Psychopathy and sociopathy
In my forthcoming book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy (forthcoming from Repeater), I make a distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy. The two terms are commonly used in an interchangeable way, as if they are one and the same, but in my view there is an important difference. I argue that sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour whereas psychopathy ought to refer to internal psychology. More precisely, sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour that fails to meet our expectations and psychopathy to a psychology that does not align with how we expect others to feel and think.
Let’s consider sociopathy first and look at how and why persons fall foul of social expectations or do not conform to social code. People may fall foul of social code for any number of reasons. The reasons could be linked to malice, kindness or ignorance. David Brent from The Office, for example, is reflexively impoverished—he just isn’t aware of his faux pas; he cannot see himself from the view of the other. Brent thinks he is a charming and smooth operator when he is quite the opposite—a cringingly awkward sociopath. Alan Partridge is similar; he thinks he’s cool but often fails to behave in the socially expected manner. It’s not that Alan Partridge has bad intentions, he is not spiteful – but he doesn’t always know when to curb his honesty. At a funeral, in the episode ‘Towering Alan’ he asks “Would it be terribly rude to stop listening to you and go and speak to someone else?” Moments later, after a further faux pas, he finds himself speaking to the deceased’s widow. She asks him if “something is the matter?” and Alan Partridge, the all-too-honest sociopath, plainly explains “I want to be talking to him over there”, pointing and grinning. Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sociopathic too. David often causes offence, yet he never means to—more often than not he causes offence or finds himself in an awkward social bind because of his overactive altruism.
Of course Brent, Partridge and David are innocent sociopaths: they don’t really do anybody much harm. Brent and Partridge might be a little self-centred and insensitive at times, yet they are not mean. But how do we know? Why do we suppose that someone behaving in an anti-social way or failing to conform to social expectations should be mean or ‘evil’? Is it right to make assumptions for internal psychology based on external behaviour that falls foul of social expectations? A person might bump into you on the street and not apologise. This is unsocial, and the bumper is sociopathic in this instance. But we should not guess their internal drives from this episode. They could be clumsy, ill, poor-sighted. They may not know our language. Of course, they might be out to do us harm or steal from us—but really, we just don’t know. We know their behaviour is, in local terms, sociopathic but we cannot know with certainty what their internal psychological drive is and we shouldn’t begin making paranoid or judgmental assumptions.
Social behaviour has a tenuous relationship to internal psychology. Many times we behave in a manner that doesn’t quite reflect our internal self. Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation wishing to get up and leave but remained fused in place because it’d be rude to leave? The disjunct between behaviour and psychology is, in many ways, the root of socialization, politeness and manners. Children are honest sociopaths, they ask ‘rude’ questions like ‘why is he fat?’, until they are socialized—until they learn to lie, curb their impulses and behave in the expected ways. ‘Say sorry like you mean it’ we tell them. This is the other side of the disjunct between behaviour and psychology—being perfectly social whilst secretly yearning to be otherwise. Behaviour being at odds with psychology is where psychopathy comes in. Those we suspect of having a psychology at odds with how we feel they ought to feel (given their behaviour) are psychopaths. We could quip that the process of socialization is a case of impulsive sociopaths learning to be controlled and polite psychopaths.
If we suspect someone lacks empathy, or is being nice, behaving just right, for secretly manipulative or controlling purposes we might call them a psychopath. On some level we know that many people are nice and very social for ulterior motives (salesmen, for example). We readily accept the disjunct between behaviour and psychology. Indeed, the notion of a charming and polite psychopath is very much the form of psychopath that is a contemporary fascination. Part of the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter is surely the juxtaposition between his socially adroit conduct, his manners and sensitivity on one hand, and our knowledge of his violent and depraved wants, on the other. Patrick Bateman, too, is fascinating because of his normal appearance: his inconspicuousness, his conformity to social codes. If we met him at a cocktail party, he’d be anonymous, unremarkable and forgettable. In cinema the go-to trope of showing the viewer how psychology is at odds with appearance and behaviour is undoubtedly the ‘mirror-scene’. In such a scene we see the gaze of a character checking their own appearance, making sure they look normal, just right. We see such a device in Sexy Beast, Malice, American Psycho, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cruising and Taxi Driver, to name a few.
