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Five Ways Popular American Culture Breeds Sociopaths

C.R. just asked me a good question:

What’s the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath?

She’d read online descriptions of sociopaths and psychopaths and pointed out that they sounded like the description of someone with narcissistic personality disorder. Shallow emotions. Lying and manipulation. Lack of feelings for others. And so on.

We ended up having a long conversation which led to some surprising twists and turns.

Although there are other opinions…here’s my short answer number 1: Someone classified as having narcissistic personality disorder isn’t necessarily a sociopath, but someone who has been diagnosed as a sociopath, definitely also has traits of narcissism. In fact, a sociopath (also a psychopath), exhibits quite a collection of narcissistic traits.

And my short answer number 2: If you have a relationship with a narcissist, even a malignant narcissist, you’ll probably end up with your dignity, heart, and maybe even bank account, damaged. If you have a relationship with a sociopath, you’ll be lucky if you end up with your body and property intact.

As to the difference between sociopath and psychopath, this discussion by PsychCentral’s Kelly McAleer, touches on some important aspects of the debate.

In order to keep it simple, for me it’s a matter of degree. A sociopath is someone who cares about those closest to him—no matter what his motives, even selfish, he doesn’t generally want to see those closest to him harmed and is able to at least somewhat identify with their feelings. As for others…watch out.

A psychopath classifies all people, including “close” family members, as useful pawns, tools to be used to satisfy his desires or profit from in some way, his psyche also feeds on the emotional and physical suffering of others.

Both terms, sociopath and psychopath, are names for points on the spectrum of anti-social personality disorder, which is one of four types of personality disorders under the blandly-named Cluster B heading, as identified in the DSM-IV. Narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder are all grouped together.

In order for a therapist to make a diagnosis of any one specific Cluster B personality disorder, he will need a basic, two-pronged approach. First, he’ll need to rule out other personality disorders as well as mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. Second, he’ll need to identify in the individual a specific number of traits associated with the particular disorder. These disorders are generally difficult to treat and especially (though not only) in the case of borderline personality disorder, cause the individual very real pain and suffering.

For awhile now, I’ve suspected that personality disorders, most notably Cluster B personality disorders often have more overlap than not. When overlapping traits occur, the personality disorder is classified as “personality disorder not otherwise specified.”  Especially in Cluster B personality disorders, it is my contention that overlap is rampant and individuals having equal (or near-equal) amounts of traits of two or more of these disorders are quite common.

And though there is no hard data supporting this (it’s only my own, personal opinion), I believe that our culture is producing more and more people with Cluster B personality disorder in general (including sociopaths). And perhaps I’ll take a stab at discussing at least one of the ways in which this is occurring.

Although I’d like to begin a discussion of the genesis of several possible American cultural factors that might identify the root causes of the larger, overall trend towards the development of Cluster B personality types, it is too large a topic to cover here so I’ll limit my discussion to one possible factor, what I call, “The Glamour Factor.”*

The Glamour Factor

The glamorization of:

Death, crime, and criminals (think: The Sopranos, some Hip Hop, anything vampire.)

Fame and attention at younger and younger ages (think: child beauty pageants, children competing for national recognition for sports, performance, etc.)

Fame and attention at any age (think: Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Real Housewives, etc. What next, “Real Hospice Patients?” “Real Prisoners?” Oh wait. I just Googled prison shows and got this.)

Magical thinking (think: Harry Potter, The Secret, etc. all of which fuel the desire for, and belief in, instant gratification and power.)

Politicians and political life (I’m not just picking on the present administration, I think the trend began happening decades ago—somehow our political leadership has become more “royal ruler” than “servant of the people.”)

(At the risk of sounding dated, I’d say the chances of getting your fifteen minutes of fame or of experiencing an elitist thrill, have never been greater—or more lurid).

By glamorizing ideals that are shallow and superficial  and are at the very core, soul-destroying, we’re taught over and over again that the goal is to be “better than”. The goal is to fuel and feed desire. The goal is to accumulate whatever we desire. The goal is to gain attention, no matter how we do it, even if it crushes us or our kids or our coworkers or neighbors.  The goal is to gain power and live a glamorous life. In short, pop and political cultures indoctrinate us.

It’s not too hard to see how those who constantly seek fame and power, etc. for the sake of the fame and power might be prone to narcissistic and histrionic personality traits. (It’s also easy to see how those who attain celebrity and power become convinced of their centrality, their importance).

The personality traits that develop from desiring (and achieving) shallow ideals I believe may be contributing factors to the development of full-blown personality disorders. And I can tell you from my clinical experience, these “glamour factors” (and the personal and interpersonal viewpoints associated with them) are not only present in those with narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders, but are present in some people with borderline personality disorder, as well.

But can something so malignant as anti-social personality disorder really be caused, even in part, by constant exposure to the glamorization of…well, let’s call it selfish self-love? Can a society’s values, which influence family systems, create sociopathic (and perhaps even psychopathic) personalities? I believe the answer is yes, they can.


*Let me qualify, this glamorization factor I believe to be one possible contributing factor out of many possible contributing factors. I do not believe  this glamorization factor must be present in every or even most, cases. This is a simplification-just one way to view the very complex topic of how people develop Cluster B personality disorders. Most psychological studies cite main factors such as trauma, genetic factors, and substance abuse as probable causes. In many cases of extreme antisocial disorder it might be easier to spot precursors rather than causes.

Five Ways Popular American Culture Breeds Sociopaths

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2011). Five Ways Popular American Culture Breeds Sociopaths. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Oct 2011
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