Moral Insanity: Psychopaths & Sociopaths

Warren Beatty plays a reporter investigating a corporation of professional assassins

Sometimes I wish I believed in reincarnation. I mean, if all of history’s most prominent psychopaths had reincarnated at the same time, and through their manipulative talents came to occupy positions of power, there could hardly be a better explanation for the situation we find ourselves in today.

Any discussion of psychopathy, which in previous centuries was called “moral insanity” and “madness without delirium,” has to include the 35 years of research conducted by Dr. Robert Hare, creator of the gold standard for psychopathic diagnosis, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). Dr. Hare began his research career by trying to determine why certain prisoners didn’t or couldn’t respond to punishment, why they exhibited no sense of conscience for their often violent and predatory acts.

Early in his career, Dr, Hare was given full access to the Canadian penal system, which as one can imagine contains a high concentration of psychopaths, an ideal ‘captive’ audience to study. Robert Hercz, in an essay titled PSYCHOPATHS AMONG US sums up some of Dr. Hare’s most poignant findings:

[V]iolent criminals are just a tiny fraction of the psychopaths around us. Hare estimates that 1 percent of the population — 300,000 people in Canada — are psychopaths.

He calls them “subclinical” psychopaths. They’re the charming predators who, unable to form real emotional bonds, find and use vulnerable women for sex and money (and inevitably abandon them). They’re the con men like Christophe Rocancourt, and they’re the stockbrokers and promoters who caused Forbes magazine to call the Vancouver Stock Exchange (now part of the Canadian Venture Exchange) the scam capital of the world. (Hare has said that if he couldn’t study psychopaths in prisons, the Vancouver Stock Exchange would have been his second choice.) A significant proportion of persistent wife beaters, and people who have unprotected sex despite carrying the AIDS virus, are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be found in legislatures, hospitals, and used-car lots. They’re your neighbour, your boss, and your blind date. Because they have no conscience, they’re natural predators. If you didn’t have a conscience, you’d be one too.

Note the parenthetical — “Hare has said that if he couldn’t study psychopaths in prisons, the Vancouver Stock Exchange would have been his second choice.”

Bingo. Today in the US of A, we call those people “banksters”, a new class of predators created by the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act in the late nineties that tore down the firewall between traditional banking and the high stakes gamblers on Wall Street who use other people’s money to make themselves filty rich. And, should they lose their bets, use those same taxpayers to make them whole.

Who prospered as housing was inflating out of control on the way up and prospered again as it crashed on the way down, destroying the dreams and home life of millions of American families (even betting against their own clients, as did Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibi’s “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”)? Do we really want the Wall Street equivalent of Hannibal Lector managing our 401ks, and if their lackeys in Congress succeed in privatizing Medicare and Social Security, our health and old age insurance plans as well?

And should it comes as surprise that large numbers of them are concentrated at the Chicago Board of Trade – a target rich environment where commodity speculators are even now pushing fuel and food prices through the roof, driving billions of people already on the brink of starvation to further desperation? That’s just morally insane.

And that 1% figure? There’s no reason to believe that Canada isn’t typical for populations in general, which means there are some 70 million psychopaths on the planet, 3 million here in the US of A alone.

Another hallmark of psychopaths is their lack of empathy, a behavioral and character trait they share with sociopaths. At this point it would be useful to distinguish between the two, since they are often considered one and the same. Perhaps the best non-technical way to illustrate the differences is by considering the 1974 movie The Parallax View in which Warren Beatty plays a reporter played investigating the assassination of a political figure running for the presidency (a thinly disguised Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.).

Beatty suspects it was a professional contract killing and his queries lead him a company called The Parallax Corporation that specializes in such things, using Sirhan Sirhan-like patsies to take the fall. Beatty tries to infiltrate the company by replying to one of their employment ads. He gets a hold of an application questionnaire but doesn’t know how to best answer it. He consults a university professor for guidance, who looking it over suspects that they are looking for a sociopathic personality type. The prof decides to let one of his lab rats, a homicidal sociopath on loan from the local psychiatric prison take the test for him. Naturally, he aces it.

Beatty submits the questionnaire and scores a personal interview at his dingy apartment with a recruiter from Parralax. Beatty plays the part of a sociopath perfectly, in one scene hurling a hot pot of food at a wall when he burns himself. He rants about being a victim of prejudiced employers to explain his present predicament. The suit eyes all this approvingly and invites Beatty to the company HQ for further testing. Inside the posh, modern facility, Beatty is seated in a comfortable chair wired up to machines that register his emotional reactions, first to a series positive images and then to a series of negative ones.

