Sociopathic Personality

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Sociopathic Personality

In 1941, American physician Harvey Cleckley wrote a groundbreaking book in forensic science entitled The Mask of Sanity. Before that time, psychopathy had been loosely defined as insanity without delirium (psychotic features such as delusions and hallucinations), psychopathic inferiority, and moral insanity. Cleckley was the first to study this personality syndrome from a more scientific perspective. He generated a list of sixteen traits that clustered together to create an identifiable character sketch (a set of traits, behaviors and attitudes that define a particular way of moving in the world) of the sociopathic personality. The central characteristics in this cluster were: lack of empathy or anxiety, shallowness, self-centeredness, irresponsibility, and manipulativeness. These individuals, Cleckley found, were far more likely to commit crimes, to be more violent, to recidivate (to repeat their criminal behaviors), and less likely to respond to treatment efforts than were other criminal populations. He found the psychiatric community uniformly unwilling to work with this population or to address them in any way, and speculated that this might be due to the fact that they (psychopaths) often afford no outward signs of their pathology . Infact, a person with a psychopathic personality can be quite charismatic during early interactions. It was Cleckley's contention that it is difficult to fully appreciate the deviancy of the psychopath under treatment or confinement (prison or jail) circumstances; they need to be seen in their social environment, where they often operate as abusers, manipulators, scammers, or con artists.

In 1952, the term psychopath was replaced in the psychiatric literature by sociopathic personality. These terms became synonymous, as the concept of personality disorders evolved. With the advent of DSM-II (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Second Edition), the uniformly accepted manual of psychodiagnosis) in 1968, the term personality disorder, antisocial type replaced sociopathic personality. In contemporary forensic psychiatric, psychological, and sociological literature, the terms psychopath, sociopath, criminal personality and ASPD/APD (antisocial personality disorder) are used commonly to describe the affected criminal population.

Antisocial personality disorder, common among convicted felons, is chiefly characterized by flagrant disregard for the rights of others, a refusal to conform to the rules and norms of society, and an inability to experience feelings of either anxiety or guilt. Other clinical symptoms are predatory behaviors, manipulativeness and deceitfulness, inability to plan for the future or to envision the potential consequences of their behaviors, consistent irresponsibility, irritability and aggressiveness, callous disregard for the safety and well-being of others, and an inability to experience feelings of guilt or remorse after doing material, emotional, or physical harm to others.

The central characteristics of the psychopath are described in somewhat more emotional or affective terms. They are highly self-centered, impulsive, irresponsible, manipulative, and remorseless; they do not experience guilt or regret. They tend to be pathological liars and they persistently violate social norms and rules. Their crimes tend to be described as "cold-blooded," as they are committed without obvious motivation (except to satisfy their own material needs, by robbery, for example). Psychopaths commonly exert power and control over others, and they do so through the use of superficial charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence. They tend not to outgrow their behavior, do not benefit from treatment, and do not rehabilitate during periods of incarceration.

Sociopaths are typically described as conscience-less. They are extremely shallow, selfish, self-centered, boastful, antagonistic, and unable to bond with others or to form lasting romantic relationships. They also tend to be extreme risk-takers who are unable to refuse temptation of any sort. Sociopaths view other people as vehicles for their own gain, and they fail to recognize their own negative characteristics. Sociopaths are generally adept at rationalizing their behavior and asserting (and believing) that they are victims of the ill will of others, and that they are good people put in bad circumstances. Sociopaths often report difficult childhoods: single parent homes, extreme poverty, neighborhood or family violence, lack of parental supervision, early separation from family, or rearing in foster homes, state-run group homes, or institution-like settings.

There is no effective treatment for these personality disorders: incarceration is merely palliative. That is, an individual with sociopathy, psychopathy or ASPD may either not exhibit the offending behaviors while incarcerated, or may use them adaptively in order to function well in the prison setting, but will immediately (and admittedly) return to utilizing them upon release from prison.

see also Bundy (serial murderer) case; Contact crimes; Profiling.