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14 Mar 2013

Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Differences for the Workplace

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Psychopaths in Workplace

Psychopath & Sociopath The DifferencesClassical management theory is very silent on the influence of personality in business, especially psychopaths and sociopaths who can and do exist in business, as Kevin Dutton (The Wisdom of Psychopaths) and others explain. Since experts don’t agree on definitions and these personalities appear in varying degrees, it’s hard to say exactly how many exist in everyday society. Figures range from 1% to 10-15% for less intense forms. For example, Dutton claims we all have psychopathic tendencies to some degree.

So, to initiate a pragmatic discussion of these personalities in the workplace, I start with this distinction: psychopaths are about power and sociopaths people.

Psychopaths view people more objectively: How do you affect their power? Psychopaths are very friendly if they believe you enhance their power. If not, you’re expendable or threatening. Since psychopaths are very paranoid, it won’t take much for you to threaten them.

Sociopaths view people more relationally: How can you please them? If sociopaths like you, they will bring you under their complete control. If they dislike you (i.e. you don’t allow them to control you), they will enjoy harming you. In fact, sociopaths like this so much that they will even risk their own power interests just as some people can’t resist certain bad foods.

If psychopaths hurt people, it’s an emotional non-event, for sociopaths an enjoyable one. For instance, employment terminations hurt people. Psychopaths won’t lose sleep over them; sociopaths will lose sleep from the thrill. Neither suffers remorse or guilt; both lack empathy.

One time, someone commented about the potential retirement of a CEO who just laid off 10% of his employees, by saying, “Oh, he’s having too much fun to retire.”

I then asked, “How can he be having fun if he just terminated all those people?” How would psychopaths and sociopaths answer this?


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15 Responses

  1. Interesting perspective on this topic Mike. : )

    Personally, I haven’t been able to discern the genuine difference between the two terms either.

    As for psychopaths being about the power and sociopaths being about people, isn’t having power over people the bottom line for the SP? In this regard, I don’t see the distinction.

    In the past I did some research to see if I could find the difference between the two, and they have the same characteristics; superficial charm, lying, lack of remorse, etc. So that’s why I considered the two to be the same.

    In the workplace, regardless of whether someone could be an official psycho/sociopath or not, it’s not much fun dealing with anyone who lacks any sort of genuine empathy or remorse. And I wonder, if our societal/cultural tendencies to conditioning people to detach and numb their feelings…to basically teach people that it is not ok to feel in many cases…I wonder if this is what is at the root of what could be the increased prevalence of psycho/sociopath statistics.

    The more a culture learns to dehumanize one another, the more sociopathic in nature it becomes. I’m not saying that there aren’t people ‘born’ with some sort of anomaly (in the brain or otherwise) that causes them to have a complete lack of emotion. Yet in many cases, it seems we are CREATING this type of personality to be more prevalent.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing up and sharing an interesting perspective on this Mike.

    1. Mike Lehr

      I’m pleased you found the perspective interesting, Samantha. You’re right though. It’s very difficult to discern the genuine difference between the two. When I researched this, I was disappointed by the “experts” lack of agreement and depth in discussing psychopaths. This dearth of discussion is in sharp contrast to that about sociopaths. It seems the sociopath is a dumping ground for any severe pathological symptom. There needs to be more discipline in discerning between the two.

      You’re also right that sociopaths want power over people, but the distinction with psychopaths comes in when we consider other power forms such as money, status, authority, fame, tangibles, etc. Whereas the sociopath is driven to have power over people, the psychopath is driven to have power of any kind without regard for the cost to others. This means that a sociopath is willing to sacrifice other forms of power just to ensure his power over a group of people or over an individual. A psychopath won’t do this unless he comes out ahead in the power exchange. Many times the psychopath harms people because he doesn’t have concern for them. He is so focused on making money, for example, that he doesn’t care if he ruins lives in the process. A sociopath is not that concerned about money as long as he has his power over others. This is why many sociopaths end up in suicidal situations. The psychopath is much more adept at avoiding these.

      Additionally, let’s explore the root of both words: “psyche” for “psychopath” and “society” for “sociopath.” Psyche and society are very different. That’s why I find it very difficult to consider them the same.

      One is more individual and the other more collective, completely different. The addition of “path” from pathology means the first is more about an unhealthy perspective of one’s self while the other an unhealthy perspective about society, especially the relationship to others. In short, the psychopath is about the self-aggrandizement of his psyche while the sociopath is about the self-aggrandizement of his relationships with society.

      It’s these roots that have me define the difference between the two as one focused on power (psychopath) and one focused on people (sociopath). Many times a psychopath’s real damage comes because he has no interest in people and essentially treats them as resources or objects. He has no emotional attachment to people. On the other hand, the sociopath does have an emotional attachment to people – an unhealthy one.

      Your point about lack of remorse or empathy is valuable too. There is a difference between a lack of empathy and an unhealthy dose of it. The psychopath is the first and the sociopath is the second. For example, a sociopath can be so attached emotionally to another person that he won’t let the person out of his sight. He’s suffocating and controlling the other person. While a psychopath could do the same, he won’t do it because of some emotional attachment to the person. He will do it because he sees the control of this person as a means to an end. In effect, he doesn’t care what happens to the person as long as his end is achieved. To the sociopath this wouldn’t happen because the person is the end.

