I research psychopaths and sociopaths because I find them fascinating. To me, the taking of another’s life seems unfathomable. Sociopaths and psychopaths do it without losing any sleep, it is barely a blip on their radar of life experiences.
Researchers dedicate a great deal of time to it because both have serious impacts on our world. Aside from serial killers and gang members/leaders, they run countries and Fortune 500 companies, they are heavily involved in politics and the market forces that drive economics; they essentially touch everything the rest of us experience and yet, we know very little about them. To put it into some perspective, it is very likely that historical figures such as Ramses the Great (Ramses II), Alexander the Great, Nero*, Caligula*, Henry the VIII, Hitler, several popes, Ivan the Terrible*, Stalin*, Elizabeth the First, and even Columbus were all either sociopaths or psychopaths. And while it is easy for us to imagine Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, and Blackbeard were psychopaths, it is much harder to fathom that people like Elizabeth the First or a few of our popes were of the same ilk…
For the most part, we can’t even come to a consensus on what they are. One school of thought has two different and distinct types of sociopaths/psychopaths, while the other does not. This would be the great debate between antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder (both) with psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies.
The reason for this is actually quite simple: the things that sociopaths and psychopaths do are also things that BPD patients do. Now, not every BPD is going to exhibit sociopathic/psychopathic behaviors, but a large number do. By the same token, not every ASPD is going to exhibit sociopathic/psychopathic behaviors, but a large number do. And it is this pool of disorders where we get mass murderers and serial killers (Dissociative Identity Disorder also creates serial killers and mass murderers, but on a much smaller scale).
So, why does it matter if someone has BPD with sociopathic tendencies or ASPD with sociopathic tendencies? It seems to impact the level of functioning. Right now, researchers are discovering that BPD sociopaths/psychopaths make up the majority of serial killers and mass murders, while ASPD sociopaths/psychopaths are more likely to take positions of power, like dictator of a country or floor trader on Wall Street. However, there are some like Dennis Rader, who took a position as a church Alderman, raised a family, and was a serial killer in Wichita during the 1980s and 1990s.
Rader is the scary kind of serial killer, the kind that blends in, the kind that can hold a job and raise a family. The kind that might never have been caught if he hadn’t been technologically challenged. And researchers are now figuring out that Rader has ASPD with psychopathic tendencies and was probably not an exception, like they originally thought, he didn’t stop killing because he was incarcerated or died. He stopped because he could. Which brings some new theories to the table about serial killers that have never been caught… The most notable is The Zodiac.
Originally, The Zodiac was deemed a manic and probably low functioning in society, the only reason for him to stop killing was death or prison time. The capture of BTK in Wichita in the 2000s proves that theory doesn’t hold much weight anymore. The Zodiac was clever, charismatic, and willing to take risks, all signs of a high functioning psychopath or ASPD with psychopathic tendencies. He did not have to die or end up in prison to stop killing, he just needed a new hobby and some mementos. While that comment may have sounded flippant, it wasn’t. Rader found a new hobby or new challenge; raising a family and he did keep his souvenirs to taunt the police with well after he had stopped killing and he did it randomly. The Zodiac taunted police officials at least five years after the last murder. At the time, it was believed he had been incarcerated during those quiet years, but Rader proved that wasn’t necessarily true.
Why do I keep drawing comparisons between Rader and The Zodiac? Rader is one of the few high functioning psychopathic serial killers that has been caught. That does not mean he is one of the few high functioning psychopathic serial killers though… There could be hundreds of them and we, the public, might never know about them. In some instances, the police might not even know about them. It has only been in the last thirty years or so that we have determined high/low functioning psychopaths/sociopaths exist and until about fifteen years ago, none of the high functioning ones were considered criminally oriented**.
For this reason, there is a ton of research now being conducted in the field of psychopaths/sociopaths. What we took to be truths for many years have turned out to be only a small and misrepresentative portion of the population. The reality is much more disturbing than we originally thought.
*These people might have had other mental disorders as well. For example, Stalin was extremely paranoid before he began to display sociopathic tendencies and may have suffered from Paranoid Personality Disorder long before he took over leading the USSR. Caligula was forced at a very young age to start worrying about people plotting his assassination, especially considering his uncle Tiberius who was emperor after Caligula’s father died, did indeed try to kill Caligula and managed to kill most of his family – he is a prime candidate for PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder. Ivan the Terrible suffered extreme bouts of rage followed by extreme remorse, he often talked to himself and some researchers have suggested he was Schizophrenic, not ASPD. However, like Caligula, Ivan Grozny grew up in a world where people were literally trying to kill him from the time he could walk, so there could have been a number of disorders involved with his mental state.
**Oddly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was, at least peripherally aware of these disorders almost 100 years ago – Holmes and Moriarty are both high functioning psychopaths/sociopaths, created at a time when the medical definitions didn’t really exist (makes one wonder about the type of people he associated with).