The purpose of this research is to describe antisocial personality disorder (sometimes referred to as psychopathic or sociopathic personality disorder). To this end, this report presents a discussion of diagnostic criteria, types of antisocial personalities and a review of some key theories and research regarding the disorder.
Oddly, how psychologists define antisocial personality disorder depends upon whether their purpose is to research it or treat it. Researchers tend to identify the psychopath by using Cleckley’s Concept of Sociopathy which states that those with the disorder may be recognized by the following traits:
1. Considerable superficial charm and average or above average intelligence;
2. Absence of delusions or other signs of irrational thinking;
3. Absence of anxiety or other “neurotic” symptoms, considerable poise, calmness and verbal facility;
4. Unreliability, disregard for obligations, no sense of responsibility in matters of either little or great import;
5. Untruthfulness and insincerity;
6. Lack of remorse, no sense of shame;
7. Antisocial behavior which is inadequately motivated and poorly planned, seeming to stem from an inexplicable impulsiveness;
8. Poor judgement and failure to learn from experience;
9. Pathological egocentricity, total self-centeredness, incapacity for real love and attachment;
10. General poverty of deep and lasting emotions;
11. Lack of any true insight, inability to see oneself as others do;
12. Ingratitude for any special considerations, kindness, and trust;
13. Fantastic and objectionable behavior, after drinking and sometimes even when not drinking: vulgarity, rudeness, quick shifts, pranks.
14. No history of genuine suicide attempts;
15. An impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated sex life.
16. Failure to have a life plan and to live in any ordered way, unless it be one promoting self-defeat.
The foregoing criteria are somewhat different from the criteria listed by the American Psychiatric Association in their Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III – 1980). This manual which is for the use of clinicians rather than researchers refers to more specific aspects of the personality such as the inability to hold a job or to be a responsible parent or to honor financial obligations. Further, the manual omits many of Cleckley’s key concepts such as superficial charm, shamelessness and blitheness.
In effect, the key difference between Cleckley’s criteria for the disorder and the criteria provided by DSM III (1980) is that the DSM criteria is closer to a description of standard criminal behavior. This is shown by a study conducted by Hare (1978) who found that 76 percent of a sample of prisoners could be judged sociopaths using DSM criteria while only 33 percent could be so judged using Cleckley’s description.
The problem with respect to the foregoing is that there is a need to distinguish between criminal behavior and sociopathic behavior–if the intention is to state that sociopathic behavior is generated by a mental disorder while standard criminal behavior is not. Thus, the criteria of no sense of responsibility and no shame become important because they imply that sociopaths, after the commission of a crime, do not feel the “normal” emotions that a criminal who is a person free of mental disturbance would feel.
Another important criterion that distinguishes the sociopath from the general criminal is the failure of the sociopath to learn from his experiences but rather to keep repeating the same unsuccessful activities despite average or above average intelligence. Here, it is postulated that the sociopath is “abnormal” in terms of emotional arousal; his or her failure to become emotionally aroused means that he or she is less likely to suffer from unproductive and antisocial behavior and is, therefore, less likely to change the behavior. A good deal of research has examined whether these criteria said to distinguish the sociopath from the average person or even average criminal has been conducted. However, before examining this reserach, clarity is added to the understanding of the disorder by noting that there are different types of sociopaths.
Types of Sociopathy
According to Adams, “primary or classic sociopaths” may be distinguished from “neurotic sociopaths” on the basis of a single criterion. Specifically, the neurotic sociopath is said to exhibit all of the traits of the classic sociopath except that he does feel guilt and remorse over some of his actions and/or exhibits emotional disturbances that indicate frustration and inner conflict.
DSM III includes a separate diagnostic category which Adams feels is really a third type of sociopathic personality. According to Adams (1981), this third category of sociopathy includes:
Individuals . . . who have grown up in a sub-culture
whose values and norms are at variance with society’s
standards. Consequently, these individuals violate
society’s standards and laws but are considered normal
within their own subculture. Unlike primary or neurotic
sociopaths, they have strong loyalties and emotional ties
with their own groups (255).
This kind of sociopathy is often found among delinquents and is termed by DSM III (1980) “dissocial reaction.”