Psychopathy is not necessarily always good behaviour masking a psychology that is lacking in empathy or good intentions. It may well be that a person with bad intentions behaves true to their wants – in which case we would view them as a sociopath. Nonetheless, this similarity between the honest psychopath and a sociopath does not vitiate the distinction drawn here. The distinction is based on what we are taking to be at odds with what we expect. If we are considering behaviour, we can say to what degree a person is sociopathic, whereas if we are considering psychology we may speculate to what degree we consider them to be psychopathic. In each instance behaviour has no necessary bearing on psychology and, of course, vice versa. There is a socio-axis, behaviour based and observable, and there is a psycho-axis based on our speculations of another’s psychology. Thus, we can draw up some modes of the disjunct or correlation between behaviour and psychology: well-meaning sociopaths, ill-meaning sociopaths, super-social psychopaths and, lastly, anti-social psychopaths (anti-social psychopaths may be quite similar to ill-meaning sociopaths).
Super-social psychopathy is perhaps the category we can best relate to. Don’t we all put on an act that is at odds with how we really feel inside? We have probably told people we are ‘fine, thanks’ when, actually, we might have been far from it. We may have embellished a little too much during an interview and said we are ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about whatever mundane cognitive work pays a wage. Perhaps we are, at times, like a polite and charming super-social psychopath—yet behaving more like a sociopath might reflect our true selves more accurately.
The mask of conspicuity: psychopaths masquerading as sociopaths
Throughout the writing of The Psychopath Factory, a certain real-life character haunted me—Jimmy Savile. Savile never quite fitted into my scheme of categorization. On one hand, he knew how to behave socially and could manipulate others. But on the other hand, he was not exactly a conformist. Nor was he an extrovert either. He seemed paradoxical, chimerical: at once reclusive and secretive whilst also showing off and craving attention, power and control. One of the insights of Dan Davies’ marvellous In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile is how brazenly open Savile was about his proclivities and impulses. “Jimmy Savile offered a rare glimpse into his mind-set as he dragged his ageing body around the 26.2-mile course. ‘At times I feel like strangling every other competitor in the race,’ he confessed. ‘I mean really, truly murdering them.” This is one of many iterations of his strategy of revealing his deeply anti-social mind-set in a light and open fashion. Another is his notorious declaration of hating children. ‘‘’I hate kids…I’m very good with them because I hate them,’ he continued. ‘They know I’m not some yucky adult. I like to confuse them because they don’t know where they are then. Then they start to fall in love with you. Nobody confuses kids like I do; they try to understand them and reason with them. I think all kids should be eaten at birth.’’’ Savile seemed to state truths so horrid that they would be taken as outlandish jest or banter. He would lie about many things—he was a pathological liar by many accounts—but he would always pepper his lies with the most unthinkable truths. Davies recalls how the last time he met with Savile, at a restaurant, a waiter asked him if everything was OK after Savile had barked ‘c*nt’, causing a commotion. The waiter then asked if there was anything else he needed and Savile said, plainly, “two 16 year old girls from Ukraine”.
Savile was also flash. The garish tracksuits, the statement Rolls Royce, the blonde hair, large cigar (he’d smoke bigger cigars in public), the bling—the diamond studded Rolex, the ‘jangle-jangle’—were all part of a campaign of cultivated conspicuity. “’It’s part of the charismatic package’ he offered”. This is psychopathy masquerading as sociopathy. It is the knowing performance of sociopathy, the camouflage of conspicuity—the distraction tactic of appearing not to conform. It is not sociopathic in the sense of a violent and misbehaving criminal. Nor is it sociopathic in the sense of Brent and Partridge who fail at trying to conform to social code. Savile wasn’t a sociopath but a psychopath who performed a certain form of sociopathy. He maintained an appearance of sociopathy, knowing its potential to obfuscate and cloak his true self: “I don’t have to do anything, I just have to be. I’m like a piece of soap in the bath; you can see it but when you try to get hold of it it’s gone’’.
