A common character found in psychological thrillers are those who seem to have no regard for the well-being of others, disobey social rules and act violently for seemingly no reason. They show no remorse or empathy and can be very intelligent, charming and high-functioning (although not typically). We describe these people as psychopaths, or sometimes sociopaths. To over-simplify it, a psychopath essentially has no moral conscience and do not believe in the social contract.
The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, but in modern psychiatry, they both fall under the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). ASPD patients tend to have a long history of criminal charges, often relating to violence, chronic lying and fraud, drug use and other law-breaking actions. These characteristics may show from early childhood, with the typical psychopathic child being described as one murdering animals and being violent towards other kids. These children are often diagnosed with another disorder called conduct disorder.
Psychopaths are very popular in movies and TV shows due to their unpredictable nature, wanton violence and maniacal behaviour inflicting terror into the audience’s hearts. After all, who wouldn’t be afraid of a remorseless killer who finds enjoyment from others’ suffering? Unfortunately, many movies distort the image of the psychopath and blend in various other mental health disorders such as psychosis into the character. Sometimes psychopaths are even sensationalised, being described as an antihero.
It is true that many serial killers turn out to be psychopaths, but physical violence is not necessarily a feature of all psychopaths. A subset of “successful” psychopaths differentiate themselves by being less physically violent, appear to follow the social norm and succeed in challenging fields such as business, finances, law or even medicine. However, they will also have a pervasive disregard for others and will only care about having their way. Their lack of empathy allows them to act immorally, stabbing people in the back and lying, cheating and manipulating their way to the top. It is not some sick sexual perversion or power trips that motivate psychopaths, but impulsivity, egocentricity and gratification. To psychopaths, the aim of the game is to win, no matter the cost.
This makes you wonder. How many people around you are secretly a psychopath – one who would take advantage of you without a shred of guilt? How many people around you hide behind the mask of sanity?
(NB: Just putting it out there, Sherlock Holmes is neither a psychopath nor a sociopath. If anything he probably has an autism spectrum disorder like Asperger’s syndrome.)