Nov 062013

psychopath or sociopath?
I use the term “psychopath ” to refer to a variety of disordered personalities whose interpersonal style is one of callous manipulation –in particular, those people who fall into the category of the Dark Triad, usually labeled narcissists, psychopaths and Machiavellianists.  Additionally,  you might be familiar with other terms used to describe these individuals: sociopath, anti-social, borderline, character disordered and personality disordered.

With so many labels, how can we determine which disorder we are dealing with?

Psychopath or Sociopath?

A Google search, on the difference between the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath”, results in contradicting definitions.  I’ve found descriptions stating that the psychopath is more “controlled” while the sociopath is an impulsive criminal more likely to end up in prison.  On other sites, I’ve read that the psychopath is the ax-wielding, psycho-serial killer while the sociopath is more likely to commit white collar crimes and hide in plain sight.  I get the feeling that some of the websites making these comparisons were written by persons who identify with either one or the other of the two labels…

The term “anti-social personality disorder” has replaced both of these terms, under the Cluster B category in the newest edition of the DSM, the reference book used by psychiatric professionals.  Yet Robert Hare’s PCL-R is still the gold standard for determining psychopathy in the criminal justice system.

Primary or Secondary?

In literature and on the web you’ll find articles about primary psychopaths and secondary psychopaths. Sometimes, these terms are applied to genetic psychopaths vs. environmentally created psychopaths.  Other times,  it’s a reference to the cold-blooded psychopaths who have no nervous response vs. more neurotic psychopaths  — though “neurotic psychopath” seems a contradiction in terms, I’ve actually met someone who seems to qualify.  I’ve read about sadistic psychopaths, which makes me wonder what kind of psychopath doesn’t enjoy torturing his victim.  None of them care, but they all enjoy the game, so why bother with the “sadistic” adjective? We have the term “malignant narcissists” from Dr. Scott Peck and Sam Vaknin, but their descriptions don’t sound much different from the psychopathic and sociopathic definitions. Then there are the labels “somatic narcissist” and “cerebral narcissist” but neither adjective is mutually exclusive, so why bother?  The point is, narcissists need attention, how or where they get it doesn’t explain the pathological need.

Reporting on the Dark Triad

Investigating the term “Dark Triad” I found a journal article titled, The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy.  It disputes the contention that sub-clinical narcissists, sub-clinical psychopaths and sub-clinical Machiavellianists are actually the same thing.

The authors, Delroy L. Paulhus  and Kevin M. Williams, reported the results of this study in their abstract:

Subclinical psychopaths were distinguished by low neuroticism;
Machiavellians, and psychopaths were low in conscientiousness; narcissism showed
small positive associations with cognitive ability. Narcissists and, to a lesser extent,
psychopaths exhibited self-enhancement on two objectively scored indexes. We conclude
that the Dark Triad of personalities, as currently measured, are overlapping
but distinct constructs.

Narcissus, Machiavelli, CaligulaI was surprised to learn how much of these results is derived from “self-reported” questionnaires.  Regardless of the additional, objective measures done later, the self-reported measure doesn’t take into account that psychopaths LIE. They lie and they deceive ALL the time, even when there is no reason or gain in lying. Those who lean more towards narcissism are perhaps more inclined to be forthcoming about their narcissism — because they feel entitled— but the truly psychopathic will seem the most normal.

Further, I learned that these self-reporting questionnaires are commonly used to evaluate character/personality disorders. These questionnaires have names such as: MACH-IV test of machiavellianism,  Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale, Short Dark Triad, a 27 item scale and the “Dirty Dozen” a 12 item scale.

The authors of this study contribute even more to the confusion by using the term “sub-clinical” (referring to offensive but not pathological traits) and then applying their results to the broader Dark Triad personalities.

Pin the Label on the Psychopath

For someone just starting to learn about their encounter with a callous, manipulative individual, the labels we apply seem very important.  Labels help us keep their pattern of dysfunction clearly in mind, so that we know what we are seeing and what to expect. Psychopaths will do everything in their power to obfuscate that view.   They muddy the waters with details, blur boundaries and switch places to confuse their victims. Labels help to organize the behavioral traits we observe.

The truth is, most disordered people won’t fall neatly into any category. They will likely fall somewhere on a continuum, with traits from various cluster A, B and C personality disorders.