Of course, we all perform a little, we might brag about not conforming to the speed limit for example. We might not like to think of ourselves as a total conformist, we like to be a little different, special or unique. But there is a performance of sociopathy that many high-profile people maintain to at once distract from and advance themselves. There are many low-level performances of sociopathy.
Boris Johnson, the lovable Teflon rogue, allegedly spends an hour on his hair each morning. His shambolic and rumpled appearance has, it seems, a certain appeal—he plays on the ingratiating potential of self-depreciation: the charm of fluster. (We may have done something similar, we may have put a little bit too much effort into appearing like we don’t care, spent some time composing a text or tweet with just the right amount of nonchalance.) Boris Johnson is not a sociopath, he’s not quite Toad of Toad Hall; he’s not reckless but merely appears to be so, and this has proved advantageous. (It could be argued that Trump is the US equivalent. His ex-butler said of him in a documentary; “He loves mirrors…he morphs into whatever you want him to be”). Unlike many other politicians, ‘Boris’ seems to get no bad publicity. Even his outright failures and gaffs seem to serve only to ingratiate him more. Bungling, buffoon, blundering often prefix Boris – even genuine mistakes that ought to finish the career of mortal politicians are laughed off. Primed by his dishevelled and casual abandon we excuse Boris. ‘That’s Boris!’ We chuckle and tut.
Jeremy Clarkson is another skilful performer of sociopathy. He has built a career on pre-meditated faux pas and calculated offence. Although in many ways he is unlike Savile (contrary to the suggestions of some who, in terms of Clarkson’s ‘Savilesque’ power and influence, made the comparison after David Cameron came to Clarkson’s defence—supposedly echoing Thatcher’s praise of Savile— after his suspension from Top Gear for physically assaulting a producer in an altercation glossed jollily as a ‘fracas’ or ‘scuffle’ in most mainstream media) there is a striking similarity in terms of performing sociopathy. What’s more, there is also a notable similarity in his motivation for performing sociopathy—to prevent his true self being revealed. He has been quite frank about this in a recent interview published in The Times:
“The whole thing is an act, of course,” he says at one point. What? “My job, my TV persona. ‘Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s a mask. We all wear masks. It’s not the real me.” Is he suggesting that the man who’s made £30 million from “being himself” is a con? “Yup.” Then who is the real you? “I’m not telling you,” he laughs.
His insistence on masks is repeated later on in the interview when he says ‘“We are who we were born and, bar some very early nurturing, that is set for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a mask.”’ This brag of insincerity is an uncomfortably similar sentiment to Savile’s soap metaphor. Clarkson performs sociopathy but at once negates any confusion that it is anything but a performance or a mask of who he really is. The old Top Gear excuse, as Stewart Lee has observed, is the ‘it’s only a joke’ caveat to any offensive remark—at once swerving responsibility whilst seeking to invalidate any offense caused. Clarkson’s ‘slope’ remark is a case in point. “while trying to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand…Clarkson commented, when he saw someone walk across it, ‘“That is a proud moment … but there’s a slope on it.’” So too is his use of the ‘n-word’ when saying the Eeny Meeny Miney Moe rhyme (in other versions he plumped for ‘catch a teacher by his toe’).