      Your points about conditioning ourselves to numb our feelings and detach ourselves are also very important. Let’s extend them and look at them from a business perspective. If this is our ideal, then we will tend to hold in higher esteem those people who can do that. This means that we might come to hold psychopaths in high esteem because they can be unencumbered emotionally about laying off many employees or making tough financial decisions that could potentially hurt many people. This is why psychopaths can be extremely successful in business where a bottom-line mentality prevails.

      As usual, Samantha, your comments require a deeper look into a subject and create excellent material for follow up posts. Thank you for visiting.


  2. Great thoughts Mike. To me, by far the most dangerous person in the workplace is the Machiavellian Manipulator. Picking and choosing between the characteristics of both personality types you describe the MM consiously slips into the role (along with many others) that they need to advance themselves and undermine anyone they see as competition.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you, Mike. I appreciate the compliment. The way you describe the Machiavellian Manipulator he is much closer to the psychopath than a sociopath. Sociopaths are not as concerned with their power as with their relationship with others which must be overly controlling and dominating. For example, a sociopath will want to exert his control over someone even if it meant costing him time, money, status or other forms of power. A psychopath is less likely to do this especially if the person does not offer any overall power advantage in the exchange. Thank you for your comment, Mike. The MM is an excellent example of the difference between the psychopath and sociopath. You might also want to read my response to Samantha’s comment as it provides elaboration.

      Thank you for visiting. ~Mike

  3. The idea that psychopaths relate to individuals and sociopaths relate to societies is interesting. Elsewhere I have read that there is a spectrum of behavior from narcissistic to sociopathic to psychopathic depending on the degree of lack of empathy on the narcissistic end to actual pleasure in inflicting pain on the psychopathic end of the spectrum. I can look back and see there were times when I behaved in a narcissistic manner believing I had to do what I had to do to survive. Yet, I can feel the pain my actions must have caused for which I am deeply sorry. Do sociopaths or even psychopaths ever feel sorry? Or do they take no responsibility for the pain they cause? This raises many questions.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Elizabeth, thank you for your comment. My definitions and assessments are not meant to fit the psychiatric definition but rather a layperson’s perspective for the workplace. In talking with psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health experts and in my research, there does not appear to be a consensus. In fact, many times sociopath and psychopath are used interchangeably. My original interest was in psychopaths as I was researching empathy. It’s unclear whether they have no empathy or just a little. Regardless, what’s important to me is resharpening the definitions as they have been worn and blended over the years.

      To address your questions, I work each (psychopath, sociopath and narcissist) from an emotional perspective. I also investigated the roots of each work, the entomology. Psychopath is psyche, sociopath is social and narcissist is Narcissus. Psyche relates to the individual, social to the collective. That’s how I arrived at psychopaths being more about them and sociopaths more about others. I then ask can they feel or emote? Since psychopaths don’t do either (because they can’t empathize), how can they be “in love” with themselves (narcissist). Moreover, how can they even feel hatred for others? Thus, their main motive is survival and self-preservation.

      Sociopaths do feel and emote; however, it’s warped in such a way that encourages them to hurt people. They feel good about doing this. Sociopaths can feel sorry but again it’s different. After they kill someone, they will miss them for perverse reasons, sort of like the torturer who no longer has someone to torture. Since hurting people is a source of pleasure, they can’t hurt someone they’ve killed. So, yes, in a way they feel sorry.

      Narcissists do feel and emote too; however, it’s unhealthily directed towards themselves in such a way it’s hard for them to notice anyone else. They will also feel angry and vengeful if others don’t have the same love for them as they do for themselves. Criticism isn’t something they like. They tend to have “yes” people around them.

      Again, the key question to me with these three is this: Can they feel and emote even if its in an unhealthy way?

      Thank you again for visiting. I also listened to the music you’ve created and played. I like it very much.

  4. “Classical management theory is very silent on the influence of personality in business, especially psychopaths and sociopaths who can and do exist in business”

    That sentence says so much, Mike.

    I’ve noticed over the years that there are so many cliches about how you should act in certain situations that completely don’t apply in the case of dealing with psychopaths/sociopaths. This is rampant in business. People are given advice in a blanket way that assumes they are dealing with relatively normal individuals when, in fact, in the business world, there is a significant chance they are not.

    Great to see you take on this subject.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for your comment. I also enjoyed visiting your site, especially the CNN link to the interview with neuroscientist James Fallon. One of his major points is the distinction between “cognitive empathy” and “emotional empathy.” I phrase it as knowing someone is happy versus feeling their happiness. I use this quite a bit in trying to show where some psychopaths could have high Emotional Intelligence since it’s intelligence about emotions not sensitivity, especially when you consider Daniel Goleman’s empathy definition is about understanding not feeling others emotions. I’m pleased to see that you have taken this topic on in such depth. Again, thank you for visiting.

