Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He's researched a range of psychological traits and disorders.
What is a Sociopath?
A sociopath is someone who is morally deficient, anti-social, and bereft of a tolerable conscience. They experience limited emotions, but completely lack remorse, guilt, sympathy, and empathy. They also respond to perceived slights with disproportionate retaliation, making them likely to descend into violent criminal behavior. However, it's quite possible for a sociopath to resort only to psychological harm. For example, sociopaths will often exhibit selfishness, intransigence, pathological lying, and other manipulative or controlling behavior.
Differences Between Sociopaths and Psychopaths
Sociopaths differ from psychopaths in a number of ways. While psychopaths have a biological or genetic cause for their disorder, sociopaths are a product of early social or environmental factors. These factors might include childhood abuse, a traumatic event, inattentive parents, or anything that could result in a child shutting down emotionally.
As a result, sociopaths are likely to have developed several other traits that make them easy to identify. They commonly exhibit abnormal social behavior, including an inability to conform to social norms, unusual responses to the actions or emotions of others, difficulty forming relationships, and a tendency to withdraw from society.
While sociopaths find it difficult to understand or mimic the emotions of others, psychopaths are experts at appearing normal. They've adapted to their biological deficiencies by accurately faking the things they lack. Given that their mask offers better protection from the authorities, psychopaths are more likely than sociopaths to engage in criminal activity. Psychopaths also tend to lack fear, while sociopaths are merely suppressing their fear.
Why is it Cool to be a Sociopath?
As sociopaths are less likely than psychopaths to be criminals, and they're a social product rather than a genetic aberration, some people seem quite content with thinking of themselves as sociopaths. Many are definitely not sociopaths, but they like the idea of being one.
The remainder of this article will be a conjectural look at why this attitude is becoming prevalent. A number of psychological traits and cultural happenstances will be identified in an attempt to explain why people think it’s cool to be a sociopath.
1. The Sherlock Effect
Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character that exhibits a number of admirable qualities, including genius-like intelligence, a desire to catch criminals, class, sophistication, loyalty to friends, and a kind of helpless innocence in social situations. Many viewers will either relate to some of these traits, or wish them for themselves. This desire to be like Sherlock Holmes is called the `Sherlock effect'.
Unfortunately, the character also describes himself as a `high-functioning sociopath' (see video below). Thus, Sherlock's role-model status results in many viewers also wanting to think they're sociopaths.
The Sherlock effect extends to other fictional dramas too. For example, Dexter was a TV show in which a sociopath channeled his impulses into killing criminals. He exhibited admirable qualities, such as meticulousness, professionalism, loyalty to his family, bravery, and a code of conduct. He was also good-looking, intelligent, and `cool'. His monologues during the show allowed viewers to get to know the character and his struggle with sociopathy.
Hannibal Lecter is certainly a less appealing role model, though, much like Sherlock, he also exhibited class, culture, and sophistication. Dexter and Hannibal added to their list of admirable qualities by helping the authorities catch criminals. They also showed remarkable sagacity to evade the authorities themselves. This `catch me if you can' mentality is quite appealing to the viewer, and often leads to a desire for the sociopath to evade capture indefinitely.
Sherlock Holmes: A High-Functioning Sociopath
2. Wanting to be Feared
Sociopaths are seen as extremely threatening and dangerous rather than indiscriminately violent. They only use violence when it's necessary, but when they do, it's horrendously brutal and calculated. Compared with psychopaths, sociopaths are attributed with a greater level of control over their impulses.
For this reason, people like to think they're sociopaths because of the "don't mess with me" veneer that comes with it. They want to appear restrained, but with a penchant for viciously smiting those who cross them. Thus, people call themselves sociopaths to deter others from doing them harm.
Like an aposematic frog or lizard, it is a defense mechanism that deceives attackers into not attacking. One must be highly sensitive or intolerant of abuse to employ such measures. Therefore, this reason for wanting to be a sociopath may be due to hypersensitivity or a history of being bullied.
Heed my Furious Anger!
3. Wanting to be Unique
Many people struggle to establish an identity that sets them apart from the crowd. Some search for an interesting religious or spiritual affiliation, such as Paganism or Scientology. Others adopt a rare political position, an unusual dress-sense, a bizarre hobby, or a quirky personality. The goal is to appear special, unique, and often, controversial.
This may be why some people like to think of themselves as sociopaths. A sociopath is a notoriously well known, yet extremely rare classification.
