Psychopaths & Sociopaths
in Scripture, Psychology, & Real Life
Beloveds, holy kisses.
Today's article delves into psychopathy and sociopathy, subjects unsettling and complex. A word of caution: some of the content in this article will be especially disturbing for some individuals. Please read with discretion and prayer.
Like narcissism, the terms psychopath and sociopath get overused and misused in Western pop culture. Much of the confusion is caused by armchair support groups colonizing large chunks of the internet. These well-meaning groups offer a mixture of accurate psychology, cherrypicked studies, rejiggered psychology, and personal opinion atop unhealed pain (caused by said psychopaths and sociopaths). If you spend significant time in one of these groups, hearing some of the excruciatingly sad stories, you will start to think your golden retriever is living a double life as Cujo.
The terms psychopathy and sociopathy are not official terms. They are a type of professional vernacular, terms used in various professional settings, but not officially cataloged as such in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). To minimize confusion, let's begin by defining terms and referencing what the DSM-5 does catalog.
What is often termed psychopathy or sociopathy the DSM-5 catalogs as antisocial personality disorder (APD). Here is their verbatim definition, shortened at certain points for brevity:
"A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors. (shortened)
Deceitfulness, repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others. (shortened)
Impulsivity or failure to plan.
Irritability and aggressiveness, often with physical fights or assaults.
Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.
Consistent irresponsibility, failure to sustain consistent work behavior, or honor monetary obligations.
Lack of remorse, being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person."
Psychopathy & Sociopathy
The DSM-5 was released in 2013. A great amount of new research, however, has been conducted in the last decade. The research indicates there are two expressions of APD, and, indicates the DSM-5 describes sociopathy only, but not psychopathy.
Sociopathy fits the DSM-5's full description. Psychopathy, however, diverges at multiple points. Psychopaths, research increasingly shows, are not impulsive or fail to plan. Rather, they are chillingly calculated, even ceremonial, in their antisocial projects (like a spider spinning a web). Two, psychopaths do not display hypersensitive irritability and kneejerk aggression, because, research indicates, their brains fail to scare and arouse them sufficiently or at all. They might not punch you in a fit of anger, but the brakes in your car, mysteriously, might not work. Three, psychopaths can be exceptionally responsible vocationally and financially, i.e., white collar psychopaths who run successful businesses, or stay in political office, or are successful lawyers, or are successful surgeons, or stay in religious leadership, for long periods of time. A significant percentage of individuals in these power professions fulfill psychopathic criteria (the percentages vary based on the study's design).
Same Tree, Different Branches
APD expresses as both psychopathy and sociopathy at the baseline level: "A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others..." This is where the two are essentially one and the same, and why many professionals use the terms interchangeably. Beyond the shared tree trunk, however, sociopathy branches into a chaotic and impulsive expression, while psychopathy branches into a calculating and more intelligent expression. Both dispense "a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others", however, one expresses like a horsefly and the other expresses like a spider.
Divergence of Causes Also?
Psychopathy and sociopathy not only diverge in their expression, but, many researchers, clinicians, and criminologists believe, also diverge in their causes. Psychopathy, according to some professionals, is caused mainly by psychological, physiological, and genetic factors, while sociopathy is caused by micro and macro social forces around the individual. In psychopathy, the syndrome is in the psyche and/or physiology (hence the term psychopathy), in sociopathy, the syndrome is social, in the social pressures and coping behaviors (hence the term sociopathy). As we will see in a bit, Scripture vehemently disagrees with secular psychology's cause for psychopathy.
From here forward we will focus exclusively on psychopathy. I feel sociopathy--and its antisocial, hyperdefensive, chaotic, impulsive, aggressive, lashing out behaviors--is more obvious, easier to understand, and easier to find in Scripture (diagnostic verses and remedial verses). Psychopathy, however, is far more enigmatic and far more sinister. And most importantly, God's Word addresses psychopathy very, very differently than sociopathy.
Statistics & Figures
The following figures are according to Psychopathy Is, a professional, research, and clinical organization devoted to the subject. I have added interpretive notes here and there.
Approximately 30% of the American population have low, medium, or high levels of psychopathy. That means roughly 100,441,580 people in our country behave psychopathically to some degree. Regarding high or severe psychopathy, the type most people are aware of and afraid of, the percentage is estimated at 1-4%. This percentage is variable depending on how full psychopathy is defined and nuanced.
Studies indicate psychopathy is twice as common in males than females. I do not believe this figure is conclusive and here is why. Female psychopaths tend to use sexuality as the vector of their psychopathy, like the two Jezebels in Scripture, Judy Buenoano (known as "the black widow"), Jodi Arias, and Amy Dunne in the movie Gone Girl. Consequently, to avoid public exposure and fallout, or because of embarrassment at being gotten by a woman, many men simply do not report or acknowledge their experiences with a female psychopath. Additionally, behavioral differences between men and women also account for female psychopaths slipping under the radar. Men are more likely to kill while women are not. Additionally, there is far less research on female psychopathy versus male psychopathy.
