The Myth Behind Pop Culture Psychopathy: an Overview of Antisocial Personality Disorder

By Vidya Koesmahargyo

The term antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD, brings a few things to mind. The word antisocial itself might remind you of the kind of person who is shy, maybe a little quiet and tends to stick to themselves. However, this does not fully encompass traits associated with antisocial personality disorder. Personality disorders are a class of mental disorders characterized by rigid and unhealthy patterns in an individual’s thoughts, behavior, and functioning. (Mayo Clinic, 2014) The DSM IV-TR criteria for antisocial personality disorder includes pervasive patterns of disregard for the rights of others, such as deceitfulness, irresponsibility, lack of remorse or empathy, and aggressiveness.

In popular culture, the term psychopath or sociopath is often used to refer to an individual who displays traits associated with antisocial personality disorder. Despite its common use, however, psychopathy and sociopathy are not professionally recognized terms for diagnosis and do not hold much meaning. (Psych Central, 2014). The representation of individuals with these traits in the media will affect the way we think about them in real life, which is why it is important to debunk any misconceptions about people with ASPD.

There have been numerous shows and movies featuring these so called ‘psychopaths’ within the last few decades or so. You might have seen films such as Silence of the Lambs, American Psycho, or shows like Sherlock. The media has popularized the term psychopath and/or sociopath within the general public, though both stem from their shared diagnostic traits of ASPD. (Psych Central, 2014) In an episode of Sherlock, an adaptation of the classic Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes detests being called a psychopath. He instead calls himself a “high functioning sociopath” due to his often-cold attitude and disregard for others. (Moffat, 2013) Hannibal Lecter, described and portrayed in the novel by Thomas Harris and films by Anthony Hopkins is a man with refined taste, who has high intelligence and social class, yet capable of murdering and cannibalizing his victims, is commonly referred to as a psychopath. (Utt, 1991) Patrick Bateman from the film American Psycho is introduced as a man of respect, wealth, and intelligence. (Ellis, 2000)

This popularized notion of the ‘elite psychopath’ (Leidstet & Linkowski, 2014) is overwhelming in the media, despite Leidstet’s argument that some might not be “real psychopaths.” These portrayals of what someone with ASPD or psychopathic traits have, re-established the image where ‘psychopaths’ are thought to  possess a high intellect, are cunning and sophisticated, and are somehow always able to outsmart the authorities or anyone deemed lesser. They are portrayed as the anti-hero who’s in control and one step ahead of others. They evoke empathy while inherently lacking any themselves.

These portrayals pose many issues. A person in the media who may have or may not have ASPD are only referred to ‘psychopaths.’ This reduces them to a glamorized, exaggerated stereotype to be consumed by the public. It also reinforces the idea to individuals in real life who have ASPD that they do not have another path to choose from, besides what has been painted by the media.

Many aspects of ASPD are still unclear because of the belief spread by sensationalism through the media that ASPD is unpreventable, untreatable, and might give criminals an excuse for their crimes. (Tartakovsky, 2013) Despite the statistics on unsuccessful treatments, there simply isn’t enough research done on ASPD. Although there haven’t been any causes officially attributed to ASPD, many individuals would benefit from recognizing the symptoms early and seeking help before more detrimental symptoms manifest. Many don’t believe in researching ASPD or psychopathy, and this belief stems from the myth that psychopathy or ASPD and psychosis, a neurological symptom of many mental illnesses, go hand in hand. Contrary to popular belief, ASPD is one of the only personality disorders that aren’t characterized by psychosis (or delusions or hallucinations). (NAMI, 2015) Individuals with ASPD aren’t unaware of society’s notions of right and wrong, or have any delusions to conclude differently, they simply hold no regard for it, as these ideals do not concern them. Most are aware of their thoughts and behaviors, however antagonistic they may be. Through further research on treatments and prevention, we can help reduce the stigma on individuals with this disorder and improve their quality of life.


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Leistedt, S. J. and Linkowski, P. (2014). Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction? Journal of Forensic Sciences, 59: 167–174. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.12359

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Vidya Koesmahargyo

Although my interest in working in medicine predates the start of my college career, it was only recently that I developed an affinity for medical research. I was part of the Carl Sagan Program in my high school, where we took classes on how to successfully conduct our own research projects and present them. After conducting my own at the end of my senior year, I felt that research was certainly a field I’d like to pursue. I have struggled with mental health issues myself, so it was both a personal and academic curiosity that led me to the Humanology Project. I hope to shed some light on the gritty topics that still struggle to be included in the discourse on public health. In my spare hours, I consume copious amounts of poetry, ambient music, and embark on the occasional urban exploration.

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