The primary concern with respect to this report is whether the sociopath is somehow sufficiently “abnormal” so as to justify a judgement of “insane.” If this judgement is justified then research should show that: (1) sociopaths have characteristics that distinguish their criminal behavior from populations also engaging in criminal behavior; and (2) there is some element (genetic/biological abnormalities) which compel them to commit antisocial acts and which they are powerless to fight against. The final section of this report examines the research conducted with respect to these two concepts.
It was stated earlier that, in theory, sociopaths are not like other populations of criminals but are, rather, “abnormal” in that they have no true sense of responsibility or shame and that they suffer from a condition of emotional underarousal that obstructs them from emotional suffering regarding both their crimes and punishment for their crimes; and thus, they do not learn to stop this kind of behavior. Not all of these criteria have been sufficiently researched; however, some work has been done on the emotional underarousal concept.
With respect to the foregoing, Lykken (1957) in an early study, examined a group of sociopathic prison inmates, a non-sociopathic group of inmates and a group of college students. All subjects were required to perform a lever-pressing task in order to spare themselves the punishment of a painful shock. All subjects had to figure out for themselves the correct sequence of levers to push in order to avoid the shock. Measures consisted of: (1) the total number of errors made before the subject learned the correct sequence; and (2) the number of errors made in executing the sequence which then produced a shock.
Groups did not differ in terms of overall number of errors made. However, college students had significantly fewer proportions of shock than both groups of inmates in that they better remembered (had learned better) the proper sequence. Moreover, sociopaths received more shocks than other inmates, although this finding only approached significance. When Lykken gave groups subsequent tests of anxiety in social situations he found that the sociopathic group felt far less social anxiety than either of the other two groups.
Similar findings were observed in a replication of Lykken’s study conducted by Schachter and Latane (1964); moreover, in this second study, the authors found that when sociopathic groups were given drugs to increase their level of emotional arousal, they then showed comparable performance with the other groups.
A study conducted by Schmauk (1970) qualifies the foregoing findings. Specifically, Schmauk found that there is a consequence of behavior that can motivate sociopaths toward improved learning; this consequence is the loss of money. What this means then is that sociopaths, like non-sociopaths, can indeed learn to avoid punishment and that what was happening in the previous studies was not that they were suffering from a general learning deficit, but rather that some punishments (e.g., the physical punishment of shock or punishments of social disapproval, etc.) simply have little meaning for them.
Thus, as to whether there exists research evidence showing that the crucial criteria for labelling sociopaths “insane” or “abnormal” from others in the population, two points can be made. The first and more important of these is that there simply has not been sufficient research to show whether this is, in fact, the case. Indeed, most of the research has focused on the single criterion of underarousal and little research has examined the other criteria of lack of responsibility and lack of sense of shame. The second important point is that what research does exist (research on underarousal) is at best inconclusive, but there are indications that sociopaths may not suffer from the general learning deficit that was in theory postulated.
The second area of evidence for sociopaths being “insane” would be if research could establish that they have genetic and/or other biological/physiological abnormalities which distinguish them from other groups and which, at least theoretically, could act as a force compelling them to commit the antisocial acts. In this regard, Davison & Neale (1982) report that a number of studies have been conducted to examine for differences in the central nervous system of sociopaths in comparison to other groups. The authors report that these studies fairly consistently show the presence of abnormalities; most commonly there are abnormalities in the temporal lobes of the cerebral hemisphere of sociopaths not present in other groups; and also, sociopaths tend to have much slower brain waves than other groups.
In addition to the foregoing, Davison & Neale (1982) also note that some genetic studies do support the notion that sociopathy runs in families, although not all studies are supportive of this.
Thus, there appear to be reasons to suspect that sociopaths may have biogenetic and neurological factors that compel them to commit these acts. Again, there is insufficient research to make any strong judgements; but the research that does exist gives some reason to suspect that this may be the case–at least to a certain extent.
This research examined the area of antisocial disorder. Among the topics discussed were: diagnostic criteria used to identify the disorder; types of sociopathy; and research relating to whether sociopaths can be distinguished both from the general population and other criminal groups.