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  • Writer's pictureV. Romanov

Psychopathy, sociopathy and dissocial personality disorder. What is it?

Terms such as "sociopath", "psychopath" or "antisocial behaviour" are often used in popular culture. These terms conjure up images of ruthless manipulators, cruel criminals or even serial killers. Fortunately, such people are usually only to be found on the pages of novels, in films or on television. Nevertheless, the thought of them still exerts a dark fascination on many people. In internet forums and psychology websites, even people we meet in everyday life are ascribed certain sociopathic personality traits. Whole personality typologies are devised that ascribe dark or light psychological traits to people. On this basis, the unpleasant boss or the disagreeable colleague is secretly labelled as a sociopath, psychopath or disturbed. What is it and what does science have to say about it? Are all people who behave ruthlessly, manipulatively, egotistically or even criminally psychologically disturbed? If you want to know what this is all about, then keep reading.

The terms "psychopathy", "sociopathy" and "antisocial" or "dissocial personality disorder" are often used interchangeably, even by psychologists. This is because the terms have different origins and describe similar patterns of behaviour. In particular, the terms "psychopathy" and "sociopathy" are commonly used in the American-speaking world, which does not exclude their use in the rest of the world. Psychopathy is often understood as a severe form of sociopathy. However, in Europe at least, the term "psychopath" is often considered outdated and is no longer used. In principle, however, when we talk about a personality disorder, i.e. dysfunctional behaviour with a pathological value, we are referring to dissocial personality disorder. This is defined in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) under F60.2.

Dissocial personality disorder according to ICD-10 is also called antisocial personality disorder. It is characterised by a marked disregard for the rights of others. People with the disorder often show behaviour such as impulsive and irresponsible actions, low frustration tolerance, lack of empathy, aggressiveness and irritability. They can also easily shift responsibility for their behaviour onto others and often have difficulty maintaining long-term relationships.

In order for a diagnosis of dissocial personality disorder to be made according to the ICD-10, at least three of the following criteria must be met:

  • Lack of willingness to abide by social norms and rules, resulting in repeated acts leading to imprisonment.

  • Behaviour that shows a reckless disregard for one's own safety or the safety of others.

  • Impulsiveness or inability to plan ahead.

  • Low tolerance for frustration or low threshold for aggressive behaviour, including constant fighting and brawling.

  • Lack of remorse or guilt, often combined with rationalised thinking that minimises or denies the significance of behaviour that is wrongful towards others.

  • There is evidence of disorganisation in behaviour, work or family life.

Symptoms must have started before the age of 15 and continue into adolescence or adulthood. Other personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia must be excluded.

These people live by the motto "help yourself or no one else will help you". Empathy, guilt and a sense of duty are alien to them. They are manipulative, exploitative, deceitful, hurtful and unreliable towards others. As a result, their relationships are very unstable and short-lived. In addition, they may impulsively commit acts of violence and other crimes that may eventually lead to prosecution and subsequent imprisonment. The peculiarity lies in the uncorrectability of the destructive behaviour, so that even repeated deprivation of liberty does not result in any lasting improvement in behaviour. They live in a world of "eat or be eaten" and take what they think they are entitled to, often disregarding all social and moral rules and laws.

A key feature of this personality disorder is a lack of empathy, which does not necessarily mean that antisocial personalities are incapable of empathy. They are able to recognise the feelings of others, but do not feel compassion. Imaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have been used to measure brain activity in specific areas of the brain of people with normal empathy capacity and those with sociopathic traits as they view picture content. In people with low capacity for empathy, images of violence evoke less or no activity in the brain regions responsible for emotion.

Such people may be more likely to become criminals because they tend to abuse or torture people or even animals. The torturing and killing of animals may indicate abnormal personality development in childhood or adolescence. Studies have shown that approximately 15-25% of male prisoners and 10-15% of female prisoners have a diagnosable dissocial personality disorder. Other estimates suggest that between 40% and 90% of prisoners have moderate to severe sociopathic and antisocial personality traits. This is also an important factor in the psychological assessment of offenders, which can lead to preventative detention. So what personality traits are we talking about?

