Psychopathy may not be what you think.


I’ve been doing some reading about psychopathy and have found out some surprising things. I always was a little confused as to how psychopathy differed from sociopathy and have used those terms interchangeably on this blog due to my confusion. I’ve also used the term interchangeably with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and sometimes even malignant narcisissm. It turns out it’s probably something completely different from the other three disorders and may not even be a disorder at all!

Before you start laughing, hear me out.

It all started with this colorful, humorous description someone wrote on a forum I’ve been active on, describing how a Psychopath differs from a Narcissist:

When I picture a Psychopath, I think of someone who at bedtime bounces around from one thing to the next, essentially a high-energy, happy person. When I picture a Narc at bedtime, I imagine someone wearing long pajamas and a nightcap (yes, a nightcap), walking around a 19th Century house, holding a candle, checking for ghosts.

At first I thought this was a weird (but funny) analogy. But it really isn’t. According to psychologist Theodore Millon, Primary Psychopathy is something you are born with and is not due to abuse, unlike NPD or ASPD. Studies have shown that the limbic system (emotional center) of primary psychopaths is simply less active than in normal people. So they don’t experience empathy or have a conscience regardless of how they were raised, but they also don’t have very deep emotions in general.


Because they lack deep emotions, primary psychopaths tend to be fearless risk takers. They also aren’t moody because they don’t experience anxiety or depression the way others do–if they experience those states at all. But psychopathy has become associated with sociopathy and/or ASPD or malignant narcissism because a born psychopath may be more prone to developing personality disorders than the normal population, if they are abused. Because they don’t have the capacity to develop a conscience or empathy, if they do develop a personality disorder, it’s likely to be Antisocial Personality Disorder, where the right of others are callously violated. That’s why so many psychopaths are also antisocial and dangerous.

But there is nothing wrong with the cognitive functioning of a psychopath. They are able to learn the difference between right and wrong, and if they do not develop a personality disorder, theoretically they can choose to do what’s right. Only the limbic system is impaired, so any decisions a true psychopath makes are cognitively based. Emotion simply doesn’t play into it at all. They do “whatever works.” They lack a conscience because conscience is emotion- or shame-based, and a psychopath isn’t capable of much emotion in general.

So a primary psychopath can theoretically be a good person who is just extremely unemotional and only uses logic and reason to make decisions. Unlike narcissists, who actually have deep emotions but have turned all their emotions inward toward themselves and require “supply” to bolster their fragile egos, a non-disordered psychopath has no need for supply. They simply don’t care what anyone thinks. What you think is simply not something that even occurs to them. In contrast, a narcissist cares very much what you think and falls apart like wet toilet paper if supply in the form of approval or adoration is not forthcoming.

Primary psychopathy seems analogous to the Myers-Briggs ESTJ (Extroverted/Sensing/Thinking/Judging) personality type. In other words, a psychopath is an outgoing, sensation seeking, hedonistic thinker who happily jumps around from activity to activity like someone jacked up on Red Bull, yet they don’t have ADHD either because the J(udging) aspect means their high level of activity always has a goal or purpose. Such a person would be easily bored (which could also lead to antisocial behavior), never worry about things or experience (or even understand) guilt, and unafraid to try and experience new things. Their lack of emotionality would suit them well for the business world. In fact, people who have become very successful in business tend to score high in psychopathic traits.


While many high level executives do abuse the rights of others and callously close entire departments and treat their employees like so many pieces in a chess game (whatever works, right?), because psychopaths can tell the difference between right and wrong, some will try to do the right thing just the same. The difference is, they are using cognition rather than emotion to back any prosocial decisions.

Looked at this way, primary psychopathy may not be a disorder at all but a personality variation. Of course, the term “psychopathy” has negative connotations because most of us associate it with antisocial criminals, shady con artists, and serial killers. And in fact many of them are, but not all.