Studies indicate 16-25% of the male prison population satisfy the criteria for full psychopathy. 1% of non-institutionalized males (men still running loose in the population) are psychopaths. Psychopathic individuals are responsible for 30-40% of all violent crime in the United States, costing the criminal justice system $460 billion every year, making it the most expensive mental health condition in existence. Offenders with psychopathy are more than five times more likely to re-offend.
Psychopathic minors are over four times more likely to use a gun during a crime than non-psychopathic minors.
Who are some real-life and cinema examples of full psychopathy?
The first psychopath in human history was Cain. This is not simply because he killed Abel; people kill for a variety of reasons under a variety of mental states. Notice how Cain killed Abel and how he acted afterwards (Gen 4:8,9). In a distinctly psychopathic spidery fashion, he designed Abel's murder--out in a field distant from the house, where wild animals, and especially vultures, could obscure the evidence. When asked by God about Abel's whereabouts, Cain's response was chillingly ice cold, showing zero conscience, and glibly sassing back at God like today's psychopaths always do under formal police interrogation.
In the modern world, Dennis Rader is an example. Rader was married, had two kids, served in the U.S. Air Force, graduated from Wichita State University, worked as a compliance officer, served as a boy scout leader, and was the president of Christ Lutheran Church. He murdered ten people and eluded authorities, astonishingly, for three decades.
Rader was caught in 2005 when police tricked him into sending them a floppy disk, which they "assured" him could not be traced. Up until that time he had been taunting the public and law enforcement, sending anonymous messages to the media and leaving little clues. (The floppy disk would contain more mini-clues.) The floppy disk had old metadata from a Microsoft Word document Rader previously saved on it. He deleted the document, but the deeper disk still had the metadata. The disk traced back to the church, Christ Lutheran Church, where Rader was the president of the church council. Rader was shocked and angry the police lied to him.
There are numerous depictions of psychopathy in film, from Wall Street psychopaths to corporate psychopaths to religious/ideological psychopaths to sexually predatory psychopaths to violent psychopaths. Many of these movies are unwatchable for Christians, but two are definitely worth watching: Mission Impossible 5 and 6, the character Solomon Lane. Both are rated PG-13 and are fantastically entertaining. Lane is an ideological psychopath, identical in kind to other ideological psychopaths in real life, like Charles Manson (Helter Skelter, social re-engineering), Osama bin Laden (Islamic hegemony), Adolf Hitler (Germanic hegemony), and as recent events have freshly revealed, Vladimir Putin (Russian hegemony).
The preeminent female psychopath in the Word is Jezebel. This is not simply because she killed and killed a lot; people kill for a variety of reasons under a variety of mental states. It is how she killed and how she acted afterwards that reveal full psychopathy. Read 1Kings 21:1-16. Jezebel did not kill Naboth in the heat of passion, or in the fog of war, or under the momentary spell of sociopathic hysterical rage. Like a cold-blooded reptile, she methodically organized his murder, even doing it through intermediaries and not directly dirtying her hands (like Manson, bin Laden, Hitler, and Putin). When all was said and done, she robotically told her husband to confiscate Naboth's land.
In the modern world, Judy Buenoano, nicknamed "the black widow", is an example. Buenoano methodically planned the killing of multiple men in her life--father in-law, husbands, lovers, even her own son--to collect life insurance money. She used poison, an "accidental" drowning, and even a car bomb. Buenoano was finally caught in 1983 after investigators had suspicions following the car bomb that sent her fiance, John, to the hospital. Buenoano was executed via electric chair in 1998, Florida's first execution of a woman since 1848. She denied everything to the very end.
Numerous films also depict female psychopaths, two of the most memorable being "Annie Wilkes" in Misery and "Amy Dunne" in Gone Girl. If you are interested in watching these, do your own content research and pray for the Lord's illumination. I do not give legalistic "thou shalt nots" about the majority of movies, I simply urge you to do your own content research and ask the Spirit of wisdom to guide you at the level you are at.
In all these examples, do not focus on the homicide, which a person can commit for a multitude of reasons. Observe, rather, the consistent attributional themes: the pathological calm, the reptilian coldness, the spidery calculation, the above average intelligence, and as the DSM-5 states, the pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights and well-being of others.
Psychopathy in Scripture
The Word of God, also, details psychopathy. It describes the condition, almost word for word, the same way behavioral research does. However, Scripture and psychology give curiously different causes for the condition. Psychology points to a psychopath's genetics, physiology, and psychology as the main cause; Scripture presents a very, very, very different, and remarkably specific, cause. We'll get to that in a sec, but first, Paul's description.
