Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 1 – Definition

One of my biggest complaints about Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City is that I felt like I’d been sold the wrong book.  The title of the book (which is one of the main selling points) leads you to believe that the book is going to be primarily about H.H. Holmes, who was one of the first recorded serial killers in America (as well as one of the most prolific).  While the book did discuss part of Holmes life, I really thought that it was shoehorned into the book with the goal of helping the book to sell better.

I was still interested in learning more about Holmes, so I watched a documentary about him on Netflix that was directed by John Borowski.  The documentary was very well done and had a lot of interesting information about Holmes, some of which was included in Larson’s book, but much of which was not.  If you’re interested in learning specifically about Holmes, I would suggest Borowski’s documentary before Larson’s book.

While contrasting the two works, I noticed a big difference in the tone that was used when they were discussing Holmes.  Early in the Larson book, he is very derogatory and almost dismissive of Holmes.  I understand that it’s his book and it’s going to be styled by his opinions, but I think it leads to a kind of “us vs. them” attitude when dealing with sociopathic individuals, which I consider to be the wrong way to look at it.  The Borowski documentary is much more even in tone when looking at Holmes’s actions, which allows you to draw your own conclusions.

I have a big problem with trying to create the “us vs. them” attitude with anything, it doesn’t work and ultimately causes more problems then it will ever solve.  It’s easy to simply dismiss someone as insane, to call them a psychopath.  It makes us feel safer because there’s no way that we could ever do anything like that, we’re normal.  And while it’s the easy way to look at things, and it makes people feel better, it’s also dead wrong.

The first thing to discuss is the proper term for a serial killer, antihero, psychopath, whatever you normally use.  The term used in the DSM IV-TR and accepted by the APA is Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).  Is that a bit of a politically correct term?  Yes, but it’s the proper term.  Now, for the fun part that will probably surprise most of you, it isn’t nearly as rare as you think it is.  My Abnormal Psychology textbook lists the lifetime prevalence of APD as being 2% of the overall population.  In the 2010 Census the US Government listed the population of the country as just under 309 million.  Which means that there are potentially as many as 6.18 million people in this country who could be considered sociopaths.  (Please keep in mind that 2% is the figure that my textbook uses, although I don’t recall exactly which books they come from, I’ve heard estimates as high as 4% of the overall population.)

So what exactly are the symptoms to be diagnosed with APD?  Once again I turn to my Abnormal Psychology textbook:  A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or adolescence and continuing into adulthood, and indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability or aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or to honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.

Obviously not everyone who is diagnosed with APD is a serial killer, and there are killers who couldn’t be diagnosed with APD.  Any time you encounter someone with a different overall personality or viewpoint, it’s easy to break the discussion down to “us vs. them.”  But the better reaction to have is to take some time and examine their situation.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2 – Cultural Adaptation

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  1. You make a very important point, Adam: “It makes us feel safer because there’s no way that we could ever do anything like that, we’re normal. And while it’s the easy to look at things, and it makes people feel better, it’s also dead wrong.”

    You can watch it on the news shows every time someone carries a gun into a public place and opens fire. There is almost a collective sigh of relief when we discover that the perpetrators were bullied, or fired from their job and unable to find other work.

    It’s been quite a while since I have studied the DSM but I thought there were other formal diagnoses that could be applied. I recall for instance, that lack of compassion is a common thread and nowadays, a child who is cruel to animals draws attention for this reason, but that isn’t really part of the APD diagnosis.

    I’ll be interested to read your next post.

    • Part of the diagnosis for APD is that the person being diagnosed is over 18 years old. If the person is younger than 18 they would be diagnosed with either Conduct Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. ODD is the term for children as young as 8-10 years old, and CD is for older children, roughly 14-17.

      Children being cruel to animals is one of the indicators for CD, as is a fascination with setting fires. Often when looking back on the life of a person who is diagnosed with APD, you can find signs that they should have been diagnosed with CD when they were younger. However, a child who is diagnosed with CD is not guaranteed to have APD when they’re an adult.

  1. Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 2 – Cultural Adaptation « Reviews and Ramblings
  2. Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 3 – In Fiction « Reviews and Ramblings
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