When Does a Sociopath Become a Psychopath

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A mental illness that alters the way a person feels, thinks, or behaves is a personality disorder. Personality disorders affect a person’s ability to function in culturally and socially “normal” ways . They have difficulty perceiving and relating to people and situations which causes significant limitations and problems in relationships, work, school, and social activities. Two personality disorders that often get confused are sociopathy and psychopathy, and they are frequently used interchangeably. While both these personality disorders are formally classified as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), they are different in the way the person interacts with others; one being more of an intense, somewhat “dangerous” disorder than the other . The term “sociopath” refers to a person who has antisocial tendencies that are developed through their environment or social factors. Psychopathic behaviors, however, are thought to be more innate through a violent, chaotic upbringing . While sociopathy and psychopathy are similar antisocial personality disorders, they differ in the intensity of the mental illness and the way each disorder is developed.

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A person who displays antisocial behaviors and attitudes, including deceitful and manipulative behaviors, is often referred to as a sociopath. A sociopath is willing to use manipulation or deception to get whatever they want with little to no regret or guilt . They have difficulty understanding emotions, making good decisions, and maintaining relationships . Social media and television often display sociopaths as dangerous people; however, they can go about leading normal, productive lives. The ultimate, defining characteristic of a sociopath is a lack of conscience, meaning they lack a moral compass that steers people away from breaking rules and treating others with respect and decency.

Like a sociopath, a psychopath lacks empathy and other emotions, and they are highly manipulative of others. Psychologists use the 20 item Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which includes traits such as lack of empathy, pathological lying, and impulsivity, to diagnose psychopathy. These traits are scored on a three-point scales based on whether the trait does not apply to the person, applies to a certain extent, or the trait fully applies to the individual. In order to be diagnosed as a psychopath, a person needs to score at least a 30 on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist .

A psychopath is said to be ‘born’ and not ‘made’. However, psychopathy is not a matter of genes and heredity, but more of behaviors and personality shaped by environment and upbringing . A study conducted by psychologists Giuseppe Craparo, Adriano Schimmenti, and Vincenzo Caretti examined crimes committed by twenty-two offenders convicted for violent crimes ranging from murder, rape, and convicted child sex offenders. They used the Traumatic Experience Checklist to assess childhood relational trauma, and the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) to assess psychopathy. Their research revealed that there is a high prevalence of childhood experiences of abuse and neglect among the offenders and with the higher levels of childhood trauma, there was an influx of higher-scoring participants on the PCL-R . It has also been documented that a psychopath’s brain is structurally and functionally different than that of a neurotypical. Brain imaging has shown reduced connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the part of the brain responsible for feelings such as guilt and empathy, and the amygdala, which mediates anxiety and fear . Because of the lack of connection in the brain, the person would have difficulty, if not an impossibility, to make proper decisions which could lead them to commit crimes and have no remorse.

 It is not clear if a sociopath can become a psychopath. Based on the structural difference between a psychopath’s brain and a neurotypical’s brain, it would seem almost impossible for a sociopath to cross the line into psychopathy unless they receive an injury to the connection between their ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These two antisocial personality disorders are similar in symptoms and actions, however, the difference in development and intensity of each disorder drastically separates them. They should not be confused, rather these differences should be studied and made aware to the public.


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