Psychopathy is a generally feared mental health condition and has been positioned as a fundamentally evil personality disorder. The truth, as it often is, is quite a bit more complex. To better understand psychopathy, it is therefore necessary to take a more in-depth look at the condition, both as a standalone disorder, and in relation to more prevalent disorder, such as in the case of psychopathy and depression.
Before diving into what constitutes psychopathy, it is important to note that these days, the mental health community (at least in the U.S.) describes psychopathic attributes as symptoms relating to antisocial personality disorder. That said, since psychopathy is still a commonly used term, it remains a relevant shorthand for its accumulated symptomatology, making a case for understanding what would constitute psychopathic behavior.
Psychopathy refers to individuals whose aim to satisfy their own self-interests far exceeds any concern for the well-being of others. Such individuals often lack a sense of compassion, and do not feel guilty over how their actions have detrimentally affected others. Unsurprisingly, higher rates of psychopathy exist within the criminal population.
The generally agreed upon, core aspects of psychopathy include the following:
Psychopaths can be very high-functioning, hold down jobs, and maintain relationships with others. However, such bonds are frequently shallow and self-serving, while their professional life may be a ploy to cover up their own criminal activity.
In their own way, psychopaths may love others, but their definition of love may be considerably different than how it is commonly perceived and include severe exploitation of the other individual.
While the APA’s current manual has replaced psychopathy with antisocial personality disorder (more on that later), it does provide an alternative view on personality disorders, wherein it refers to a “psychopathy variant” of antisocial personality disorder. This variant is described as referring to individuals with the following symptoms:
Since at present, mental health experts shy away from psychopathy, the term can more accurately be considered a precursor to how a personal tendency toward cruelty and irresponsible behavior is viewed today.
Psychopathy was officially dethroned by another, similar definition, over 40 years ago. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM-III). In it, the APA stated it had replaced psychopathy with antisocial personality disorder.
Later additions of the DSM continued referring to antisocial personality disorder instead of psychopathy. As a result, the manual’s current edition (DSM-V) only provides statistical data on antisocial personality disorder, stating that prevalence rates for this condition range from 0.2%-3.3%. Over 70% of males with issues of substance abuse, or who are incarcerated, have been shown to also contend with antisocial personality disorder.
Antisocial personality disorder is overwhelmingly more common among males, to the point where concern has been raised that it is being underdiagnosed among females; that said, current data finds the disorder to be three times more prevalent among males. It has also been associated with low socioeconomic status and urban settings.
The difference between psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder lies in the focus each definition takes: while psychopathy was used to emphasize an individual’s cruelty and lack of remorse, antisocial personality disorder spotlights the behavioral symptoms associated with this disorder, over the way they tend to disregard the needs of others.
As such, antisocial personality disorder symptoms include:
Like psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy has also been used within the mental health community to describe a pervasive tendency toward violently disruptive behavior. Sociopathy is actually rather similar to antisocial personality disorder, while differing from psychopathy in a number of key ways.
For one thing, sociopaths are much more impulsive, hot-tempered, and lacking self-control than psychopaths, who are seen as more in control of their actions. Psychopaths are also able to follow social norms and expectations to further their own goals, whereas sociopaths will more likely lash out in violent frustration, when their desires are not met, causing them to find it difficult to hold down a job or maintain a steady family life.
On the flip side, while neither definition is used to describe a particularly conscientious individual, sociopaths are sometimes considered to have a bit more empathy compared to psychopaths, who are seen as more calculating and ruthless. While they struggle with relationships, the chance of their forming an equal bond with someone else is greater than that of a psychopath.
These days, psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and sociopathy are often used interchangeably, particularly in non-scientific contexts. That said, choosing to describe someone as a sociopath can underscore the role their environment has played in their condition.
As such, sociopathy may be used to emphasize:
The possibility of a psychopath depression case raises the question of whether someone with a severe inability to empathize with the suffering of others, could feasibly experience a disconnect from their own sense of emptiness and despair.
Referring to antisocial personality disorder as the present-day iteration of psychopathy, the APA states that antisocial personality disorder may be accompanied by a depressed mood. It further states that antisocial personality disorder can co-exist with depressive disorders, including major depression.