It seems that we’ve been trying to pin a name on evil for centuries. In the bible, the devil goes by many names — as did the evil Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca.  Before we had the discipline of psychology, people called them witches, demons, possessed or soulless.  Mythology tells stories about blood sucking vampires and zombies, the walking dead. These last two terms seem to refer to a contagious, half-human who feeds on others, feels no empathy and leaves their victims either sick or half-alive, like themselves.

Though at first we look for distinctions and it seems to help define what we’ve observed, eventually in time, a pattern of similarities begins to emerge: They all lie, they don’t care, they manipulate, and they are driven by shame and envy.  While it is helpful to have terms to describe the behavior, in the end, to pin a definitive label on a psychopathic person takes years of observation and study, as we try to separate facts from their never ending fictions.   As I argued in my previous article, when psychopaths know you are watching them, they put on a performance 180° opposite of reality.

In his play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote,



“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

There are many different varieties of roses.  They may have different petals, different colors, even slightly different fragrances.  Still, the similarity among the varieties is enough so that once we’ve inhaled the rose’s fragrance, we’re more apt to recognize the next rose even though it may be a different variety.

Apparently, psychopaths also come in different varieties. Like a rose, psychopaths create indelible impressions on our memories. However, unlike a rose, whatever distinctions there might be between the individual psychopaths, they all leave us crinkling our noses in disgust.

  113 Responses to “Psychopath or Sociopath? What’s in a Name? Spath-spotting in the Wild

  1. Sky ~

    I think they call it the school of hard knocks!!!!! You have to experience it before you can accept the teachings. It’s kind of like the old – not knowing what “hot” really means until you touch the stove.

    Hi Truthy – nice to “see” you too.

  2. Sometimes, Milo, we get THIRD DEGREE BURNS the first time we touch the stove….and then it is sort of too late…we just have to make sure we LEARN THE LESSON THE FIRST TIME so we dont’ get burned again.

  3. Skylar, I was wondering if and how I could mail you in private on some issue?

  4. Jill aka Darwinsmom

    All issues regarding logging in should be resolved right now. (I had the same issue too). I would also like to inform readers that our administrator Skylar, for personal reasons, is not at liberty to answer or attend to personal requests.

  5. I think the distinction of sadistic is useful. I had a stepfather who was a sociopath. I did not experience his primary motivation as sadistic, although he could certainly be when inflamed. But, he did not take delight in our pain and confusion as a rule. Rather he saw our pain and confusion as a measure of how well he was doing, as he was deliberately causing these responses in us. In fact, he sought sessions with a psychiatrist with the hope of learning to be more effective at making my mother believe she was crazy. He was exquisitely scientific in his approach, and I often thought that our messy and emotional pain was irritating to him because it clouded his objective assessment of his effect on us.

    I am now dealing with a what I believe to be a sociopath who is my child’s father. He is intensely sadistic, and very much enjoys inflicting pain. Where my stepfather generally felt “cold” to me, this guy feels “hot” – he wants to inflame every situation, he wants constant intensity. He knows exactly what he is doing, and wants the feedback of seeing and relishing the emotional pain he causes. It is a primary motivation for him.

    • Hi Veramadera, I hope you are gray rocking the abuser and refusing to feed him his supply of emotional expressions.

      I think that some spaths are aware of their sadism and some are not. My own ex-spath was aware. I know this because, in retrospect, I remember some comments he made. For example, in a moment of projection, he said, “It’s not GOOD for you to enjoy other people’s suffering so much.” He was accusing me of emotionally torturing him when, in fact, he was the one torturing me. Another time, he was doing freelance work filming news for local TV stations and he said, “I hope people don’t think I do this because I enjoy seeing people in car accidents suffering.” WTF? Who would think that? He was very aware that he felt better when others were suffering, even when he wasn’t the cause of it. And he did like filming it so he could watch it over and over.

      It’s been my observation that the abusive person is trying to “slime” his victim with his own “emotions”. They aren’t actually aware that this is what they are doing, because they can’t “feel” their emotions. They experience their emotions as discomforts which can be made to feel better when they make US feel worse. In their minds, they have rationalized some reason for their behavior. In their minds, the victim “deserves” to pay. Often times, the abuser’s behavior is a reflection of how they’ve rationalized.

      For example, your stepfather felt a need to exert power over your family but he rationalized that he was abusing you in the name of “scientific research”. So he treated you like lab rats. But you know what? It made him feel better to know that he could. It made him feel in control.

