Monday, 8 May 2017

Murderino Mondays: Psychopaths vs Sociopaths!

MFM has given you Elvis and Mimi, well, I present to you: Skepta and Bambi!
It’s Monday, you know what that means; today’s post is all things murder, and you guessed it! We’re going to be discussing something the girls always refer to when discussing their murderers, but often get mixed up; psychopathy and sociopathy. As a result, I’m going to be discussing the differences between the two and some of the murderers our girls have discussed that fit into each criteria and why!

What is psychopathy and sociopathy?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that’s not formally included in the DSM but is acknowledged among the world of psychology. The major features of psychopathy are; being devoid of emotion, lack of remorse/guilt, inability to form emotional bonds with others and a poor temper/violent behaviour. Psychopathy is born; brain abnormalities have been found in the prefrontal cortex where gray matter reductions have been found. Interestingly, there have been volume reductions and deformations reported in the amygdala and along with asymmetry in the hippocampus – areas responsible for emotion response and regulation as discussed in my last post. Sociopathy is actually defined in the DSM-V as anti-social personality disorder (ASPD), with the diagnostic criteria as follows:

Extremely similar, yes? That’s because in a way, psychopathy and sociopathy are the same. They both lack empathy, both suffer from ASPD, they show a lack of remorse/guilt and can be violent. The major difference is psychopaths are born; sociopaths are made. As stated before, psychopaths are born with anatomical differences and genetics, whereas sociopaths are the result of environment and upbringing – A classic case of the “nature vs nurture” argument. Other differences can be found in the behaviours, where psychopaths are controlled and highly manipulative – Think Hannibal (in the series), he’s very clever, manipulative and in a place of high social status with no real reasoning behind his behaviours which can only be described as being a result of psychopathy – he was born that way. On the other hand, Gregory House is a great example of sociopathy – he is manipulative and clever, but he is prone to fits of rage and anger rather than being controlled and calm. He’s known for being an impulsive character and has managed to form attachments to particular individuals (Wilson. Definitely Wilson), and his behaviour can be attributed to his childhood being hinted as being rocky – his “father” would punish him harshly physically and emotionally (or so it’s hinted at).

Michael C Hall as Dexter
Another example; Dexter Morgan is a perfect example of sociopathy with the characteristics of a psychopath – his behaviour as a serial killer and blood spatter analysis are clear examples of what one would think of as being psychopathy – his plans are well thought out, he’s intelligent, manipulative, shows a lack of remorse when he kills and seems to be completely unable to form any emotions; whether it’s happiness, sadness or even anger; BUT – there is a reason for this; his traumatic childhood, and his ability to form bonds with a small group of people – his very small family. A psychopath is completely unable to form these bonds and have such feelings, whereas sociopaths are able to do so but only with one individual or a small group. The complexity of personality is what makes psychopathy and sociopathy difficult to differentiate, and in some cases, they are the same – the major differences are that one is born and one is made.

The girls have discussed a few psychopaths in the episodes; Harold Shipman, Paul Bernardo and Mary Bell.

Shipman. Credit
Harold Shipman

Shipman was brought up in England, the second of four children and became notorious for the murder of what is estimated to be over 200 murders (although only 15 were proven and led to prosecution). Growing up he was very much doted on by his parents, his mother believed he was better than his peers and would amount to something great – he was very much loved as a child, but his attitude and his sense of superiority over classmates left him with little friends – something that was carried into adulthood where his colleagues were unable to befriend him out of dislike towards him. His mother’s death from cancer is believed to be the motive behind his killings, but looking into the profiles of his patients it seems as if it had nothing to do with relieving pain and having mercy, but rather simply an act of playing God – having power and killing for the sake of doing so. He was clever by putting on a façade of a caring, doting doctor in the community but managed to keep killing his patients and covering his tracks by forging documents. His high status, intelligence, and lack of poor upbringing makes him a great candidate for a psychopath diagnosis.