      1. Thank you.

        Fallon’s story is fascinating.

        I completely agree. Many times, psychopaths or others with disorders or reduced conscience are very aware of the emotions of others. They have to be, as that is part of how they manipulate so well. What’s missing is a sensitivity to the importance of the other person’s feelings for their own sake.

  5. It’s a fascinating topic. Last year I had the misfortune to work with someone fitting the description of a sociopath, with a liberal dose of narcissism sprinkled on top (multiple selfies, daily. A warning sign, for the middle aged.)
    More cunning than a hatfull of monkeys. She never lied to me in public, only in private. Say one thing in private, then do another in public. She’d ‘forget’ to tell me important information (eg itinerary changes), then note down resulting stuff-ups. Whenever it was obviously I was getting along well with others in the group, she found a way to draft me onto the sidelines, to resume her solitary throne, centre stage. What could have been excellent collaboration, with our different skill set, she viewed as a competition. Ironically, the harder I worked at doing a really good job, the more I was sealing my eventual fate. Described by the business owner as ‘the most competent person we have’, I was unsurprised. She never taught anyone else the full picture, thus ensuring they remained dependent; and ensured anyone smart enough to make it on their own, was undermined & character assasinated. Au revoir to the competition. The most weirdly insecure yet centre-stage person I’ve ever encountered.
    It was an exasperating, extremely stressful experience and I’m still cogitating on what I could have done differently, for a better result.
    How many of these types of people have been elevated to leadership positions in business and society generally, by their underhand skill at making themselves appear ‘indispensable’?
    I’ve discovered that some perceptive people join the dots quickly when faced with these types of personalities; but the vast majority do not, especially if they’re not on the receiving end.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you, Fiona, for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it. Yes, we like to think that the workplace is all about doing your best and helping the company, but for some reason business theory doesn’t incorporate much on the influence of various personalities in our success (or demise). It’s often said about capitalism that the “invisible hand” of self-interest powers it and keeps it afloat, but there is little commentary about that invisible hand’s influence on our careers and enterprises. Again, thank you for relating your experience. ~Mike

    2. Poshboy

      I used to work in an industry where this kind of behavior was not only tolerated, it was rewarded: American politics on Capitol Hill.

      While psychopaths and sociopaths in the workplace can destroy a company, try putting the same damaged people in positions of national power. Narcissism, manipulation, lying, back-stabbing, and a lack of empathy or responsibility for their actions are seen on a daily basis in the offices of the US House and Senate. And to a certain extent, across the leadership positions of the executive branches. The higher you go, the worse it gets.

      I could only take this kind of behavior for so many years before I realized that they were rewarding only their own kind with higher-paying positions. It is truly terrifying to personally witness–and experience–this kind of deranged behavior. I got out when I could, but still worry about the fate of the nation when it is in these kinds of hands.

      These kinds of psychopaths and sociopaths are in positions of power today, constituting one of the greatest public policy crises in history. And almost no one is addressing this disaster in a meaningful way.

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  7. Some Guy

    It seems to me that you just said that sociopaths are narcissists while psychopaths are power-mad pragmatists. There is actually no difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, and the words are used interchangeably. There are narcissistic psychopaths, but the vast majority are not.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for stopping by Some Guy. I did not say sociopaths are narcissists. Sociopaths don’t like people. That usually means they don’t like themselves either.

      Your assessment of what I said about psychopaths is extreme but accounting for that it’s root is true. I characterize psychopaths as extremely self-interested. For many of us altruism and empathy prevent a purely self-interested approach. Psychopaths are not “power-mad.” They are generally very rational and intelligent in their acquisition of power. To say they are “mad” is to imply emotions they do not have. They just lack the altruism, empathy and other positive emotions most of us have to some degree that temper a purely self-interested approach to life.

      There is a difference between psychopaths and sociopaths though. We would not have two words describing the exact same thing if they were. Also, if you examine the etymology of the words, their roots “psyche” and “social” are very, very different. One is more self-centered. The other more social.

      You’re right in a sense though. People commonly toggle between the two to such an extent that the difference on a basic level is very blurred if not indistinguishable. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve researched this, thought about it and wrote this post. Most of this blurring though is because of ignorance or lack of discipline and not because there is no difference.

      It’s not possible to have narcissistic psychopaths. Narcissism is self-love. Love is an emotion. Psychopaths will have difficulty with love since they lack the basic emotions for it.

      Narcissists are quite different from psychopaths and sociopaths. Whereas psychopaths preference for power and sociopaths dislike for people interfere, the self-love narcissists have for themselves will interfere with their relationships and decisions. For instance, narcissists will relinquish power if it means preserving or enhancing their love for themselves or for enhancing others’ love for them. Narcissus actually drowned because he fell into the water from loving his image so much. It would be impossible for a psychopath to suffer such a fate. His strong survival instinct would prevent it not to mention, again, his lack of emotions – including self-love.

      Still, you’re right. It’s hard to see the distinction through all the clutter out there. My purpose is to give everyday people a way to identify and understand such people at work. Many careers are damaged by these. I thank you, Some Guy, for visiting and leaving your insights.

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