Do you have an exalted sense of self? Are you a compulsive liar? Would you do just about anything to get you want? If you answered ‘yes’ to all of these questions, you might want to consult a professional who can determine if you are a sociopath or a psychopath. Both sociopaths and psychopaths share three common traits suggested by the questions above – conceitedness, deceitfulness, and manipulation largely unchecked by moral conscience. Some experts think sociopathy and psychopathy are the same and group them together under the diagnostic term anti-social personality disorder or APD, while others argue that there are significant differences between the two mental disorders. During active addiction, many drug addicts or alcoholics can display these common traits as well, thus necessitating the need for treatment to determine if a fundamental personality disorder of this nature actually exists as a precursor to the addictive behaviors.
The outward behavior that a sociopath or psychopath may display can be as different as night and day. Sociopaths are more impulsive and irresponsible than psychopaths. Sociopaths tend to live on the fringes of society. They often can’t hold down a job for long and can’t settle down in one place. They may travel extensively, but they are not sightseers. If they can’t find a legitimate work to pay for whatever they need, they may do shady things like lie, cheat, and steal from people along the way. These types of traits can be seen in many active drug addicts as well, though the behaviors may be transient in relation to the depth and scope of their addiction.
Con man Charles Ponzi lived in this manner. Ponzi immigrated from Italy to America in 1903. He supposedly said, ‘I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes, and those hopes never left me.’ However, $2.50 was all that he had left after having gambled and drunk away most of the $200 he actually had with him while on board the ship taking him to America. After arriving in Boston, he spent several years working odd jobs in the Northeast. Described as an alleged sociopath, he led a life of lies that was all about tricking people into investing in sham corporations. His International Reply Coupon scheme was one where he used money from investors to pay other investors, a form of fraud that became known as the Ponzi scheme. Ponzi spent 14 years in prison for this crime.
In contrast, psychopaths have more self-control and are more calculating than sociopaths. They blend into society more effectively than sociopaths because they are often well-educated and hold steady jobs. Not all psychopaths are violent or a threat to society, and some manage to channel their need to control others into gainful employment. They gravitate toward positions of authority and jobs requiring objective analysis and decision-making. Some professions with the most psychopaths include CEOs, lawyers, surgeons, and police officers. Oddly enough, chefs and salespeople also made the list. Sociopaths have a slight edge over psychopaths when it comes to establishing meaningful relationships. It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of empathy in certain limited circumstances but not in others and with a few individuals but not others.
Gary Ridgway is a good example of the sociopath’s limited ability to feel empathy and form emotional attachments. Between 1982 and 2001, he murdered at least 49 women in Washington state. One article reports that his victims were prostitutes and young runaways. After killing them, Ridgway often returned to his dumping grounds to have sex with his victims’ corpses. He also dumped some of their bodies in the Green River, which earned him the name of the Green River Killer. While Ridgway committed four of these horrible crimes, he was married to his third wife, Judith Ridgway. Although he targeted prostitutes because of his hate for them, he loved his wife and had a good relationship with her. In an interview six years after her husband went to prison, Judith Ridgway still had trouble believing that her husband was a serial killer. She described their life together as loving and content. She said, ‘he made me feel like a newlywed every day.’ However, she had to face the truth about what her husband had done after she and the police discovered evidence linking him to some of the murdered prostitutes.
In contrast, psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others. Emotions are foreign to them. They know they should be feeling something, but they don’t feel anything. Beauty and ugliness, except in a very superficial sense, goodness, evil, love, horror and humor have no actual meaning, no power to move them. This makes psychopaths capable of hurting others without any guilt or remorse. Psychopathy is the most dangerous of all antisocial behaviors because psychopaths can dissociate emotionally from their actions, regardless of how terrible those actions may be. Psychopaths try to compensate for this impairment by being ‘skilled actors.’ They are charming and persuasive, and they are capable of faking emotions they can’t feel. Notorious cult leader Jim Jones revealed his psychopathic mission to play whatever role was necessary to win trust and manipulate others when he stated, ‘what you need to believe in is what you can see. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. If you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have father. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.’ Jones combined idealistic rhetoric and overt or subtle coercion to condition his followers to commit suicide by drinking a Kool-Aid type drink laced with cyanide and valium upon his command.
Another way psychopaths attempt to relate to others is to create a veneer of social respectability to hide their dark side and any sinister behavior resulting from it. This is an especially common strategy of psychopathic serial killers like John Wayne Gacy. A summary of his court case noted his ‘double life.’ Apparently, evidence showed that the defendant led a double life, engaging in charitable and political activities at the same time he was committing a series of sadistic torture murders. He enticed many young men to his home for homosexual liaisons, tying or handcuffing his partners then strangling or choking them. Gacy was a successful contractor, was active in the community, and often dressed up as a clown for parties.
Active addicts of all varieties are well-known to lead double-lives to shield their behaviors from others as well. It is known by law enforcement that many of the people who are chronically jailed or imprisoned are individuals with antisocial personality disorder. Conversely, it is found that many people jailed at any given time committed their crimes while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Conceitedness or self-centeredness, deceitfulness, manipulation and living a double-life are all hallmarks of active addiction behavior patterns as well as those of a sociopath. Treatment which involves the abstinence from the abused substances for a time is necessary in order to determine whether the individual is displaying transient behavior patterns due to active addiction or something more pervasive which may be fueling the addiction. A well-trained and certified therapist will be necessary in order to make such determination and prepare the necessary treatment plan for the individual.
Different factors cause people to become a sociopath or psychopath and most are not killers. Some researchers think that sociopathy arises from childhood abuse and trauma. It is a ‘learned’ behavior arising from circumstance. This is why a sociopath may still maintain some moral conscience, some empathy, and some ability to form emotional attachments, although they are all weak. However, research suggests that psychopathy has a largely genetic component to it. Psychopathy is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions. It has been shown that brain scans of people with these disorders have shown low activity in areas related to empathy, morality, and self-control. Differences in brain scans has been revealed in addicts and alcoholics as well. Sociopaths make up around 5% of the general population, while psychopaths make up about 1%. However, these percentages are equivalent to millions of people, so it is quite possible that you might meet a sociopath or psychopath on any given day.