Bernardo & Homolka. Credit
Paul Bernardo

Bernardo; an exception to the Canadian stereotype of friendliness and warmth is a serial rapist/killer, and is known for the murder of his wife’s sister Tammy Homolka. These crimes were done in partnership with his wife Karla Homolka. One would believe that Bernardo would have been branded a sociopath rather than psychopath due to his father being a child molester and mother being withdrawn from her family, he was apparently a happy child, unaffected by his parents' actions – taken from Nick Pron’s book Lethal Marriage. He was also a boy scout – a decent lad it seemed, and intelligent. Karla Homolka, his wife, encouraged his sexually sadistic behaviour and actually helped him kill and rape her younger sister, Tammy. Clearly Bernardo was using Karla, as a psychopath is incapable of feelings such as love and is made obvious by the lack of real affection towards her. Funnily enough, he scored high on the psychopathy checklist – a diagnostic tool used to assess psychopathy in patients.
Mary Bell.
Mary Bell

As far as child killers go, Mary Bell is terrifying. As a 10-year-old, not only did she commit murder of 2 younger boys, but she managed to manipulate another child into being her accessory! Now – this is where the line between sociopaths and psychopaths get very confused and one can argue that she was a sociopath due to her abusive mother. But her cunning behaviour at that young of an age and ability to manipulate is fearful and something a sociopath would take many more years to be able to do. Children are reckless as it is and her getting caught had something to do with it, but the fact that she was able to do the deed twice and hide it for as long as she did points to psychopathic traits. Due to her being released but anonymous, I can’t comment on whether this would be confirmed as a diagnosis as I know she’s given birth. I’m not sure if she is still with the father, or if it was just a one-time thing (more likely in terms of psychopathy) but did she raise the child truly loving it in the sense of having “warm fuzzy feelings” or is she actually a psychopath and understand love as being an obligation and understanding to take care of this child. Plenty of psychopaths have children and end up being great parents, but their understanding of love is not as those of neurotypical people – it is a cognitive motion rather than emotional.

Sociopaths discussed include; William Bonin (The Freeway Killer) and Richard Allen Davis (Polly Klaas’ Killer).

William Bonin. Credit
William Bonin

This is going to be a wild ride because Bonin was a serial killer and sex offender, the worst of the worst. As far as sociopathy goes, Bonin is a clear case: Turbulent childhood – physically abusive parents, alcoholics and gamblers. He was neglected and was often put in the care of his child molester grandfather – some people really should just have their tubes tied after the first child, eugh. He was first caught in 1969, only a few months after he started committing sexual assaults – not very intelligent clearly. I discussed impulsivity in my last Murderino Monday post about impulsivity and the prefrontal cortex, something Bonin also had issues with which would explain the impulsive behaviours. He continued making mistakes during his next crimes, leading to him being constantly caught and charged which ended with his final arrest years later. In classic sociopath fashion, he showed no remorse for what he did, and continued to torment families of the victims after his incarcerations.

Richard Allen Davis. Credit
Richard Allen Davis (Polly Klaas’ Killer)

This one hit home for Karen clearly as I remember her talking about how this murder happened in her hometown and how much it affected the community. A riveting episode and definitely one to listen to if you haven’t already. Davis abducted 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her home in Petaluma and murdered her. Like Bonin, upbringing was turbulent, his parents were alcoholics and he would be punished physically and neglected after his parents’ divorce at the age of 11. Serial killer in the making, he tortured and killed animals which one could conclude was an act of anger directed at innocent animals – a projection of the way his parents treated him (but that’s me speculating, please don’t quote me!). Sociopathic behaviour is impulsive and reckless, made obvious by him being public about his violence, dropping out of school and then joining the Army where he was discharged in just over a year. His colourful criminal history screams poor planning/impulsiveness and a lack of care for society and its rules, and his reign of terror ended once he moved onto murder.

He has been formally diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder which makes a clear case for sociopathy in this case.

So there you have it! I hope this post has given you more insight into the differences between sociopaths and psychopaths, Murderino's!

Buying from the links provided in this post really helps me fund this blog. For those of you interested in buying a copy of the DSM-V you can get it here. For a cheaper option, the DSM-IV can be brought here.


  1. I was told by a professor who studies psychology whose speciality is psychopathy, that sociopathy isn't really a thing because you can't separate the nature from the nurture. Every psycho/sociopath is born and none are made because that's not how humans work. From my understanding psychopathy is recognised like you said, but it's a more extreme version of aspd. All psychopaths have aspd but not all people who have aspd are psychopaths.

    1. Interesting viewpoint! I have to disagree though, because nature and nurture can definitely be separated, but I do understand that sociopathy and psychopathy can merge into one because the line is so blurred - Dexter for instance, perfectly fits the profile of a psychopath but his upbringing and ability to "love" genuinely, screams sociopath so he could probably be considered as one or the other. I think sociopaths can be psychopaths, but I think in some cases they can be separated because the main difference between the two is psychopaths are highly intelligent and unlikely to be impulsive, but sociopaths are hugely impulsive and that's what gets them caught out and that impulsive behaviour can be a result from something that they weren't born with - like structural changes following trauma and abuse, if that makes sense?