Beatty auditioning for the role of a sociopathic patsy

Positive images include pictures of mother, family, God, and country. Negative ones include pictures of war, Nazis, torture, and rape. The lag between the negative and positive images accelerates to the point where they overlap in an audio visual frenzy, deliberately confusing good and evil. The climax calls out for a hero to restore the balance (overlaid on an image of an avenging Thor). When the lights come up, Beatty, looking a bit disoriented, is informed that he passed this final test and has been chosen to assassinate a US Senator. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will provide a hint.

Hercz again:

In another Hare study, groups of letters were flashed to volunteers. Some of them were nonsense, some formed real words. The subject’s job was to press a button whenever he recognized a real word, while Hare recorded response time and brain activity. Non-psychopaths respond faster and display more brain activity when processing emotionally loaded words such as “rape” or “cancer” than when they see neutral words such as “tree.” With psychopaths, Hare found no difference. To them, “rape” and “tree” have the same emotional impact — none.

Let the movie’s violent, socially dysfunctional patsy stand as an example of the sociopath—disorganized, quick to anger, lashing out, the perennial victim. And let the kind of cold, ruthless, manipulative, well mannered suits behind The Parralax Corporation stand as exemplars of the high functioning psychopath.

A more detailed behavioral comparison between psychopaths and sociopaths is provided below, with the caveat that I have no expertise in the field nor can I vouch for the expertise behind this particular list. I would only note that the upcoming update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (V) contains proposed changes to the category “Antisocial Personality Disorder,“ which replaced the category of psychopatholgy in 1980, to now include Antisocial/Psychopathic Type ,”with the diagnostic criteria having a greater emphasis on character than on behavior.”

Outward Behavior of a Sociopath

-Sociopaths tend to be extremely disorganized.

-They are unable to maintain normal relationships with family, friends, or co-workers.

-They are often unable to keep steady employment or housing.

-They often live literally at the fringes of society. In a study of the homeless people who live in the subway tunnels of New York City, a disproportionately large number of them were classed as sociopaths.

-Their outbreaks of violence are erratic and unplanned. Sociopaths are easier to identify and apprehend as they generally leave behind a large trail of clues.

Outward Behavior of a Psychopath-Psychopaths can be almost obsessively organized.

-They can maintain normal social relationships. They may take care of aging parents or be married with children.

-Psychopaths will often be very successful in their careers. Their need for organization is coupled with an ability to make others like and trust them. Because they intellectually understand human emotions but are unable to experience them themselves, they are masters at emotional manipulation.

-They often live in a normal house or apartment, completely indistinguishable from healthy people.

-Psychopaths will take years to plan out acts of violence and revenge. They are very difficult to catch because they will carefully plan each step of the act to ensure they will commit their crime


1. Sociopaths and psychopaths are both classed as anti-social personality disorders.
2. Both types of person enjoy cruelty, feel lack normal human emotions of guilt, and are unable to form emotional bonds with others.
3. Sociopaths generally behave in a disorganized, erratic manner.
4. Psychopaths generally behave outwardly normal but will engage in elaborate plots to manipulate or harm those around them.

Another common behavioral characteristic of psychopaths and sociopaths is their ability to mimic the emotional reactions of others, either out of curiosity, for the purpose of ridicule, or to feign empathy. In the movie The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer Buffalo Bill mimics the desperate cries of his latest victim, held captive at the bottom of a dry well, without feeling a trace of her pain and distress.

Buffalo Bill, a highly organized and secretive psychopath with sexual identity issues

Additionally, there are neurological similarities between psychopaths and those with acquired sociopathy. As Dr. James Blair notes, both have lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the part of the brain responsible for instrumental learning and response reversal, defined as “impairment in the recognition of, and autonomic responding to, angry and disgusted expressions”; i.e., what might otherwise be called  get a clue indicators that a given behavior is unacceptable. For example, sticking firecrackers up frog arses as a young George W. Bush was wont to do. Or torturing suspects, as the “mature” George W. Bush and his minions did during his psychopathic presidency. (Not surprising that the latter are falling all over themselves to claim credit for the killing of Osama Bin Laden because in their minds, torture works, and they desperately vindication for their many failures.) There is also neurological evidence for “two possible systems for empathy: a basic emotional contagion system and a more advanced cognitive perspective-taking system.”