However, there is a power and control dynamic at work here—like the bantering demi-bully who, when seeing he has pushed too far, instantly reneges any serious intent. Like a sociopathic child, constantly testing the boundaries of authority, there is a certain power-play. For the Times piece, Clarkson snapped his fingers and the interviewer flew to Barbados. In the next paragraph the interviewer describes how:
he has a hangover. He’s spent much of the day sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool with an oxygen tank, refusing to be coaxed up by a desperate scuba instructor, on the grounds that he wanted to drown out the world. “It was so nice and peaceful down there. Why would I want to come out?”
Clarkson’s lucrative brand of childlike petulance is impressed at other moments too. His status as an enfant terrible man-child is indelicately declared later in the interview with an outright lie. He tells the interviewer he has no pubes and that he only knew he went through puberty when his voice broke, but later confesses that he made this up. There is also a reference to his love of AA Milne, but his comment is so clichéd and vapid that this must be read as another insincere performance of his cheeky, childlike sociopath (“every character you’ll meet in life is a character from Winnie-the-Pooh: May is Wol [how Owl spells his name], Hammond is Piglet, I am Tigger”).
Clarkson’s offensive remarks are not ill-judged but exquisitely well judged flouts. Despite being laughed off or excused as harmless banter, as something not to be taken seriously, they are serious. These are not accidents but pre-meditated acts of insolence. Even when Clarkson falls foul of what is acceptable – even ‘as a joke’ – it is, rather implausibly, chalked up as a coincidence and he casually draws attention to his friendship with the Prime Minister:
While filming a Christmas special in 2014, they had to be evacuated from Argentina after his Porsche’s number plates (H982 FKL) were said to be a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands conflict. (Clarkson denies this: “It was just an impossibility for us to have chosen that number plate on purpose. I drive thousands of cars a year; I never look at the registration.”)
The situation was so tense for the remaining crew—attempting to reach Chile cross-country—that Clarkson feared they’d be killed. “I rang [David] Cameron, who was out in Afghanistan. ‘Get someone over from the Falklands. You’ve got to help us out here, otherwise you’re going to have 40 dead English people.’ There were 40 stuck in that convoy. It was one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.”
There is also an aspect of Clarkson’s performed sociopathy that is much more like the self-depreciating buffoonery of Boris rather than the Savilesque kaleidoscope of lies and truth. Nonetheless, it is still obfuscatory. He plays up to and exaggerates his awkward appearance. Awkwardness, as I argue, is a low-level form of sociopathy. More than once on Top Gear he remarked, either via sarcasm or plain self-depreciation, about his ungainly physique. Again, some time is given to highlighting his clownish and clumsy physiognomy in the interview:
Clarkson is tall and misshapen with wire-wool hair and tobacco-stained teeth. With the possible exception of Wembley Fraggle, he looks like no one else. He likes to say he was made in God’s factory on a Friday evening, when all they had left was two good feet “and a pair of good buttocks. Look at these rubbish hands, this paunch, this hair.” Someone like Andrea Corr, he adds, was made on a Monday morning.
He claims to be utterly ham-fisted. “My first memory is peeling a hard-boiled egg. I was only about 18 months apparently, and it’s still the most practical thing I’ve ever done.
“As Hammond always says, I look like an orangutan when I’m presented with simple tasks, like opening a bottle of wine.
Clumsiness alone is not sociopathic—someone has to witness the awkward behaviour. Attention must be drawn to it; the performance must be seen. And this is precisely what Clarkson, like Boris, achieves. He makes sure he is seen as awkward, he works hard at being conspicuous.
These performances of sociopathy, the conspicuous flouting of social code that serves to mask the true self are the examples par excellence of virtuosic psychopathic performance. They show such sensitivity to social expectations and such ultra-reflexive self-awareness. They also show the nous and cunning to know that behaving normally isn’t always the best disguise, or advantageous. The performance of sociopathy is the psychopath’s double-bluff. Rather than conform to anonymity like Ripley and Bateman, they flout social expectations and hide in plain sight. Rather than being a super-social psychopath, these impostors masquerade as sociopaths.