Psychopathy: Is It Really Everywhere?

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The term character disturbance describes a continuum of disturbed personality types. Psychopathy, or sociopathy, is the severest form of personality disorder at one extreme end of the range. Not everyone with a character disturbance is a psychopath.

Many have become acquainted with the focus of my work over the past 25 years: character disturbance. I wrote my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing, over 17 years ago to help people recognize how they most often get manipulated by persons whom I describe as covertly-aggressive. From the beginning, I have stressed that there is a continuum of what I term character disturbance, and that various problematic personality types lie at different points along this continuum.

At the extreme end of the character disturbance continuum lies the psychopathic (alt: sociopathic) personality. And in both my literary works, as well as various posts on this and other websites (see: “Psychopathy 101”, “No Conscience, No Remorse: Am I a Sociopath?“, “Therapist Says My Ex-Girlfriend is a Sociopath“, ““Dexter” and the Truth About Psychopaths”, to cite only a few), I’ve attempted to place this seriously disturbed and dangerous character type within a context that makes its core pathology more evident and understandable. But I’ve been troubled of late about how this descriptive label is perhaps being too readily applied to all sorts of character-deficient individuals. It’s almost like psychopathy, or sociopathy, has become the ‘syndrome du jour.’

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History has shown us that as clinicians and laypersons become more aware of various psychiatric disturbances those disturbances get detected much better, which is a good thing, but later they may become over-diagnosed, which is not so good. For example, back in the 70s, when awareness of anxiety-based problems was peaking, it seemed that almost everyone suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the increasingly available drugs to combat it (many of which were only marginally effective and were also prone to abuse) were, according to many critics, being prescribed like popcorn. This phenomenon was parodied in the film Starting Over in which the lead character, anxious over the prospect of beginning a new relationship and still not quite over the unexpected and unwanted split with his wife, suffered a “panic attack” in a shopping mall, and when a doctor asked the crowd of onlookers if anyone just happened to have a Valium handy, an almost deafening sound accompanied the mass of hands reaching into purses and pockets to offer up one of the little pink pills. And the same phenomenon has occurred with other illnesses as they came to greater professional and public attention (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder).

In the last few years, there have been more books written and more articles published on psychopathy and sociopathy than at any time in recent memory. From a standpoint of public awareness, this is no doubt a very good thing. But I have noticed a tendency for both writers and psychologically savvy readers to see these disturbing syndromes everywhere. And that’s not to say that the syndromes don’t exist and that they don’t pose a significant problem for society. But it’s important not only to see the problem in its proper context, but also to recognize the larger and more worrisome picture. The bigger issue, as I see it, is character disturbance — in all its many dimensions, degrees of intensity, and ramifications. Fortunately, true psychopathy is a relatively rare phenomenon, although an argument can be made for the notion that it might be growing somewhat in prevalence. But character disturbance, which includes not only psychopathy and sociopathy, but also other conscience-deficient, manipulative, and narcissistic personality styles, has become troublingly widespread.

I receive hundreds of emails and enquiries every year from folks wanting to know more about the disturbed characters plaguing their lives. Lately, I’ve had a plethora of such enquiries from folks who have read one or two of the many popular books out there on the topic of psychopathy, and as a result became convinced that their ex-husband, wife, or partner must be a psychopath. But once they examined the facts more carefully it became apparent that although the person with whom they once had a relationship definitely had some significant character deficiencies, there was no real justification to categorize them as psychopathic.

Psychopathy is a very serious character disturbance. It’s characterized by a complete lack of conscience rooted in the most malignant form of narcissism and what appears as a relatively innate incapacity to have true empathy for others. Such individuals, as disturbing as they are, are the predators among us who use and abuse others with absolutely no remorse. And, fortunately for the rest of us, they are relatively rare. Only a portion of even some of the worst criminals are psychopaths. And that’s not to say that you have to be criminal to be psychopathic. Some of these individuals actually lead what appear to be relatively normal lives and could even be, as the title of one of the more noteworthy books on the topic suggests, “The Sociopath Next Door.” And while psychopaths are the ultimate manipulators, that doesn’t mean that every person who exhibits manipulative behavior is a psychopath.

I fear that once we’ve gotten past the current frenzy over psychopathy (which history tells us will almost certainly be the case), we’ll become too complacent about and discounting of the more widespread problem we face. That would truly be a shame. I don’t want public awareness to diminish about the significant problem of character disturbance that plagues modern societies. And, as I emphasize in my book Character Disturbance, it’s crucial to remember that along that continuum of character disturbance, there are many conscience-deficient, abusive, exploitation-oriented, self-absorbed, and manipulative individuals who are not severely disturbed enough to be rightly labeled psychopathic, but who are nonetheless character-impaired enough to leave a trail of badly bruised victims having the misfortune to be involved with them in some way. Hopefully, this article will assist in keeping some of the recent hysteria about psychopathy and sociopathy at bay while keeping awareness high about the truly worrisome phenomenon of our age.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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