This semester I taught both Forensic Psychology and Abnormal Psychology at the University of Bridgeport. The students there are an ethnically diverse group and I think are fairly representative of America’s young adult population. In both classes we discussed those individuals who have a “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” I wrote antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy and psychopathy on the blackboard before we began our discussion. I then asked the students if they had heard of these terms and if they could tell me the definitions.
Only a small percentage had heard the term antisocial personality disorder, nearly everyone had heard the word sociopath, about a third had heard the word psychopath.
The next question to the students was, “What do all these terms mean?” Someone asked if antisocial personality referred to a person that didn’t like to be around others. Someone else said that psychopaths are “out of touch with reality, psychotic.” Most who heard the word sociopath associated it with criminality.
The students were shocked to discover that all three terms basically refer to the same disorder.
That same week, I spoke with an internet search expert. He told me that the term antisocial personality disorder is searched through Google about 5,000 times per day. The term psychopath is searched 60,000 times per day and the term sociopath is searched 110,000 times per day. These numbers are consistent with my survey of university students. My findings indicate that the American Psychiatric Association has done the public a great disservice with their boggled naming of the disorder.
An interesting historical fact is that this disorder used to be called “moral insanity.” Insanity is a legal term that indicates that due to mental defect a person is not responsible for his/her actions. Although many people believe that the morally insane have a mental (brain)defect there is considerable resistance to saying this absolves them of responsibility for their criminal acts.
This week we discussed the case of John W. Hinckley, Jr. the man who shot President Reagan and Mr. Brady, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital. A psychiatrist for the prosecution, Dietz testified that Hinckley viewed his actions on March 30 as successful. “It worked,” Hinckley told Dietz in an interview. “You know, actually, I accomplished everything I was going for there. Actually, I should feel good because I accomplished everything on a grand scale….I didn’t get any big thrill out of killing–I mean shooting–him. I did it for her sake….The movie isn’t over yet.” In short, Deitz saw Hinckley as a sociopath who was grandiose and trying to impress Jody Foster with his actions, though I believe he actually diagnosed him with borderline personality.
I reflected to the class that it seems that individuals like Hinckley and Dahmer (the serial killer) should be considered special cases of sociopathy and not lumped with the rest. There are sociopaths who are so grandiose and obsessed with power that they seem to lose touch with reality. Not that they are schizophrenic and have delusions or hallucinations, but their interpretations of the world cannot be construed as “normal.”
This is actually where the term “borderline” came from, as is used today to refer to “borderline personality.” The borderline is some point between neurotic and psychotic-borderline psychotic actually. So perhaps we could consider psychopaths those sociopaths who are so afflicted that their thinking and behavior indicate they have lost their grip on reality. Some psychiatrists do think of psychopaths as the worst sociopaths.
Should those with moral insanity who commit crimes be treated differently than others? Should John Hinckley be released now that he has been judged not psychotic? These are questions for another week.
If you have a personal example of a sociopath’s “loose grip on reality” please share it with us in a comment.