Psychopaths and sociopaths are outdated terms

Sociopathy is an outdated term for a psychiatric disorder, especially the social behavior of the sick person.

The current meaning of the term Sociopath refers to people who are unable or only partially able to feel compassion, find it difficult to empathize with others and cannot weigh the consequences of their actions.


Definitions and diagnostic criteria varied widely between schools of psychiatry. In order to counteract the confusion of terms, the term was not included in the modern classification systems of diseases (ICD-10) and mental disorders (DSM 4). Most closely related to the modern term of sociopathy dissocial personality disorder (also amoral, antisocial, asocial, psychopathic personality disorder).

The same conceptual problem also led to the related term psychopathy no longer being used in technical jargon.

Dissocial Personality Disorder

Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a pronounced discrepancy between behavior and applicable social norms. Typical features are

  • Inability to empathize with others
  • Inability to take on responsibility, at the same time a clear rejection and disregard of all social norms, rules and obligations
  • Inability to maintain long-term relationships, but no problems establishing new relationships
  • Low tolerance for frustration, tendency to aggressive and violent behavior
  • Lack of guilt
  • Inability to learn from experience.

Another characteristic of this condition can be persistent irritability. The disorder can develop in or after childhood.

New meaning

The term sociopath or sociopathy came to life through the rediscovery of a related phenomenon. The scientific community was first confronted with the problem in 1848. Later it was almost forgotten. With today's imaging techniques and newer findings in the field of neurology, the term sociopathy is now being reused. Since then, the term has applied to the neuropathological inability to develop social skills such as compassion, empathy and awareness of wrongdoing.

Historical development

In 1848 an event took place that shed light on the cause of the phenomenon of sociopathy in the modern sense of the word:

In an explosion, 25-year-old Phineas Gage sustained a serious head injury from a metal bar. He was a foreman of a railway company and was considered very reliable. After he recovered, he was a different person. He became unreliable, aggressive, compassionate, and sought arguments at every opportunity. The likely reason for this change in behavior was damage to the forebrain, which is responsible for psychological functions such as empathy and impulse control. The injury severely affected them. Children born with a dysfunctional forebrain are largely unable to learn the simplest rules of argument. Investigations with the help of magnetic resonance imaging have shown that the forebrain in people with dissocial personality disorder is less active than is the case in mentally healthy control persons. In addition, the so-called almond kernel shows no activity. It is believed that the way their brains work makes sociopaths unable to weigh the consequences of their actions.

In more recent studies, the responsible brain region could be localized even more precisely. It is the frontal lobe, more precisely the ventromedial prefrontal region of the cerebral cortex.

See also