However, saying you're a sociopath isn't likely to go down well with your friends. While some people want others to think of them as a bit `crazy' or wild, this may be a step too far. Thus, this reason for wanting to be a sociopath likely stems from intrinsic rather than extrinsic insecurities about identity.
Hannibal Lecter: The Sophisticated Sociopath
4. Wanting Emotional Control
Emotional people are seen as vulnerable to coercion. Their tendency to `show their hand' is a weakness that manipulators can take advantage of. As sociopaths lack emotion, they're seen as invulnerable. This is an attractive trait for anyone whose extroverted emotions have gotten them into trouble in the past.
Essentially, people want to think they're in control. They want to be the manipulator, not a victim of manipulation. Sherlock Holmes, Dexter, and Hannibal Lecter are all exaggerated examples of sociopaths who are arch-manipulators.
The power and control exhibited by fictional sociopaths is not only attractive to people who lack these traits, but also to those who already display less emotion. For example, some people may want to explain and justify their outward coldness, exaggerate it, and brand it as an advantage.
Are Cool Sociopaths a Problem?
If people are reading this and thinking `society is going down the drain', then don't worry. If someone isn't a sociopath, there's nothing wrong with them thinking they are. They're probably just prone to some of the psychological traits or cultural trends described above.
Sociopathy is a serious disorder, so thinking you're a sociopath won't make you behave like one. As such, there doesn't appear to be anything wrong with cool sociopaths appearing on our TV screens.
In summary, if you think you're a sociopath, it's probably because you've watched too much Sherlock or Dexter. Otherwise, it may be due to common psychological traits, such as wanting to be unique, feared, or emotionally bulletproof. Of course, there's always a chance that you are a sociopath. So, if none of these explanations describe you, I'd recommend seeing a psychiatrist!
© 2014 Thomas Swan
Martin Yearley on December 10, 2019:
I voted no. I.E., exactly as a sociopath would vote.
Laura Smith from Pittsburgh, PA on September 04, 2018:
I have definitely come across people who thought they were sociopaths but demonstrated otherwise, and I agree that it's a defense mechanism to make them seem tough or impervious to others. They confuse being emotionless with being strong. They're good at making you believe it too, but when they let their guard down, you see their empathy come through, and it's hard to believe that they prefer to be thought of as a sociopath. Fictional characters can make them seem more interesting, but that's just a product of great writing and acting that real life really can't emulate. Really interesting topic.
Lilly Williams on March 01, 2016:
I found this interesting, I am a sociopath but do not understand why normal people would want to be what I am, if anything there will be times where I hoped to be normal and fades away because I accept what I am, I'm incapable of remorse or regret, I've been in relationships and received love but never understood it nor could I return anything if I even wanted to, but I did learn to have some sort of connection with certain people, I was violent as a child and my blood lust has only gotten stronger, I do not kill people but I think of it many times and have to control my outbursts. Yes it is very true that we camouflage though, I seem to have done a good job at it until I started to accept what I was and tell people.
Suzie from Carson City on August 24, 2015:
Thomas.....It's clear to me you did some serious research. I'm sure that during your search, you were overwhelmed with the incredibly vast research available in this field. This can clear up any notion for those who think that just anyone can be a forensic psychologist!
Just one small segment of this huge field of study, Behavioral Science, calls for no less than 6 years of formal education. And every phase demands ongoing and continual seminars of study and herculean efforts in keeping up with the most recent findings by the MEGA experts who I dare say are sheer geniuses!
Back to your fascinating article....there are subtle differences between the psycho & socio.....and one of the best things to keep in mind for those who are interested is that while all psychopaths are sociopaths.....it is not necessarily correct that all sociopaths are psychopaths. In thinking of it this way, at least the 2 can be separated in terms of complexity.
To anyone who might actually think it would be "cool" to be one or the other....I can confidently and most assuredly advise them that nothing could be further from "cool." However, via Novels, movies and TV shows....all is portrayed in the vein of fantasy, loosely based upon factual information. Entertainment is wonderful. Real life is not quite so fabulous....I would hope this is needless to say.
Throughout my career history, I don't think a week went by that I didn't day dream about the fact that I should have been a ballerina! LOL Superb writing here, Thomas. (I'm sorry I cannot vote any more. I was one who always used those little helpers!)