The major behavioral difference between sociopaths and psychopaths is that the latter function at a higher cognitive level. This makes psychopaths more dangerous as they are better able to blend into their environments. They can even benefit from psychotherapy, not in the therapeutic sense, but by using it to derive clues about expected emotional reactions from the questions posed by their therapists. As Dr. Hare puts it: “These guys learn the words but not the music. They can repeat all the psychiatric jargon– ‘I feel remorse’, they talk about the offense cycle– but these are words, hollow words.”

However the professionals ultimately sort out the various clinical, behavioral, and neurological parameters, I find it useful to maintain a distinction between sociopaths and psychopaths, in the same way I find it useful to adopt Dr. Robert Altemeyer‘s contrast between active and passive authoritarians. The former are leaders and instigators– politicians, pundits, talk show hosts, and industrial puppet masters like the Koch Brothers (who normally stay behind the scenes– whaddup w/dat?); while the latter are followers– targeted media audiences and political constituencies. And while the Powers That Be (PTB) initiate actions designed to improve their class lot, their propagandees are necessary to accomplish same, at least in a democracy. The disparity between the two is dramatically demonstrated by the ability of the PTB  to get their minions to vote against their own best interests– another vital distinction between the predator class and its victims.

A couple of years ago in a post titled The Evolution Of Wingnut Deception Routines, I cited studies from the field of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience (aka evolutionary psychology) that explored the age old battle between the selfish interests of the individual versus the greater needs of the tribal whole. I described a series of innovations– “counters to the counter”– that each side has used throughout history to gain the upper hand. For instance, the ability to mimic empathy represents an evolutionary survival value for psychopaths, since it allows them to appear perfectly normal when they aren’t busy plundering your food stash.

We are at a similar crossroads today. That the most adept psychopaths have the advantage is indisputable, reflected in recent economic stats that show the greatest disparity in wealth in the USA since the Robber Barons ruled The Gilded Age. It’s as if their lack of individual moral restraint had found societal expression in the form of financial and environmental deregulation, allowing them free reign to take whatever they want;  as if their lack of conscience had produced a culture of unaccountability, where even if they are caught plundering the masses they receive Get Out of Jail Free cards.

Oh, wait…


Progressive bloggers use the term “hippie punching” to describe the disdain that establishment types have for progressives. My appreciation for the term is experiential, having spent the early ‘70s living in Hawaii where it was open season on “heepies.” I can recall a half dozen times where one or more locals intended to do me serious harm based solely on my look.

Adopting a strategy of self-defense was thus a primary concern. And by strategy I mean more than just learning physical self-defense tactics. (One martial arts teacher I had, after I explained to him that I had lived next door to a house full of ginormous Samoans, had this piece of advice for me should I find myself in a confrontation with any of their kind—“Run!”)

Naturally, I turned to my primary spiritual reference work, The Urantia Book, for guidance. In its portrayal of Jesus’ early adulthood, before he had entered the realm of public service, he had found employment as a tutor and a guide to an Indian merchant and his son, Ganid. One day Jesus and Ganid happened upon a scene in which a young bully was thrashing another boy. Jesus intervened by simply holding onto the bully until his victim made his escape, whereupon he released him. Ganid, incensed by the bully’s actions, immediately pounced on him and Jesus once again intervened, this time restraining his young pupil until the bully made his getaway.

Ganid was exasperated and questioned his teacher’s actions. Jesus replied:

“Ganid, I can well understand how some of these problems perplex you, and I will endeavor to answer your question. First, in all attacks which might be made upon my person, I would determine whether or not the aggressor was a son of God—my brother in the flesh—and if I thought such a creature did not possess moral judgment and spiritual reason, I would unhesitatingly defend myself to the full capacity of my powers of resistance, regardless of consequences to the attacker.”

Unfortunately, our “world of the cross” is populated by perhaps tens of millions of individuals who likely do “not possess moral judgment and spiritual reason.” And many of them are in positions of power and influence.

As the old Arab saying has it: “Trust in God but tie your camel.”


One comment

  1. Gary

    Thank you. This was written so well and with such pragmatism and honesty that I now fear for our collective future ;-).

    Seriously though, it was very well done and very well researched. I dated a psychopath for almost a year and I was chiefly responsible for that individual getting into therapy because I thought I was simply dealing with a Paranoid Delusional Disorder. No way. More time together shows me that this was indeed a genuine Psychopath (the mask of sanity fell away faster and faster) and I fear a serial killer in the making. But what can be done until a serious law is broken? Not much I was told by police.

    Thank you! and God?.. HELP US!

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