Paul's Description of Psychopaths
Romans 1 contains the most detailed and sequential description of psychopathy. Paul repeats himself in other passages, and the wider Scripture reiterates the same concepts. At the very end of Romans 1, in verses 29-31, Paul lists the symptoms of a person who has descended to a psychopathic or reprobate status (Young's Literal Translation, underline mine):
...having been filled with all unrighteousness, whoredom, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil dispositions; whisperers, evil-speakers, God-haters, insulting, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, unintelligent, faithless, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful...
First, notice God says, two times, this kind of person is "filled with" and "full of" some of the most heinous forms of evil. When we say "filled with" and "full of" we tend to do so as hyperbole, as linguistic exaggeration for effect, not literally. When God says "filled with" and full of" He is being literal. These adjectives tell us a psychopath has reached a literal totality or uttermost or fullness of evil. God spoke identically about the sin of the Amorites in Genesis 15:16 (NIV): ...the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.
Second, Paul says these kinds of individuals are "full of...murder". Full of murder? See the equivalence with "serial killer"? Not all psychopaths are serial killers in the sense of homicide, however, all psychopaths are conceptual serial killers in that they have a pervasive pattern of disregard for the well-being of others. They always bring some form of murder, literally or conceptually. They cannot help but kill, harm, take, and exploit. Paul used three other terms to scaffold this idea: covetousness, malice, envy. James ties all these words together into one straightforward explanation (Jas 4:1,2 ESV, underline mine): What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel... James is not referring to psychopaths specifically, but showing how covetousness, malice, and envy lead to strife, violence, and murder. Paul, though, is saying the psychopath will have all these traits to the fullest and grimmest, especially the end-trait: murder in some form.
Third, Paul says these individuals are "full of...evil dispositions...inventors of evil things". It is relevant that this description parallels Genesis 6's description of pre-Flood humanity right before God's global judgment. Genesis 6:5 says (KJV): And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The perfect equivalence of Paul's description and Genesis 6:5's description indicates Romans 1:29-31 is not a general description of fallen humanity. Rather, the subcategory Paul is describing here profiles people who have devolved into a fullness of evil.
Furthermore, not only are these individuals full of evil dispositions, they also invent new ways of doing evil, Paul says. Again this parallels Genesis 6, when the world of that time invented a shocking new way of doing evil: creating Nephilim. Paul's words describe psychopathy with anointed precision. If you read the stories of psychopaths, a consistent theme is their above average creativity in carrying out their psychopathic goals. It is bone-chilling how good they are at being "inventors of evil things".
Fourth, Paul mentions a universally known attribute of psychopaths: the lack of conscience and normal human feeling. The YLT uses the terms "without natural affection" and "unmerciful". The ESV translates the Greek more strongly, as "heartless" and "ruthless". The behavioral sciences pinpoint this trait as one of the top three indicators of psychopathy. Paul ends his lengthy sermonette in Romans 1 with this very same trait. Psychopaths are heartless and ruthless. They have a cauterized, nonfunctioning, deadened conscience. 1Timothy 4:2 (NKJV) reiterates: ...having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.
A quick recap of Romans 1:29-31. Paul tells us, one, psychopaths have devolved into a literal fullness of evil, telling us (twice) they are "filled with" and "full of" heinous forms of wickedness. Two, they are "full of murder", making some of them literal serial killers, and others, serial killers in the conceptual sense of pervasively exploiting others short of homicide. Three, they are "full of...evil dispositions...inventors of evil things", meaning, they have an above average shrewdness in carrying out evil ideas and impulses. Four, they are heartless and ruthless; their conscience is cauterized, deadened.
Reiteration in 2Timothy 3
2Timothy 3:1-9 is a profile of both lifestyle narcissism (also called malignant narcissism and sociopathic narcissism) and psychopathy. Some terms refer to one or the other, while some terms overlap and refer to both. Regarding psychopathy, watch how Paul reiterates the profile from Romans 1:29-31. 2Timothy 3:2-7 (ESV, underline mine):
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
The words "heartless, unappeasable" reiterate the nonfunctioning, cauterized conscience. The words "abusive...brutal" reiterate the trait "full of murder". The word "treacherous" reiterates the psychopath's duplicitous cunning and intelligence, as do the phrases "those who creep into households" and "always learning" (re: "inventors of evil things" from Romans 1:30).
2Timothy 3:8 uses an important word that will segue us into the next section: reprobate. Here is the full verse in the KJV (underline mine): Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith.
Psychopathy in Scripture
What psychology calls a psychopath (psychopathy), Scripture calls a reprobate (reprobation). If you do not understand this tremendously important doctrine, you will not see psychopathy the way the Lord does. The Word gives us a distinct cause for this condition, and it is a universe of difference from psychology's proposed cause. Back to Romans 1.