"Sociopath." Professional diagnosis or political insult?

Whenever two people I greatly respect disagree with each other, I tend to pay attention. And thus I am unable to ignore the ongoing debate between Dr. Helen and Ann Althouse over the correct definition and usage of the term "sociopath."

As I think both are honestly concerned with what the term means (and neither seems to be debating for the sake of winning a debate) this may shed some important light on the definition of "sociopath" -- and perhaps on the growing trend of turning political disagreements into psychiatric diagnoses.

Some of the Althouse commenters have launched ad hominem attacks against Dr. Helen, which I find at least as annoying as the casual use of the term "sociopath" to label people you disagree with.

Of course, there's a Catch-22 in this. (Um, maybe it's a Scylla versus Charybdis.) If someone calls you a sociopath, and you freak out, you run the risk of being labeled as neurotically insecure and unable to handle criticism. Which is why Dr. Helen advises learning how to get rejected -- over and over again!

And how!

Short of trying to shop a book around or engage in freelance political lobbying without any training or help, the best way to do that is to start a blog.

On the other hand, if you don't care about being called a sociopath, why, you might be a sociopath! That's because, according to the Althouse view, the toughening process could lead one to become a sociopath:

I think that maybe some people could come out well at the end of getting "rejected over and over and over" until the reach the stage where they don't "give a shit," but that this also sounds like a description of a sociopath!
Naturally, I find this fascinating, and I don't know whether to take it personally or not.

I left the following comment:

After writing a post critical of her, I was "diagnosed" as a sociopath by a Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte (a woman I don't think is a licensed psychologist).

Naturally, this left me in quite a quandary. I could either take it personally and be hurt (thus evincing the inability to tolerate rejection that you described in the earlier post), or I could not care at all (thus proving to "Dr. Marcotte's" supporters that I am a sociopath).

I may not be 100% right, but I suspect that if I were a real sociopath, my primary goal would not be to grapple with hurt feelings or the absence thereof (or the meaning of either), but to do or say whatever I had to do or say to present whatever appearance would get the most for me. (Above all, sociopaths strike me as selfish people who if they seem unselfish, it's only because they are pretending in order to con someone.)

The problem is compounded by the fact that the person who called me a sociopath may be one herself. (Except I don't want to call her that because she might not be, and I think there's a lot of politically motivated name calling which takes the form of "medicalized insults.")

The Marcotte diagnosis is here. Should I care more? Or should I care less? Am I supposed to care about whether I should care, or am I a sociopath for posing these questions?

I'm wondering about the "Althouse principle" (I'm using the term loosely) that the more you're insulted, the more sociopathic you become. Might we be confusing a personality that has developed hardened calluses with a personality that was uncaring to begin with?

I'm not a psychologist. All I can do is look at Wikipedia. I'm not qualified to psychoanalyze myself, but I don't think I have enough of the traits to fit the diagnosis. (For starters, I'm too much of a damned bleeding heart, and I really can't stand to hurt people. I hope that doesn't mean I should develop a thicker skin so I can run for president or something....)

Anyway, a lot of people are casually called sociopaths for political reasons. Last week I wrote about the attacks on Glenn Reynolds which called him exactly that. Use a word like that enough, and it will become overwrought like "racist" and it will not only lose its sting, but it will have no meaning. Then eventually everyone gets to be a sociopath for at least fifteen minutes -- to be added to their fifteen minutes of Hitlerdom. And what will the real sociopaths be called?

Who gets to diagnose? Well, psychologists and psychiatrists at least have some training in these matters. Certainly more than Glenn Greenwald, or Amanda Marcotte, or me, or Ann Althouse. Lawyers, by the nature of their training, are qualified to opine on matters such as whether someone has a valid cause of action for breach of contract, but (absent additional training) a law degree does not entitle them to any credibility in psychology or psychiatry.

I understand Ann Althouse's concerns, but I think her view of sociopathy might be based more on practical experience with ordinary manipulative assholes than clinical experience in diagnosing them. The term "sociopath" is becoming a lay descriptor for a host of unattractive personality types (if not a garden variety insult), and it shouldn't be.

While I've called plenty of people sociopaths too, and I'm hardly innocent, that doesn't mean this medicalized insulting is a good thing. I mean, if you're a sociopath for believing we need to tough it out in Iraq, then what does that make Charles Manson?

Until "sociopath" degenerates into being a plain old insult, I'm inclined to side with Dr. Helen on this one. I'd like the term to mean something.

posted by Eric on 03.13.07 at 06:36 PM


"Sociopath" is a word utterly devoid of any meaning in the field of psychology. It is attributed, at various times, to people with schizoid personality disorder (including myself), antisocial personality disorder, and schizophrenia. It's pretty much become the new "Nazi"; the only thing it succeeds in doing is putting you on the defensive by requiring you to say, "I am not a sociopath [or Nazi]."

