Psychopaths and sociopaths are people we want to avoid in real life, but they make compelling characters in art work. Creating them for your art piece just takes a bit of research if, like me, you do not have a background in psychology. While I always suggest doing further research after reading any of the articles from the Prompts series, here are a few guidelines to get you started.
There is some argument about the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath.” Most mental health professionals make the distinction by noting that sociopaths are people who become the way they are due to environmental factors, while psychopaths are born that way and only need the right environment for their harmful tendencies to flourish. Others use the words interchangeably. For the purpose of this article, I am going to use “psychopath” to refer to anyone who displays the traits discussed. This does not mean my way is the right way, just that it will be easier to read if I use one word.
Psychopaths are not psychotic. They are completely in touch with reality.Psychosis occurs when someone is unable to correctly interpret reality due to hallucinations or delusions. Someone having a psychotic episode may hold a wide variety of attitudes toward other people. If I think angels come to my apartment in human form and tell me that this web site is not simply going to help out some of my fellow artists in the Utica area, but will in fact save the world, I am having a psychotic episode. Psychopaths are perfectly capable of perceiving the world around them as accurately as anyone else.
A psychopath’s most distinctive feature is a lack of empathy and lack of ability to love others deeply. Psychopaths are distinct in that they have little or no genuine feelings for other people or animals. They might love other people and pets, but they love them only for what they can do for them, and not because they have deep feelings of affection, respect, trust, and love for them as individuals. A psychopath’s love for others is more like our love for our favorite things than our love for our partners/love interests, children, extended families, friends, or pets. They also lack love for humanity in general, and are genuinely unmoved by either the suffering or the blessings of others.
The most common portrayal of a psychopath is that of the serial killer. You often see them profiled on true crime tv shows, and they are chilling. They will describe performing acts of horrific torture on another human being using the same tone and facial expressions the rest of us might use to tell our friends a story about cleaning the house last Friday or getting done a little early at work yesterday. That is because their emotional response to another person undergoing horrific torture is the same as the typical response to getting some chores out of the way or ducking out of work a few minutes early. They realize the details are a lot more unpleasant, but they are not hurt by the suffering the other person endured.
Psychopaths do not typically act out in shocking ways. Serial killers might be the most famous psychopaths, but most psychopaths are not killers, or even violent. While it truly would not bother a psychopath to kill another person, most of them do not commit acts of violence. It isn’t in their self-interest to do so. Most psychopaths seek money, fame, power, or personal control over other people, and harming others might get them in trouble and ruin their plans.
A psychopath is more likely to do things like cheat with married people because it makes them feel attractive to know that someone is willing to ruin their relationship just to be with them, or set out to damage their coworker’s professional reputation simply to see how much ruin they can bring, than to physically torture or murder someone.
Psychopaths are often great at business, and are particularly successful in corporate environments. Their lack of empathy and feelings of genuine deep love for other people enable them to do anything it takes to turn a profit. They don’t hold back out of concern for the impact their behavior might have on another human being. The psychopath is the one who can go ahead with that merger that brings X Corporation billions in profit without concern for the hundreds of people at Y Corp who will lose their jobs. They’re the person with no hesitation in firing a good and loyal employee due to age, disability, race, gender, or orientation simply because the market research says the business’ customers respond better to a different image.
Most psychopaths have excellent social skills. They may not feel deeply for other people, but they are able to understand that others have genuine feelings. Psychopaths can usually read others well, and tend to be particularly skilled at learning where another’s vulnerabilities lie. Those vulnerabilities are then used to manipulate the person to the psychopath’s advantage. They are typically charming, and smooth in all or most social situations.
If your character is a psychopath, he or she will not feel remorse or guilt over his or her actions. You can show them feeling quite sorry they got caught. They may wish they had never experienced the consequences of their actions. But they cannot experience genuine remorse for what they have done.
Psychopathy is completely different from the Autism spectrum. Those on the spectrum may appear to have little regard for others, and often seem indifferent to the feelings or needs of those in their lives. But autistic people, or those with Asperger’s syndrome, are not psychopaths. Those on the spectrum are capable of deep, genuine love for humanity and for individual people and animals. They just have trouble interpreting social situations and recognizing the needs of others. Someone on the spectrum might need to be taught that when a person starts blinking rapidly and frowning after something they said, this means they hurt their feelings. But once they are able to correctly identify and interpret these social signals,, they will be moved by the thought that they may have hurt someone, and make an effort to change their behavior in the future. A psychopath would be completely aware of the impact they had on the blinking, frowning person. They simply would not care.
For further research, check out the writings of Dr. Robert Hare and Dr. Martha Stout. Mental health professionals you know may also be willing to answer any questions you may have, but please make sure to request an interview and be upfront and honest about seeking the information for your project.