      Your child’s father, similarly, found that he could create emotional responses in you by acting out his rage. In my mind, that is still a power trip. He just uses a different method and a different rationalization.

      My ex-spath could be very “hot” and filled with rage, but in the end, I realized that he was only acting. He really feels nothing. His rages were just meant to control the victim and make us cower. Everyone did cower when he raged, so it worked. In truth, he was actually very cold.

      I believe that there are some people who aren’t aware that they are torturing/manipulating others in order to make themselves feel better. When they rage they justify themselves with their rationalizations. I think these people are usually labeled borderline or narcissists or histrionics — something other than sociopaths.

      Maybe it has to do with our definitions of pleasure and sadism. We could say that when the abuser numbs their own pain by inflicting pain on others, that is sadism regardless of whether they are aware of it or not. Others might disagree. They might use the words schadenfreude, or envy to more accurately describe the process.

      I don’t know if this is helpful to you but I knew an abuser who is infamous for his rages. Everyone close to him knows how he can be. One day, I realized that he was acting that way for two reasons: one, he is a jerk, and two, he was hungry. I pointed this out to him and he learned how to control some of his rages by controlling his blood sugar. He is still a murderous jerk but he hides it better when he’s not hungry. 😛

      As you pointed out, it can be helpful to observe the abuser’s triggers in order to avoid getting caught in the abuse.

    • Truthspeak

      Veramadera, greetings and welcome to

      What a spath’s motivation might be is always murky. If I were to sum up the motivation, or what they “get” out of inflicting the damages, it would be this statement: they intend to ***WIN*** at all costs. Whether it’s a financial “win,” or a s-exual conquest, or the destruction of a target’s spirituality, the list can go on forever.

      With regard to the father of your children, Skylar pointed out “grey rock” method to manage all interactions with him. Children are not human beings with fragile psyches in the World Of Spaths. Children are simply tools that have no more importance than a disposable lighter (quite literally), and if we can maintain the “grey rock” technique and appear as boring and lifeless as possible when communicating with them, they will lose interest because they are not getting that FEED of control after they have clearly damaged their targets. This COULD translate through to the children, as well, though that might take some time – children are “The-Most-Perfect-Of-Targets” in the World Of Spaths because they are obligated to “trust” the adults in their lives. The more that we appear bored, the more that we need to be proactive with our children and tell them that they’re wonderful, that they are precious, that they are smart, and that they deserve to grow up and “Be Somebody.”

      If a parent is a spath, it is an unfortunate inevitability that they will deliberately use the children in an attempt to create drama/trauma for the main target (the OTHER parent). So, accepting that no amount of “Why did you DO that to them?” or demanding that they behave as conscientious parents is going to cause them to do so will be most beneficial, in the long run, even though their actions will cause us dreadful distress, in private – we must learn the art of Not Reacting, and it’s no easy task. Spaths literally thrive on other people’s reactions – the more dramatic, the more “yummy” that feed is to them. This also is true for the reactions of children – the more dramatic the reaction is from a child (theirs or someone else’s child), the more satisfying it is, for the moment. It might also be a very good idea to consult a counseling therapist that specializes in trauma about this, as well.

      Good luck to you and your children.

    • Welcome veramadera, I think you are right, some psychopaths are “hot” and others “cold” or they can be hot in one situation and cold in another, but the bottom line is that they are calculating and viscious. I’m sorry that your child’s father is a psychopath because that means that you must deal with him for a while. It also means that he will have influence on your child.

      How old is your child?

      Dr. Liane Leedom had a child by a psychopath and she has worked very hard to instill a conscience and empathy into her son, because unfortunately, some of the traits of a psychopath tend to be inherited. My own father was a psychopath, and his mother and grandfather before him. I’m not a psychopath, but I gave birth to a terrible one, who though he was brought up in love, concern and caring became a stone cold killer who I hope is in prison for life.

      Genetics ALONE are not the cause of a person being a psychopath, and not all psychopaths are stone cold killers like my son, just like “tall or short” is not a measurement like five ft. three is, “psychopath” has levels of evil in them.

      Be careful in dealing with the child’s father though that he does not become violent. Love your child and show hiim/her that they are loved and pray for the best. Accept what you cannot change, and change what you can and learn the difference. God bless

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