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Dear Dr Robert,

I really need some help in understanding the key differences between a Sociopath and someone who has the Dark Triad of personality traits. Based on my research, many of the symptoms/traits outlined are the same and I’m really struggling to find any definitive lines to draw between the two.

Many thanks for your help.


ask dr-robert

Hello, Sheri--

The term "dark triad," is a relatively new usage, coined in a 2002 paper by Paulhus & Williams in which those researchers attempted to study the so-called "bad boy" phenomenon. The bad boy phenomenon refers to the observation that many women seem particularly attracted to men who are narcissistic, manipulative, and free of guilt (the dark triad of traits), and that such men will be more successful in "scoring" sexually.

Paulhus and William's research, based on studying 224 college students, showed that such men often had a high motivation to engage in short-term sexual relationships, that they indeed were more likely to have multiple partners, and also to have more of them than the average man, and that these "bad boys" were much less likely to be involved in long-term relationships. In short, bad guys really do get the most girls.

The word "sociopath" is a much older term. It was coined by psychologist G.E. Partridge in 1930 in an attempt to replace the even older term "psychopath" which dates back to 1847, derived from the German word "psychopatisch." Although some uninformed people try to draw a distinction between sociopathy and psychopathy (usually assuming that a psychopath is somehow "worse" than a sociopath), this is incorrect. The two terms mean exactly the same thing.

Other unknowledgeable people--some of whom have cluttered up the Ask Dr. Robert Forum with ignorant pronouncements, backed up by their versions of "Christian" doctrine--try to argue that all psychopaths or sociopaths are somehow evil-intentioned, malevolent, or maleficent. This is simply incorrect. Intention, evil or otherwise, is not what defines the psychopath. Nor is evil deed, or despicable action a test for psychopathy. Psychopathy involves one, and only one, criterion: is the person psychologically capable of feeling guilty? If the answer is yes, the person is not a psychopath, no matter how evil, mean, lowdown, selfish, or manipulative his or her intentions or actions may appear. Conversely, if someone is incapable of feeling guilt, that person is a psychopath, even if his behavior never injures a single living being.

In other words, behavior has nothing to do with it: a psychopath is simply a person who lacks guilt feelings. Nothing more, nothing less. This is very different, by the way, from the much newer term, "antisocial personality," which the American Psychological Association created to replace the older diagnosis, "psychopathy," and which does depend on various criteria involving "bad" behavior (for example: "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest"). As I have argued elsewhere, this replacement of the old by the new seems a particularly bad step because eliminating psychopathy from the diagnostic nosology immediately takes the focus off psychological understanding (where, in my view, it belongs), putting it instead on judging behavior, so that now psychopaths who hurt others are lumped together with non-psychopaths who commit the same crimes. This may be a reasonable, or at least workable, outlook for a cop or a judge, but not, I contend, for a psychotherapist.

Now as you rightly observe, the lack of guilt which defines the psychopath is one of the three members of Paulhus and William's so-called "dark triad"; thus, anyone anyone who is said to embody all three dark triad traits is, automatically by definition, a psychopath. But the same cannot be said of the other members of the triad: a narcissist is not necessarily psychopathic (although he or she may be), and a manipulative, Machiavellian ("a prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise") person is not automatically psychopathic either (although he or she may be).

I hope this clears up your confusion.

Be well.

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