In his latest documentary series, YouTuber Shane Dawson is exploring what it means to be a sociopath. And, specifically, he keeps wondering whether, and seeming to suggest that, fellow viral star Jake Paul could be one.
So far, Dawson has released three episodes of what will be at least a five-episode series. They’ve been watched more than 30 million times.
In part two, Dawson sits down with YouTuber and licensed therapist Kati Morton to read through some symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is basically the gold standard for diagnosing mental disorders that is used by health care professionals around the world.
First published in 1952, it can take decades and involve the input of hundreds of doctors before conditions are added to or taken out of the DSM.
Throughout the video, Morton reads the symptoms of a condition called antisocial personality disorder (more on that later), while Dawson mainly looks shocked.
Dawson has been careful to say that he’s not accusing any YouTuber, Paul or others, of being a sociopath. But he’s also explored the concept of sociopathy while splicing in clips from Paul’s videos, alongside horror movie–esque editing techniques and music.
The editing has led some people to criticize the series for sensationalism and poor representation of a personality disorder.
Dawson has pledged to rethink his methods and addressed some of the criticism in part three. In that episode, Jake’s brother, Logan Paul, says in a Twitter DM that he himself is on the “sociopath spectrum” and has “sociopathic tendencies,” according to Dawson.
But what is a sociopath, really? We reached out to two mental health professionals to get the facts about what sociopathy actually is, and isn't.
First of all, “sociopaths” aren't really a thing, medically speaking.
Have a look at the DSM and you won’t see sociopathy or psychopathy listed as an actual diagnosis.
What you will see is antisocial personality disorder, which we’ll get into in just a moment. Basically, sociopathy is a layman's term for antisocial personality disorder, but it’s an outdated one.
As J. Reid Meloy told BuzzFeed News, doctors threw out “sociopath” as a specific diagnosis some 50 years ago.
“It has no clinical or diagnostic meaning currently,” said Meloy, a forensic psychologist who’s consulted for the FBI. He also wrote the 1988 book The Psychopathic Mind and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
Psychopathy, on the other hand, is an actual area of independent research, and is typically used to describe those with antisocial personality disorder whose behaviors are violent and criminal in nature. While absent as a specific diagnosis in the DSM, the term may be used in criminal cases involving people who could have antisocial personality disorder.
Although sociopathy, psychopathy, and antisocial personality disorder are sometimes used interchangeably, that’s not a great thing to do because they aren't the same.
While someone can have personality traits that suggest they might have some psychopathic tendencies, it doesn’t mean they have a diagnosed personality or mental disorder. And “sociopath” is just a layman’s term that doesn't have much meaning at all.
Yes, it’s confusing.
So, what is antisocial personality disorder, exactly?
Antisocial personality disorder, as defined by the DSM, is a personality disorder characterized by an inability to conform to social norms. People with it will exhibit behavior that puts themselves or others in danger, a history of deceit and manipulation for personal gain, aggression, irresponsibility, and impulsive short-term thinking. They’ll consider themselves above things like rules and the law, and theft is a common way of expressing that.
On the other hand, the standard for psychopathy is based on a 20-point psychological assessment tool developed by psychologist Robert D. Hare in the 1970s. The tool measures personality traits such as manipulation, impulsiveness, emotional deficiency, and a history of antisocial behavior that could be criminal in nature.
Either way, these are people who may not be able to feel emotional connections to other people, even their own children. However, there is a continuum, with some people exhibiting more of these traits, and others less.
“They don’t form emotional bonds and tend to be emotionally detached from other people, and they also don’t experience the more socialized emotions that other people have that require that you can represent other individuals as whole people,” said Meloy.
That means they may feel boredom, rage, and excitement, but don’t really experience emotions like guilt, empathy, or gratitude. But that doesn't mean they don’t cognitively understand what those feelings are.
A common theory is that antisocial personality disorder patients may have experienced extreme trauma, like childhood abuse, that instigated the disorder. Psychopathy, on the other hand, is thought to have more of a biological component.
It’s not that easy to detect if someone has psychopathic traits, because people learn they are not socially acceptable and may tend to hide them.
People with these traits can be good at hiding their emotional detachment and may even come across as particularly charming and personable. They may not understand what it feels like to love someone, or why lying and cheating is wrong, but they know how to pretend.
“They’re putting up a front of getting along, or they’re loving even, but they really don’t have that sense of love,” said Dr. Laura Dabney, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in private practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
But, at some point, she said, they may seem fake, or like they’re overdoing it. “They imitate it to an extreme,” she said.
It’s estimated that 1% of men in the US meet the criteria for psychopathy, compared to 0.2% of women. However, just because someone has personality traits like these doesn’t mean the person is also a criminal.
That said, however, people who meet the definition of psychopathy are thought to make up 20% to 25% of the population in maximum-security prisons, said Meloy.
“That’s typically where a significant proportion of these individuals end up,” he said.
People with psychopathic traits are not a bunch of monsters.
Given the characteristics, people with psychopathic traits can sound pretty scary. But it would be wrong to say they’re criminals or violent.
Meloy said people who qualify as being psychopathic can lead normal lives, simply flying under the radar with their behaviors.
“You can even have politicians who are psychopathic but who have no history of violence,” he said.
Dabney said that while you can’t “cure” someone with these traits, they can be treated with intense therapy.
And an actual medical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder takes time.
“Because it’s considered a personality disorder, not a mental disorder, it takes a fairly intensive examination,” said Meloy. It takes lengthy, in-depth interviews along with records and talking to people who know the person in question to get a definitive diagnosis.
Dabney said things to look for include a history of destructive relationships and an inability to commit to jobs and partners.
In the end, the whole concept of a psychopath is sensationalized.
The idea of sociopaths and psychopaths makes for great TV. Just think of any serial killer on your favorite crime procedural. But the truth is, most people who have antisocial personality traits aren’t committing crimes or exhibiting criminal behavior.
“People want to characterize them as brilliant, Machiavellian, Hannibal Lecterian characters,” said Meloy.
“Most of them have average IQs and are doing what they can to survive.”