In personality psychology there is a concept called the "dark triad". The Dark Triad consists of three personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. People who score high on these traits tend to be particularly selfish, ruthless and manipulative.

Narcissism refers to excessive self-love and self-centredness. People with high levels of narcissism often have an inflated sense of self-worth, seek admiration and approval, and are often only interested in themselves. This trait should not be confused with a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.

Machiavellianism refers to an attitude based on the political thinking of the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. People with high levels of machiavellianism tend to manipulate and exploit others to achieve their own goals. They are often very ruthless and calculating and have little interest in moral or ethical concerns. In essence, people with this trait live by the principle that 'the end justifies the means'.

Psychopathy refers to the personality disorder described above, which is characterised by, among other things, a lack of empathy, a lack of guilt, and a tendency towards impulsive and risky behaviour. People with high scores on this trait are often very good at manipulating and exploiting others to achieve their own goals. Characteristic of this trait is a low or even complete lack of compassion, especially in high scorers. Some would call this trait sociopathy to distinguish it more clearly from personality disorder.

It is important to note that the presence of these traits, even in a pronounced form, does not necessarily indicate a personality disorder. Rather, these traits should be seen as preclinical expressions, i.e. without pathological value. So do such people inevitably become criminals? Although the tendency is undoubtedly there, it is by no means inevitable that they will commit crimes. Most people with the personality traits described lead perfectly normal lives: they learn and study, go about their daily business, marry and have children, without ever attracting the attention of the criminal justice system.

On the contrary, studies have shown that the Dark Triad traits are advantageous in certain professions, so that narcissists, machiavellians and people with sociopathic traits may be overrepresented in certain professions or industries. Some studies have shown that traits such as narcissism and machiavellianism are more common in managers and business people than in other occupational groups. It is thought that professions that offer power and influence over others may be attractive to people with strong Dark Triad traits. These include politics, the military and possibly the medical professions.

So where is the line between a personality trait and a mental illness? In general, a personality trait can be said to be part of the normal range of personality variation and does not cause significant impairment in the individual's social, occupational or personal functioning. In contrast, a pathology is a trait that causes impairment and interferes with the individual's normal life. In clinical practice, the boundary between personality traits and pathologies is assessed using various criteria such as the intensity, frequency and duration of the trait and its impact on the individual's life. Another important consideration is whether the trait is associated with suffering or a negative impact on others. For example, individuals with a dissocial disorder clearly have a negative impact on their own lives and the lives of others that is either minimal or absent in a normal range of positive and negative personality traits.

What about serial killers? Are these people all severely mentally disturbed, so that their illness drives them to commit gruesome acts of bloodshed again and again? Fortunately, such people are extremely rare in the general population, so it is not possible to make a universal statement about their mental health. Criminologists distinguish between different types of serial killers, but even this classification does not allow for a clear diagnosis. This is because each serial killer is basically unique and therefore only displays pathological characteristics that are typical for this particular case. This type of behaviour is still poorly understood, and its causes and backgrounds are largely unknown. The biggest obstacle is that personality disorders, especially dissocial personality disorder, are very difficult to treat, especially as there is usually no recognition of the condition on the part of the affected person. As a result, in most countries, violent criminals and murderers with multiple convictions remain locked up for life in high-security prisons or closely guarded psychiatric facilities for serious offenders. However, research is progressing and there is hope that one day it will be possible to identify and detect tendencies towards brutal violence and the unbridled urge to inflict suffering and death at an early stage of development, so that similar acts of violence can be prevented in the bud.

In summary, the terms "psychopathy", "sociopathy", "dissocial" or "antisocial personality disorder" are often used synonymously, so that it is necessary to look closely at the context of the statement in order to understand whether it is a personality disorder or merely a so-called "dark" trait of the human psyche. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that the terms are simply misused or inflationary. However, this article can be a reliable aid in the future in unravelling their respective meanings.

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