ASPD, Sociopathy, and Psychopathy are a largely misunderstood set of clinical issues by both laypeople and many in the psychology field. People like Steven Moffat do nothing to help with these misconceptions, and shows like Dexter also don’t help.
I used to confuse the three myself until I started reading up on the real experts, such as James Fallon and Kevin Dutton. I also started reading from the perspective of actual psychopaths and sociopaths on Quora. There are a few genuine psychopaths and sociopaths who are pro-social and willing to share their experiences. (And no, Hare is outdated and cannot tell the difference between ASPD and psychopathy, so please don’t bother with his overrated work.)
If you’re looking to write a psychopath because you think they are cool, edgy, sadistic, cold, etc., don’t. Not only is it overdone in media now, it’s very poorly and inaccurately done. Please spare your readers further misconceptions and idiocy. Just don’t bother.
Writing a psychopath accurately means not giving them a traumatic background. They don’t need one. They weren’t “made” into psychopaths. They were born that way. Literally all psychopaths have is a different structure of the brain. That’s all. They are not created by trauma, abuse, etc. You cannot have a psychopath with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. You cannot have a psychopath with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Nor Borderline, nor avoidant, etc. It is physically impossible to traumatize a psychopath. They just don’t get traumatized because they lack the brain structure to support trauma.
They are born like this. When they turn 25 and the brain completes its development, they remain like this. The majority of psychopaths are not anti-social. They are pro-social and fit in just fine. They are probably people you know. They are very rare, representing only one-percent of the population. No, you won’t be able to guess who they are. They study neurotypical behavior closely in order to fit in so they won’t get killed just for being born with a different brain structure. They’re good at it, too.
The anti-social ones are the ones who get caught doing something impulsive or downright idiotic. They are even more rare.
ASPD and psychopathy does not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
Sociopaths, on the other hand, develop variant brain structure due to abuse and trauma in childhood. They are often called secondary psychopaths.
So what are the traits of a psychopath?
- Lack of emotional empathy. They cannot develop empathy due to a lack of development in the regions of the brain that control empathetic emotional responses. Specifically the right amygdala, the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, and the somatosensory cortex.
- Unable to feel remorse. Remorse and guilt are controlled in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This part of the brain does not develop in the same way it does in neurotypicals.
- Inability to feel fear. Fear is also found in the amygdala. Some people will argue that because they get startled, they can feel fear. Wrong. Startle responses are due to the brain stem—it’s an autonomic reaction in the same vein as getting the hiccups from eating too-spicy food, or laughing when being tickled.
- Ability to be ruthless. This can be related to the inability to feel empathy, enabling psychopaths to make decisions that benefit themselves and their inner circles.
- Impulsive. The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision making in response to emotions. Underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex leads to making sometimes unfortunate decisions that are, in retrospect, rash.
- Adaptability. Psychopaths are highly adaptable and can change comfortably to fit into a new or foreign environment.
- Able to focus. When something interesting grabs the attention of a person with psychopathy, the parietal cortex takes charge, and they won’t let it go until they’re done with it. With the right amount of self-discipline, this can make them extremely successful in achieving goals.
- Hardiness. Tough-as-nails. The lack of emotional response means that psychopaths can withstand a lot of outside forces working against them.
- Confident. Confidence can be found in the orbitofrontal cortex, which develops differently than it does in neurotypicals.
- They do not have a stress response. Thanks to that underdeveloped amygdala, stress means nothing to them.
- They have charisma and are charming. Because psychopaths have to work hard to fit in and craft their masks, they are very good at winning people over and manipulating them when necessary.
Athena Walker on Quora provided the initial list in one of her answers. I’ve added to it with my own flavor and added one extra trait.
Not all psychopaths are the same, and these traits, though all present, have some that are more prominent than others. For example, one psychopath may have a greater ability to focus, while another may have severe impulsivity issues. It depends on their individual brain development and genetic traits. For more information on this, read what a real psychopath has to say on the subject.
Sociopaths have many of the shared traits with psychopaths, but the difference is that sociopaths are made, not born.
These traits described above are primarily what Hare would call Factor One traits on his psychopathy scale. This is a very old scale and though sadly, some still use it, it often confuses these traits with anti-social traits and blends them together. While that would be useful for diagnosing ASPD with Psychopathy, it’s far more useful for character creation.
Because what you want to write, if you’re writing a psychopath, is essentially someone with ASPD. You can choose whether or not to give them psychopathy or keep them neurotypical, of course, but ASPD doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a psychopath.
The DSM is not adequate in discussing psychopaths or sociopaths and they are not independent diagnoses. ASPD is the only diagnosis that can be made according to DSM-V.
Part Two will explore ASPD, and how to make your character a believable person with ASPD and/or a psychopath/sociopath.