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