S Wisnieski   ·  March 13, 2007 7:02 PM

A friend of mine whose marriage eventually dissolved was in couples' therapy during a period when he and his wife thought they might still make the marriage work. My friend eventually came to the conclusion that his wife was a sociopath, and his criterion for labelling her that was his blief, based on her bizarre behavior, that in her mind "there was no connection between the word and the referent" (as he elegantly phrased it). It went beyond mere lying, he felt; it was that she had no sense that other people would have some expectations based on things she said. For example, according to my friend, she would say that she was going out to the grocery store and get some milk, and then be gone for most of the day and return without explanation--and then not understand when he and the kids would question her on it. If you did question by pointing out "But you said . . ." her attitude, my friend said, was in effect "Well, they're just words." I've always found his statments ("no connection between the word and the referent" and "they're just words") to be a useful description of the sociopathic mind-set. Also why I can understand some people seeing Bill Clinton as a sociopath.

Bilwick   ·  March 14, 2007 9:58 AM

Dr. Helen mentions something called the Hare Psychopathy checklist, and I found a list of features. (Obviously, a diagnosis would require a thorough professional evaluation.)


Hare's PCL-R 20-item checklist is based on Cleckley's 16-item checklist, and the following is a discussion of the concepts in the PCL-R.

But first of all, here is Cleckley's original list of symptoms of a psychopath:

1. Considerable superficial charm and average or above average intelligence.

2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking

3. Absence of anxiety or other "neurotic" symptoms considerable poise, calmness, and verbal facility.

4. Unreliability, disregard for obligations no sense of responsibility, in matters of little and great import.

5.Untruthfulness and insincerity

7. Antisocial behavior which is inadequately motivated and poorly planned, seeming to stem from an inexplicable impulsiveness.

7.Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior

8.Poor judgment and failure to learn from experience

9. Pathological egocentricity. Total self-centeredness incapacity for real love and attachment.

10. General poverty ot deep and lasting emotions.

11. Lack of any true insight, inability to see oneself as others do.

12. Ingratitude for any special considerations, kindness, and trust.

13. Fantastic and objectionable behavior, after drinking and sometimes even when not drinking--vulgarity, rudeness, quick mood shifts, pranks.

14. No history of genuine suicide attempts.

15. An impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated seX life.

16. Failure to have a life plan and to live in any ordered way, unless it be one promoting self-defeat.

"...More often than not, the typical psychopath will seem particularly agreeable and make a distinctly positive impression when he is first encountered. Alert and friendly in his attitude, he is easy to talk with and seems to have a good many genuine interests. There is nothing at all odd or queer about him, and in every respect he tends to embody the concept of a well-adjusted, happy person. Nor does he, on the other hand, seem to be artificially exerting himself like one who is covering up or who wants to sell you a bill of goods. He would seldom be confused with the professional backslapper or someone who is trying to ingratiate himself for a concealed purpose. Signs of affectation or excessive affability are not characteristic. He looks like the real thing.

"Very often indications of good sense and sound reasoning will emerge, and one is likely to feel soon after meeting him that this normal and pleasant person is also one with -high abilities. Psychometric tests also very frequently show him of superior intelligence. More than the average person, he is likely to seem free from social or emotional impediments, from the minor distortions, peculiarities, and awkwardnesses so common even among the successful. Such superficial characteristics are not universal in this group but they are very common..."

"...It must be granted of course that the psychopath has some affect. Affect is, perhaps, a component in the sum of life reactions even in the unicellular protoplasmic entity. Certainly in all mammals it is obvious. The relatively petty states of pleasure, vexation, and animosity experienced by the psychopath have been mentioned. The opinion here maintained is that he fails to know all those more serious and deeply moving affective states which make up the tragedy and triumph of ordinary life, of life at the level of important human experience..."

Hare's Checklist

1. GLIB and SUPERFICIAL CHARM -- the tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example.

2. GRANDIOSE SELF-WORTH -- a grossly inflated view of one's abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.

3. NEED FOR STIMULATION or PRONENESS TO BOREDOM -- an excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.

4. PATHOLOGICAL LYING -- can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.

5. CONNING AND MANIPULATIVENESS- the use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims.

6. LACK OF REMORSE OR GUILT -- a lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one's victims.

7. SHALLOW AFFECT -- emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.

8. CALLOUSNESS and LACK OF EMPATHY -- a lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.

9. PARASITIC LIFESTYLE -- an intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities.

10. POOR BEHAVIORAL CONTROLS -- expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.

11. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR -- a variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.

12. EARLY BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS -- a variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home.

13. LACK OF REALISTIC, LONG-TERM GOALS -- an inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.

14. IMPULSIVITY -- the occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.

15. IRRESPONSIBILITY -- repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.

16. FAILURE TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR OWN ACTIONS -- a failure to accept responsibility for one's actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.

17. MANY SHORT-TERM MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS -- a lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.

18. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY -- behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.

19. REVOCATION OF CONDITION RELEASE -- a revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.

20. CRIMINAL VERSATILITY -- a diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.

Eric Scheie   ·  March 14, 2007 5:08 PM

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