shoes to try and truly understand. This helps tremendously. Sometimes tho however, it seems like I'm inhuman (as you would see it) simply because I can't. Many times my wife will cry and have no clue what the fuck to do, I can't even put myself in her shoes, but she knows I am trying. I try to console her by letting her rant and let it out like women need to do and she admits that because of my lack of empathy, she feels like it's easier to let it out because my emotions aren't getting in the way. She describes it being akin to holding a cat while she cries. A cat doesn't share her whiny blubbering attitude so it's easier to let it out.

      So please, stop offending us by comparing us with typical assholes. Most of us are quite the opposite. Start reading and less judging. You'd be surprised. A sociopath is not a narcissist. We don't think we're better, although we usually think our decisions are better simply because we're not tying needless emotions creating a biased outcome. That's about the extent to my narcissism.

      • Freyja

        No one cares. Your genes should not be allowed to continue. The inability to feel empathy is disgusting

        • Reppy07

          I actually feel sorry for you. I mean, in the sense of the word in itself. You're a shining example that education is a dying process.

          Enjoy life being so ignorant. Must be nice. I'm probably more human than you but what's the point in explaining what I do for my community. You're hell bent and fixated on us not being human. What's next? People born with autism should be shot? Can't have them living in their own world. Hell, let's just bury people with alzhemers too, they're just living zombies who aren't human anymore.

          Just because I feel empathy doesn't mean I don't have common sense. People like you should be shot just being so fucking stupid.

        • Remco Hofkens

          There is no sociopathic gene. Sociopaths are created through trauma imposed upon children.
          It's also not very empathic to call people who are physically incapable of feeling empathy "disgusting". It's not a choice we were allowed to make.
          Or do you call people with physical or mental disabilities disgusting on a daily basis?

      • Freyja

        And because sociopaths are ALWAYS manipulators, if you are one, I can't trust anything you've typed. So. You aren't human if you're a sociopath. There is something wrong with you.

        And because you're a sociopath you won't actually feel anything real over these comments. So.

        • Remco Hofkens

          "You aren't human if you're a sociopath."
          Friendly reminder that this kind of sentiment is always followed by genocide.
          Please never obtain any power whatshowever.

  • Cricket

    I think it's fairly accurate, though it lost a little credibility with " I intentionally hurt people sometimes, but don’t we all?". No, actually, not everyone does... at least not past adolescence. Some people do who aren't sociopaths, I'm sure... but I do notice a tendency, among folks who are guilty of something (whether big deal or no), to just assume (or claim to) that everyone does it. Everyone cheats, everyone steals office supplies, everyone lies. A lot of people do, but plenty don't. And it gets less accurate the further you go with it - yes, a lot of people will walk out with a pocketful of paper clips. Many people who would do that, even, won't steal anything of real value. There are lines most people won't cross, and there are lines practically no one will cross, and the facdt of the first doesn't mean that everyone will cross the second.

    I remember reading an interview with someone who had killed a kid for his name-brand jacket. The guy said "Everyone could be a killer under the right circumstances!" Which isn't true, for a start - plenty of people die when they could have defended themselves, because they couldn't bring themselves to pull the trigger (or whatever). But even if everyone could bring themselves to kill, there's a huge difference between "Bring myself to kill because someone will otherwise kill a child." and "Bring myself to kill because I want that jacket."