Sociopathy differs from primary psychopathy because (according to Millon, above), it’s antisocial behavior that may develop in a person with ASPD or NPD and is always due to abuse somewhere in the person’s past. A primary psychopath can become a sociopath if they become disordered, and that’s where you would find the serial killers and criminals (and these people usually have ASPD). But a sociopath isn’t always (or even usually) a psychopath. Sociopaths who aren’t psychopathic are usually very malignant narcissists (high spectrum NPD + ASPD) or sometimes even Borderlines, and they differ from psychopaths because there is no logic or rational thinking behind their antisocial or destructive behaviors, only unhealthy, toxic emotion. They seem to have no empathy because all their empathy–and most of their other emotions except anger–are turned inward toward themselves. The false self is what they present to others instead of their real emotions. Narcissists have plenty of empathy but it’s all for themselves–that’s why they are prone to wallowing in self pity. A psychopath would never wallow in self pity. They simply don’t care what you think.

7 thoughts on “Psychopathy may not be what you think.

  1. Bravo! Great blog. I would modify some of the things you say, however. We aren’t so impervious to others as all that. Quoting from “The Hidden Suffering of the Psychopath”
    ” Some psychopaths are superficially adapted to their environment and are even popular, but they feel they must carefully hide their true nature because it will not be acceptable to others. This leaves psychopaths with a difficult choice: adapt and participate in an empty, unreal life, or do not adapt and live a lonely life isolated from the social community. They see the love and friendship others share and feel dejected knowing they will never be part of it.” Most psychopaths wear a mask to blend in. We know most people can’t take the whole truth of our inner world. M.E. Thompson subtitled her “Confessions of a Sociopath” with “A life spent hiding in plain sight.” It can get lonely. That’s the price of freedom and I willingly pay it. Some serial killers even said they killed “for company.” Quoting again, “Nilsen felt much more comfortable with dead bodies than with living people—the dead could not leave him. He wrote poems and spoke tender words to the dead bodies, using them as long as possible for company. In other violent psychopaths, a relationship has been found between the intensity of sadness and loneliness and the degree of violence, recklessness, and impulsivity.” But a serial killer, of course, has separated himself much more completely than the rest of us. There are special dangers for psychopaths as we age and can no longer have the stamina for exciting adventures. Boredom is our constant enemy. I fight it with intellectual pursuits and friends. And my partner whom I’ve been separated from for about half a year but will soon be with again.

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    • Interesting. I read that primary psychopaths are more prone than others to develop PDs (especially ASPD) because of the way their brain is structured.
      I would guess a lot of primary psychopaths are diagnosed with ADHD because they are so easily bored. People who are easily bored are vulnerable to becoming antisocial. I guess it’s how you decide to handle your boredom. A high need for thrills and sensation seeking activity can lead to crime, reckless driving, and using recreational drugs a lot, or it could also be used to do things like bungee jumping, mountain climbing, surfing, racecar driving, and other risky but exciting activities that hurt no one (except maybe the person undertaking those activities if they make a mistake or have an accident).

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  3. The impression I had (looking back at the pair I endured growing up, including one who was more or less BORN that way) was this deep hunger – ultimately, a hunger for power. It’s a ferocious hunger, one which will not be denied – one which can only be sated when ***everything*** that exists has been devoured and is ‘rotting where it belongs’.

    Along with that hunger is a clear perception – far clearer than is the rule – of what one is ‘in truth’ – while simultaneously having a fair to good perception of what is called ‘theory of mind’. This last is essentially a constantly-changing outward image that the vast majority of people wear like a garment. To most, they’re barely aware of what’s happening ‘deep inside’ – and hence, they ‘do the social thing’ almost entirely ‘on autopilot’.

    When one is simultaneously aware of ‘who one is in truth’ AND ‘what the majority of people believe themselves to be, then not only is one a true ‘apex predator’ – one also has deep and intent knowledge of those ‘lesser beings’ that are grasped as ‘rpey items’.

    Leopards seldom change their spots. They are less-inclined still to change their diet.

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