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.
I 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.