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 24, 2015:
Thanks for commenting and sharing Catherine! Yes, some people do think they're sociopaths who probably aren't. 20% of people in the poll did, though I wonder if some just thought it'd be funny to say so! Nevertheless, my inspiration for this article was one of those quizzes in which people test themselves to see if they're a sociopath. I found it strange that so many people considered it an attractive label for themselves, while others were quite content with failing the test (or passing depending on one's perspective). I don't think it's possible for admiration of these characters to result in sociopathy, as the causes are deep-rooted and developmental. I wonder if there's some level of behavioral mimicry, but I highly doubt it's any worse than a bit of manipulative behavior that people end up regretting in the long run.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on August 17, 2015:
Popular culture glorifies sociopaths. I was a great fan of Dexter reviewing his show every week on my blog. Every now and then I had to stand back and remember that I was rooting for a cold-blooded killer. I was unaware that people who aren't sociopaths actually think of themselves as sociopaths. I guess we all want to be like our heroes. Do these types of fictional characters actual lead to sociopathic behavior in the real world? You did a great job explaining the appeal of fictional sociopaths. Voted up H+ ***
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 03, 2015:
To the guest who commented. Thank you for your thoughts, but I don't usually allow links in comments. Regarding your concern about the article, I said Sherlock "describes himself as a `high-functioning sociopath'" with the emphasis on describe. He doesn't have to be one for people to consequently think it's cool.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 22, 2015:
Thanks FatBoyThin. A hook to hang a personality on is a good way to describe it. You're right, the negative aspects of people and life in general always seem to get more attention and are better remembered. Psychologists call it the negativity bias, and it's probably relevant here. Well spotted.
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on April 22, 2015:
I think the idea of being a sociopath is really just another cool 'hook' for people to hang their personalities on, particularly if they aren't really sure who the are. Also, the bad guys often get more attention than ordinary folk, so it seems like they are somehow better. Anyway, great Hub.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on December 10, 2014:
Thanks for commenting Sara. I agree that `aura of mystery' would probably be a very good way to describe it.
Sarah from Portugal on December 10, 2014:
Very interesting article. I think people always wanted to feel interesting, important and unique, being a "sociopath", nowadays (and I would bet on Sherlock for a reason why it's "cool"), or defining themselves as such, make them believe it gives them an "aura" of mystery and intelligence (like the characters you described) and they might feel important by it.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 24, 2014:
Thank you for commenting Kelsey. I suppose sociopaths and psychopaths are fascinating characters because they're so different from the rest of us. Again, I think this suggests that people who think they're sociopaths probably want to assimilate the positive `fascinating' aspects for themselves.
I think it's OK to be interested by them. Trying to understand that which is different from us can never be a bad thing. Better that than dismissing sociopaths as evil and never trying to understand the cause of their condition.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 24, 2014:
Thanks for commenting WiccanSage. I agree that the notion of being "dark" is intoxicating for some. Perhaps just as intoxicating is the idea that one is righteous, and fighting against the dark. We all seem to drift towards absolutes. It's probably because we all seek a solid identity for ourselves, even if we contradict it on a daily basis. I don't think it's about attention. I think it's more about personal identity, self-esteem, and self-empowerment.
Kelsey Thaves from Twin Cities on September 23, 2014:
It's true, there is a budding interest in being perceived as a sociopath. It probably has something to do with the reason I am obsessed with watching television about psychopaths and murderers. Television is riddled with this genre nowadays. It's also on point to note that if you think you are a sociopath, then you probably aren't one. Great article!
Mackenzie Sage Wright on September 11, 2014:
It is an interesting trend, being 'dark' is so admired today, as if having a negative attitude makes a person deep or something. I think people just want attention. I guess also people who feel powerless like to fantasize about the idea of not caring and taking control, not being afraid, putting fear in others.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 08, 2014:
Thanks grand old lady. Yes, it took a fair bit of research to collate the various definitions. Often, the term is used interchangeably with psychopath. Recently, they're being separated more as differences are observed, though it's still open to change and interpretation. I don't think there's any risk in thinking you're a sociopath if you're not one. I just find it interesting from a psychological perspective. Of course, this trend might make it more likely for an actual sociopath to admit to being one... so it might even be a good thing.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on September 07, 2014:
Your sociopath description sounds very interesting. It's also very scary. I enjoyed reading this article, this is something we should all know and watch out for.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 06, 2014:
Thanks for commenting Colleen.
Colleen Swan from County Durham on September 06, 2014:
Fascinating read. We are led to wonder what is a friend, who was, and should we beware of every smile.